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.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses