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Speaking up for That '1 Percent'

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Lauded by the Washington press corps for his "courage" and "honesty" in confronting federal deficits and the national debt, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., wrote a budget that almost sank the Republican Party -- and may still damage its prospects -- because he proposed to dismantle Medicare. Yet his party still relies upon Ryan to speak on behalf of its most important constituency, now known in America and across the world as "the 1 percent."

Addressing the right-wing Heritage Foundation on Wednesday, Ryan sought to discredit Elizabeth Warren -- the Massachusetts Democratic senatorial candidate, Harvard faculty member, creator of the Consumer Finance Protection Agency and enemy No. 1 of Wall Street cheaters -- for daring to utter an obvious truth.

While praising the creativity and industriousness of entrepreneurs, Warren recently pointed out that business cannot thrive without functional government providing police and fire protection, safe and efficient transportation, educated workers and myriad other public services.

Paying for those services is a responsibility that must be broadly shared, she said, and the rich who have benefited most from government in so many ways should now pay their fair share of its budgets and debts.

"You built a factory out there? Good for you," she explained in videotaped remarks that lit up the Internet not long ago. "But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory -- and hire someone to protect against this -- because of the work the rest of us did."

"Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless -- keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."

That simple, plainly factual statement obviously rankled Ryan, a philosophical acolyte of the extreme libertarianism of the late Ayn Rand, whose spirit he channeled in excoriating Warren for supposedly elevating government over "the individual, the family, the entrepreneur," which he called "completely, inherently backwards."

Nothing that Warren actually said indicates the primacy of government over the individual and the family, or even the private sector -- and Ryan is certainly intelligent enough to understand what she meant. Did he misinterpret her words intentionally? The telltale evidence lies in his own remarks about government's role in society.

"No one is suggesting that we don't need good schools and roads and infrastructure as a basis for a free society and a free enterprise system," he told the Heritage audience. But Ryan's own budget, with its enormous tax cuts for the wealthy and its required cuts in spending, would cripple government's capacity to provide those services.

Under a Ryan budget, infrastructure and education would not only continue to languish but starve. He also nodded toward "our safety net system," calling it "necessary, I believe, to help people who can't themselves, to help people who are down on their luck get back onto their feet," without acknowledging that his budget would decimate that system entirely, depriving seniors of the benefits that have raised millions from poverty over the past half-century.

The gist of Ryan's speech was to scold President Obama for allegedly promoting "class warfare" and for incivility toward his political opponents. (Such complaints might be taken more seriously from a politician who had spoken up at some point against the racially divisive "birther" propaganda in his own party.) Understandably, Ryan isn't eager to discuss the issues of wealth and income distribution, preferring to focus on "upward mobility."

But between Ryan and Warren, who is the better exemplar of the American Dream? Ryan is a figure from the privileged class he defends, scion of a Midwestern construction empire created two generations ago that enabled him to pursue an expensive education and a political career without worrying about the cost. Growing up middle-class in Oklahoma City, Warren had to struggle for her own advancement from the age of 12, after her father's heart attack and medical bills almost ruined her family. She has worked all her life, starting as a waitress, and put herself through law school.

Before Ryan delivers another lecture on the "fatal conceit of liberalism," he ought to examine his own silly conceit: that he and others like him represent the hardworking majority, when he was merely born at the top.


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See Other Commentary by Joe Conason.

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