What Next: A Multi-Ethnic, Working-Class Conservatism

Dec 18, 2020

Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Anthony Gonzalez join American Compass executive director Oren Cass for a conversation about how to build a conservative agenda that appeals to a multi-ethnic, working-class base.

This conversation is edited from a live event held on December 9, 2020 as a part of the What Happened? The Trump Presidency in Review collection release.

 

 

Excerpted Comments (edited for clarity)

On the purpose of government:

Senator Rubio: Our government exists to serve us. To serve people. Not to serve the market, not to serve the international community. To the extent that working with the international community is good for Americans, they’re for it. To the extent that a vibrant market is good for the creating and the kinds of jobs that people need, they’re for it. I’m for it. I believe in the free market. I reject and abhor socialism, I think it’s a terrible way to organize your economy. But in those instances, in which the most efficient outcome, which is what the market is going to give you, is not good for America, they think we should do something about it.

On off-shoring supply chains:

Senator Rubio: It may be more efficient to make protective equipment for a pandemic or pharmaceuticals in China, but I’m not sure most people agree that’s in our national interest. It may be the most efficient outcome for all kinds of industrial capacity to relocate overseas, but it’s not in our national interest to have entire communities gutted, thousands upon thousands of good-paying, stable jobs wiped out. And the nation loses industrial capacity. And it’s those instances where they want government to, when it has to choose between the efficiency and the national interest, to choose the national interest.

On the top issue for conservatives to focus on moving forward:

Congressman Gonzalez: I think that the biggest policy shortcoming, in my opinion, of the conservative movement for the last however many years is on health care. We have got to have an answer to the Medicare For All debate. And right now, my perspective is we’ve had some answer, but we haven’t coalesced around it. And people are rightly upset about this. … Every different international system is completely different, and they have different rules, different regulations, et cetera, but they all push towards a system where a family feels financially secure in their health care decisions. We don’t have that, and we need to have it as a party. I think if we’re going to build a stable coalition over many years, it needs to be something that we own because it’s so central to what should be the governing principle of conservatism, in my opinion, which is to create a system where stable secure families have a place to grow and prosper. And without that health care piece, I think we’re going to be fighting an uphill battle.

 

Senator Rubio: Industrial policy. It’s something that people on the right have often looked at as the government taking over industry. That’s not what it involves. It does involve saying, “Look, we can’t just be a country that invents things.” It’s great that we do, and it’s great we have people that can design things and do all kinds of innovation on software and on the technology side. But ultimately, if you’re not the country that makes those things, eventually you won’t be the one that invents it either. Those two things are interrelated. Not to mention, you can’t have a strong country unless you have millions of stable, good-paying jobs that allow people, not necessarily to get rich, but to live stable, secure, prosperous lives, retire with dignity, live in a safe community and give their kids the chance at a better life. If you don’t have that, that’s the glue that holds society together. And if your economy isn’t producing that kind of employment, you’re going to have big problems, big societal problems that’ll manifest themselves, sociologically and politically.

On what the government should incentivize:

Senator Rubio: The notion that we have a truly libertarian free market is a myth. Anytime you apply rules or laws or conditions on an economy, the economy is going to behave according to that. So we have rules and laws right now, and in many cases, they just incentivize the wrong thing. They incentivize, for example, taking the money your company made, and rather than reinvesting it in a new capacity to help that company grow and create new jobs, oftentimes, the incentive is let’s just use it to buy back shares to increase the value of the shares so that our shareholders are happy. There’s nothing immoral about it, there’s nothing wrong about that, I’m not pretending that we make it illegal. I’m just saying, why do we incentivize that? What we should be incentivizing is if you do that, that’s fine, and we’ll treat it the way you do a dividend. But if you take that money and actually invest it in building a new factory in America, that’s where the incentive and the benefit will come from.

On innovation and investment:

Congressman Gonzalez: We need to seed and to fund the industries of tomorrow. We need to do that because that’s where a lot of the growth will come from and growth is good, but we also need to do that because if we are the ones inventing, then we are the ones who get to dictate the standards. So on things that are going to have all kinds of economic and ethical questions like AI and machine learning, and these sorts of things, and quantum computing… If the United States is dominating those industries and really leading the world as we traditionally have done, then those technologies will be informed, hopefully, if we do our job right, by the values of this country and our allies.

On Operation Warp Speed:

Congressman Gonzalez: I think when we look back 10, 20 years from now, we will see this as the most impressive set of medical innovations in the history of the world. I also would argue it will have the highest ROI of anything we’ve ever done as a government. If you think about what the cost on our society is just in this country alone, the cost of our fiscal stimulus packages, the social costs, all the different economic distortions that we’ve seen as a result of this pandemic, they’re all going to be solved because we get these sets of vaccines up and out into the population. That’s just in our country, then look worldwide. All of that technology was developed and funded by the United States of America and the ROI on that is going to be absolutely incredible. It’s going to blow the doors off of anything we’ve ever done I think.

On the opioid epidemic:

Congressman Gonzalez: My personal belief is that in a lot of communities, we have what I would call a crisis of hope, where the areas that we grew up, they don’t look as vibrant as they once did. There are a lot of people who leave and don’t come back and it feels like there isn’t as much opportunity as there once was. And if you have a big factory shutdown, that just accelerates the feeling. And so, you see a lot of people who fall out of the workforce for a period of time, either due to getting laid off or the factory shuts down. And unfortunately, they turn to some of these destructive behaviors, whether that’s alcohol, or drugs, or whatever it is. And by the time another job shows up or by the time it’s time to get back on their feet, they’re stuck in this very vicious cycle of addiction. And so, to me, there’s a whole host of things that we need to do on the opioid front. And we could talk about a million different policies, but building a stronger, more stable economy with a diverse set of employment opportunities, I think is the best antidote to that, long term.

Full Transcript

Oren Cass: Welcome. We’ll just take a moment while Zoom lets everybody into the room. I’m Oren Cass, executive director of American Compass. And thrilled to have Congressman Anthony Gonzalez here with us as well. I’ll just take a moment to do exciting promotional material as we load up. In particular, this event is part of a series we’re doing for our symposium on the Trump administration at American Compass, in partnership with the American Conservative, it’s called What Happened: The Trump Presidency in Review. And you can check that out at americancompass.org. We also had a great event yesterday discussing that with myself, Rachel Bovard from the Conservative Partnership Institute, and Ross Douthat from the New York Times. And that video is available on the website as well.

One programming note: the Senate has chosen to schedule a number of votes right in the middle of our event, so Senator Rubio will unfortunately have to join us late and probably step out early. But I suppose the Senate causing a problem is an occupational hazard or for everyone in Washington, and especially our first guest, who we will start with. Congressman Anthony Gonzalez, you represent Ohio’s 16th district. You are also a member of two committees I’m fascinated by, the Financial Services committee and the Science, Space, and Technology committee. And, my experience has been, one of the most forward thinking and really engaged members of the House in really charting a course moving forward for conservatives, and a Republican party that’s focused on the interests of workers. So we’re thrilled to have you here with us. Thank you for joining us.

Congressman Gonzalez: Thanks for having me, honored to be here. And just excited to see where the conversation goes.

Oren Cass: I think it would be great to start with a little bit of table setting, and we’d love to have you tell us a little bit about your district. And in particular, your experience over the last few years with constituents, getting a feel for what they care about, and how that was what you expected, or maybe changed your thinking a little bit about what you needed to be focused on.

Congressman Gonzalez: I think like most members, I think that I have the best district in the world. So Northeast Ohio has been home for most of my life. And we are, as a community, anytime you poll it or you talk to voters, or you’re out and just trying to get a feel for where the constituents are, at the end of the day we are primarily a jobs in the economy, stable economy, affordable health care, safe communities type of a district. And I actually think that’s probably broadly true across many parts of the country, but it’s most certainly true in my district. And we have a healthy mix economically of a lot of manufacturing, so a lot of steel, and tied to automotive and different things. So a lot of manufacturing, a good bit of health care as well.

We have the Cleveland Clinic, university hospitals, Aultman Hospital. We have tons of hospital systems in our area. And then also a good bit on the financial services side. People don’t realize this as much, but a healthy number of major insurance companies are actually headquartered in and around my district, so it’s very diverse economically. And then we have a good bit of ag as well in the Southern half of our district. But in terms of what folks care about, again, it’s those kitchen table issues. And making sure that they can take care of their families and build their own version of the American story.

Oren Cass: How does that intersect with the message that you find most effective to focus on? And I think the Republican Party, unfairly to some extent, tends to be caricatured as focused on Wall Street issues. Whereas of course there’s a much broader agenda than is always talked about. But it seems to me there’s increasingly variety in how Republican representatives, in particular, choose to connect the agenda to their constituents. And so, I’m wondering how you do that and what you find to be the most effective entry points to that kind of discussion.

Congressman Gonzalez: As part of my background, prior to this I was COO of an ed tech startup. So I come from a business background, from a technology background. And there’s a principle in software development, which is basically translates to “be obsessed with your customer”—spend as much time with your customer as possible, and then build products that your customers will love. We take the exact same approach with respect to this job. So I have as many conversations as humanly possible with as many constituents across a broad range of backgrounds. And we just make sure that that’s how we get our message out.

And again, I’m very transparent with what I focus on. I just say, “Listen, here’s what matters to me. I want to make sure that every family in Northeast Ohio believes that they live in the greatest place in the world. And there’s ample opportunity to apply your skills, whether you are a PhD math student, or you’re a union carpenter, or anything in between. I want to make sure that this economy works for you and that you have everything you need to succeed.” And so that’s the message we carry, and it’s typically received well. Because, again, I think that’s where our folks want us to focus. And where they don’t want us to focus tends to be in the Twitter battles of the day, and in the woke cancel culture and all this nonsense that I think has permeated the system. They want us focused on the kitchen table issues, making sure that their lives are better. And that’s what we try to do as much as possible.

Oren Cass: That makes sense. And Senator Rubio, thank you so much for joining us, and squeezing this in, in the middle of the votes. I know it’s hectic in the Capitol during these periods, so really appreciate you being able to join us. We were just starting to talk about the standard conservative message and how that resonates with constituents. And then places where maybe the standard message needs updating, or things that you’ve found in recent years resonate more or less than what Republicans have traditionally focused on. And so we’d love to get your thoughts as well on just how you’ve found the traditional conservative message to be exactly the right one. It just needed to be stated more clearly, versus places where you found there need to be updates or rethinking to addressing today’s problems.

Senator Rubio: First I apologize, we’re in the middle of these three nomination votes. We got the first one, and they’re supposed to be 15 minute votes, but they really aren’t, especially with the social distancing. So we’ll have a few minutes here before the next one. And it’s great to see Anthony again. And so I’m sorry I missed the first end of this. Look, the way I put it is this way. I think, by and large, the majority of Americans believe that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in everything, that there are some important things the federal government has to do, like protect us from foreign countries that seek to do us harm, and things of that nature. But by and large, that’s how they feel about it. And that’s really been the core of conservatism for a long time. It’s limited government and federalism, the notion that it’s at your local and state level, where, to the extent government needs to be involved, it should be involved and be more effective.

That said, it’s not an anti-government message. In essence, they believe, and I think rightfully so, that our government exists to serve us. To serve people. Not to serve the market, not to serve the international community. To the extent that working with the international community is good for Americans, they’re for it. To the extent that a vibrant market is good for the creating and the kinds of jobs that people need, they’re for it. I’m for it. I believe in the free market. I reject and abhor socialism, I think it’s a terrible way to organize your economy. But in those instances, in which the most efficient outcome, which is what the market is going to give you, is not good for America, they think we should do something about it. For example, it may be more efficient to make protective equipment for a pandemic or pharmaceuticals in China, I’m not sure most people agree that’s in our national interest.

It may be the most efficient outcome for all kinds of industrial capacity to relocate overseas, but it’s not in our national interest to have entire communities gutted, thousands upon thousands of good-paying, stable jobs wiped out. And the nation loses industrial capacity. And it’s those instances where they want government to, when it has to choose between the efficiency and the national interest, to choose the national interest. And I think that’s the part that really is important.

And then I think Anthony alluded to it as I came on here. And that is, I think there’s this growing sense in this country—and I don’t think this is just on the conservative side, I think it’s across the center and even somewhat to the left—that it’s gone too far on the sort of wokeness political correctness, “careful what you say” stuff. Ironically, as I pointed out yesterday, there is one ethnic minority group that it is acceptable to attack on Twitter and call names and vilify. At this moment, that happens to be Cuban Americans, for some reason, you can say anything you want about them on Twitter, because they happen to have voted for Trump. But as an aside, both because of Anthony and my heritage. But going back to the point of, yeah, you shouldn’t be rude, nasty to people, you should avoid saying things that are unnecessarily irritating or offensive. But we’ve gotten to the point now where you can’t even hold a comedy show on a college campus. You can’t even invite speakers from different perspectives. Listen, it’s difficult to even accept an invitation to speak at any commencement ceremony because you know there’ll be five or 10 woke students who are going to make a spectacle out of it and ruin it for everybody else. So I think it’s gone too far in that direction. And a lot of people are just tired of being policed. And now I’m going to see some of the hypocrisy that emerges in terms of how words are policed online, social media and the like, it only adds fuel to that fire. So there’s most certainly an element of that.

And the last one I would make is, I think most Americans are not ideological in the sense of a think tank or so forth, but I do think to have a tremendous amount of common sense and don’t like crazy ideas and crazy stuff like let’s get rid of the police department, and instead when some guy’s holding a knife to his wife’s throat, let’s send in a counselor to speak to them, or let’s go ahead and shut down and put in jail someone who dares show up to work at a small business, but let’s raise a bunch of money to bail out arsonists and looters. I think people look at that and say, that’s nuts, that’s crazy. And there’s people out there on the political left that identify with those positions I’ve just outlined. And I think some of that comes across as well.

Oren Cass: I think it’s an interesting phenomenon as we look at what’s happening in politics. There are some voters that seem to be kind of moving toward the Democratic Party, and then there are a lot of voters who, partly on economic reasons, partly on exactly the social and cultural ones you just mentioned, Senator, seem to be moving just as quickly to the Republican Party. And I think that’s one element of what a lot of folks are talking about, which is this idea of a sort of multi-ethnic, working-class conservatism where it could be, to your point, it’s not ideologically conservative, but it’s a fundamentally conservative approach on both economic and social issues that could be really appealing.

And so I guess now, I am the think tank wonky guy, and want to talk a little about, about some of the policy that that could imply. And so would love to ask each of you just for the number one thing at the top of your list that maybe hasn’t been focused on in recent years, but that you see as something that really deserves focus as we move in this direction. So I guess maybe Congressman, if you have one that you’d like to start with.

Congressman Gonzalez: Absolutely. So I think that the biggest policy shortcoming, in my opinion, of the conservative movement for the last however many years is on health care. We have got to have an answer to the Medicare For All debate. And right now, my perspective is we’ve had some answer, but we haven’t coalesced around it for sure. And people are rightly upset about this. And back to what Senator Rubio said, I don’t think my folks are particularly ideological on it. When you talk about a surprise billing event, when you talk about somebody who makes $40,000 a year, they have a heart attack, they think they call the right paramedic to take them to the right hospital. Somebody is out of network and boom, they get hit with a $100,000 bill, that is horrifying for people. And we need answers to that, but we need a more comprehensive answer.

And I think the left, frankly from a marketing standpoint, does an okay job of saying every nation in the world has universal healthcare, we need universal health care, so we need Medicare For All. What they don’t tell you is that nobody has Medicare For All. Every different international system is completely different, and they have different rules, different regulations, et cetera, but they all push towards a system where a family feels financially secure in their health care decisions. We don’t have that, and we need to have it as a party. I think if we’re going to build a stable coalition over many years, it needs to be something that we own because it’s so central to what should be the governing principle of conservatism, in my opinion, which is to create a system where stable secure families have a place to grow and prosper. And without that health care piece, I think we’re going to be fighting an uphill battle.

Senator Rubio: That’s great.

Oren Cass: Senator, you’re not allowed to take health care now, but you can have any other one.

Senator Rubio: I just want to echo what he said about that. A kid on my son’s team hurt his shoulder this year couple of times, he goes to one place and they say, “Oh well, we’re going to do an MRI” it’s like $1,000. And he goes to another place, they’re like, “Oh no, we can do it for $100.” So to a lot of people, that doesn’t make sense, but most people don’t have the time to sort of shop between places and so forth so that doesn’t make all that much sense. And the other is the pharmaceutical side. I mean, these medicines out there, some of them are like cents and then the others who have been around for a while, just as long are like $2,000 a month out of pocket. And so there’s some real and congruency there about how all this works and on the preventive side, it actually costs us money, so we do have to have an answer.

But the other, I would say, is industrial policy. It’s something that people on the right have often looked at as the government taking over industry. That’s not what it involves. It does involve saying, “Look, we can’t just be a country that invents things.” It’s great that we do, and it’s great we have people that can design things and do all kinds of innovation on software and on the technology side. But ultimately, if you’re not the country that makes those things, eventually you won’t be the one that invents it either. I mean, those two things are interrelated. Not to mention, you can’t have a strong country unless you have millions of stable, good-paying jobs that allow people, not necessarily to get rich, but to live stable, secure, prosperous lives, retire with dignity, live in a safe community and give their kids the chance at a better life.

If you don’t have that, that’s the glue that holds society together. And if your economy isn’t producing that kind of employment, you’re going to have big problems, big societal problems that’ll manifest themselves, sociologically and politically. And I think we see that today, and one of the interesting dividing lines in American politics, in the last year, has been between the people who get paid to work from home and are all for shutdowns and the people who, if they don’t go to work in person, don’t have a job, don’t have a business and can’t get paid. And so it’s basically been a year of people who get paid to work from home on Zoom, lecturing the people who don’t, about why everything needs to be shut down. And it’s creating real tension that we think, that I seen brew into a bunch of different things.

Oren Cass: And how do you balance that with the point that you raised earlier, which is that, at the end of the day, both conservatism, but also how constituents feel is, they want to see less government, they want to see the market allowed to work rather than having kind of bureaucrats doing it. And so how do you balance both talking about that and then also doing it?

Senator Rubio: Well, the notion that we have a truly libertarian free market is a myth. Anytime you apply rules or laws or conditions on an economy, the economy is going to behave according to that. So we have rules and laws right now, in many cases, they just incentivize the wrong thing. They incentivize, for example, taking the money your company made, and rather than reinvesting it in a new capacity to help that company grow and create new jobs, oftentimes, the incentive is let’s just use it to buy back shares to increase the value of the shares so that our shareholders are happy. There’s nothing immoral about it, there’s nothing wrong about that, I’m not pretending that we make it illegal. I’m just saying, why do we incentivize that? What we should be incentivizing is if you do that, that’s fine, and we’ll treat it the way you do a dividend. But if you take that money and actually invest it in building a new factory in America, that’s where the incentive and the benefit will come from.

Likewise, on the critical industries, we have to wake up to the reality that if you’re in the pharmaceutical industry or the rare earth minerals industry, you’re not competing with a private Chinese company, you’re competing with a nation state that is subsidizing and backing that company, and ultimately you’re going to lose that battle. They’re prepared to wait you out, they’re prepared to deny you access to that market while they have an exclusive, and they’re prepared to steal your intellectual property to replace you. So we have to acknowledge that if there are some industries that we want to have in either domestic or ally capacity, then we’re going to have to do some things to incentivize that being located in the US not by government owning it, not by flooding them with money, but just by ensuring that the way we tax things and the way we regulate things are aligned appropriately, according to those scents.

So really all I’m saying is, to the extent government is involved in our economy already, let’s make sure that those incentives are pro-America as opposed to what we have in some cases today, incentivizing behavior that at the end of the day is not in our national interest.

Oren Cass: Congressman, how does that look in a place like Ohio, which obviously is at the heart of deindustrialization and efforts at reindustrialization?

Congressman Gonzalez: I think everything the Senator just said I would agree with, in terms of what the market is how we construct the rules and regulations of the road, essentially, right? And it should produce the right outcomes. And if we don’t like the economic outcomes that it’s producing in terms of, in my community, for example, steel plants leaving, or car companies going overseas, going to China or moving to Mexico, we need to think about, okay, what’s the right policy response to make sure that those investments actually take place in our community because we need those jobs those are so important to the fabric of our society. So I think that’s absolutely right. Where I think people rightly get very frustrated with government intervention in their lives is when it’s at the micro level, right? So what can and can’t you feed your kid at school? What kinds of books can your kid read at school? What kinds of conversations is your child allowed to have online and what can you wear to work? And what political slogans can you bring to an NBA basketball game that’ll allow you to sit there versus get thrown out?

Those are the sorts of micro decisions, some of those made by private industry, but others by government, that I think drive people crazy. And, I’ll give you an example, and again, this isn’t government, but it’s public pressure. So one of my colleagues suggested that we boycott Goya, okay. That people boycott Goya because God forbid, the CEO of Goya and went to an event at the White House. I’ve eaten Goya products—I’m Cuban—I’ve eaten Goya products literally every day of my life and it’s what I feed my kids.

And so, when you have people, either in government or in private industry that are trying to control these micro decisions, I think it drives people nuts, because all I want to do is, I want to make black beans that my son is going to eat. And so that’s where I think people get very frustrated with sort of the micro movements that either government or public pressure put on individuals and families.

Senator Rubio: Can I just add something to that? And I apologize because there are like 16 seconds left in the vote, so that means I have another five minutes, but I’ve got to run down there and do it and then I’ll run back if I can. But I want to add to that because Congressman Gonzalez mentioned Goya. I think the hypocrisy really sets people off, right? So here is Nike everyday bombarding us with all these messages of Colin Kaepernick, whose right to speak I’ve defended. Whether I agree with some of the things he says or not, he has every right as an American to speak as he wants. But they bombard us with these messages at the same time as they are up here actively lobbying against a bill that targets forced labor in China. And so you look at that and say, well, how can the same company bombard us with these messages here and try to stigmatize people in this country? But you’re lobbying here against forced labor in China, because that happens to be perhaps a source of cheap products for you. I mean, people see that stuff and say, this is nuts. This is ridiculous.

Oren Cass: I’ve certainly noticed that. All right, Senator, we will let you go and hopefully catch you at the end.

Senator Rubio: It’s a Federal Elections Commission nomination. That’s all we do. We vote for nominees. I’ll try to run back up and get on if I can at the end because we have a third vote afterwards, but if I miss you, it’s great being with both of you again. And Congressman Gonzalez has already been a great voice and star up here, so I’m glad I’ve shared the stage with him. Thanks for all the work you guys are doing.

Oren Cass: I really appreciate your time. Thank you, Senator. Congressman, I wanted to pick up on one other element from this question of supporting industry, but to your point, not the micromanagement, rather the kind of big picture questions. And particularly on the question of innovation and investment, which is sort of the precursor to so much of this. And my impression is an area where there’s real potential for bipartisan progress. And so I was curious, particularly given your work on the Space, Science, Technology Committee, what you see as the opportunities there. What you would love to see the sides coming together to move forward so America maintains that kind of leadership.

Congressman Gonzalez: So again, back to what I said at the very beginning, I think the goal of the economic policy should be to create an economic environment where no matter who you are, you have ample opportunity to create the life of your own, essentially. So, union carpenter, PhD math student, everything in between as part of that, right? We need to seed and to fund the industries of tomorrow. We need to do that because that’s where a lot of the growth will come from and growth is good, but we also need to do that because if we are the ones inventing those, then we are the ones who get to dictate the standards. So on things that are going to have all kinds of economic and ethical questions like AI and machine learning, and these sorts of things, and quantum computing. If the United States is dominating those industries and really leading the world as we traditionally have done, then those technologies will be informed, hopefully, if we do our job right, by the values of this country and our allies.

And so we have to fund those because so much of the start for those takes place at the university level and in our research institutions. I talked to Eric Schmidt at one point during the pandemic and he mentioned, I forget what the dollar amount was, but basically Google was started on a 10 or $20,000 federal grant of some kind. And so these are the sorts of investments we need to make so that we can in fact build those technologies of the future and make sure that the economy grows, but also that we’re dictating standards. So that’s where I personally think, as a country, we could also be more focused. We could definitely be more focused on the industrial policy side as Senator Rubio mentioned. But I think we’re remiss if we don’t also say, what can we fund at a basic research level so that we always have those series of innovations coming so that we can build the technologies of tomorrow.

Oren Cass: That’s so important, and I think the pandemic context has driven that home. And also goes to the point about how we have industrial policy, but it’s a question of what kind. I mean, the fact that we could do Operation Warp Speed and develop these kinds of vaccines this quickly, that’s not just the free market running around out there. That is decades of investment in National Institutes of Health, in universities, in our medical system, the way that we support that, and then obviously Warp Speed itself. And we probably need to find more places that we can do that sort of thing.

Congressman Gonzalez: Can I make a quick point on Warp Speed?

Oren Cass: Yeah, please.

Congressman Gonzalez: I’ve said this in a lot of forums, I think when we look back 10, 20 years from now, we will see this as the most impressive set of medical innovations in the history of the world. I also would argue it will have the highest ROI of anything we’ve ever done as a government. If you think about what the cost on our society is just in this country alone, the cost of our fiscal stimulus packages, the social costs, all the different economic distortions that we’ve seen as a result of this pandemic, they’re all going to be solved because we get these sets of vaccines up and out into the population. That’s just in our country, then look worldwide. All of that technology was developed and funded by the United States of America and the ROI on that is going to be absolutely incredible. It’s going to blow the doors off of anything we’ve ever done I think.

Oren Cass: That’s a fascinating point. It makes me wonder what else is out there that could have that kind of impact and how much investment does it justify up front, even recognizing that plenty of investments might have zero ROI and someone will make fun of them as a waste. But you have to do a bunch of them to then be in position to have the successes.

Congressman Gonzalez: Well, that’s the venture capital model essentially, right? I mean, you’re going to have some misses. You’re not going to hit on every single one, but the hope is that the entire portfolio of investments that you’re making in your research enterprise, over time, the ROI is sufficient that it continues to make sense. And that’s just something I think we need to get our head around. There is going to be some stuff we do from a research and development standpoint that just doesn’t pan out. But the things that do pan out are going to be so valuable that they more than cover the losses on the misses.

Oren Cass: I want to flip over to talk about the worker side of things a little bit—and I know this a scenario you’ve focused on, the education question. I think there has been, for a long time in this country, a philosophy of it’s essentially college for all and the solution to our problems is to get everyone a college degree. And in particular, in a sense, the solution to the working class’ problems is to get everybody out of the working class. And the alternative obviously is, well, what if we had an education system that served people where they are, met their needs and what they want to do.

And we can talk about kind of the substantive policy ideas in a moment, but wanted to start with sort of the more political question of how do you talk about that? And I think there’s always been a fear if you say, not everybody should go to college that, that’s taken as an insult or a put down, or someone will say, well, were you in college, didn’t you? Or whatever else. How do you approach that issue and how have you found constituents think about it?

Congressman Gonzalez: So this is one of those fun instances where being from Northeast Ohio saying something like, hey, not everybody needs a college degree, I get the most aggressive head nods, yes. And the reason is because we know that, we’ve seen it in our own economy. This notion that everybody needs a four year degree or a higher education degree, that is primarily, I have found, more of a coastal mindset. And when you get into the Heartland, when you get into places where people build things with their hands, more often than not, then that starts to fade. And so for us, it’s actually a very easy message and I carry it every day when I’m back home. And from a policy standpoint, what that looks like is I’ve been championing, what’s called the JOBS Act Now for the last two years basically, with Senator Portman.

And what the JOBS Act would do is it would allow you to apply Pell Grants to short-term training programs. So you could pick up a certificate, you can pick up a skill, and then you could put that skill to work directly in the economy. And I like that plan for a lot of reasons. One, because for a whole host of reasons, not everybody wants to go to four-year college or is that the right fit, but also because Pell Grants target lower and moderate income folks, you’re really helping those at the bottom get that tangible skill that they can put directly in the economy. I think the more often we can do that and be realistic about what people actually want in life and give them the options, the better off we’ll be from a policy standpoint.

Oren Cass: And do you talk with employers about both what they need and also kind of what role they want to have? Because I think in my experience, in some cases they want to do the training, but it’s expensive. And in other cases, they want someone else to do the training, but they’d like to define what it is. And in other cases, they just want the person to already show up trained. But the breakdown obviously varies a lot.

Congressman Gonzalez: What I have found is there is a pretty sizable disconnect between what our employers are looking for right now, what they want, and what’s out there. And closing that gap has been sort of the missing link for a long time in our area. But pre-pandemic and now even, now that we’ve got a lot of our businesses back online, it is the number one issue that I hear from employers is, I have jobs, I could hire 10 people tomorrow, but either the folks don’t want to do the work that we have, or I just can’t find the right people. And that’s a skills issue, that’s a skills gap issue, but in Northeast Ohio, it’s also a demographic issue. If you just look at how our population has trended and how young we are and what’s out there. So we have some demographic issues in our part of the world that we need to fix.

Oren Cass: And just to put a fine point on that, essentially, an aging population and younger folks leaving the area, or how does that look?

Congressman Gonzalez: Yes. So there’s definitely an aging population issue, and we have what’s called the brain drain. It’s something that a lot of people talk about, which is folks grow up in Northeast Ohio, they get educated, they leave and they don’t come back nearly as often as we would like. And so we have to figure out ways to attract people back in. That’s probably a state and local issue more than a national issue for sure. But that’s one component of it. And then the other component is that we don’t have enough young people in the community already to go take a lot of these jobs. And so that’s been a barrier, again, for probably the last four years since I’ve been in politics, but it predates me and I’m sure it’ll postdate me until we get the demographics right.

Oren Cass: One thing that I’ve always found interesting about the skills gap conversation is the phrase can mean two very different things. It can mean I can’t find workers who know how to program the robots the right way or something, but then it can also mean I’m having trouble finding people, to your point, who want to do this kind of job, or who are accustomed to showing up on time, or even can pass a drug test. And it’s interesting, one comment that we got before the event and what should we ask that someone said, “The opioid epidemic has really faded so entirely in the face of this other pandemic, but it’s still there, too.” And so, I wonder to what extent have you seen our workforce development issues in the kind of robot programming side versus the sort of fundamental we’re preparing our young people to be productive members of the workforce?

Congressman Gonzalez: So, it’s both. We do have some great programs in Northeast Ohio and I’m sure around the country that are designed to help what I would call the next generation of manufacturing. So, some of those where it’s not about how big and strong you are, but can you get the machine to do what it needs to do, because it’s largely automated and move accordingly. And I think we’re doing a better job of training in that sphere. The second one, which I think is actually harder is the notion around drug use and opioid addiction. My personal belief is that in a lot of communities, we have what I would call a crisis of hope, where the areas that we grew up, they don’t look as vibrant as they once did. There are a lot of people who leave and don’t come back and it feels like there isn’t as much opportunity as there once was.

And if you have a big factory shutdown, that just accelerates the feeling. And so, you see a lot of people who fall out of the workforce for a period of time, either due to getting laid off or the factory shuts down. And unfortunately, they turn to some of these destructive behaviors, whether that’s alcohol, or drugs, or whatever it is. And by the time another job shows up or by the time it’s time to get back on their feet, they’re stuck in this very vicious cycle of addiction. And so, to me, there’s a whole host of things that we need to do on the opioid front. And we could talk about a million different policies, but building a stronger, more stable economy with a diverse set of employment opportunities, I think is the best antidote to that, long term.

Oren Cass: And something that’s going to be even more challenging coming out of the pandemic, I think the long-term unemployment that is being triggered is going to look certainly as bad, if not worse than the Great Recession. And so, that will require certainly a whole set of policies as well, I suppose.

Congressman Gonzalez: That’s my biggest fear coming out of the pandemic. I think there’s been so much dislocation and so much trust has been broken between government and the people with respect to how the pandemic’s been handled and with respect to how the pandemic’s been mentioned. And that’s not criticizing any one person in government. I just think there’s a lot of messaging and shifting of the narrative that’s very frustrating for folks. All the while the economy has gone into a deep recession. And so, you have this broken trust issue and then you have a very difficult economic environment. And I think the effects of that, it’s hard to predict what they’re going to be, but I can’t suspect they’re positive. I mean, it’s going to have long-term ramifications that we’re going to be grappling with as a society.

Oren Cass: Yeah, it’s definitely a challenge. And we’re seeing it even now on the policy side, in the ongoing debates about what, if anything, should the next relief package look like. And there’s the immediate relief package, but there’s going to be many more such debates going on after that. And I suppose that’s really the last topic I wanted to make sure we touched on is thinking really within the Republican coalition in particular, I think some of the things we’ve talked about here are things that would earn widespread nods of agreement and others that I think there’s probably a lot of disagreement on.

And from my perspective, anyway, it’s an area where we have to find a way to make progress to tackle exactly those sorts of issues you were discussing. And so, I’m curious in your conversations and experiences, are there particular sort of red lines or sensitive points that you find caused the most conflict or maybe just consternation? And what do you find are the most effective ways to kind of move past those, and persuade people, and build consensus on these kinds of issues?

Congressman Gonzalez: Yeah, so, my personal belief is that from a policy standpoint and from an ideology standpoint, that we are very much a party in transition. And what set of ideas ultimately win out will be determined by our voters. And that’s actually a beautiful thing. And we should celebrate that. Because if we are going to go back to policies of old, and I think that Senator Rubio hit this on the head perfectly, which is in Republican circles, we’ve historically been just market fundamentalists. And I love the market. I love the free market. It’s created more wealth and more prosperity than any alternative system, but we have basically optimized ourselves and said, “If you can make a widget, I don’t care what it is, for four cents cheaper in China, you move it. And you don’t ask questions and it’s gone.”

And we hope that the gains from trade will widely distribute. Well, we know that they don’t evenly distribute, for sure. And we know that the costs aren’t equally born as well. And so, as a party, we need to grapple with that reality. And we need to say, “What is our policy here? What are we ultimately trying to do?” And again, I’ll go back to what I think is the best part of this whole thing is as folks like myself and Senator Rubio, and there are certainly others are touting this sort of multi-ethnic, working-class policy agenda that frankly the President really was the one to put on the table for a lot of us. As we’re out carrying that message, our voters will let us know.

And I agree with what Senator Rubio said: they want it to work. They’re not as ideologically pure on, “Okay, what exact policy prescription are you going to come up with that’s going to bring prescription drug prices down?” They just want them down, and then they want them available. And so, that’s how I think, as a party, the debate will continue to evolve. And I think it’s a very healthy debate, frankly. It’s good to have those dialogues and it’s good to see we move as a party and ultimately as a country.

Oren Cass: That’s encouraging to hear. I guess, last question for you, and we’ll get out of your… I was going to say get out of your hair, but I guess that doesn’t quite apply.

Congressman Gonzalez: No. Nope.

Oren Cass: Just thinking kind of across the aisle and in areas where you see prospects for progress in what will be obviously a very divided Congress in the next couple of years, are there any particular things that you’re optimistic about or that you have sort of on your own list that that you’re hoping to push in particular?

Congressman Gonzalez: I think as we look at the makeup of the Congress, I believe that there’s a play for infrastructure in there somewhere. What that ultimately looks like, how it’s funded, all those sorts of questions need to be hammered out for sure. But the reality is that this pandemic, if you look at it, I always say, it’s sort of bifurcated where, if you can work from home, it’s been uncomfortable for you, but it’s been okay. And it hasn’t been great, certainly, but if you’re a wealthy investment banker who can work from home, that’s not the worst thing in the world. If you’re a restaurant worker, if you’re in an industry that’s been shut down, it’s been absolutely devastating. One way to get a lot of people back to work quickly is with the right infrastructure package combined with some training and workforce development, which we spoke about earlier.

My hope is that we will coalesce around that as a Congress, but the reality is we have not been in this environment, I don’t think any member has been in this environment ever where the majorities are going to be so narrow that any 10 or 15 members that decide to band together can really control an agenda for a day. And so, that’s going to be the challenge, I think, from a congressional leadership standpoint, but also as rank and file members is what do we ultimately decide we’re willing to hold up to Congress for? And I think things like infrastructure are where you’ll see some agreement.

Oren Cass: That’s great. Well, we hope to see you going rogue with a group of 10 or 15, and—

Congressman Gonzalez: I like going rogue.

Oren Cass: —and pushing some of these things through. Congressmen, thank you again so much for joining us. This has been a wonderful discussion. And sorry to have Senator Rubio coming in and out, but thank you to him as well for managing to join us, given the schedule on that side of the Hill today. And best of luck to you for the incredibly important work you’re doing on pushing these conversations forward.

Congressman Gonzalez: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me and great to be with you.

Oren Cass: Yeah, and thanks everyone for joining us. Have a good day.

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