Paul Ryan’s Plan, the Coming Shutdown, and What’s Really at Stake

I was there in 1995 when the government closed because of the budget stalemate. I had to tell most of the Labor Department’s 15,600 employees to go home and not return the next day. I also had to tell them I didn’t know when they’d get their next paychecks.

There were two shutdowns, actually, rolling across the government in close succession, like thunder storms.

It’s not the way to do the public’s business.

Newt Gingrich got blamed largely because his ego was (and is) so big he couldn’t stop blabbing that Clinton should be blamed. (Gingrich’s complaint of a bad seat on Air Force One didn’t help.)

But the larger loss was to the dignity and credibility of the United States government. When average Americans saw the Speaker of the House and the President of the United States behaving like nursery school children unable to get along, it only added to the prevailing cynicism.

Cynicism about government works to the Republicans’ continued advantage.

Case in point. House Budget Chair Paul Ryan unveiled a plan today that should make Americans cringe. It would turn Medicare into vouchers whose benefits were funneled into the pockets of private insurers. It would make Medicaid and Food Stamps into block grants that allowed states to ignore poor people altogether. It would drastically cut funding for schools, roads, and much else Americans need. And many of the plan’s savings would go to wealthy Americans who’d pay even lower taxes than they do today.

Ryan’s plan has no chance of passage – at as long as Democrats are still in control of the Senate (even Democratic deficit hawks like Kent Conrad and Ben Nelson are appalled by it) and the White House.

But this so-called “blueprint” could be a blueprint for America’s future when and if right-wing Republicans take charge.

Which is where the cynicism comes in – and the shutdowns. Republicans may get blamed now. But if it contributes to the belief among Americans that government doesn’t work — that it’s run by a group of narcissistic five-year olds — Republicans win over the long term. As with the rise of the Tea Partiers, the initiative shifts to those who essentially want to close it down for good.

That’s why it’s so important that the President has something more to say to the American people than “I want to cut spending, too, but Republicans are going too far.” The “going too far” argument is no match for a worldview that says government is the problem.

Obama has to show America that the basic choice is between two fundamental views of America. We’re either all in this together, or we’re a bunch of individuals who happen to live within these borders and are mainly on their own. This has been the basic choice all along — when the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, during the Civil War, when we went through World War I and World War II, with a Great Depression in between, during the Civil Rights movement and beyond.

The President needs to make the case that as members of the same society we have obligations to one another, that the wealthiest among us must pay their fair share, that if we lose our jobs or our homes or get sick we will can count on help, and that the most privileged and powerful among us will not secede into their own enclaves or pad their nests at the expense of the rest of us.

This is why we have government. And anyone who wants to shut it down or cut it down because they say we can’t afford it anymore is plain wrong. We are the richest nation in the world, richer than we’ve ever been. We can afford to remain a society whose members are all in it together.

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About Robert Reich 547 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

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4 Comments on Paul Ryan’s Plan, the Coming Shutdown, and What’s Really at Stake

  1. So, lets just keep on this path to a final and absolute financial collapse. That collapse will go way beyond medicare and medicaid. Way beyond. If that happens people really will be eating cat food. Listen to the facts about this plan before tearing it apart you bleading heart liberal. Get your head screwed on strait and recognize that this is exactly what needs to happen and most people in the country recognize. Reform into a much much smaller government. We need to get our house in order. Democrats are shaking in their boots and they should be. This socialized government is on the verge of having the rug pulled. Finally. Im tired of working hard to give my money to everybody else.
    Socialism fails agian.

  2. This is the problem with news outlets anymore. They take a little part out of something and make it seem extreme. They make it seem like what he’s proposing is so extreme an will hurt all of us. When its something that has to be done if we want to have the same lifestyles and freedom we have today, ten years from now. Everyone should actually read his plan themselves, and decide what future they want themselves, not listen to media scare you into voting their way. I don’t understand how anyone with alittle common sense couldn’t see that he has nothing to gain out of this passing, besides a good future for his children. Government and his job would be less powerful. How does that benefit him? There’s a big chance he will not be reelected just for supporting this and he’s smart enough to know that. He’s actually one of few if any politicians trying to do the right thing for our future.

  3. Unfortunately, the Republicans/Tea Party contingent have done a marvelous job at undermining American faith in the foundational statement of your thought piece: “We are the richest nation in the world, richer than we’ve ever been. We can afford to remain a society whose members are all in it together.” Oh wait, and then there’s that pesky “recession.”

    The flagrantly unequal distribution of wealth in the US aside, I think that lefties tend to have this notion that somehow we can rearrange the ideological discourse and suddenly bring right-wingers (er, “the American Public”) to our side. It is not that simple. The very way you lay it out – “We’re either all in this together, or we’re a bunch of individuals who happen to live within these borders and are mainly on their own” – is exactly the premise of the divide here, not its solution. There is no way to integrate the “government is the problem” with “rich have an obligation to society” without some serious imagination of alternatives to both capitalism and government – Erin Olin Wright’s “real utopias” come to mind. Simply saying that we are “rich” will not cut it in an ideological battle that – as you rightly point out – the Republicans are built to win.

  4. More demagoguery from Professor Reich. My question to him is this: is anybody going to take you seriously as an arbiter of what my “fair share” is in light of your proposals to restore Eisenhower-era income tax brackets? I think I remember something about a top bracket of 91%: so to transplant a popular 60s song back to the U.S., I guess that should 9% appear too small, I should be grateful that you don’t take it all…

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