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Republicans want to "end Medicare as we know it."

Cue cat shriek!

This "end Medicare as we know it" line -- and many like it ("end Medicaid as we know it," "end carbon-based life as we know it," etc.) -- is the lead-off talking point for the entire Democratic Party in response to Rep. Paul Ryan's just-released budget proposal, "The Path to Prosperity."


Here's the thing: Of course he wants to end Medicare as we know it. You know why? Because the way we know it right now, the program is barreling toward insolvency.

Personally, if I were on a plane that had one engine out and was belching smoke, I would certainly hope somebody with some judgment and competence might calmly remove his oxygen mask long enough to suggest "ending this flight as we know it."

I should back up. In case you haven't been paying attention, Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee and a would-be green-eye-shaded savior of the Republic, has come out with a 2012 budget proposal that actually averts what Ryan rightly calls the "most predictable crisis in the history of our country."

In brief, he proposes:

* Turning Medicaid into a block grant to the states -- the way we did for the immensely successful welfare reform of the 1990s -- in order to allow for more flexibility and experimentation.

* Transforming Medicare into a defined contribution plan similar to what government employees and congressmen already have. Seniors will get a direct subsidy to buy insurance for themselves (along the lines of the popular prescription drug benefit enacted under George W. Bush). The hope is that seniors will help drive cost savings in the medical sector if they actually care about the price of services.

* Closing out various tax loopholes and corporate welfare -- like ethanol subsidies -- in order to lower tax rates and streamline the tax code without losing revenue.


* Freezing spending below 2008 levels for five years.

In response, Democrats have come unglued like wallpaper in an un-air-conditioned Saigon motel in August.

The Ryan plan is "a path to poverty for America's seniors & children and a road to riches for big oil" Nancy Pelosi announced on Twitter. Meanwhile, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., proclaimed the Ryan plan a "war on seniors," even though current seniors -- and anyone 55 and older -- are entirely exempt from Ryan's Medicare proposal.

Let me say that again: No one who is currently elderly or who will be elderly within the next 10 years will see their Medicare change -- at all, ever -- according to Ryan's plan.

You can hardly say the same thing about the president's plan, or the congressional Democrats' plan (since they don't have one), or, most importantly, the status quo -- because under them, our metaphorical plane will crash into a mountainside of insurmountable debt. That's why Ryan's plan is not an attempt to destroy the social safety net, it's an attempt to mend it.

(Oh, and since only Republican talking points are subject to strict scrutiny from the "objective" press, let me quickly rebut Nancy Pelosi & Co.'s nonsense about "big oil." Oil companies get the same business tax breaks as every other company. These are mostly what Democrats mean when they talk about giveaways to big oil. The Ryan plan would rightly eliminate many such breaks, while lowering the corporate tax rate to a level competitive with other industrialized nations. The only "road to riches" for the oil companies in the Ryan plan is its call to allow more oil drilling on America soil, which, yes, would generate profits for oil companies -- and tax revenues for the government and jobs for Americans and lower gas prices, too. The villains.)


But, but, but, sputter Ryan's detractors, we can't rewrite the social contract between the government and our seniors. Again, we're not talking about that. We're talking about revising the arrangement between the government and people who will be seniors more than a decade from now.

Regardless, let's talk about this solemn promise in a bit more detail. Democrats sound a bit like the passenger on the failing plane who complains, "You can't end this flight as we know it! The airline promised we could get to Cincinnati!"

I'll give you a hint what's wrong with this. The correct response to such complaints isn't, "Oh, they promised? Well, let me tell the captain to stick to his original flight plan. I'm sure he'll be delighted to violate the laws of physics in order to honor that promise."

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