February 3, 2020
The American Idea Foundation is founded on the premise that everyone should have the ability to achieve their version of the American Dream. It is why the Foundation works to promote public policies, backed by evidence and data, that expand economic opportunities to more Americans.
Part of the American Idea Foundation’s work is to introduce free-market principles and policies to new audiences and forcefully make the case for capitalism. This work is particularly important with polls showing that socialism is rising in popularity among younger Americans.
In keeping with this part of our mission, AIF President and former House Speaker Paul Ryan recently sat down with a group of students from his alma mater, Miami University of Ohio, to discuss the American Idea Foundation, why he was called to public service and the importance of working across the aisle on policies that break through partisan gridlock to meet the pressing challenges facing communities around the country.
Some highlights from Speaker Ryan’s conversation with the students of Miami University’s Inside Washington program follow.
On Jack Kemp laying the Ground Work for Opportunity Zones:
“When I was a young guy, I worked for Jack Kemp. He was my mentor. Jack Kemp was a Member of Congress and a member of the Bush Cabinet who advocated for free-market solutions to poverty. I spent a lot of time as his economic guy and spent a lot of time working with him on these things. Jack was pushing a thing called “Enterprise Zones,” and it took twenty-five years but we got it into law and called them Opportunity Zones.
“Opportunity Zones, the idea always was, to designate the poorest of the poor areas in America – by census tract is the best way to do it – and allow capital gains tax-free treatment, meaning that if you want to invest in a poor area and you keep your money there for at least a decade, you won’t pay capital gains taxes on it. The idea there is to draw in private capital, take away some of the risk on it so that you incentivize capital to these poor areas. Now, the concern that we’ve always had and what we work on at the American Idea Foundation is: We don’t want a bunch of money to come into Opportunity Zones and have it be used to regentrify or push poor people out of their community or make it someplace for people who want to make money. We want it to be a tool of revitalization to revitalize the people within those zones – so that is basically the goal.”
More Work to be Done to Truly Win the War on Poverty:
“The War on Poverty was well-intended. It had some successes, no two ways about it, but it also had some failures. One of the failures is a mindset failure. It told the public that, “poverty is not your responsibility, that’s the government’s job.” And what we ended up doing was we segregated the poor. We sort of displaced them and I think we need to reinforce the notion that we need to reintegrate the poor into our minds, into our daily activities, into our vocations and the best way to do this is to reinvigorate the private sector to be involved in fighting poverty. This is also where I think private sector charities have a huge role to play. And so, I think there is a lot of work still to be done to get the right kind of incentives and the right kind of programs.
“Another law that I passed was the Evidence Act, which is you use data and analytics to build programs that prove effectiveness for getting people out of poverty, because we have sort of just been treating the symptoms of poverty, rather than getting at the root causes of it. If we attack the root causes of poverty by focusing on opportunities, capital, and data and if we help connect the private sector, the public sector, and the philanthropic sector on strategies that have actually been proven to get people out of poverty, I think we can really move the needle.”
Speaker Ryan on being called to public service and pursuing solutions to key policy issues:
“I started by studying economics and political science at Miami University. I did a semester out here at American University, because Miami didn’t have a program yet, where you took classes and interned a few days a week. So, I never thought I would run for office but after I interned, it led to a full-time job and I ended up working at think tanks in DC and working on the Hill. And what I realized at a very young age was you can make a big difference in public policy at a very young age…
“I loved pushing public policy and advocating for things that I believed in but I came to the conclusion, partly because my Congressman from my hometown of Janesville was leaving to run for the Senate and we had an open seat, that I wanted to be an entrepreneur in public policy and I wanted to really advocate for things. I concluded that rather than work at a think tank and hope that a policy-maker would put it into place, why don’t I just try and be a policymaker and try to put it into place on my own. And that’s really why I ended up running for Congress when I was twenty-seven. I figured that I probably wouldn’t win because it was a Democratic district and because I was young, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. I ended up winning the race.
“So then, I basically spent the next twenty years in Congress working on policies that I cared about, mostly in economics. I ended up chairing Committees and what I realized was that I was able to put myself into a position to put the things that I cared about, read about, wrote about into law…
How the American Idea Foundation allows Ryan to continue promoting policies that work:
“What I do know is I’m working on making sure that some of the laws that I wrote in 2018 are well-executed. I’m working in an area that I really care a great deal about and that is fighting poverty more effectively. There are center-right poverty ideas that involve the private sector and markets that I think can really move the needle on poverty. I threw myself into this issue mid-career, when we were coming up on the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty and I felt like there was a lot of lessons to learn and we hadn’t moved the needle nearly as much as we could.”