Paul Ryan touts his 2012 federal budget plan. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Paul Ryan’s numbers are wrong.
As in: his most urgent argument on behalf of painful cuts to federal programs and the denial of new funding for job creation, education, healthcare and infrastructure repair is based on a coding error.
The paper the House Budget Committee chairman has used as the intellectual and statistical underpinning for his austerity agenda has been significantly discredited by the revelation that essential data was excluded from the study, leading "to serious errors that inaccurately represent the relationship between public debt and growth."
The Harvard professors who produced the paper—which Ryan cited as recently as last month—have acknowledged their mathematical error.
Now, the question is whether Ryan and conservative proponents of austerity will acknowledge that they have built their arguments on a false premise. The same goes for the media pundits—including many liberals—who prattle on about the need for painful cuts in government spending. And for Democratic politicians who have accepted elements of the austerity agenda as “necessary.”
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman suggests that an essential underpinning of the “the intellectual edifice of austerity economics” has been called into question. But, adds Krugman, “the really guilty parties here are all the people who seized on a disputed research result, knowing nothing about the research, because it said what they wanted to hear.”
And Ryan is definitely at the head of the list of the "guilty parties" that seized on the disputed research.
After decades spent as a backroom conservative in Washington, first as a Capitol Hill aide and then as an obscure congressman from Wisconsin, Ryan raced to prominence after President Obama's 2008 election. Condemning Obama's spending to stimulate employment and growth following the Wall Street meltdown, Ryan positioned himself as an economic "Paul Revere," warning that public debt was stalling out the US economy. This notion was always questioned by savvy economists, such as Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Dean Baker. But Ryan went all in, seizing on the controversial Harvard study as essential information for anyone concerned with debts, deficits, spending and budgets.
Ryan began preaching an economic gospel based on his absolute certainty that when a country’s debt level tops 90 percent of its gross domestic product, it’s economy will decline and crisis will ensue. And he found plenty of takers for his dystopian analysis, which inspired obsessive talk about how the US economy was heading toward a apocalyptic "tipping point."