WASHINGTON—Today, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) addressed The Economic Club of New York, where he discussed the positive ideas House Republicans are offering to restore opportunity for the next generation.
“Thanks, everybody. Well, I don't have to tell you that the whole country is thinking about New York these days. In the span of just a few hours, we all realized—yet again—that terror can strike at any moment—on any street or at any train station. In this new world we're living in, nothing can be taken for granted. And nothing could sober the mind more than what's happened in this city over the past few days. So I just want to say all of us are thinking and praying for the people of New York, New Jersey, and Minnesota—and especially for our first responders, who have done top-notch work protecting our country. And I want you to know that these kinds of things don't go unnoticed. At the highest levels, all of us see this as an even more compelling reason to confront the threats we face and to do all we can to keep America safe.
“You know, I’ve been thinking about our security challenges recently. All of our challenges really. I’ve been thinking about what we’re going to do on January 20, 2017—when we’re standing face-to-face with all of our country’s problems. And you know, to be honest, when I start running through all the things we need to do, I almost get discouraged.
“I look at the dysfunction of our current divided government, and think to myself, ‘If we have four more years of divided government like the last six, we are not putting ourselves in the position to truly tackle the nation's big problems.’ Don't get me wrong. We will do everything we can to make things right—no matter who sits in what office. But it is exciting to view with our minds' eye the picture of getting our country back on track, solving our problems, restoring a confident America. I'd like to share with you what that picture looks like.
“In other words, I'd like to share with you what it is we are actually trying to achieve with a unified Republican government.
“We are trying to restore the American Idea for our generation. You see, there are a lot of people out there who don’t think this idea is true for them anymore—and for good reason: Over the past several years, power has been slowly slipping out of the hands of the people—and into the hands of an expansionist federal bureaucracy. It happened gradually. In the Bush years, we were so focused on the War on Terror. And in the Obama years, the president was focused on cementing the progressive legacy in place. But at this point, it’s clear we need to change our ways—because if the American Idea is not true for everybody, then it is not true at all.
“But that, of course, leads to the question: What is the American Idea? What do we stand for? And that’s what I want to talk to you about today.
“When you get down to it, how you answer the question, ‘Why is America struggling?,’ depends on how you answer the question, ‘Why did America succeed?’ Sure, we’ve got a lot of natural resources—minerals, land, water. But those aren’t strictly necessary. Just look at Japan or Israel. And we’ve got a very diverse population. But then so does India. So you have to ask yourself why did this country, this one, unique country, achieve so much? And it’s because this country was based on an idea: freedom. Not race, not class, not minute petty distinctions. Other countries tried to elevate what they considered the best part of their society: the nobility or the military or the bureaucratic elite. But here in America we decided we’d do all we could to unlock the best in everyone—in every American citizen.
“That is the meaning of American exceptionalism. I know it’s not the most popular term nowadays. People think it’s arrogant or condescending. But we’re not saying the American people are inherently superior to all other countries. What we’re saying is, for whatever reason—it truly is a mystery—we were given the opportunity to prove, by our example, that people from all walks of life could live together in peace. They could deliberate and vote . . . haggle and bargain . . . and fight side by side. We’d be more than a beacon to the world; we’d be a herald of good news: Freedom is possible. In other words, to believe in American exceptionalism is simply to be grateful for what God has given us.
“Does freedom require government? Absolutely, no question. Who could succeed in a country where the town bully could steal your stuff? Where you couldn’t bank on your neighbor’s word? Where the law of the land was no more than a passing whim? In this country, if you build it, if you grow it, if you work for it, it is yours. You have earned it. That is a core principle. And it simply wouldn’t be possible without government—without property rights and contracts and the rule of law. Nobody understands that better than conservatives. And nobody is more proud of our founding, governing documents: the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
“Nope, there’s no argument there. Government can be a force for good—when it empowers the individual . . . when it gives us the information we need to make our own decisions . . . when it wins more customers for our products across the globe . . . when it lays down clear, firm rules for all of us to live by. Because when government does that, it creates a free market, where millions of people can buy, sell, trade, build, and work their way to a better life. We all can attest to the incredible power of free people working together. It has built the greatest economy the world has ever seen.
“Now, are we skeptical of government? You bet we are. Our tax code shouldn’t look like a block of Swiss cheese. No law of ours should run longer than War and Peace. But our skepticism comes not from a hate of government but from a love of individual freedom.
“And it’s one thing to have read your von Mises and your Hayek and your Uncle Miltie. It’s one thing to understand, on a purely intellectual level, the economic need to empower the individual. But when you see it in person—and in the most unlikely of places—why, that’s a whole new ball game. That’s when you realize it’s not just good policy; it’s a moral imperative. Suddenly, you start to ask yourself, what else is America for—if not for the people who want to start over? Who could be more American than the person who’s been to hell and back? What is the American Dream if not the search for redemption?
“And I’ve got to tell you, to hear these stories and to meet these people—it’s a huge morale boost. I have been discussing our nation’s problems with the best policy minds out there for years. And they’re brilliant and all. But take it from me, if you’re looking for a few words of encouragement, the last person you should ask is an economist. Our problems kept multiplying, and no one seemed to know the way forward. And that’s when I started to think, you know, when you’re in a jam, it’s good to have a sense of history. But what you really need is creativity—an ability to take adversity and turn it into opportunity.
“So I decided to try a different tack. For the past four years, I’ve been going around the country with my friend Bob Woodson and visiting some of the poorest communities in America. I’ve been to drug clinics, homeless shelters, you name it. And you know, I went in thinking all I’d see would be shuttered homes and shattered lives. But that’s not at all what I saw. What I saw was the drug dealer who had become a drug counselor, the tough guy who had become a family man, the gang leader who had become an entrepreneur. I saw the small businesses they created, the support groups they formed, the loving families they had rebuilt. In other words, I went in expecting to see the worst of America, and I came out realizing I’d just seen the best of the America.
“I’ll give you just one example. At Pulaski High School in Milwaukee, there’s something called the Violence-Free Zone program. The school hires about five young graduates to mentor the next generation. But these are not your garden-variety guidance counselors. These are ex-gang members, people who know the streets. And that’s precisely why they have the credibility to tell kids, ‘Don’t make the same mistakes I did.’ Pulaski started this program just a few years back. And what happened? Suspensions went down. Attendance went up. There used to be fourteen gangs that roamed the school grounds. Today, they’ve all but disappeared. And the principal had tried all sorts of things to keep students safe—a bigger police presence, more cameras. But only this program worked.
“Now, I could say to you, how fortunate to see the crime rate decline—or how encouraging to see the graduation rate rise. But that’s not the reason I love this story. I love this story because I saw, with my own two eyes, the American Idea come to life—for real, flesh-and-blood human beings. Here were people who had lost their way, now finding their place in life. Here was the power of people working together to turn around their lives. You may not read about them in Fortune or the Wall Street Journal. They may not grow up to be rich people or famous people. But without a doubt, they are growing up to be free people—upstanding citizens—good-hearted Americans. They are applying our free-market principles in a distinct, new way. They are social entrepreneurs.
“And they are the reason that I am optimistic—because you walk away from your experience thinking, ‘What talent. What drive. What courage.’ You walk away thinking, ‘You know, we need them. We need to get them and others back into the economy. It’s only when we start chipping away at that 94 million people out of the work force that we’ll really make a dent in that $19 trillion in debt. We need the federal government to work with them, not against them. And here’s the thing: They are more than eager to do it. They’re ready. They can’t wait to get started.’ That’s when you think to yourself, ‘If they can beat their odds, then who are we to complain about ours?’
“But, of course, it’s not enough to praise the success stories. We need to change our laws so that we see more of them. Our policy platform must be more than an ode to the power of positive thinking.
“Look, this presidential race is getting very tight. I think we have a real opportunity here to win a mandate for unified Republican governance. That’s why House Republicans and I are offering what we’re calling A Better Way. This is the agenda we want to pursue with the next president. And it is our answer to some of the biggest challenges we face: poverty, national security, the economy, restoring the Constitution, health care, tax reform. I’d be remiss if I didn’t plug our website: better.gop. Go there if you want to read the whole thing. But let me paint you a picture of what we can achieve.
“I think we can expand opportunity for all of our people—especially those who need it most. You know, these days, the person paying the highest effective marginal tax rate isn’t Warren Buffett; it isn’t Aaron Rodgers. It’s the single mom with two kids making something like $28,000 a year. If she finds a job that pays just a little bit more, she’ll be losing 80 cents on the dollar to take that step forward—which is a huge disincentive to work and to advance. We call this the poverty trap. It’s the result of having almost 80 different federal anti-poverty programs, as we do today, with almost no coordination among them. Once you add up all the benefits she’ll lose and all the new taxes she’ll pay, it just doesn’t make sense to take that job.
“We’ve got to change that. So we’re saying, let’s give states the flexibility to try innovative and new things. Then the states can coordinate with the people who are already fighting poverty on the ground and winning—groups like the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, America Works. We need to get the public sector and the private sector, the non-profit sector and the for-profit sector—all of these sectors working together and pulling in the same direction. Customize welfare benefits to meet a person’s needs and to always reward work. Measure success based on results rather than efforts. That’s how we can beat poverty—person to person, eye to eye, soul to soul.
“Yes, outdated policies are holding people back—and they’re holding our whole economy back. If we want to create more good-paying jobs in America, then we need to fix our tax code. You know, where I come from, overseas is Lake Superior. And the Canadians are taxing their businesses at 15 percent. But our tax rate on successful small businesses is 44.6 percent right now. We also have the highest corporate tax in the industrialized world. So we are taxing American businesses at a much higher rate than other countries are taxing theirs.
“We want to make our tax code simpler, flatter, fairer. Bring the number of tax brackets down from 7 to 3. Lower rates for everybody. Bring the top individual rate down to 33 percent. Close those special-interest loopholes. Consolidate those deductions and credits. Make it so simple that the average American can do their taxes on a postcard. But also cut taxes on small business. Lower their top rate to 25 percent. Cut our corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent. Stop taxing people when they bring money into our country. Stop taxing new investments. Don’t punish people for saving and investing. Reward them. The Tax Foundation says this plan would create 1.7 million new jobs right here in America.
“What we’re proposing to build is not so much a more competitive America but a more collaborative one. We want to trade in the old, top-down bureaucratic government for a bottom-up, organic society where the opportunity is real and plentiful. Because as we all know, it is only in the collaborative environment of free enterprise that the individual can truly flourish.
“These are the commonsense ideas we need to get America back on track. These are the ideas that will put power back into the hands of the people—back into the hands that pay the taxes and meet the mortgage and make this country work. These are the ideas that can solve our seemingly insurmountable problems. This what we need to do to restore the American Idea. You know, if we keep kicking the can down the road, then people really are going to give up hope. And what a shame that would be. But if we put the right reforms in place, I know we can get this right.
“To feel anxious at a time like this—well, that’s only natural. But pessimism is a choice. The happy warrior doesn’t shrink from a fight. He accepts the challenge with joy. For all of our problems, for all of our doubts, I know we can turn things around—because I have faith in the American people. Look, there’s no one in this country—and I mean no one—who sits around, thinking, ‘Boy, I wish my life were empty and meaningless.’ Nobody does that. And that’s why we shouldn’t write anybody off—least of all, our fellow citizens. All of us want to be defined, not by our segment of society, but by our contribution to it. So when we see people struggling, it is the rules—and the rule-makers—that have failed, not the people.
“None of this is automatic. None of this is easy. The American way of life is always a work in progress. And the challenges we face are very stark. But this is our generation’s calling, and we must answer that call. So let’s go to work, together, in high spirits, with firm resolve, and rebuild the country we love.