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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.