Date: March 12, 2021
Janesville, WI – In the Fall of 2020, former Speaker of the House and American Idea Foundation President Paul Ryan was named an Honorary Fellow at the Tommy G. Thompson Center for Public Leadership. The Center, located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, works to elevate the policies and solutions that were the cornerstones of Governor Thompson’s decades of service to the state of Wisconsin. Earlier this month, Speaker Ryan had the opportunity to talk with the Thompson Center’s Executive Director, Dr. Ryan Owens, about the policy issues that he has been focusing on since leaving the House of Representatives in 2019.
During the podcast, Speaker Ryan discussed the need for revitalizing civil society – the institutions and spaces between citizens and their government. He touched on ongoing efforts by the American Idea Foundation to highlight locally-implemented, evidence-based solutions that tackle problems like persistent poverty and the skills gap. Speaker Ryan also provided some guidance to younger Wisconsinites who are looking to make an impact in their communities.
You can listen to the Tommy G. Thompson Center Badgercast featuring Speaker Ryan by clicking here. Some excerpts of Speaker Ryan’s answers (which have been edited slightly for clarity) follow.
A continued focus on tackling poverty:
“You mentioned Janesville, my home town. My downtown Janesville office is where the American Idea Foundation is based and that’s the Foundation that I built to focus on poverty solutions. During a lot of stages in my career, I spent a lot of time working on understanding poverty — specifically stubborn, multi-generational poverty, and understanding the policies that alleviate poverty. Near the end of my tenure, I was able to put into law through the tax code and other mechanisms, some policies that I think are really going to make a difference in the poverty space.
“And so, the American Idea foundation is really focused on advancing these poverty solutions, getting them out into the country, and building solutions that can be scaled, replicated, and repeated so that we can really put a dent in poverty and go at root causes of poverty and focus resources so that we can really make a big difference. [We can make a big difference by] making sure the Evidence Act that we wrote is well-executed and by building a big database of poverty solutions that people who want to fight poverty can go to for support and assistance. We believe in all of this… using data, analytics, and random controlled trials to measure what works and then scaling and repeating, and then making sure you don’t repeat mistakes.”
Policies that will spur economic opportunity:
“We need lifelong learning. We need people to get skills for the jobs of tomorrow [because of the] technology displacements that are occurring. And so, one of the things that we’re focused on is how do you get people into school and get their skills acquired and get them to stay through it. There is a big problem with people not graduating with their Associate’s degree, but if you can get an Associate’s degree in the 21st century, you can often get yourself into a proven career.
“Another thing that I’m really enamored with is this Catholic Charities [approach of] case management navigators that help people who are deep in poverty. [These navigators] find people where they are and then bring services and knowledge to them. Every person has a case manager that helps them build a plan to get out of poverty and work themselves out of poverty and stay out of poverty. I work with the Laboratory for Economic Opportunity (LEO) at Notre Dame and we’re running trials on this right now in places across the country to really figure out how best to do this kind of service so it can be scaled and replicated using technology, data, and analytics….
“In the 20th century, the War on Poverty was basically a bunch of government programs run by government bureaucrats and they kind of missed out on a lot of innovative ideas and proper incentive structures which have really moved the needle and so that’s the kind of thing we’re trying to incorporate. We’re essentially using free enterprise principles and applying them to the problem of poverty and I think we’re going to get a difference in outcomes.”
Advice to younger Americans on the perils of polarization and seeking out diverse perspectives:
“The reason I’m concerned [about polarization] is it’s getting so out of control and it’s being digitized and monetized with 21st century social media technology…. I try and tell young people to identify and see the fact that when you have an online presence or when you just go online, you’re inevitably going to go into some ideological cul-de-sac and you’re probably going to be just getting reinforcing views and today, media and technology, just more or less tell you what you want to know.
“We have moral relativism. We have algorithms and we have all of these sites that feed you what you’re already biased toward and that confirmation bias is now digitized and there are a lot of people who make a lot of money feeding that….”
“There’s not a great answer to how do you reduce polarization or how do you get people to reintegrate into society, other than we’ve got to find ways to revitalize civil society, which is where we live our lives and is the space between ourselves and our government. How do we, as individuals, get involved at a human level, at a personal level, with people who don’t think like us and who don’t look like us and who aren’t like us, and build lasting relationships and get a sense of empathy and a sense of understanding?
“The thing I always tell young people is don’t lead with emotions. You have two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion and just really work on trying to understand the perspective of another person. Walk in their shoes and hopefully they’ll do the same to you and you can develop a better understanding.”
Assessing the first two months of the Biden-Harris Administration:
“I’m a little concerned… I like [President Biden]. He’s a nice person. He is an agreeable guy. He does deals. I’ve done agreements with him myself so he is naturally not opposed to finding common ground with people on the other side of the aisle and getting agreements done. The team beneath him is maybe less so.
“The thing that makes me a little concerned at this moment is on the COVID-19 bill. Ron Klain, his Chief of Staff, and others said: “Look, we made the mistake in 2009 when we tried to get Republicans to work with us on a stimulus and it took too long and then we finally did it on our own. We just want to learn from that mistake and try and cut to the chase and just ram it through….” They really didn’t ask for our participation in 2009. I remember then-Rep. Chris Van Hollen having one, 30-second conversation with me, which was: “Are you going to support this or not?…”
“This was different because COVID is a pandemic that everybody believes is a crisis that needs attending to and you had Republicans offering solutions and going down to the White House to say: “You know we agree on you know half of this stuff. Let’s work together….” Instead, they chose reconciliation which is a way of avoiding having to work with the other side and ramming it through. If you can’t get bipartisanship on something like COVID and getting the economy out of the COVID-19 pandemic, I don’t know where else you are going to find bipartisanship in this day and age. I really think they whiffed on this one…”
Issues of common ground in 2021:
“Well, I think the thing that everybody more or less agrees on is that there is a challenge and a great power struggle with China. We call this “decoupling” and that’s going to happen. I think most Republicans or Democrats who look at this issue see it similarly, which is, we have to protect ourselves and our technology from cyber-attacks, from China, and from their competition. We want the free world to be able to stay free.
“When you look at all the technologies that are rolling out there — whether it’s artificial intelligence, machine-learning, the Internet of Things, cryptocurrencies, all of these things, it’s really important that the free world is led by America and that America leads in these cutting-edge technologies because if China takes over and dominates, then they can they can really intimidate the world. They can become a ubiquitous surveillance state and it gets kind of scary at the end of the day, so where I think America has to lead – and Republicans and Democrats agree on this, is in sort strategic decoupling with China. That, to me, is a pretty big deal and I think infrastructure and some other sort of meat and potato issues, you’ll see some people coming around on.”