If you thought Ryan's fiscal policy was bad, wait til you see his monetary policy

"Sound money", raising interest rates and Ayn Rand: he's got it all.

Now that Paul Ryan is coming under the sort of scrutiny which a member of the House of Representatives never gets – even a rising star saying all the right things – his reputation as a serious man with serious thoughts is falling apart.

Take the re-examination of his proposal, in 2008, to redefine the mandate of the Federal Reserve. Not problematic in itself; lots of people want to redefine the mandates of central banks. The most popular demand is insisting they switch from targeting low inflation to targeting nominal growth.

But Ryan wanted to change the Fed's mandate from its current dual requirement, to aim for low inflation and full employment, to one which only requires low inflation. He already clearly disapproves of fiscal stimulus, but it appears that he disapproves of monetary stimulus as well.

And in 2010, his explanation to Ezra Klein of how he would use monetary policy to help the economy was bizarre and plain wrong:

There’s a lot of capital parked out there, and we need to coax it out into the markets. I think literally that if we raised the federal funds rate by a point, it would help push money into the economy, as right now, the safest play is to stay with the federal money and federal paper.

As Mark Thoma puts it:

Basically, they are telling us that if a recession hits and they have their way, nothing will be done. Not a thing. No fiscal policy response (except perhaps austerity to make it worse), and no monetary response (except, if Ryan has his way, interest rate increases based upon a misunderstanding of how the economy works that would also make things worse).

Brad Plumer explains how the real heart of Ryan's monetary policy "isn’t quite a return to the long-abandoned gold standard, but it’s a roughly similar concept": anchoring the value of the dollar to a basket of commodities.

This is wingnut thinking, which Plumer argues can all be traced back to Ryan's love of Ayn Rand's terrible novel Atlas Shrugged:

In the passages that Ryan has highlighted, Rand’s characters lament that statists have destroyed all “objective standards” for currency by abandoning the gold standard and boosting the supply of paper money in order to assist the “looters and moochers.”

None of this is new; the writing was on the wall four years ago. But whereas proposing complicated-sounding economic measures is enough to get you a reputation of sorts in the House of Representative, it oughtn't be enough to maintain that reputation once you hit the big leagues. But Paul Krugman argues that the real reason for the Ryan pick is his uncanny ability to do just that:

Whence comes the Ryan reputation? As I said in my last post, it’s because many commentators want to tell a story about US politics that makes them feel and look good — a story in which both parties are equally at fault in our national stalemate, and in which said commentators stand above the fray. This story requires that there be good, honest, technically savvy conservative politicians, so that you can point to these politicians and say how much you admire them, even if you disagree with some of their ideas; after all, unless you lavish praise on some conservatives, you don’t come across as nobly even-handed.

And yet, implausibly, the Romney/Ryan ticket could, in the very short-term, be the best economic choice America has. Joe Weisenthal makes the case:

The biggest threat to the U.S. economy is the fiscal cliff. As Morgan Stanley's Adam Parker explained in a note today, there's a very plausible scenario where 5 percent of GDP is lopped off, and corporate profits get absolutely shredded. And this assumes that the debt ceiling is passed without creating a gigantic shock to the economy.

The best scenario for avoiding a fiscal cliff mess is to see Mitt Romney elected. As we argued back in early April, the surest way to get Republicans on board with ongoing deficits is for them to be the party in power again.

History seems to be pretty clear on one issue: Parties out of power favor austerity. Parties in power favor stimulus.

Weisenthal goes on to quote Josh Barro trying to guess Ryan's role in Romney's economic plan:

Conservatives are never fully going to trust Romney. If he comes to them with, say, economist Glenn Hubbard’s proposal to throw about a hundred billion taxpayer dollars at restructuring underwater home mortgages, they’re likely to resist.

But what if Vice President Paul Ryan makes the pitch? Won’t House Republicans be much more likely to conclude that mortgage bailouts actually are conservative?

I’m not suggesting that Ryan is going to throw conservatism entirely under the bus. Romney surely wants to do some things that Republicans in Congress will love and others they will be resistant to—only part of his economic plan is secret. So both sides of Ryan’s skill set will come into play.

In the end, even when a scenario is presented in which Ryan is actually good for the economy, it all comes back to his surface appeal. The man looks competent; he looks like a conservative, like someone who can be trusted, who has thought through his opinions, and hasn't based economic policy on a 55-year-old sci-fi novel.

He isn't, of course. But when's that ever stopped anyone?

Paul Ryan meets a baby. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder