I have insisted all along that this Presidential election is between two decent, competent guys who happen to differ on matters of policy. So far, the approach taken by both camps would not support that conclusion. Both sides have engaged in ugly smears and distortions of their opponents’ positions; both sides have engaged in the politics of personal destruction. It’s a shame; I wish elections could involve a national conversation on policy. But that’s not likely to happen. We’re never going to see a Dennis Kucinich/Ron Paul election.
With the selection of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate, however, Mitt Romney made a bold and interesting choice. He picked a policy guy, a conservative wonk. Ryan has done what Romney has resolutely refused to do–laid out very specific budget proposals. My initial reaction is that this could elevate the debate. I doubt that will happen. What I actually sort of wish could happen is that the fall debates could match Romney with Biden, and Obama with Ryan. That is, the two boring old gaffe-prone guys have their own debate, while the younger policy experts wrangle on economics. That really won’t happen. And this selection shouldn’t actually be much of a game-changer, since Romney has already embraced the Ryan budget. But this gives Obama a chance to respond with specifics of his own. We’ll see how it plays.
One interesting personal component of this selection has to do with Ayn Rand and Ryan’s professed admiration for her works. He gave his staff copies of Atlas Shrugged, for example, insisting that they read it. I’ve read three of Rand’s books: the novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, and the philosophical work The Virtue of Selfishness. I read them all because I was researching a play. Nearly twenty years ago, I wrote Gadianton, a play applying Book of Mormon themes to modern business practices. I thought I might write a sequel, and the obvious title for one was Korihor. For those of you who are not Mormons, Gadianton is a famous Book of Mormon villain, while Korihor is the philosopher whose ideas are at the root of Gadianton’s depredations. I thought the ideas Korihor preaches tracked with uncanny precision the ideas Ayn Rand expresses in her novels and other works. Above all, Korihor is referred to as ‘anti-Christ’; he rejects the charity Jesus preached, because he regards it as coddling weakness. This is, of course, quintessentially Randian.
Well, in 2012, Paul Ryan repudiated Ayn Rand, saying it was an ‘atheistic’ philosophy, and that earlier reports that he was a Randian objectivist were ‘an urban legend.’ I suppose it’s possible that he, like a lot of people, read her novels, liked them, liked some of her ideas, but as he matured, decided she wasn’t really for him. I think it’s also possible that Ryan, as he became more prominent in Republican power circles, and given the Republican evangelical base, decided to distance himself from objectivism. I have no window into Ryan’s mind–I do find his new stance, uh, convenient. I was amused by Paul Krugman’s quick response to the selection: the ticket is Galt/Gekko, he said. Not Gekko/Galt. (In other words, Romney is Gordon Gekko–the rapacious Wall Street guy played by Michael Douglas, and Ryan is John Galt, enigmatic hero of Atlas Shrugged.)
But then, I’m a liberal.
I think we need to look carefully over the Ryan budget, and see exactly what it means and assess, if we can, what merits it possesses. I do want to say one thing about it, one immediate response. I don’t think criticizing the Ryan budget requires implying that he personally is an uncompassionate man. I’ll let the US Catholic bishops say that, if it needs to be said. His budget would unquestionably cut funds for programs intended to aid the poor. He’d cut ’em a lot; eliminate some. As a liberal Democrat, I oppose that set of priorities. But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t care about poor people. It means that he thinks government programs intended to help the poor actually maintain them in a cycle of dependency–that cutting funds for programs like food stamps is doing poor folks a favor; forcing them into an ultimately more sustainable lifestyle.
I think that’s wrong. I don’t think that’s what would happen. I think his budgetary numbers don’t add up. I think his budget cuts wouldn’t actually stimulate economic growth. I think they’d thwart it. I think they wouldn’t even balance the budget, solve the deficit, pay down debt. I think his economic program would grow the debt, throw more people out of work.
I don’t think, in other words, that he’s a bad person. I think he’s wrong. I think he’s mistaken. I think his economics are wrong-headed. Let’s start by crunching numbers. Let’s see where that leads us.