By: AIF Staff
Washington, DC – In May, former Speaker of the House and American Idea Foundation President Paul Ryan was a featured speaker at a virtual event hosted by Yale University’s William F. Buckley program. During the hour-long conversation with Yale University students and alumni, Ryan shared his opinion on President Biden’s first 100 days in office and how legislators can expand economic opportunities through pro-growth policies.
To watch Speaker Ryan’s full remarks, click here, or check out some notable excerpts (edited lightly for clarity) below.
Passing internal and external stress tests of our democracy
“We are tearing each other apart internally with polarization, that’s how democracy is being stress-tested from within, and we have existential challenges from near-peer or peer competition from the likes of China and Russia. We’re getting hit from both sides as a democracy.
“We have to prove that our democracy, our self-governing experiment can outperform these ubiquitous tyrannies like China in the 21st century. There are serious challenges that we have no choice but to overcome because this great experiment of self-government could be realistically displaced by the end of the century by the likes of China, who aim to prove that they’re better, stronger, and nimbler. I don’t think that’s going to happen but that’s the narrative that China would like the world to buy into. I believe we’re going to win this thing, but the faster we get families intact, get people out of poverty, get economic growth going and keep innovation going in this country, then we’re going to overcome these real challenges of democracy. Not tearing ourselves apart from within is the first step.”
Expanding economic opportunities in America’s heartland
“We have a lot of Opportunity Zones in Wisconsin and in the Rust Belt. There are about 9,000 in America, many of which are in the Rust Belt. [Opportunity Zones] mean you have an incentive to take an investment and put the capital into these dilapidated, poor areas. You keep your investment there for at least 10 years and you don’t pay a capital gains tax on it, so it’s an enormous economic incentive for both rural and inner-city America to receive these kinds of investments. I think that it’s one way in which government can really revitalize certain areas. In the First District [of Wisconsin], I know all the spots that have Opportunity Zones. It’s exactly where you drive by whether you’re in Racine, Kenosha, or Janesville and it is areas that are in dire need of economic development, good jobs, and good investments. There is a tool now [in Opportunity Zones] to do that and we’re just starting to see the fruits of that labor so I think that’s an area where the government could do a lot.
“Another area is skills training and education, getting skills to the person who is from South and Central Wisconsin. We need to do a better job of getting people the skills they need to get good jobs and that means making two-year schooling and associates degrees easier to achieve…. I think there are a lot of techniques we can employ to make sure that people actually get the degree and are not just stuck with debt, but they can also get a good job afterwards… This is how you get innovation into the parts of the country that have not seen it for a long time. If you want Silicon Valley in the Midwest, that’s how you do it.”
A conservative reform debate: Promote work or family formation
“There’s a big debate between conservatives: Should we focus on family formation or should we focus on work?
“I spent my early days on welfare reform when we did it back in the mid-1990 and then I worked on renewing welfare reforms throughout my career and our emphasis was on promoting work. We believed that by promoting work, you’re actually helping families the most. My close friend Mitt Romney has a Child Support Allowance which is more focused on family formation incentives, and there is a debate about this right now in the conservative movement.
“I think, if you have to pick among the two, you could influence one’s work more through government policy than you can influence family formation. A tax credit is going to matter more in terms of moving a person from welfare to work than it is going to move a person to have more children. So, I think you’re going to have more positive policy effects on work-focused policies than on family formation policies.
“At the same time, you don’t want to disincentivize [family formation]. You don’t want to have a marriage penalty and you don’t want to disincentivize child formation. I believe you can build on the existing policies and I would not necessarily erect new policies. I would refine the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit to work better at promoting these laudable goals of keeping families intact, helping families pull themselves up by getting people to work and by getting parents to work. So, I really do think in the debate among conservative reformers, the emphasis on work is really important.
“Right now, you’ve got Biden-economics that is basically attempting to pay people not to work which is the worst of all worlds because people’s skills will atrophy, the economy will have labor shortages, small businesses will go under and as a result, that will lower economic growth and that will lower job creation and that will lower wages.
“I think the fight that we need to have right now is to focus on getting people to work and getting people skills so they can have great jobs. We should focus on upward mobility and that, in my mind’s eye and in this debate that is occurring within conservatism, is where the focus ought to be versus solely focusing on family formation. The point being, there is a good, rich debate in the conservative movement about how best to keep intact families, how best to grow wages and build the escalator of upward mobility and keep ourselves safe and keep ourselves free.”
Biden’s first 100 days & a misalignment with center-right voters
“I would argue that the person who made Joe Biden the President is a unique voter and it’s a voter that you can fairly well extrapolate from states like Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia or Pennsylvania. It is the voter in the suburban, Congressional district that typically votes for Republicans. The suburban, college-educated, typically white-collar voter was the margin of difference in those key battleground states that gave Joe Biden the presidency and he did legitimately win the presidency. This [type of] voter voted for Joe Biden for two reasons.
“Number one, they didn’t like Donald Trump. They didn’t like Donald Trump’s personality. They didn’t like him on Twitter. They more or less liked the policies but not the man. Number two, they liked the person in Joe Biden. Joe Biden is a nice person. They thought Joe Biden was going to be a centrist who was bringing people together, a consensus-builder. And so, they voted for that.
“My argument in this first 100 days — and look, the reason I think these suburban voters are really more center to center-right is because down ballot they voted for Republicans for the Senate and they voted for the Republican for Congress, but not for President – is the voter that basically made Joe Biden the President, that gave him the Electoral College, that voter is not getting what they voted for. For one reason or another, President Biden has decidedly focused on unifying the Democratic Party and not unifying the country. He is not bringing the country to the center, which is what I think that voter was hoping for and thinking they were going to get in a Biden presidency.”
Missed opportunities for bipartisan consensus
“The first 100 days was determined by two occasions in which President Biden had a glorious opportunity to reach across the aisle, reach consensus, and be a common-ground, consensus-making President.
“Number one: COVID-19 [legislation] where 10 U.S. Senators from the Republican ranks offered Joe Biden a deal, a cooperative agreement, a joint exercise, and that COVID relief package would have been more than sufficient for addressing the needs for COVID and the economy…. I think President Biden had a chance of getting a real good bipartisan win, which would have been good for the country, but he chose not to do that and went with the progressives.
“Number two: Infrastructure. He rolled out his infrastructure bill which is again, a massive blowout of spending. The most generous reading of the bill is about 1/3rd of it is infrastructure and 2/3rds of it is not even infrastructure spending, [coupled] with what we would consider horrendous tax policies, low-growth tax policy which would reignite inversions where corporations move overseas and where we would lose capital and wages would actually be depressed as a result of this. Again, a group of Republicans in the House and the Senate went to the Administration and said: “We want to work with you on infrastructure….” And again, they’ve walked away from this, and tried to go on another reconciliation route where it’s just one party….
“In the first 100 days, I think what the President has done is outsourced the policymaking, the politicking, and the policy design to the progressive wing of the Democratic party, which is the dominant, loud wing of the party.”
Self-determination and promoting opportunity are the American way
“I think the best tool for fighting poverty is free enterprise. Free enterprise applied to the problem of poverty in not only people, but also policies and ideas is a wonderful way in which we can actually break the cycle of poverty, get at the root causes of poverty, and reignite this beautiful notion of upward mobility.
“The idea of a government built upon equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome; a government based on natural rights and natural law where we have a pluralistic society where we are free to pursue our dreams and where the condition of our birth doesn’t determine the outcome of our life, that’s the kind of country I enjoy living in. That’s the kind of country I want to continue living in. That’s the kind of country I think the center-right movement has got to improve its game to be able to deliver and to offer the kinds of services and government that I would argue a center-right country would like to have.”