30 August 2012

They should have nominated Paul Ryan's mom

Rep. Ryan, the Republican candidate for Vice-President, told an inspiring tale about his mother at the national convention last night.

My Mom started a small business, and I’ve seen what it takes. Mom was 50 when my Dad died.  She got on a bus every weekday for years, and rode 40 miles each morning to Madison.  She earned a new degree and learned new skills to start her small business.  It wasn’t just a new livelihood.  It was a new life.  And it transformed my Mom from a widow in grief to a small businesswoman whose happiness wasn’t just in the past.  Her work gave her hope.  It made our family proud.  And to this day, my Mom is my role model. 

Sounds like not a bad role model, but I wish Ryan had been less vague about the nature of his mother's business, since people will ask and it isn't easy to tell from a google search. That vagueness also contributes to an impression that Ryan actually may have wanted to make. Without the details -- and I'm not talking about whether she got any government assistance or not -- her success looks, in this account, like a triumph of pure will. Ryan might have scored points for his cause had he explained why (or whether) Democratic policies have made it more difficult for a middle-aged person to follow in Betty Ryan Douglas's path. But I suspect that entrepreneurial Republicans are at cross-purposes when they think about these issues. On one hand, they want to argue that certain policies can make it more difficult for entrepreneurs to succeed. On the other, they tend to refuse to acknowledge the existence of insurmountable obstacles to success. Here's Ryan from the same speech:

Listen to the way we’re spoken to already, as if everyone is stuck in some class or station in life, victims of circumstances beyond our control, with government there to help us cope with our fate. 
It’s the exact opposite of everything I learned growing up in Wisconsin, or at college in Ohio.  When I was waiting tables, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life.  I was on my own path, my own journey, an American journey where I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happiness for myself.  That’s what we do in this country. 
There's no such thing as a circumstance beyond our control -- Republicans won't hear of it. Opportunity always exists, no matter how many jobs are outsourced, no matter how many potential consumers are deterred by debt. Acknowledging systemic obstacles isn't the same thing as saying, as Ryan insinuates, that poor people are stuck in some kind of dependent caste. But Ryan has no more to offer to people to whom obstacles do seem insurmountable than "I think I can, I think I can." It's a comfortable philosophy, since it can dismiss any failure as a failure of will. Nor is he much of a role model, compared to his mother, since he was on a political career track from an early point -- with Mom's encouragement. He probably has a small fraction of the practical experience his mother acquired; as a politician he probably can't help offering platitudes instead of practical advice. I'd rather hear from Mrs. Ryan Douglas about her experience and whether the politicians or the corporations are to blame if she deems it more difficult for people to emulate her. Since she's tagged along on the campaign trail already, and the Republicans want to sell themselves as the party of entrepreneurs, not the party of a "political class," it should be obvious that Mitt Romney has tapped the wrong Ryan as his running mate.

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