But in the end, the conservative movement has to focus on a broader issue — one that surpasses all of these. We have to be a movement of growth and opportunity.
To nearly all fiscal problems, the question for too long has been how much people will give up to afford what they have gotten used to. The conservative response to fiscal problems should be entirely different: How did we get used to this? Can’t we do better?
Our focus needs to be on how can we grow our economy to its potential, make prosperity more broadly felt, and bring more opportunity to those now locked out of our free market system.
We need to think of ourselves as an emerging nation strategically seeking growth to unlock our vast potential and free ourselves from subsistence.
For too long we have seen ourselves as an established, wealthy, and mature country. But that attitude is complacent and profoundly reactionary — it is afraid of change, afraid of disruption. America, under this approach, has become bound by the ever-encroaching guardrails and speed bumps of the state, unable to navigate and unable to pick up speed.
Emerging markets take the opposite approach. They focus national policy on the future needs of its youngest citizens and those not yet born.
They adopt highly dynamic policies, policies that lead to greater competition, greater opportunities for those willing to work very hard, greater family formation, greater immigration and labor market growth, and greater investments in long-term energy and infrastructure assets.
Rather than see themselves as having reached their potential, emerging countries see themselves far below that potential, and race to catch up.
They look at undereducated youth and rural subsistence farmers and see a vast pool of potentially productive workers. They see swaths of natural resources and explore how to put them to work in the global economy. They look at other, more developed nations and wonder how to surpass them.
Established nations follow a more restricted and restrictive approach. They favor less competition, more regulations to prevent industrial development, larger governmental guarantees and lower birth rates.
They try to use government power to shave off the highs and cushion the lows of the economic cycle — often unsuccessfully. And they are reluctant (or unable) to make investments that require long payout schedules. Sadly, this is the course our beloved country is on.
The problem America faces right now is summarized in a simple question I like to pose to people all the time: If given the choice, would you rather be my age — 60 — or 21?
The answer is revealing. If you believe that the future of America holds only sacrifice and struggle and reduced horizons of growth, prosperity and opportunity, then you would naturally prefer to be 60.
That is the answer of someone who prefers the model now in vogue in Washington and Europe, a model of managing problems rather than solving them, a worldview that distrusts experimentation and the unknown.
But if you believe that America’s best days lie ahead, despite the challenges we face, you’d pick 21. And if you did, you would have the outlook of an emerging and rising nation, a nation that sees its best days ahead.
The 21-year-old looks forward to solving problems, and believes that the future will be better than whatever life is like now.
Anyone who has traveled to Asia or parts of Latin America will fast recognize the distinction I draw. In fast-growing emerging market nations, growth is essential and is placed above all other goals.
The dynamism you see in Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore, Tel Aviv, Sao Paulo, Bogota, Bangalore, and Dubai rival anything you might have seen in 19th century or mid-20th century America.
They have a culture that America ought to emulate: a culture that welcomes economic growth in all its forms, no matter how messy and disorganized and sometimes fraught with dislocation and social challenge.
The core message of the conservative movement, and the Republican Party, has to be that America can do better and America can always be better.
This observation might be shared broadly by liberals and conservatives, but the means to getting there is not. The American conservative movement is built on a belief that the center of American power, energy, and prosperity is not government, but the American people.
The other side doesn’t share that trust. They think too much individual power is messy and unpredictable.
But that’s the point. We can’t know what 315 million Americans will dream, pursue and accomplish, but we can be sure they will do better than 100 senators or 23 members of the president’s Cabinet or nine Supreme Court justices.
Take the issue of compassion. The federal government has spent $15 trillion in its 50-year war on poverty. Yet poverty is getting worse. I am certain that 315 million Americans do a better job fighting poverty through voluntary and charitable efforts than an indifferent and bureaucratic government agency. Or look at our economy. The federal government says it can invest wisely and anticipate the demands of the marketplace.
Yet if given the choice, I’d rather trust 315 million Americans to invent something and price it, agree on the wages to produce it, and decide whether to invest their own money in it.
The path back to political power for conservatism depends on our ability to make that case. We must unleash the power of 315 million Americans while we insist that government, which has an important but secondary role, become an agent, not a master, of the citizenry.
We have to argue for dynamism over promised certainty. We need to make it possible for people to rise on their own ingenuity and hard work, and if they prove wanting, to let them fail and try again.
At the heart of every policy and every speech should be a firm faith in an uncharted future, so long as citizens are free to make decisions, try new things, and enjoy the opportunity that is inherent in a free society.
We have to have ideas and policies that represent this firm faith and that can be put into action.
At our core, we are a democracy, and no political movement and no political party can govern unless it commands a majority of the electorate. That may seem somewhat obvious, but it bears saying, because the impulse to ideological purity sometimes drowns out the voices of others who are willing to move more incrementally.
But after losing two consecutive presidential elections and two opportunities to take the majority in the Senate, we have to recognize the virtue of campaigning to govern — putting forward policies that a majority of Americans find attractive and ready to adopt.
So let’s start with one of the surest tests of our capacity to govern, and to do so guided by the principle of growth. Let us focus on our massive and unsustainable public debt. Today, America is running a roughly $1 trillion per year deficit, on top of outstanding debt of $16.5 trillion.
Whereas the federal deficit has averaged, in the first six decades after World War II, only 2.1 percent of GDP, today it averages roughly 6 percent. Any serious economist will agree that these debt and deficit levels are unsustainable and pose a hurdle to our prospects for future economic growth.
Deficits at these levels have always drowned the nations that ran them this high, and the list is endless: Japan, Greece, Spain, and so on. What’s more, this is a fairness issue. Assuming America ever repays these debts, that work will be done by others. We are saddling future citizens with a responsibility we would hate to face ourselves.
Against this backdrop, Republicans have fought for modest cutbacks in spending, and yet we find our position attacked as anti-growth. It is astonishing, but nevertheless, we must do better to make our case: Today’s government overspending is not helping the economy. No government has effectively spent its nation back into prosperity. The only path to the reduction in debt requires growth in the private sector.
That doesn’t mean the government has no role; and even if you believe that, the vast majority of the American people don’t. So if we want to win elections, we have to bring forward a plan that addresses the deficits and debt first with economic growth, which generates more revenue for government than any tax hike; and second with reform, which cuts the growth of spending over the long haul. We should dismiss those who say public-sector spending leads to lasting growth. If
it does, it’s paltry and hardly compares to what is generated by the private sector.
That’s because the private sector makes decisions with a laser focus on return. If you’re in charge of a government program and you spend $100 million on a lousy policy, you’ll get another $105 million the next year to try to fix it.
If you’re a company executive who spends $100 million on a bad strategy, you won’t be around the next year. That sharpens the focus on only the best ideas for investment. Across the economy, that means the private sector will create more prosperity and ingenuity with each dollar it earns than the public sector will with each dollar it taxes and borrows. Private sector-led economic growth also has a broader and better impact. It pulls more people off welfare, it encourages businesses to hire, it draws more money into capital investment in things like factories, equipment, and laboratories.
It creates wealth for people and institutions that rely on investment for income, including retirees, pension funds, and college endowments. Government spending can’t do these things nearly as effectively, if at all.
And since government spending is always subject to political pressures, it tends to do these things more unfairly — the powerful, not the needy, tend to benefit most from government largesse. Most of all, private-sector growth brings down government deficits. In the two recent periods where the deficit was in decline, the late 1990s and the mid-2000s, the primary reason was economic growth. So we must begin and end all conversations about deficit reduction with one word: growth. Get the nation’s private sector growing again, and the deficit will fall.
We also must address the spending side, particularly entitlements. This is an area of great opportunity. The other party has shown no willingness to bring much needed reforms to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
Despite ample evidence that such reforms could be done gradually and effectively, the entitlement programs remain as expensive as ever. The American people know this, and are looking for answers.
We have to be willing to accept that these programs are part of America’s social safety net. And for millions, these
programs are essential, providing a valued source of stability. But a nation that looks to the future does not treat such programs as beyond reform and improvement.
We devote far more resources to today’s seniors than we do today’s young; often those resources come at the expense of the young.
If nothing else, we can’t address deficits — projected as far as the eye can see — without having an honest conversation about the growth rates in entitlement programs. These programs, designed and promised to be self-sustaining, will completely overwhelm the rest of the government’s budget responsibilities by the time today’s youngest workers retire. Wherever possible, conservatives should propose, through waivers from federal law and through state law, alternatives to the steady march to government control of healthcare.
Elements of a conservative plan would include lower premiums, consumer-directed care, catastrophic coverage, rewards for healthy lifestyle behaviors, and paying for quality.
This is a test of policy maturity. Today, the Republican Party has an opportunity to embrace gradual and productive reforms to these programs. We have the ability to present, by our own policies, a thoughtful approach to something all Americans correctly fear.
The other party has the power to do the work, but is unwilling to take it on. In such a context, we have the ability to prove ourselves worthy to govern. If we fail on that score, we can scarcely hope to be given the political power to do other great things. And think of what we could do: shrink the size of the government and its debt, refocus American energy on the growth of the economy, adopt much needed reforms to our education and immigration systems, and inspire hope and confidence in American households everywhere.
Let’s focus first on an issue close to conservative hearts: tax reform.
We need a tax code that is far simpler, and much less likely to hold back investment, employment, and productive work. Today’s tax code is good for only one business — the business of tax form preparation and compliance.
A good place to start would be a flatter tax code with lower rates and that has far fewer carve-outs, phase-outs, and special exemptions. Conservatives are hoping for a grand bargain on tax reform, but I would not plan on it during the remainder of this current president’s term. Moreover, I believe the conservative movement must focus not only on lower taxes, but simpler taxes. We should make tax simplification a constant habit, just as we focus on earmarks.
And since we hold the majority in the House of Representatives, we have the pen: We can write and pass legislation every day that will simplify the code, one clause, one tax provision at a time. And we should always ask whether a change in the tax code is going to lead to growth broadly, or just for one industry, or one company. If taxes are going to be another form of government spending, let’s call it out and end that practice.
Something we must never forget: The power to tax is the power to destroy. If we tax success, savings and investment, we’ll get less of it. Obviously, the government must collect taxes — the question is how much damage we do when that happens. Our message on taxes should be straightforward: Do as little harm as possible. That means fewer brackets, lower rates, less complexity, and less damage to savers, investors, and people who are building America’s future.
Of course, the economic growth we hope to have can only occur with a citizenry that is educated and prepared. That will require transformation in our schools, from the earliest levels all the way through university.
Our policy agenda need not be top-down. We should press on the local and state level for radical change in our schools, driven by greater accountability, standards benchmarked to the best in the world, greater power by parents and their kids to choose their schools, a greater focus on teacher quality, and greater attention to cutting administrative bloat.
A growth agenda recognizes that human talent is essential to the sustainability of prosperity. Those nations that have failed to reinvest in their people have found their economic growth stunted.
Making a quality education a core right, and following through with punitive measures on schools that fail to deliver on that promise, is just as important to our growth agenda as low taxes and a small government.
The role of the government in education is not incidental to the future prosperity of its citizens. Talent, skill, and the ability to produce are not decided at birth. They are developed and nurtured, both at home and in school. It is the proper role of the government, in the schools, to focus on making sure that citizens develop the abilities that are essential to independence.
We may not be able to control students’ home environment, but we can certainly control the opportunities they have, and give them the confidence to go forward in life.
What we do not ourselves produce in our schools, we must be ready to welcome to our shores from other lands. A growth agenda is inextricably linked with a welcoming immigration policy.
This is an economic essential. Today, the birthrate of America is dropping. We no longer have enough babies being born to sustain our workforce at its current levels, especially as millions of baby boomers are retiring.
The United States needs workers of all types: from highly skilled to those who are not so skilled.
By welcoming those who want to come to America to work, we can keep our economy moving forward, prevent American companies from moving overseas, and protect American workers against workplace exploitation. If not, we risk ever-greater pressure on our budgets, social programs, and social fabric.
Today’s immigration laws were written for another century and a different kind of economy. We can do better than this; we can create a system where you don’t have to break the law to come to America to work, study, and invest.
By not adapting, we are only hurting America’s growth. This nation has long appealed to the world’s best and brightest. Today though, the most talented students and highly skilled workers are not assured they will receive visas after graduation to allow them to work. Countries like Canada, New Zealand, and China are now appealing to these entrepreneurs, students, and workers with practical immigration policies.
A growth agenda in America would be just like one at any smart company: Attract the best, and let them get to work.
A growth agenda depends on growth infrastructure, and that infrastructure, by definition, will require energy. It was not long ago, perhaps just five years ago, that America’s elite believed that we had to adjust our entire country to the harsh reality of permanently declining energy supplies. We were told that we had passed the moment of “peak oil” and that the future would be one without oil and gas. We were told that we would have to start using expensive sources of energy, and adjust our expectations accordingly.
It turns out, with the rapid development of shale oil and gas, these fears were completely wrong. Of course, not everyone seems to have recognized that. But consider the evidence: America has nearly four times the amount of recoverable oil in oil shale than Saudi Arabia’s proven oil reserves.
In Utah and Colorado alone there is approximately 3 trillion barrels of oil waiting to be recovered in massive shale deposits. At today’s prices, that’s worth roughly $280 trillion!
That is not only a lot of stored wealth — it’s a lot of stored energy. Throughout the past 100 years, humans have consumed only 1 trillion barrels of oil. By developing the technology needed to harvest shale oil, and investing in America’s reserves, we could change the equation of growth.
We used to think of energy as something we had to pay a lot for to fuel our growth. With shale oil and gas, energy can be the source of our growth as we free ourselves from foreign oil dependency.
Denying ourselves and our descendants this resource would represent a shortsighted and ultimately self-defeating approach. Whatever energy our children and grandchildren will need to grow our economy will be purchased at great cost, and that cost will come out of investment that could be made elsewhere in our nation.
Those who oppose energy exploration often talk about what they’re preserving. But let us not forget what those measures also prevent — opportunities for America to free itself from the burden of expensive and imported oil. That burden is something we should not hand to the next generation of Americans.
We must stand squarely behind the patriotic energy revolution of shale oil and gas through new exploration and more pipelines or export facilities. This energy is vital to our nation’s future economic growth and to the millions of Americans who would gain from this new prosperity.
That is the very same approach we should take with our vast web of regulations.
The system we have created is like one of those tangled wires you might find in your hallway closet: You can’t be sure what any wire does, but you don’t want to just tug at them until you find out.
Our regulatory system is a vast impediment to economic growth. It places the burden on job creators and investors, and on the private sector to not only comply, but to figure out what to comply with.
I’ll give this much to our regulatory superstate: It has created a mini-industry of attorneys and regulatory experts, often those who wrote the rules, who have benefited mightily interpreting the rules for those who don’t have the time or willingness to fight through the thicket.
A country that is trying to create long-term prosperity does not do so by the promulgation of rules.
It does so by the removal of impediments to growth — rules that protect market concentration, insulate economic elites, and prevent market-disrupting technologies. Every great national economy has at one point or another tried to outwit the messy realities of the free market through rulemaking.
But every one of those efforts has failed, except in making further prosperity harder and harder to attain. A growth agenda is not afraid of the unknown; it recognizes that 315 million Americans are capable of all kinds of ingenuity and energy, if you let them.
Finally, a growth agenda demands most from those who are closest to a nation’s future: mothers and fathers and loving families.
We cannot hope to create a strong America without strong American families. Much as some have tried to broaden what that means, we cannot deny what a family must always mean: a shared life of love, commitment, and purpose that is sustained from generation to generation.
But in America, devotion and commitment are on the wane. We are seeing birth rates plummet. Marriage is now dismissed by many young adults as an anachronism. Those who do marry and have children do so later in life.
Our young adults are increasingly afraid of commitment to each other and to their offspring. It is as if we have lost our collective will to look forward with confidence.
That used to be an American ideal — the idea that one’s life work was always geared to making life easier, more prosperous, and more meaningful for those who follow.
We believed this because it was true for our parents and their parents. They believed the future always held more promise. That belief may not be in vogue today. But I believe, like a 21-year-old, that things will change. We can do better. We are better than this.
This is good news for Republicans, if we see it this way. As long as we align ourselves with the future over the vested interests of the present, the opportunity for political gain is huge.
On issue after issue, whether it’s the battle against poverty, the vast untapped resources under our own feet, or the rules that choke off growth in new industries, the other party remains beholden to old-fashioned notions and uncreative approaches.
To every problem, the solution is another law, another agency, more restrictions, just more of the same.
The American people can see this, and they want a choice. We must give it to them.
We have, for too long, been the party of “slow down.” Today, we must be the party of “hurry up.”
We must stand for radical reform and experimentation.
We must stand for the unspoken and still unseen dreams of the millions of Americans not yet born, and those not yet on these shores. Because if we don’t, they will not arrive.
America will not be strong enough to attract them. And America will not be great enough to deserve them.
That is not our future, not the future that we want. The Republican Party must campaign and govern with an alternative vision, and a bold promise to 315 million Americans: America’s future rests with you, your dreams, your hopes, and your families.
Where you go, we will follow. Where you want to lead, we will clear the way. America can be a growing nation again, and our story is not complete.
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