President Obama has moved on from constitutional history (his warning that a Court decision to overturn a statute would be unprecedented) to American history more broadly. His remarks focused on the Ryan budget:
“Disguised as [a] deficit reduction plan, it’s really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It’s nothing but thinly-veiled Social Darwinism. It’s antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everyone who’s willing to work for it — a place where prosperity doesn’t trickle down from the top, but grows outward from the heart of the middle class. And by gutting the very things we need to grow an economy that’s built to last — education and training; research and development — it’s a prescription for decline.”
We have discussed the Ryan budget on this blog in passing. For the upcoming year, Ryan proposes $3.6 trillion in spending and revenues of $2.4 trillion, for a deficit of $1.2 trillion. This is in sharp contrast to the Obama proposal, which would place spending at $3.8 billion, with revenues of $2.5 trillion, for a deficit of $1.3 trillion.
Is Ryan’s budget a “thinly veiled Social Darwinism?” It is, only if Social Darwinism can be cast as a decision to retain spending above 20 percent GDP. It has been a while since I read Spencer and Sumner, but I don’t recall either making the case for spending in this range (or any range, for that matter).
Is Ryan’s budget “antithetical to our entire history,” as the President claimed? Once again, we have some empirical problems.
Ryan hopes to achieve federal spending reductions to 20 percent GDP by 2015. By way of comparison, average spending during the George W. Bush presidency was 19.6 percent GDP. During the Clinton presidency, average spending was 19.8 percent GDP.
If Ryan’s goal of reducing government spending to 20 percent GDP is radical, the empirical record seems to argue otherwise.
But perhaps we have not reached far enough back in time. Of course, the President’s remarks focused on “our entire history.” We could go back to 1968, the peak of Johnson’s Great Society and the war in Vietnam when government spent 20.5 percent of GDP. If we go earlier, the record might suggest that Ryan’s budget is radical, but not in the way suggested by Mr. Obama. In recent weeks, the President has sought to channel Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the domestic phase of the New Deal, government spending peaked at 10.5 percent GDP (1935), approximately one-half of the level of spending proposed by Ryan. And let us not forget that 10.5 percent was a radical departure from the Hoover administration (3.4 percent GDP in 1930). The historical timeline of spending can be easily verified by the Office of Management and Budget (see OMB historical table 1.2).
I find it fascinating that a “conservative” proposal to reduce spending to slightly above the average of the Clinton-Bush years, approximately to the level attained during the peak of the Great Society and Vietnam War (1968) can be framed as an exercise in Social Darwinism.
Imagine what would happen if Ryan wanted to spend like FDR?
Of course, the President may have meant to covey a somewhat more complicated argument regarding the role of social policy and tax expenditures in shaping after-tax income–an important argument that needs to be made and given some serious scrutiny. But the breathless turn to hyperbole and the broadly brushed generalizations don’t do much to further serious debate, even if they provide quick talking points.