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How Paul Ryan Conned the Beltway

Paul Krugman:

Concord Conned: Alec MacGillis has a long, interesting piece on the Paul Ryan phenomenon — on how Washington managed to convince itself that he was a Serious, Honest Conservative when he was nothing of the sort. There’s a lot of useful information in the piece. But I’d question MacGillis’s central thesis — namely, that Ryan was mainly exploiting the Beltway’s innumeracy.

The key tell comes when MacGillis gets a response from Bill Bixby of the Concord Coalition, which gave Ryan an award for fiscal responsibility in early 2011:

Paul Ryan… Bixby announced, had:

earned his Fiscy Award really by being the first [congressman] in several years to step forward with a specific scorable budget plan that would actually solve the nation’s long-term structural deficits.

There were two problems with this. First, Ryan’s plan, the “Roadmap for America’s Future,” wasn’t truly “scorable”—he had instead simply given the CBO estimates for future revenue and spending, prompting the organization to note that its analysis “does not represent a cost estimate.” The other problem was that, just a few weeks prior, but after the groups had decided to award a Fiscy to Ryan, he had rejected the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles debt-reduction commission he had served on.

Bixby responds to the question about Bowles-Simpson — but not to the “scorable” thing, which is much more important and represents a clear error on his part.

And it’s not the kind of error Concord, or any of the other organizations behind the Fiscy, should have made. They know what CBO reports mean and how to read them; I can’t believe that their staff failed to notice that CBO was given a revenue number but no explanation of how that revenue number might be achieved.

So Bixby was either refusing to listen to his own staff, or just being dishonest, when he praised the Ryan plan. And either way it has to have been essentially political: he and people like him felt that they needed a Republican policy wonk to praise, so they invented one out of thin air.

And Ryan will continue to get kid gloves treatment for years, because the people responsible for this screwup will never admit their error.

For the record, here is all the response Bixby gave to MacGillis:

When I asked Bixby about this recently, he acknowledged that the juxtaposition was “awkward.” “He could’ve given the entitlement reform effort a big boost and did not and that was a defining moment and not his best moment,” he said.

But Bixby did not regret the award: “It wasn’t for his work on Simpson-Bowles. It was for another body of work. Like when a Nobel Prize is for a body of work from ten years ago.” That body of work included Ryan’s overall authority on the issue. “He’s very eloquent—he describes the nature of the debt and deficit problem very well,” Bixby said. “If somebody’s got a wealth of facts and figures at their fingertips and can recall them at a moment’s notice, other people tend to defer to that. He knows all these numbers.”

The Concord Coalition gave an award to a budget arsonist who had just happened to put on a fire-chief hat. Full stop.