Hoping to get ahead of President Obama's 2015 budget proposal, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's House Budget Committee released a lengthy report on Monday that cited various studies he suggested proved that government spending on poverty initiatives often went to waste. Many of the studies' authors, however, disagreed.
The battle lines over the budget — or, really, over the discussion of the budget, since no budget compromise for 2015 is coming any time soon — have been clear for months. Republicans will argue that the solution to endemic poverty and income inequality is to loosen the reins on businesses. Democrats will argue that direct measures meant to alleviate poverty and address inequality are more urgently needed. And each side will question the validity of the other's arguments.
That's what Ryan hoped to do with his report. It's here, if you'd like to read it. If you would like a summary: Ryan walks through each of 92 federal programs meant, at least in part, to address poverty, cites studies evaluating their effectiveness, and, of course, lists the price tag. It was what's known in politics as "inoculation," an attempt to cast doubt on Obama's upcoming call for providing more money and tools to such programs.
Rob Garver at The Fiscal Times reached out to a number of the scholars and social scientists whose work is quoted in the report. And while there's no suggestion that every argument Paul makes is invalid, Garver describes many of the theories as Ryan "building his house on sand."
"[S]everal economists and social scientists contacted on Monday had reactions ranging from bemusement to anger at Ryan’s report, claiming that he either misunderstood or misrepresented their research," Garver writes, walking through a number of those claims. Ryan cherry-picked a start date for the decline in poverty levels, skipping over some of the most effective years of decline. His report cites Clinton-era welfare reform as a cause of declining child poverty, while an author of the paper he quotes criticized Ryan for ignoring an expansion of the earned income tax credit. (Another expansion of which, it's worth noting, is central to Obama's 2015 budget proposal.) Another citation of a report on housing assistance was pointed out as incorrect, prompting the Budget Committee to issue a correction.
It's hard not to draw a parallel to Ryan's 2012 Republican Convention speech. Ryan had just been introduced as the party's vice presidential candidate and offered a rousing indictment of the Obama administration that he and Mitt Romney hoped to replace. Unfortunately, before dawn the next day, Ryan's speech was picked apart for various inaccuracies and misrepresentations. The New York Times walked through them; it's a pretty remarkable list of ways in which Ryan put the rhetoric of the outcome ahead of the accuracy of his statements.
At New York, Jonathan Chait — a regular critic of Ryan's poverty crusade — sees a similar motivation at play in the new Ryan report. "Ryan is very good at marshaling faux scholarship churned out by ideologues in the service of talking points," Chait writes, "and at convincing reporters that he is an actual policy wonk." In this case, he argues, Ryan believed his hype. Instead of bolstering his image as a wonk, he's undermined it. Made to choose between the reality of the data and the politics of image, he has twice apparently chosen the latter.
When it comes to wonkery, perception is often more important than the reality. There's a stratosphere of wonks that have earned a reputation that means they rarely have to verify that status. Think of your average newspaper columnist. For Ryan, there's a motivation besides speaker's fees: passing legislation and, later, being elected to higher office. In part, that's dependent on keeping that wonk reputation intact.