Paul Ryan on Europe

Compared to Ryan's budgets, Cameron's coalition looks positively profligate.

As a congressman, Paul Ryan hasn't turned his gaze overseas all that often. He is far too busy focusing on important domestic issues like changing the taxation on arrow shafts from a 12.5 per cent of sales to a 39¢ flat tax to spend time worrying about the Old World.

But he has made two notable, on-the-record, contributions to debates happening on this side of the pond.

The first was in 2009, when he co-authored a Wall Street Journal article about the perils of socialised medicine.

The piece, titled Beware of the Big-Government Tipping Point, was published in January 2009, the day before Barack Obama was sworn in as president, and is a strongly worded attack on the then-nascent idea of Obamacare.

In the piece, Ryan touches on the NHS, arguing that:

We need only look to Great Britain and elsewhere to see the effects of socialized health care on the broader economy. Once a large number of citizens get their health care from the state, it dramatically alters their attachment to government.

This line has been ramped up in the re-reporting of it, becoming a "savaging" in the Times, where Sam Coates suggested that Ryan had claimed "that free healthcare distorts the democratic process". The truth is that the pieces more mild, more wonkish, and even partially correct – although deeply cynical.

He is right,because it is obvious to anyone that the American attitude to government is clearly different to the British one. For all that some on the right of the Conservative party love to repeat Ronald Reagan's famous quote about Government being the problem, that view is only really held by the fringes of European society - as opposed to the US, where it is the mainstream opinion.

It's only partly right, though, because he's clearly overstating the effect healthcare has. Attachment to the state comes from more than just getting your medicine from The Man. It is experiencing a caring state full stop which changes how a nation sees the role of government.

And it's deeply cynical because he seems to be arguing that a government should stay deliberately bad – should stop doing good things, and only do things which will anger its citizens – because otherwise people will realise that big government isn't such a bad thing.

It's putting the cart before the horse. If Ryan thinks universal healthcare is bad, he should have the courage to let the voters decide whether they agree with him – not prevent them from getting healthcare because they might realise he's wrong.

Ryan's other moment touching on British issues came in 2011. He was given the opportunity to make the Republican response to Obama's State of the Union address (roughly analogous to the Queen's speech, in that it lays out the legislative agenda for the year ahead). He argued:

If we continue down our current path, we know what our future will be. Just take a look at what’s happening to Greece, Ireland, the United Kingdom and other nations in Europe. They didn’t act soon enough; and now their governments have been forced to impose painful austerity measures: large benefit cuts to seniors and huge tax increases on everybody.

Lumping together "Greece, Ireland and the United Kingdom" betrays a basic lack of comprehension of the extreme differences between the crises in those three countries.

For one thing, there is no way that America could ever (in the foreseeable future) face crises similar to those of Ireland and Greece. Simplifying matters enormously, Greece's problems were borne from corrupt governments systematically lying on national accounts to enter the Euro, running spiralling deficits once the cheap credit became available, and having no recourse to the currency markets when the truth came out.

Ireland, meanwhile, suffered a hangover from a privately financed housing boom which turned into a privately financed housing bust, a banking crisis which required a government bailout, and, again, the straightjacket imposed by the Euro combined with German intransigence aggravating the whole matter.

And if Ryan was seriously suggesting that following Obama's vision for America could take the country in the direction of the UK, he needed to take a look in a mirror.

Even in 2011, it was clear that the UK did not have any particular debt crisis, and that overzealous attempts to deal with the deficit were harming demand and compounding the error. Construction spending had fallen, confidence had been slammed and the VAT rise had just been introduced.

Of course, for all that Ryan looked economically illiterate comparing the three at the time –and he did – in hindsight, he looks even worse. The Conservatives, we now know, inherited recovery and turned it into recession, and they did that through targeted application of austerity. But compared to Paul Ryan's budgets, the Coalition looks positively profligate.

The VP pick has not got a perfect track record talking about things outside his expertise, then. I'd suggest he stick to areas he knows about, but it's becoming rapidly questionable whether there actually are any. Maybe he should just keep quiet and be a pretty face on the campaign trail.

 

Paul Ryan. 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 future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.