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Much Ado About Doing Nothing

Anyone interested in making the 2010 (and for that matter, 2012) elections revolve around a comparison of Democratic and Republican plans for dealing with the country's big challenges should read Ezra Klein's intereview with Rep. Paul Ryan, published in the Washington Post yesterday.

Ryan, as you may recall, is the principal author of the so-called "Republican Road-Map" document that is an extremely rare GOP outline of an agenda that would be implemented through the federal budget process. That agenda, of course, is focused on tax cuts and spending cuts.

But what makes the interview fascinating is Klein's eventually successful effort to get Ryan to admit that nothing in his or other Republicans' plans would involve much of anything designed to deal with the immediate jobs crisis and overall economic slump:

Where I come from, I think certainty and long-term solutions are better. Temporary stuff doesn't work. These short-term stimulative things like rebates don't work. They'll pump up some money in the quarter where they occur. You go right back where you were. These short-term stimuli, which Bush and Obama did, don't change aggregate demand. And that's why I think we need more of an investment-led recovery. At this point, given the borrowing costs, stimulus is counterproductive.

Ryan's ideas for an "investment-led recovery" focus on high-end tax cuts, of course, along with an extraordinary faith in the proposition that a shift to smaller-government policies would provide "certainty" to the private sector and "unlock" capital. If that faith turns out to be misplaced, or takes many years to play out, well, too bad; the really important thing is repealing ObamaCare and the just-enacted financial regulatory package.

Now it's hardly news when a Republican thinks tax cuts are the answer to every conceivable economic question. But it's the combination of that dogma with the suddenly-critical demand to reduce federal budget deficits that makes it very difficult for Ryan to pretend Americans can expect anything other than continued high unemployment and sluggish growth under GOP policies. When specifically asked by Klein about the recessionary impact of public-sector layoffs, which directly increase unemployment, Ryan retreated into an argument about the need for state and local governments to deal with "structural deficit" issues. In other words, hundreds of thousands of people need to thrown out of work in order to accomplish a long-range shrinkage of the public sector, which is an end in itself with no relationship to any economic recovery. Ryan also calls for an increase in interest rates, which would impose still more short-term pain.

Now this is especially noteworthy because Ryan is at least willing to essay an intellectually defensible position and connect it to a specific agenda. Many Republicans (including would-be House Speaker John Boehner) have backed away from Ryan's "Road Map" because they understand it includes politically toxic proposals like another run at partial-privatization of Social Security, and a "voucherization" of Medicare. So your standard-brand conservative fulminating for tax cuts and an immediate balancing of the federal budget relies far more than Ryan on vague and magical thinking about the impact on the economy of Republican rule, and offers even less in the way of steps to deal with the economic problems Americans face right now.

So Ryan's "thinking" is about as good as it gets in the GOP ranks. Democrats definitely need to make voters impatient for strong action on the jobs crisis abundantly aware that Republicans don't intend to move a muscle, even as they rush to shower tax benefits on the few Americans who are feeling no pain.