Creating Conversation: A Visit with Conservatives

How often do you spend time listening to people with whom you believe you have serious differences in worldview and policy?

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to be at a breakfast sponsored by AEI – The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank whose stated mission is “to defend the principles and improve the institutions of American freedom and democratic capitalism – limited government private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability, and open debate.” Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors during the George W. Bush administration and Mitt Romney’s economic adviser was the guest speaker. This, for a “liberal” like me, was going in to the lion’s den of conservatism…and how refreshing it was!

Professor Hubbard (Dean of Columbia University Business School) insightfully showed how our economic problems are not technical but structural in the areas of tax, trade, immigration, and fiscal consolidation and therefore are fundamentally political – requiring difficult? “discussions we need to have”. Obviously, Hubbard made a case for conservative policies like expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit rather than increasing the minimum wage, for block grants to states, for lower corporate taxes. But what was most surprising was Hubbard told the group of serious business people whom he assumed were aligned with the Republican Party that both corporate America and the Republican Party required a new narrative. That narrative needed to center around answering the question, “What does a good society and a just society do for its most vulnerable?”

The corporate and finance worlds, he said, have an essential role in answering this question if “trust” was going to be restored between the American people and business. And the Republican Party needed to address this question if it was to attract national support. Hubbard acknowledged not only that conservatives had not done an adequate job responding to the genuine “safety net issues” effecting millions of Americans in this period of great change but that doing so would require investing in people – “anyone who works full time should not be poor” – and being honest that programs like social security and Medicare were designed as safety net programs and therefore people of higher income should receive progressively less benefits.

Hubbard did something we can all learn from: In talking about our complex and difficult societal challenges, rather than offering any rhetoric or divisive criticism of the “other side”, he offered a subtle invitation to his own political and ideological community to ask very difficult questions and reflect on the sacrifices they would have to make.

Bravo Professor Hubbard and thank you AEI. In these days of media fragmentation, confirmation bias and consequently deepening polarization, you created a conversation, without compromising your principles, which was wise, honest, and challenging to everyone in the room, including this liberal. How hopeful.

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