Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Giving health care and retirement decisions back to individuals is both a racial and conservative idea.

The whole debate over health care bills in Congress is really a microcosm of the broader debate over the appropriate role for government in American society. Obama, who certainly has a more collectivist vision for the role of government, has run up against resistance from the American people who are concerned about expanding government control of health care and the cost. And the massively growing government debt and economic problems are also likely to act as a brake on other efforts to expand government control and involvment in other areas as well.

What's the alternative to this collectivist, nanny state vision? It's a return to individual responsibility and a more limited government. One person who's raising the standard for an alternative vision of government is Congressman Paul Ryan.

He wants to return control and responsibility for health care - Medicare and Medicaid - and retirement - Social Security- to individuals rather than letting the government continue to run the costs through the roof and lead these programs to the cliff of bankruptcy.

As Michael Gerson wrote in a column printed in today's Star Tribune:
The new era of Democratic bipartisanship, like cut flowers in a vase, wilted in less than a week. During his question time at the recent House Republican retreat, President Obama elevated Congressman and budget expert Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as a "sincere guy" whose budget blueprint -- which, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), eventually achieves a balanced budget -- has "some ideas in there that I would agree with." Days later, Democratic legislators held a conference call to lambaste Ryan's plan as a vicious, voucherizing, privatizing assault on Social Security, Medicare and every nonmillionaire American. Progressive advocacy groups and liberal bloggers joined the jeering.

From a political perspective, Democratic leaders are right to single out Ryan for unkind attention. He is among their greatest, long-term threats. He possesses the appeal of a young Jack Kemp (for whom both Ryan and I once worked). Like Kemp, Ryan is aggressively likable, crackling with ideas and shockingly sincere.

But unlike Kemp -- who didn't give a rip for deficits, being focused exclusively on economic growth -- Ryan is the cheerful prophet of deficit doom. In a few weeks, he expects the CBO to report that, in the 10th year of Obama's budget, the federal government will "spend nearly a trillion dollars a year, just on interest! This traps us as a country. Inflation will wipe out savings and hurt people on fixed incomes. A plunging dollar will make goods more expensive. High tax rates will undermine economic growth. It is the path of national decline."

But unlike other deficit hawks, Ryan courageously -- some would say foolhardily -- presents his own alternative. His budget road map offers many proposals, but one big vision. Over time, Ryan concentrates government spending on the poor through means-tested programs, patching holes in the safety net while making entitlements more sustainable. He saves money by providing the middle class with defined-contribution benefits -- private retirement accounts and health vouchers -- that are more portable but less generous in the long run. And he expects a growing economy, liberated from debt and inflation, to provide more real gains for middle-class citizens than they lose from lower government benefits.

Ryanism is not only a technical solution to endless deficits; it represents an alternative political philosophy. Democrats have attempted to build a political constituency for the welfare state by expanding its provisions to larger and larger portions of the middle class. Ryan proposes a federal system that focuses on helping the poor, while encouraging the middle class to take more personal responsibility in a dynamic economy. It is the appeal of security vs. the appeal of independence and enterprise.

Both sides of this debate make serious arguments, rooted in differing visions of justice and freedom. But the advocates of security, including Obama, have a serious problem: They are currently on a path to economic ruin.

I think this is ultimately the way to go. Restore responsibility to individuals and view government as the last line of help for those in need rather than the first. For those who say people are unable or unwilling to take responsibility, one has to ask, has the government been successful in addressing these needs? I think not. Health care and retirement programs are seeing rising costs and approaching bankruptcy unless there are major changes.

What's interesting is this conservative plan is really the radical one. As Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein writes:

Paul Ryan's budget is a radical document that rolls a live grenade under current policy. Social Security? Ryan adds private accounts. Medicaid? Ryan privatizes it. Medicare? Same thing. Health care? Ryan repeals the subsidy for employer-provided insurance, replacing it with a tax credit. The boyish Ryan is a conservative darling, but there's nothing conservative about his document. It does not respect, much less preserve, the status quo. But then, that's a point in Ryan's favor. The status quo will bankrupt our country. On that, Ryan's radicalism is welcome, and all too rare.

In this respect, the conservative solution is the radical one while President Obama's approach is simply more of the status quo. Ryan's "roadmap" proposals can be found here.

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