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Paul Ryan’s Magical Thinking

Paul Ryan will improve you

Paul Ryan deserves credit for having learned exactly the right way to become a Washington policy sage. He knows that whether a proposal will succeed or fail really has very little to do with actual government policy, and everything to do with policy aesthetics. A serious policy proposal must come packaged in the right way, and it needs to appeal to the right assumptions. Bar graphs help; so does a long, suspense-building rollout. Ryan’s “Expanding Opportunity in America,” to its great credit, has both.

As a result, the proposal has already succeeded in fulfilling its likely purpose. Ryan has now received weeks of glowing press from all the right people: Slate’s Reihan Salam says the plan “includes some of the most thought-provoking ideas to have ever come from the halls of Congress.” All praise from the political center has not been quite so fulsome, but certainly a few members of the liberal wonkerati have been happy to give Ryan’s plan some cross-ideological cred. Economist Noah Smith congratulated Ryan for his “recognition that material poverty is important,” while Vox’s Ezra Klein argued that the plan showed that Ryan “is refocusing himself and, perhaps, the Republican Party on reducing poverty by making the government’s anti-poverty programs work better.”

“Expanding Opportunity in America” has even benefitted from receiving the right kind of hatred. Left-wing critics like Jamelle Bouie and Stephen Pimpare have mostly focused their critique on the plan’s starting premises, which are indeed pretty rotten. At its core, Ryan’s proposal is rooted in the fundamental principle that poor people need to be coached out of poverty, a notion that Bouie is right to call “breathtakingly paternalistic.” But dwelling too much on the first principles behind Ryan’s proposal might leave one with the mistaken impression that his biggest sin is philosophical. If that were the case, then the rest of the plan could be read as a serious, good faith argument that just happens to proceed from some faulty assumptions. It’s not.

Even if we grant Ryan’s premises and accept his diagnosis of poverty’s roots, “Expanding Opportunity in America” is not a remotely serious proposal. On a purely practical level, there’s no way the proposal can be implemented. It barely rises to the level of a thought experiment.

Ryan’s plan calls on the federal government to merge several different large-scale welfare programs into a single benefits system called the Opportunity Grant. Under this new system, caseworkers will “develop a customized plan to address the recipient’s needs.” That plan will include “financial assistance to address immediate needs, like food, clothing, child care, and housing,” but it will also incentivize the client to work on “setting goals, learning skills, and developing a broader support system.”

 In other words, Ryan expects caseworkers to provide comprehensive, highly individualized care to a population of welfare recipients that includes virtually every current client of a federal anti-poverty program. The Opportunity Grant system requires not only a complicated means-testing system to account for all of the client’s financial needs, but also a regime of near-constant oversight and cajoling from the caseworker. Each Opportunity Grant bureaucrat will be expected to function as an accountant, life coach, career counselor, and disciplinarian, often all at once.

Ryan also informs us that the recruitment, training and deployment of this vast new army of social workers will be deficit neutral. That’s nice.

Granted, state governments are not going to be wholly responsible for managing the massive Opportunity Grant workforce. Instead, the Ryan plan relies on “non-profit and for-profit providers, as well as community groups, to both compete and collaborate with the government to expand opportunity.” Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the magical world of privatization!

Of course, the contractor bidding process for a project of this size is its own special kind of bureaucratic nightmare. How does the state evaluate whether a private enterprise is qualified to administer Opportunity Grants? What are the benchmarks for judging this contractor’s performance? What sort of oversight is needed to prevent abuse of the system—or, worse, abuse of the clients? Ryan acknowledges that individual states will have to develop their own benchmarks, but otherwise leaves all of these things up to the imagination.

That last question about how to prevent abuse is particularly salient, and not just when it comes to the private contractors. If individual Opportunity Grant caseworkers are going to have near-total control over the welfare benefits their clients receive, and if these same caseworkers get to set clients’ personal life goals, then surely there needs to be some kind of appeal mechanism set in place. Otherwise the client will wind up wholly at the mercy of an arbitrary, dominating authority, with potentially life-ruining consequences. Yet on the subject of oversight and accountability for caseworkers, Ryan is again silent.

It’s not like these things are minor details; working out these issues is absolutely fundamental to making the plan work, and to avoiding unmitigated disaster. But given the evidence, it’s hard to convince oneself that making the plan work was ever a priority in the first place. “Expanding Opportunity in America” is supposed to be a Big Idea from one of Washington’s preeminent Big Ideas men—and so gritty bureaucratic realities are entirely beside the point.