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7 Ways Paul Ryan Wants to Betray His Fellow Generation X-ers

The Peter Pan of American conservatism is bursting with immature, half-baked ideas for the country.
 
 
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Last Wednesday in Tampa, Paul Ryan launched himself as the youthful face of his party, and much as been made of what he means to that ship of restless, and by now, somewhat battered, souls that sailed forth onto the American scene between the mid-'60s and mid-'70s. Is he truly a Gen Xer or not? His risk-taking, nose-thumbing at authority and taste for AC/DC and Led Zeppelin fit the image, but in many ways, he bears scant resemblance to his generational compatriots. His rigid political stance, for example, is atypical of a generation famous for its skepticism of institutions and party lines. And his white-bread-dipped-in-mayonnaise style is at odds with many of today’s multiculturally hip late 30- and 40-somethings.

But there’s one key way that Ryan fits a common negative image of Gen X: His is a case of seriously arrested development.

Ryan and I are exactly the same age. I attended the University of Georgia from 1988-'92, when young people were leaning toward the GOP. The political message of unapologetic self-interest was happy news to young folks, dudes in particular, who rejected the Baby Boomers’ collective ethos and really didn’t want to share their toys.

Most of my classmates were decidedly apolitical. Weaned on Watergate, Gen X had seen one disappointing charade in Washington after another, and largely concluded that politics was the realm of snake oil and empty spectacle. Alternative music, technology, entrepreneurial projects, and travel, particularly to post-Communist Europe, were the hot topics. Nearly anything but politics, which seemed unworthy of anyone’s time.

The first Gulf War got a minority of Gen Xers energized – a fact that has largely disappeared from memory. In 1991, a small group of UGA students pitched tents amid the stately neoclassical buildings of north campus to protest. Michael Kirven, co-founder of Bluewolf, a global technology consulting firm, was among them. I spoke to him about what motivated him at the time:

“This was the first issue where I felt like I could do something to make an impact,” Kirven recalls. “You had a clear sense that you could make your case: you were either in favor of the conflict, or against it.” He recalls the hostile environment, the round-the-clock police presence necessary to protect the protesters from angry hecklers. “From 5pm until midnight there was a non-stop parade of people not just disagreeing with us, but angry,” Kirven says. “A few wanted to have meaningful dialogue, but most of them just shouted. They threw things.”

At UGA, the war protesters were outnumbered by the Paul Ryan types, who welcomed the Gulf War as a chance to show off their muscular view of America, forged in the crucible of the Reagan Revolution. They were the Alex Keatons who worshipped wealth and conservative economics, the chicken hawk brigade that loudly supported a war they would never have signed up to fight themselves. Later represented in the punditocracy by the bow-tied Tucker Carlson and his ilk, they favored the novels of Ayn Rand, in which they saw themselves vindicated as misunderstood geniuses surrounded by mediocrity.

Paul Ryan, voted “Biggest Brown-Noser” in high school and born with enough money for Colorado ski trips and a surefire job at his family’s construction company, embraced libertarianism in college, where he interned with Wisconsin senator Bob Kasten and volunteered on the congressional campaign of John Boehner. Clutching his copy of The Fountainhead or driving the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile for a summer job, Ryan’s High Dork partly explains why so many of today’s pundits either give him a pass or pretend that he is a guy with serious ideas. Many of them are also dorks, harboring adolescent fantasies of their own misunderstood genius, hoping that no one will notice the superficiality of their thinking. Paul Ryan is their man – an intellectual slacker whose musings would not hold up for five minutes in a graduate seminar.

Paul Ryan’s politics have long since diverged from those of his generation, which gradually shifted toward the Democratic Party over the last two decades and manifests values that are left of most of what Paul Ryan stands for. (Gen X-ers leaned Republican by 5 percentage points in 1990, but in 2008 they favored the Democratic Party by 7 percentage points.) Ryan, however, seems to be stuck in the Reagan era, his jingoism and simplistic economic ideas amped up with an infusion of Tea Party fanaticism.

When you were in college in those days, if you were left-leaning and sought enlightenment, you read the mystic novels of Herman Hesse and Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics (my own copy is floating around out there somewhere in a second-hand bookstore, complete with giddy marginalia). If you were right-leaning and sought self-gratification, you read Atlas Shrugged and talked about the sublimity of selfishness. In either case, you grew up. You began to separate the wise from the wacky, and you gradually understood what was original and what was merely derivative. You tested your ideas on the stage of tough experience. You evolved.

But Paul Ryan, until very, very recently, was still clutching his copies of Ayn Rand, making his staff read them and giving them away as presents. Rand's philosophy, a justification for continuing adolescent selfishness into adulthood, seldom sounds reasonable to people over 25. But Ryan was singing its praises at 40.

A successful businessman today, Michael Kirven admits that he has changed a lot since college, but wonders about Ryan. “I don’t feel like a guy like Ryan has had any evolution of ideas since his youth,” says Kirven. “My political views are inconsistent. I agree with Obama on some things, Romney on others. I could even find something to agree with in Herman Cain. But Ryan is just dogmatic. Maybe he doesn’t have the intellectual capacity for more complex thought. He really turns me off.”

Ryan has exhibited a disdain for Gen X, and the feeling is often mutual.

In a recent New York Times piece, 42-year-old Shane Smith, a founder of Vice, summed up a prevailing feeling of embarrassment at Mitt Romney’s choice of running mate among Xers: “I just wish that a Reaganite-friend-of-the-Tea-Party-frat-boy-jock was not our first poster boy.” Even Ryan’s music heroes, like Tom Morello, guitarist from Rage Against the Machine, have rejected him. (Jimmy Page, where are you?)

Instead of learning from the financial crash of 2008, Ryan is doubling down on the failed economic strategies of deregulation, budget cutting, and trickle-down that have sent inequality soaring and crushed the middle class. He is still talking about “makers v. takers,” the classic Ayn Rand formulation that presents the world as a black-and-white stage of good businessmen and bad everybody else.

Ryan’s discomfort with Gen X may spring from a very deep reason: He has big plans to sell us out. X has already suffered expectations of downward mobility, horrific recessions, job insecurity and the capture of government by corporate interests. Ryan seems to be a guy who plans to add insult to injury and deliver his generation an extra sharp kick in the teeth as we face the daunting challenges of middle age in a crappy economy.

On almost any topic you can name, Paul Ryan has a plan to betray the values and beliefs of his age group. Most alarmingly, he is bent on stealing our future. Let us count the ways that Paul Ryan is out to screw Gen X.

1. Who, Me Retire?

When you hit 40, you tend to start thinking about your retirement. Currently, the lack of job security, pensions, union-crushing and decent retirement plans make this sort of thinking panic-inducing for Gen X.

Paul Ryan’s economic plans would shift the burden of Medicare to Gen X in the future by turning the program into a voucher plan. And if he has anything to do with it, we can kiss any safety net in our golden years goodbye. Gen X has long been suspicious that they will never receive Social Security. But it’s not because the program is in fiscal trouble (contrary to popular belief, it isn’t). It’s because sneaky politicians like Ryan would dismantle the program under the pretense of crisis so that the bankers can skim fees off of private accounts. He has advocated the partial privatization of Social Security – an idea which ought to have been swept away in the massive stock market crash of 2008. But Ryan, his star permanently in retrograde, was advocating handing our retirement to Wall Street in 2010. He dropped that exceedingly dumb idea in his current budget for the sake of political expediency, but his consistent worship of the so-called free market suggests that he hasn’t really changed his mind.

2. She-Orientation

The women of Gen X have made tremendous economic strides, and these tech-savvy, entrepreneurial and often exhausted ladies have been at the forefront of the work/life balance movement, seeking a decent existence for their families and reasonable returns on hard work. Is that too much to ask? Apparently.

Paul Ryan lingers in the Stone Age. He has consistently voted against workplace equity for women, opposing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which makes it easier for women to file wage-discrimination lawsuits. Ryan is vehemently against a woman’s right to decide whether or not to terminate a pregnancy – oblivious to the fact that control over reproduction is a key element in women’s economic well-being and fair participation in the workforce. “I’m as pro-life as a person gets,” he boasted in 2012. 

Ryan has tried to block access to abortion even in the case of rape. Along with swamp creature Todd Akin, he co-sponsored a bill that would have narrowed the definition of rape to restrict the number of poor women who can terminate a pregnancy through Medicaid. All told, he has co-sponsored more than three dozen anti-choice bills, and his budget would end all government financing for Planned Parenthood while throwing prenatal care and infant nutrition under the bus.

3. Reverse Robin Hood

At a time of the worst income inequality since the Gilded Age, Paul Ryan wants to give more tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans. If he had his way, the U.S. would eliminate all taxes on corporate profits, capital gains and dividends. He rejected a White House proposal for a minimum tax on millionaires, calling it “class warfare.”

Ryan claims that he would cut tax rates for all families, but that’s cold comfort for Gen Xers trying to secure or maintain their position in the middle class. Even after the Bush tax cuts, Ryan's reductions would only amount to about $1,000 a year for families with annual incomes between $50,000 and $75,000. And for rich people with incomes above $1 million? They get a windfall of $250,000 a year. Ryan says he would pay for these cuts by scaling back tax breaks. But he is also committed to maintaining low taxes on capital gains, a big source of income for the wealthy. Most of the other big tax breaks — like the mortgage interest deduction and pension and health tax benefits — help the middle class. Rest assured that any attempt to broaden the tax base without raising taxes on capital income would almost inevitably sock it to middle-class families. And if those middle-class tax breaks were not slashed to pay for Ryan's high-income tax cuts, other spending would have to be reduced further  — which would also screw the middle class.

4. Out of Sync on Gay Rights

Paul Ryan is very much at odds with his age group on gay issues. He's against same-sex marriage, despite the fact that a recent Pew Research Poll found that support for allowing same-sex marriage has increased among Gen X from 44 percent in 2008 to 52 percent in 2012.

Ryan supports a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and voted against the repeal of the military’s unfair don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy. In 2009, he voted against expanding the federal hate crimes act to include brutality based on sexual orientation.

Ryan believes that gay Americans are unfit to adopt children, and in 2007 he broke with his party to support a bill outlawing job discrimination based on sexual orientation.

5. Enjoy Your McJob

Gen Xers are often viewed as unmotivated slackers with McJobs. In reality, they have faced extreme job insecurity caused by trickle-down economic theories, offshoring, union-busting, a corporate-friendly political climate, and the pervasive myth of shareholder value, which falsely holds that a corporation's only duty is to shareholders, rather than to workers or to society.

Amazingly, the Ryan budget does not include any provisions to create jobs immediately. And he wants to throw fire on the insecure employment trend of his generation and turn us into helpless wage slaves as fast as he can. He wants the Federal Reserve to focus solely on inflation (that’s conservative code for “keeping down wages”) and to abandon its mandate to bolster employment.

Despite the hardship in his own congressional district, Ryan voted against extending unemployment benefits on the pretext that it would add more than “one dime to the deficit,” when in fact, those benefits actually help reduce the deficit by providing income and tax revenues to the economy.

6. Environmental Laggard

A 2011 Pew poll showed that while not quite as enthusiastic as Gen Y, Gen X is more likely than older generations (particularly the so-called Silent Generation) to support clean energy and environmental protection and to believe climate change is occurring and is the result of human activity. Sixty-nine percent of Gen Xers advocate concentrating on developing alternative energy sources rather than expanding oil, coal and natural gas exploration. And they believe in tough rules and regulations.

But Paul Ryan is an environmental dinosaur. His lack of support for clean energy and climate change programs is well known, and has angered environmentalists. He has been in favor of cutting the budgets of conservation programs and eliminating White House climate advisers. Ryan receives big donations from the oil and gas industries and gets major support from the Koch brothers – two of the nation’s biggest polluters. The League of Conservation Voters gave him a dreadful 3 percent rating on its 2011 National Environmental Scorecard.

7. Old-Time Religion

Gen Xers were born in the wake of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, which transformed the Cathoic Church for the modern world. They started out as the most Catholic generational group in American history, with one-third identifying as Catholics in 1990. But by 2010, about one in five had turned from the faith. It was only because one million Latino Catholics was added to the Gen X roster that 26 percent of Gen Xer are Catholics today. 

Even though they reached adulthood as the Christian Right was asserting influence on the national stage, polls show that Gen X has become less Christian as they have grown up. But not Paul Ryan. He bills himself as a staunchly conservative Catholic, and would very much like to foist his beliefs on the rest of us. And yet even Catholics have trouble with him: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has denounced him for aiming to cut programs that help the poor and shovel money toward the rich.

***

In reviewing Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in the National Review in 1957, the famed conservative writer Whitaker Chambers decried the book’s stridency and ludicrously simplistic notions: “It is when a system of materialist ideas presumes to give positive answers to real problems of our real life that mischief starts.”

Paul Ryan is nothing more than a smirky, overwrought boy full of mischief, who never wants to grow up and face the realities and complexities of life. Unfortunately, the shallow mental waters in which he swims have bred dangerous sharks that will feed on the achievements and security of his own generation. The college dork has evolved into an arrogant, screw-you-over-with-a-smile jerk who peddles piggishness and calls it “prosperity.”

And you wonder why Gen X never really trusted politicians.

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet's New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.