Paul Ryan's billionaire populism

Last Friday, Paul Ryan, the presumptive Republican vice presidential nominee, made the most populist speech of this campaign season.

"It's the people who are politically connected, it's the people who have access to Washington that get the breaks," he told an enthusiastic crowd of more than 2,000 at a high school gym in Virginia.


"Well, no more. We don't want to pick winners and losers in Washington. ... Hardworking taxpayers should be treated fairly, and it should be based on whether they're good, whether they work hard and not who they know in Washington. That's entrepreneurialism. That's free enterprise."

Sounds good, but earlier in the week -- three days after being picked as Mitt Romney's running mate -- Mr. Ryan went to Las Vegas to pay homage to Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire who is the poster boy for using money to become "politically connected" in Washington, and getting the "breaks" that come with it. Mr. Adelson has promised to donate up to $100 million to make sure Messrs. Romney and Ryan are in the White House next year.


Much of Mr. Adelson's fortune comes from his casino in Macau, in China, via his money-greased access to Washington.

When China's pitch for the 2008 Olympics was endangered by a House resolution opposing the bid because of China's human rights record, Mr. Adelson phoned Tom DeLay, then House majority whip and recipient of Mr. Adelson's political generosity, urging him to block the resolution -- which Mr. DeLay promptly did. The next day, a Chinese vice premier assured Mr. Adelson that his casino in Macau would be full of gamblers.

The money Mr. Adelson has committed to putting Messrs. Romney and Ryan into the White House is a business investment. Mr. Adelson has a lot riding on the 2012 election. Last year, his Las Vegas Sands Corp. came under investigation by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act -- bribing Chinese officials to help expand its casino in Macau.

Mr. Ryan has also been courting billionaire energy moguls Charles and David Koch. Koch Industries PAC has given Mr. Ryan and his leadership PAC more than $100,000 (more than any other corporate PAC), according to a New York Times analysis of campaign records.

Koch Industries spans a variety of oil and gas investments -- whose value would be compromised if Congress and the White House got serious about climate change.

Small wonder that Mr. Ryan has emerged as one of Congress' most outspoken skeptics of climate change. He has also repeatedly voted against energy efficiency standards, including a House vote to prohibit the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases.

Several months ago, when I debated Mr. Ryan on ABC's "This Week," he said we need to shrink the size of government because big corporations and wealthy individuals otherwise use government to their advantage.

"If the power and money are going to be here in Washington," he said, "that's where the influence is going to go ... that's where the powerful are going to go to influence it," he said.


It's an odd argument coming from Mr. Ryan because his proposed budget doesn't shrink government by cutting benefits and payments to big business and the rich. He increases military payments to defense contractors, for example, slashes Wall Street regulations, and gives giant tax benefits to the rich.

His budget shrinks government mainly by cutting benefits and payments to the poor and lower-income Americans. Over 60 percent of his spending cuts target programs for Americans in the bottom third of the income ladder.

Mr. Ryan is correct when he says "it's the people who are politically connected, it's the people who have access to Washington that get the breaks."

But his faux populism obscures the main point. A much smaller government still dominated by money would continue to do the bidding of billionaires like Mr. Adelson, energy moguls like the Koch bothers, military contractors, and other high rollers now actively trying to put Messrs. Ryan and Romney into the White House.

It just wouldn't do anything for the rest of us.

Robert B. Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California and former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is the author of the newly released "Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it," a Knopf e-book original.