Last week, Paul Krugman published a column where he called Congressman Paul Ryan a “flimflam man”:
But it’s the audacity of dopes. Mr. Ryan isn’t offering fresh food for thought; he’s serving up leftovers from the 1990s, drenched in flimflam sauce.
Krugman’s justification for this all too typical heated rhetoric is that when the Congressional Budget Office scored Ryan’s “Roadmap for America”—his plan for making social security, Medicare and Medicaid solvent over the longterm, reforming healthcare and our tax system, and placing us on a sustainable fiscal path—they only scored the effects from his plan’s spending cuts, but did not analyze how it would affect tax revenue. Instead, the CBO assumed a baseline revenue of 19 percent of GDP. The CBO’s scoring concluded it would cut our deficit in half by 2020.
Krugman points to a Tax Policy Center analysis of the Road Map which concludes that, in its current state, it would reduce tax revenue to 16 percent of GDP, or by about 4 trillion dollars. Krugman’s implication is that Ryan requested the CBO only score the spending cuts side of his plan, and thus intentionally gave a false view of what his plan would do for our budget.
There’s two teensy little problems with Krugman’s argument. First, the CBO doesn’t score changes to the tax code—the Joint Committee on Taxation does.
Oops. So, Krugman’s calling Ryan a charlatan based on his own misunderstanding. In the three days he wrote his column, he wrote four posts on the subject (with one of which he congratulated himself on how good he is at spotting “flimflammers”), and extended his claim. On Sunday, however, he indirectly addressed it by quoting Ryan’s reply to him, instead of admitting his error. In the section Krugman quotes, Ryan says that he did not request the CBO to score his plan’s effect on tax revenue because it is the JCT’s territory, and the JCT could not do it because they do not do longterm revenue estimates (more than ten years).
Krugman then assumes that Ryan chose not to get the JCT’s ten-year estimate; that is, rather than call Ryan’s office for a direct answer on whether they did, Krugman made up his own answer:
In other words, Ryan could have gotten JCT to do a 10-year estimate; it just wouldn’t go beyond that. And he chose not to get that 10-year estimate. So it was Ryan’s choice not to have any independent estimate of the 10-year revenue effects.
Perhaps one of the perks of the Nobel prize is making stuff up, because like the original argument in his column, this isn’t true. Megan McArdle did what was apparently too much work for Krugman and called Ryan’s office. Their answer: yes, we asked the JCT to make an estimate, and they said they couldn’t. Ryan further clarified for the Weekly Standard:
Krugman wrote on his blog on Saturday that “Ryan could have gotten JCT to do a 10-year estimate; it just wouldn’t go beyond that. And he chose not to get that 10-year estimate.” Ryan says that’s not true. “We asked Joint Tax to do it,” Ryan told me. “They said they couldn’t. They don’t do them long-term outside the 10 year window. They couldn’t do it in the first 10 years because of just how busy they were.” Ryan says Krugman could have cleared this confusion up with a simple phone call.
After the JCT refused to make an estimate, Ryan went to experts at the Treasury Department, and they apparently said his plan would hit his numbers. Yeah, Ryan sure seems dishonest, doesn’t he?
So, let’s get this all straight here: Krugman calls Paul Ryan a “flimflam man” based on Krugman’s own ignorance of how the CBO works. Then when he apparently realizes his error, he chooses not only to not admit it—but lies about what Ryan did. That’s Paul Krugman. I’m loathe to use rhetoric like Krugman’s, but it seems to me Krugman is the charlatan.
I did say there were two problems with Krugman’s argument. Here’s the second: Ryan has said all along that his intention with the Roadmap was to keep tax revenues approximately at their historical level of 19 percent of GDP. The Tax Policy Center (yes, the same group Krugman cited in his original argument) said this in a post titled “In Defense of Congressman Paul Ryan”:
Ryan has explicitly stated that he is willing to work with the Treasury department to adjust the rates on his tax reform plan to “maintain approximately our historic levels of revenue as a share of GDP.” Since 1980 the federal tax revenue has been about 18 percent of GDP.
So, Paul Ryan puts out a serious plan1 for tackling our disastrous deficit, social security, Medicare and healthcare, makes all attempts to get it properly scored, and says he intends to modify it as necessary to keep spending and revenues together—in other words, he acts in an honest manner, something most politicians will never do—and Krugman calls him a flimflam man.
Ryan, as far as I can tell, is one of the few genuinely well-intentioned and intelligent people in Washington, D.C. Many on the left acknowledge this. Krugman’s actions are unjustifiable and show him to be what he is: a partisan who serves his ideology, but not his country, faithfully, and will throw anyone under the bus who gets in the way. Honesty be damned.