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An InstantNewsUPDATE from Congressman Paul Ryan

U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan - Serving Wisconsin's 1st District

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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Ryan's option vexes Dems by being an option

By Patrick McIlheran 

February 18, 2010

The reason Rep. Paul Ryan is all wrong on saving the country from insolvency, say Democrats, is health care for old people. The Janesville Republican wants to replace Medicare, they say, by merely handing out money.

It's the "privatization" of Medicare, said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), dismissively. While it sounds generous to give retirees $11,000 to shop from federally approved lists of insurance plans, as congressmen do, "the value of these vouchers would almost surely lag ever further behind," wrote press wingmanPaul Krugman of The New York Times, ignoring the reality that such market competition restrains prices.

What's their plan? Remember, Ryan proposed this only for those now under 55. Anyone older gets the old deal: Uncle Sam telling you not to worry, that Medicare will take care of everything. Presumably, Democrats would prefer we all rely on such promises.

Forget for a moment that Medicare's own trustees reported last spring the system would be insolvent in 2017. Forget that this means the real choice is: You want an $11,000 voucher, or do you want crumbs?

Suppose instead that you think Washington somehow will resuscitate Medicare's finances. Then the question is what makes you feel safer: The feds say they'll give retirees a certain sum to spend as they will, or the feds promise to figure out what you need and handle it. Medicare's already promised $38,000,000,000,000 in benefits, so there might be a line.

I'll take the money, thanks. Fewer strings, fewer asterisks.

Medicare is the most unison part of Ryan's "roadmap," a rethinking of how the federal government can avoid welshing on obligations without indenturing your grandkids. Ryan sketches out changes to Social Security and taxes, too. Left or right, one might debate whether the ideas would work, though congressional accountants say they will.

Yet the Democratic establishment has torn into Ryan savagely, declaring his ideas unspeakable even as he preserves their ideals that taxpayers should support retirees and that tax rates should rise as income does.

He proposes that younger workers be allowed the option of diverting a third of their Social Security taxes into accounts managed by the feds. This would be voluntary and would leave two-thirds of one's taxes going into a system that provides young workers with a 0% rate of return.

Congressional Democrats lined up to say this was the "dismantling" of Social Security.

Similarly, Ryan proposes to allow taxpayers the option of paying by a flatter scale, with lower rates but fewer loopholes. This has come under attack as letting rich people get away with something.

Why such vehemence? Well, Ryan is unusually bright, and his plans show promise. It is to Democrats' political advantage to squelch them.

But the real problem for those on the dominant left of the Democratic Party is what you'd think makes Ryan's plans palatable: That they're voluntary. If you think Social Security's a good deal, you'd be able to stay in it, but for "progressives," this choice should never come up. For a century, progressive thought has sought to replace individual choice with collective decision-making.

The reasons vary, from seeing us as incompetent dupes to believing that only some compelled "social compact" can undo life's unfairness. The why is less important than the fact that, in fixing federal finances while treating us as individuals, not a herd, Ryan would transfer power from our leaders to us.

For progressives, this doesn't work. Their system relies on political insurance: Only if everyone is roped into Social Security, their fates made hostage to its collective health, will voters support the program. This is the same argument used for making things like urban public schooling or health care as mandatory as possible. If we're all in it together, we'll have to support their preferred options.

Ryan's alternative: Set people free, and the resulting prosperity means we'll be able to support those who really need it.

It is said Ryan will fail because Americans distrust radical change. Rightly they do, but it's radical, too, that international markets now fret about American collapse. Maybe it's time to rethink the long, slow drift into the radical and unsustainable idea that we can't permit citizens to choose what seems best to them.

Patrick McIlheran is a Journal Sentinel editorial columnist.