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To understand the secret of current Republican matinee idol Rep. Paul Ryan's success, it's necessary to grasp three essential elements of his popularity: First, he's a handsome, telegenic fellow very good at faking sincerity. Maybe the best since disgraced Democrat John Edwards. If he weren't a Catholic, Ryan would have made a brilliant televangelist. As an Irish-American funeral director, he'd have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Second, Ryan knew the exact moment to reposition himself to take advantage of the GOP's hysterical freakout over U.S. budget deficits. See, as recently as January 19, 2009, George W. Bush was still president, the projected FY2009 deficit was a record $1.3 trillion, but relatively few Republicans had anything to say about it. And certainly not Rep. Ryan, who'd championed every one of the Bush administration's budget-busting innovations, from the ill-advised tax cuts to the deficit-financed 2003 Medicare prescription-drug benefits.
Indeed, contrary to his image as a sober-sided deficit hawk, Jonathan Chait points out in an acerbic New York magazine profile, "Ryan was a staunch ally in Bush's profligacy, dissenting only to urge Bush to jack up the deficit even more." Specifically, Ryan urged even greater tax cuts for millionaires; in 2005, he proposed creating privatized Social Security accounts with an estimated $2 trillion in borrowed money for Wall Street to play with.
On Jan. 21, 2009, however, a Democratic president took over. Hence budget deficits instantaneously became a mortal threat to the nation, and the Very Handsome Congressman transformed himself into "a figure of cinematic rectitude ... America's neighborhood accountant, a man devoted to the task of restoring our fiscal health."
Third, and perhaps most important, the budgetary manifesto Ryan calls "The Path to Prosperity," exists in the realm of pure theory, if not downright fantasy. It's yet another exercise in GOP magical thinking, filled with preposterous assumptions and arithmetical sleight-of-hand. The numbers don't need to add up, because everybody but the most gullible voters knows it will never be enacted. Republican congressmen voting for the fool thing did so in the certain knowledge that it was going nowhere in the Senate and would be vetoed by President Obama if it did.
Insofar as the scheme aims at anything other than advancing Ryan's career, for once in his life Newt Gingrich got something right when he called it "right-wing social engineering." In essence, it would amount to a massive wealth transfer from the poorest to the wealthiest Americans. Basically, Ryan proposes to reduce the income tax code to two rates, topping out at 25 percent, but keeping total government revenues constant by eliminating unspecified "loopholes."
News flash: There are only two "loopholes" in the tax code big enough to bring in substantial revenue. If you do your own income taxes, you know what they are: the homeowners' mortgage interest deduction, and the employer-sponsored health insurance deduction. Eliminating both would indeed bring in billions; it would also cost the average reader of this column thousands. That's both why they're unspecified, and why they're never going to happen.
Meanwhile, taxes on capital gains, dividends and interest would vanish.
It's the same with spending cuts. Ryan promises massive savings in government spending he also refuses to specify. So that whenever President Obama or anybody else talks about the concrete results of eliminating funding for, say, Pell grants to needy college students, Ryan can soulfully (and semi-truthfully) complain that those particular cuts aren't in his budget.
It's kind of a carnival shell game. Now you see it, now you don't.
The centerpiece of Ryan's plan, however, is his vow to balance the budget by converting Medicare into a capped-rate voucher plan enabling old timers to buy private health insurance—sort of like Obamacare with no mandates apart from bankruptcy or death. So in the real world grandma either gets squeezed into penury by spiraling health insurance premiums or Congress continually raises the spending caps. Greater insecurity, no savings.
Near term, Chait explains that while holding military spending steady, "Ryan would achieve his...deficit reduction by focusing overwhelmingly on programs targeted to the poor (which account for about a fifth of the federal budget, but absorb 62 percent of Ryan's cuts over the next decade). The budget repeals Obamacare, thereby uninsuring some 30 million Americans about to become insured. It would then take insurance away from another 14 to 27 million people, by cutting Medicaid and children's health-insurance funding."
All of which is why the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has written an open letter to Congress protesting that "a just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons." Shortly before the former altar boy made an appearance at Georgetown University, the bishops added that "the House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria."
Ryan responded by calling for a "thoughtful dialogue." He's ever so thoughtful, The Very Handsome Congressman.
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