Paul Ryan is the Republicans' "ideas man". Shame his ideas are nonsense

To achieve his plan, Ryan would have to enact spending cuts which are "beyond draconian".

Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's chosen Vice-Presidential candidate, has a reputation for being the brains of the Congressional Republican Party. But while he talks the talk, his brains are seemingly used more for misleading the public than coming up with credible fiscal policy.

This reputation stems largely from his role at the head of the House of Representatives' budget committee, where Ryan has spent the last 18 months rejecting the Democratic budget, while presenting his own vision of how the Government should be funded, through the "Ryan Plan".

Ryan's alternative budgets were presented annually from 2008, when the Democrats took control of both houses and the Presidency, but the first one to be passed by the House was his 2011 plan, which made it to the Senate before being shot down 57-40. The plan was updated and reintroduced earlier this year, but again fell in the face of Democratic opposition once it made it through the House of Representatives.

The ideological heart of the Ryan Plan can be found in its fourteenth slide:

There's a lot wrong with this graph: it assumes that the American healthcare paradigm, a system which all parties recognise as broken, will continue unless Ryan steps in and changes the country to the "path to prosperity"; it attempts to predict the Federal fiscal situation in 2080 when we can't even reliably predict what it will be like in 2018; and it took a lot of cajoling to get the CBO (an independent financial analysis organisation, and the model for our own OBR) to actually accept that Ryan's plan would result in anything like the debt dynamics he suggests. But it serves one purpose admirably, which is to convince the American public that Paul Ryan is a man who is Serious About Debt.

Unfortunately, that's just not particularly true. As Wonkblog reminds us, looking through his voting history reveals a typical Republican pattern: concerned about high taxes and "handouts", but little fear of the deficit per se. Ezra Klein writes:

He voted for the George W. Bush tax cuts, as well as the war in Iraq and the unfunded Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit. Perhaps his most ambitious policy proposal prior to his celebrated budgets was the Social Security Personal Savings Guarantee and Prosperity Act of 2005, a plan to privatize Social Security. The program’s actuaries found that Ryan’s plan would require $2.4 trillion in additional costs over the first 10 years, and the Bush administration ultimately dismissed it as “irresponsible.”

And one doesn't really need to look into the distant past to learn that the deficit itself ranks rather low on Ryan's list of priorities. His budget plans, like most, are easily split into two sections: changes to taxation, and changes to spending.

The tax changes are relatively simple, clearly specified, and hugely regressive. Ryan has proposed cutting federal income tax rates down to a baseline of 10 per cent and a 25 per cent marginal rate for higher earners, down from the current maximum of 35 per cent, and offset those cuts by removing most tax credits used by the poorest. The end result is a massive transfer of the burden of taxation from the wealthiest to the worst off in society, noteably leaving Romney himself paying just 0.82 per cent of his income in tax:

But while Ryan's tax plan is specified rather precisely, his spending plan isn't. It is famous for the slash-and-burn approach it takes to Medicare (health insurance for the elderly), Medicaid (health insurance for the poor) and Social Security (pensions): Ryan proposes cutting the budget for the first by around a quarter, for the second by around three-quarters, and capping the cost of the second in the face of a rapidly ageing population.

These policies would greatly increase human suffering across America, and have been blasted as "simultaneously ridiculous and heartless" by the likes of Paul Krugman. But they fit the idea of a hardcore deficit hawk. What doesn't is Ryan's policies on everything else – literally. The plan lumps "everything else" (that's defence, infrastructure, education, the environment, the civil service, the FBI. . .) together into a category on which Ryan claims spending will be cut to just 3.75 per cent of GDP.

That's a stupidly low number. It's even lower in the context of Romney's promise to spend 4 per cent of GDP on defence alone; that defence has never cost less than 3 per cent; and that even Ryan calls for a short term increase in defence spending.

Simply put, there is no way that a Romney/Ryan government would ever be able to achieve its spending ambitions. It would try, and hurt millions of people in the process, but even while cuts which are "beyond draconian" are being put in place, it would fail.

So Ryan has a clear, politically easy and well specified plan to cut revenue, and a vague, politically impossible plan to cut spending. It doesn't take a prophet to see that the former would be achieved in six months, while the latter would likely never come close to fruition. The hole in the budget would easily exceed the worst excesses of the Bush years (and that's assuming the Romney/Ryan administration doesn't launch a war with Iran).

So Ryan can credibly claim to be the candidate of lower taxes (for the rich) and can probably claim to be the candidate of smaller government (just not as small as he promises). But the candidate of a lower deficit, the candidate who can fulfil the promise made in the chart at the top of this post, is not him.

Paul Ryan and Mittens Romney. 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.

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Low turnout may not be enough to save Zac Goldsmith

Demographic patterns in mayoral elections do not replicate those at general elections. 

It is a truism in politics to say that older people vote. Almost exactly a year ago - the day before the General Election - ComRes published a briefing note for our clients pointing out that with large leads particularly amongst older people, as well as among the affluent and those who owned their home, the Conservatives were in the dominant position as the country headed to the polls.           

Turnout is one of the most difficult parts of polling to get right, but history was unequivocal in suggesting that these groups were overwhelmingly the most likely to vote in a General Election. This gave David Cameron the advantage, whatever the headline numbers in the polls were saying, and Labour would need a change in behaviour of historic proportions in order to make it to Downing Street.           

It is in the same spirit that a number of commentators have written articles raising the prospects of an upset in the election for Mayor of London. Different arguments have been used, but the central thrust has tended to be that, despite Sadiq Khan’s lead overall, there are turnout advantages not picked up in polling which benefit the Conservatives and which could produce a shock result.            

This is the first point made by Asa Bennett when advising “Don't write Zac Goldsmith off as London Mayor – he can still win this thing”, while Adam Bienkov has suggested that a low turnout “will inevitably help the Tories, whose voters tend to be older, wealthier and more likely to turn up to the polls.”           

While these arguments make intuitive sense, they make one fatal assumption: that demographic patterns in mayoral elections replicate those at general elections.           

Firstly, it is important to point out that there are no exact numbers on who actually votes at elections. The paper copies of marked electoral registers are kept separately by local authorities and contain no demographic information anyway.            

Instead, we know who votes in General Elections because in places where the population is older, turnout tends to be higher than in places where it is younger. Communities with more middle class and affluent constituents have higher turnouts than more deprived areas.      

The graphs below show the relationship between the socio-economic make up of a constituency’s population, with the proportion of people who turned out to vote at the last General Election. As can be seen, the higher the proportion of constituents who come from the most affluent AB social grades, the higher the turnout was in the constituency. On the other hand, turnout was lower the higher the proportion of a constituency’s population came from the least affluent DE social grades.

Now this all fits with expectation. But the rub comes when we run a similar exercise on the last mayoral election in 2012. If we look at the age profile of individual electoral wards, we would expect to see those with a higher proportion of older people have a higher level of turnout at the election. “Older people vote” after all.

But if we look at the data, a different picture emerges. The graph below shows all the wards in London, and the relationship between the proportion of people aged 55 and over in that ward, and the proportion of people who turned out to vote. And the picture is surprising but clear: there was almost no relationship between age and likelihood to vote at the last mayoral election. 

As the graph shows, there is a very slight incline upwards in the trend-line as the proportion of 55+ constituents increases, but the fit is very loose. The individual data points are scattered all over the place, far from the line and indicating an extremely weak relationship – if any at all (this wouldn’t pass a statistical test for the presence of a correlation).

The case is similar if we use with proportion of 18-34 years – or for that matter, the proportion of a ward’s population which owns their home. Despite some commentators suggesting homeowners are more likely to vote, the data suggest this is not the case at mayoral elections.

Another common trope is that “the doughnut may yet do it” for the Conservatives, with turnout being lower in inner London, where Labour does better, and higher turnout in the leafy suburbs therefore delivering victory for Zac Goldsmith. Again though, this claim does not really stand up to reality. If we look at average turnout in inner and outer London boroughs, it has not been noticeably higher in the outer ring of the doughnut since 2004. In fact, at the last mayoral election, average turnout was slightly higher in inner London boroughs than it was in outer London boroughs.

There is one final possibility, which has become a higher profile issue in the current contest than in the past: that there is a racial element in Londoners’ likelihood to vote. This is important because Zac currently leads Sadiq Khan by seven points among London’s white population, but is 31 points behind among BAME Londoners. If white Londoners were much more likely to vote therefore, there is an outside possibility that Zac Goldsmith could sneak a result.

Once again though, the data suggest this is not the case – there was very little relationship between a ward’s ethnic profile and its level of turnout at the last mayoral election. The predominantly white wards on the left hand side of the chart below include the wards with the highest turnout – but also most of the lowest. There is little to suggest that the predominantly BAME wards necessarily have a lower level of turnout than the London-wide average.

Overall then, there is little relationship between turnout at mayoral elections and age, home ownership, suburbia or ethnicity. It is within this context that much of Zac Goldsmith’s campaign, which has raised controversy in some areas, should be seen. Seeking to link Sadiq Khan to Islamic radicalism is not necessarily about trying to get people to change how they will vote, but more to provide an incentive for older voters in outer London to go out to the polling station and to drive up turnout among Conservative-leaning groups.

In turn, the hope is also to reduce the motivation to vote among Labour-leaning voters by creating an element of doubt in the back of the mind and to dampen enthusiasm (“Meh – I’m not sure I want him to be elected anyway”). The leaflets targeting Hindu and Sikh households are perhaps also similar examples of this - if not converting your opponent’s voters, at least reducing their affinity to him (or her).

Of course, it could also have the opposite effect. Rather than making Labour-leaning voters less likely to vote, Goldsmith’s campaign may have provided them with more of a reason to make the trip to the polling station, in order to stop a campaign they see as racially-charged and a threat to London’s status as a beacon of successful multiculturalism.  

Either way, if such tactics are to work, the Conservatives will need to overturn the turnout trends seen in 2012 to a very large extent. 

London is famously a city where relative wealth and deprivation sit closely alongside each other. Mews housing Georgian terraces meander into streets containing chicken shops, homeless refuges or council estates; Londoners of all backgrounds subscribe themselves to the same crush of the Tube at rush hour. For whatever reason, London also has not the stark variations in propensity to vote between different social groups seen in national elections. Turnout may hold the key for Goldsmith, but it would represent a rupture of historical trend, rather than an expression of it.