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Smart Republicans?

Summary:
I claim no special expertise in the legislative process. But reading a couple of pieces about what looks like a health care debacle from the good folks at Vox, I have some thoughts about what’s going on — namely, don’t presume that Ryan and company have any idea what they’re doing. Start with Ezra Klein, who speculates that Ryan has advanced this ludicrous plan in the hope and expectation that it won’t pass. His reasoning is that Ryan is too skilled an operator to get caught off-guard as he seems to have: Paul Ryan isn’t an amateur. He is, arguably, the most skilled policy entrepreneur of his generation. He is known for winning support from political actors and policy validators who normally reject his brand of conservatism. The backing he’s built for past proposals comes from painstaking work talking to allies, working on plans with them, preparing them for what he’ll release, hearing out their concerns, constructing processes where they feel heard, and so on. He’s good at this kind of thing. But he didn’t put in the work here. And there are consequences to that. But has Ryan ever put together major legislation with any real chance of passage? Yes, he made a name for himself with big budget proposals that received adoring press coverage.

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Smart Republicans?

I claim no special expertise in the legislative process. But reading a couple of pieces about what looks like a health care debacle from the good folks at Vox, I have some thoughts about what’s going on — namely, don’t presume that Ryan and company have any idea what they’re doing.

Start with Ezra Klein, who speculates that Ryan has advanced this ludicrous plan in the hope and expectation that it won’t pass. His reasoning is that Ryan is too skilled an operator to get caught off-guard as he seems to have:

Paul Ryan isn’t an amateur. He is, arguably, the most skilled policy entrepreneur of his generation. He is known for winning support from political actors and policy validators who normally reject his brand of conservatism. The backing he’s built for past proposals comes from painstaking work talking to allies, working on plans with them, preparing them for what he’ll release, hearing out their concerns, constructing processes where they feel heard, and so on. He’s good at this kind of thing. But he didn’t put in the work here. And there are consequences to that.

But has Ryan ever put together major legislation with any real chance of passage? Yes, he made a name for himself with big budget proposals that received adoring press coverage. But these were never remotely operational — they were filled not just with magic asterisks — tax loophole closing to be determined later, cost savings to be achieved via means to be determined later — but with elements, like converting Medicare into a voucher system, that would have drawn immense flack if they got anywhere close to actually happening.

In other words, he has never offered real plans for overhauling social insurance, just things that sound like plans but are basically just advertisements for some imaginary plan that might eventually be produced. Actually pulling together a coalition to get stuff done? Has he ever managed that?

What I’d say is that Ryan is not, in fact, a policy entrepreneur. He’s just a self-promoter, someone who has successfully sold a credulous media on a character he plays: Paul Ryan, Serious, Honest Conservative Policy Wonk. This is really his first test at real policymaking, which is a very different process. There’s nothing strange about his inability to pull off the real thing, as opposed to the act.

Meanwhile, Sarah Kliff, in the new VoxCare newsletter, is puzzled by the apparent disagreement among Republicans about what CBO is likely to say:

The only people who have advance access to the CBO numbers are the Republican legislators who actually worked on the bill. They’ve been working with the budget agency for months now to create a score.

But have they really been working with CBO for months? They may have been talking, but was it about anything resembling Obamacare 0.5? Everything else about the AHCA looks slapdash, like something thrown together in a few days by people who hadn’t thought at all about what a flat tax credit and a widened age band would mean for, say, people in Alaska with its expensive insurance, or low-middle-income Trump voters in their 60s. I have no inside information, but this sure looks as if they were still dithering about the whole principle of their Obamacare replacement until at most a few weeks ago, and didn’t work with CBO because they had nothing to work with.

In other words, maybe this looks like amateur hour because it is. Ryan isn’t a skilled politician inexplicably losing his touch, he’s a con artist who started to believe his own con; Republicans didn’t hammer out a workable plan because there is no such plan, and anyway they have no idea what that would involve.

Or to put it another way, this could just be more malevolence tempered by incompetence.

Paul Krugman
Paul Robin Krugman (born February 28, 1953) is an American economist, Distinguished Professor of Economics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. In 2008, Krugman won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to New Trade Theory and New Economic Geography.

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