Interview #11 – Ben Sasse

Senator Ben Sasse is a 5th generation Nebraskan who graduated from Fremont High School, studied and wrestled at Harvard University, read the classics at St. John’s College, and then completed a PhD in American History at Yale. His career has centered around leading organizations and companies through times of crisis by discerning and focusing on core issues whether this be at private equity firms, consulting companies, or as president of Midland University in Nebraska. Senator Sasse was elected to the US Senate in 2014 on a platform that emphasized restoring the Constitution to its rightful place, making the American Dream attainable for every family, and encouraging Congress to engage in frank, honest, and civil debate over the key issues facing our nation. Currently, Senator Sasse serves on the Senate Judiciary, the Banking, and the Armed Services Committees.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views shared here do not reflect nor do they suggest the views of the Virginia Review of Politics.

Editor's Note: This interview was conducted before the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. It has since passed both chambers of Congress and been signed into law by the President. 

Morgan Lewis (Virginia Review of Politics): In your best-selling book, The Vanishing American Adult, you argue that American youth are in the midst of a growing-up crisis and are ill-prepared to thrive in the world that will be passed down to them. What types of responses has your book received in the form of thoughts, critiques, or affirmation?

Senator Ben Sasse: Good question. I haven’t thought about it in exactly that way. I would say there are two and a half constructive buckets and half a critical bucket. I’ve been surprised how many parents and grandparents have said this is a conversation they want to have. They feel like there isn’t a good shared understanding of what parents should be seeking to accomplish right now. I think a lot of that is pretty closely connected to the sense we’re at in economic history where we have a whole bunch of people coming of age in the last ten to twenty-five years where there isn’t much work left around the household.

A lot of people have an intuitive sense that the distinction between production and consumption matters a lot and that they’d like their kids to experience the productive side of life as they come of age. Yet, it’s artificial to try to manufacture work when you don’t live around a lot of work. So I’ve had lots of healthy feedback to that. Second, there are a lot of young people coming of age who are skeptical that ever more schooling is the right track. There’s such an institutionalization of adolescence and early adulthood that I’ve been happily surprised at how many teens and twenty-somethings are skeptical of the institutional structure and of how many of their waking hours are spent in institutions. We are shipping more and more people to higher education, but not actually graduating more people. We have a lot more dropping out between semesters two and three, but we don’t actually have a lot more graduating. I think there’s institutional skepticism that is very, very healthy.

A lot of people are intrigued by a politician writing a book that’s broader than politics. It’s about culture and economics and institutional life in America. I think they’re encouraged that a politician doesn’t think all of life is about politics. The other half of that argument is that a whole bunch of people think it might somehow be inappropriate: because I sit with the title “Senator” right now, I should only talk in terms of federal policy solutions, which I think is absolutely ridiculous. It’s interesting how people have these lenses. When they think about politics, they assume that someone with a politician’s title has politics as the only hammer, tool, or nail you see in the toolbox. I don’t think that’s the American sense of how politics fits in with larger life.

Alex Hendel (Virginia Review of Politics, Interviews Editor): Your PhD dissertation at Yale focused on the role of religion in public schools on the formation of the modern religious right. What should be the roles of our different institutions in education, specifically government, family, and the church?

BS: My dissertation was really about domestic politics and proto-identity politics in light of the Cold War. Most Americans, when they thought about the Soviet Union, didn’t think about it chiefly in terms of centrally controlled and planned economics. Lots of Americans understood communism in terms of what it meant for the American First Amendment values of religious liberty, freedom of association, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech. There was growing skepticism in the 1950’s and 1960’s that there were elites, particularly in the academy, in the judiciary, and in the federal bureaucracies, that were hostile to textured, local, communal life. The subtitle to my dissertation was something like, “Secular Left, Religious Right, and the Rise of Reagan’s America.” The point there is not so much that I agreed with all the critiques of the cultural right, but I think you have to understand what the cultural right thought the cultural left was up to in that period. I think one of the things that happened there is ideological and intellectual, but a lot of what was also happening, from the 1950’s to the 1980’s, was a growth of technology that undermined local, communal attachments.

To your question, I have sixteen and fourteen year-old daughters and a six year-old son. When I think about my teenage daughters and what my wife and I aspire to for them between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, I want to think about the ends first. Who do we want them to become? What kind of knowledge do we want them to have? What kind of relationships and character and virtue do we want them to embrace? What kinds of institutions are they going to need to be able to navigate next? Then, I work backwards from what the goals are to what the institutional tools are to that end. One of the things that is not helpful about modern American educational life is that we tend to just start by assuming the secondary school: junior high and high school is unchanging and is the one thing everyone should always do with the majority of their waking hours from age thirteen to eighteen. I don’t think that. I think school is one of many tools to certain ends. Parents have to be primary, and then parents make the choices about what kinds of tools they use including the secondary school. I think the secondary school is going to be disrupted by technology. There is going to be a lot more hybrid, online learning added to the in-person, local, “factory-model,” eight-to-five school.

ML: Moving on to a different topic, you have said our country urgently needs to develop offensive and defensive cyber security strategies. Why is this such a critical need and who should spearhead these efforts?

BS: I’ve spent a lot of time on national security issues. I go to the SCIF, the classified bunker, for intelligence briefings almost every day when I’m in D.C. I regularly bring in people from the intelligence community and from the Defense Department, and a question that I constantly ask people is, “What are you losing sleep about? What do you think, ten years from today, when we look back on this moment, will we wish we had invested in more? What are we underinvesting in?” Almost without exception, except for some short-term answers about North Korea, the long-term answer is that they think we’re radically underinvesting in cyber. We’re thirty-one years into cyber warfare. Worms and viruses were clearly definable by 1986, and we are completely unprepared for dealing with the world of cyber today, and we’re three decades in. In contrast, the nuclear era was firmly upon us by 1949 when the Soviets had offensive nuclear capabilities. By 1962, only thirteen years later, we had offensive and defensive nuclear doctrine, we had clarity of tactics, we had the tools, we had a human capital pipeline, we had recruitment and retention strategies, we had begun to socialize the public on a communications level as to what it might look like if we ended up with a nuclear, hostile development. We’re doing none of those things in cyber, and the speed of cyber is so much faster. The pace of cyber change right now is pretty much unparalleled in human history, and we’re way too slow on the uptick.       

It has to be, to your last question Morgan, the federal government’s responsibility. There’s no way that a company like Sony can be prepared to defend itself against a nation-state attack like what we experienced with the attack on Sony a year and a half ago.

ML: In his book, The Conservative Heart, American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks writes that conservatives possess the needed solutions to the problems of poverty and economic opportunity, but are failing to communicate their vision in a way that captures the hearts of the American people. Brooks claims that many see the political landscape as a choice between, “a heartless, pragmatic party on the right and an imprudent but compassionate party on the left.” As a conservative yourself, do you agree with this analysis? If so, how would you exhort conservatives to better communicate their vision?

BS: That’s a great quote. I’ve read the book, so have surely thought about the quote before, but the way you say it now rings even truer than when I’ve thought about it in the past. The public feels like it has a choice – I’m just re-summarizing – between a hard-hearted, pragmatic party on the right and a well-meaning, but imprudent party on the left. That’s really great. It isn’t the case that the federal government can possibly solve the problems of poverty. The federal government obviously has lots of responsibility to create an ordered public square where solutions can be advanced, and the federal government has some responsibility for social welfare safety net programs and certain types of opportunity facilitation for people who don’t come from backgrounds where they have a local, family and neighborhood network and structure that is advancing those goals.

I think Arthur wouldn’t mean – I think the world of Arthur Brooks by the way, so I’d recommend to all your readers that everyone should read The Conservative Heart –  that there’s no policy component to this. There’s clearly federal policy innovation that’s needed, and he’s kind of associating with what’s typically called the “Conservative Reform Agenda,” but more fundamentally, depletion of social capital is one of the main reasons why there’s so little opportunity for big cohorts of Americans.

Charles Murray, who is at the American Enterprise Institute, has a whole bunch of data on declining social capital among what he calls the white underclass in his book Coming Apart. On the center left, Bob Putnam at Harvard has really similar arguments going back to Bowling Alone. His more current book, Our Kids, is just an extraordinary book, and he has all of these scissors graphs early in the book about how America had lots of depleted social capital and social capital breakdown that was evident from the mid 1950’s, or a little later than that, to the mid 1970’s. But, then after the mid 1970’s, there was a socioeconomic skew, where the upper third of America, which is essentially the college-educated third, has lots of stuff that has continued to get better over time, while the bottom third of America, which is essentially the high-school graduates and no-college population, has declining income, but more fundamentally, declining economic opportunity. A lot of why he thinks that’s happening, is economic segregation. Many of the poor people in America have less social capital and also have less experience of people with more social capital. So, there’s a lot of dysfunction that’s continuing to get worse. I think one of the things that Arthur is pointing to is the centrality of social capital to economic opportunity in America. I don’t think we have nearly enough shared understanding of what’s happening to social capital.

ML: I want to move on a little bit and talk about the tax plan that’s proposed in Congress right now. Do you think it will ever be possible to do true tax reform rather than “tax tinkering?” What would you view as the ideal tax policy for the United States?

BS: I don’t know if we’ll have time to do all of that, but I’ll throw a couple thoughts at that. To your former point, it would be so much better for us to be able to advancing a tax reform plan that was actually tax reform instead of primarily tax cutting with a little bit of reform around the margins. And to be doing it in a big, bipartisan way – when we were aiming for 70% of public support, not for a hefty majority of only one party. Both parties are to blame for why there’s so little interest in bipartisan solutions right now, but we need to recognize that most of what ails us in our politics doesn’t originate with our politics. You can’t fix all that’s broken with American politics with more politics. What’s really wrong is that we have so little shared understanding of what the roles of the federal government are. Once you don’t agree about that, then people try to find good and evil in politics. When you try to find the line between good and evil in politics, it turns out you don’t just not find the line between good and evil, you also don’t get basic politics. There’s not a lot of debate about, “what’s an 80/20 logic on our side of what we want and what’s an 80/20 logic from what you want, maybe you put those together and there’s a 60/40 or a 70/30 in there somewhere?” Right now, almost everything that’s advanced around here is done as a simple partisan play. Again, I’m obviously voting in favor of this tax reform bill. I think it’s better than the status quo, but I’m really dissatisfied with lots of it, and there are huge missed opportunities here.

One thing that I’ll point to is the corporate inversions solution that’s in our bill. This corporate inversions stuff is not right versus left. This is just American: that we shouldn’t want American companies to move to Ireland in order to advance shareholder value as a the fiduciaries or board members have the obligation to do on a board. If you look at Ireland, which has a 13% corporate tax rate (and they’re looking at 9%), we’re at 35% and, in our bill, things are going to land at around 21%. When Ireland is at 13%, moving to 9%, that’s horrible for America: not American rich people, not for shareholders, for everybody. It’s bad for workers, it’s bad for consumers, it’s bad for shareholders, people with 401Ks, 529s, wherever your vehicles may be invested. Fundamentally, that shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and yet if the Democrats were advancing a piece of legislation to stop corporate inversions, there would be a whole bunch of Republicans who would be against it because Democrats were for it. Right now you have a bunch of Democrats against it because a bunch of Republicans are for it. Now there’s a lot of other stuff in this bill that Democrats are not going to like, but fundamentally we should be doing basic tax reform.

To your question, what we should have is a much broader base, with lower marginal rates, with fewer loopholes, carve-outs, and special exemptions. Some of this bill advances that. Lots of stuff in the individual portion is pretty messy. What’s hard about a debate like this is that the public is so disenchanted with both of these parties – there’s so little public trust – that people just make crap up about the legislation. Again, a bunch of people in Hollywood are doing monologues where they’re implying that the vast majority of Americans are going to get a tax increase out of this bill. It’s complete hogwash. Probably 74% of the public ends up with a tax cut here, and probably about 12% end up with a tax increase, and there’s another – if I’ve done my math – there’s 14% that end up a wash. There’s a lot about [the bill] that I still don’t like, but it isn’t the case that most people are getting a tax increase, and there’s a lot of debate we could be having about how stimulative the individual code rate cuts are actually going to be, and if this is adding to the deficit or not. Those are important debates, but the idea that the vast majority of Americans are getting a tax increase in this is not in any way true. Yet that’s what we have a lot of people believing about this bill. You can’t get to a place where there’s much of a debate about how to use a competitive process to actually improve it, because the things people are saying about it rise to the level of “Heaven’s going to come by this bill, and Hell’s going to arrive because of this bill.” None of them are true. This is not on the order of 1986 (the last comprehensive tax cut). This is a much smaller thing. People talk about all legislation around here in apocalyptic terms, and that doesn’t advance good policy.

AH: I think that’s a really good segue into my next question: a CBO analysis on the effects of the tax bill projects a deficit over the next ten years. Since the “Byrd Rule” requires that any large deficits incurred under this bill be eliminated within ten years, what do you see as the future of these tax cuts beyond ten years?

BS: A couple things: the first is, one of the sad things that’s happening in our moment in time, is an undermining – well actually, a good and a bad thing – we’re undermining “claims to expertise.” In the case of good expertise, undermining it is really tragic for our shared sense of facts. At the same time, undermining bad expertise has some utility. My fear is that we’re going to set bonfires for anybody anywhere near the word “expert.”

CBO is filled with lots of really smart and well-meaning people, whose models are really quite crappy. There are a whole bunch of cases where CBO has scored things, and they bear no relationship to what ultimately happens in history. This is one of those cases, because they don’t do dynamic scoring, and so CBO implies that anytime you raise rates – this is a little bit of an oversimplification – it’s going to yield greater revenue for the government, and anytime you cut rates it’s going to yield less revenue for the government. Those things just aren’t true in the actual real world. What happens in the real world is that often, certain changes to the code have multiple variables in them, and they might be stimulative to the economy, or they might not, and if they are, they yield greater tax revenues. So I think that CBO’s failure to build models which are up to speed with modern economic understanding yield a world where there’s always an assumption that a rate cut will yield less revenue. There are a whole bunch of things happening in corporate inversions, that if they stopped, that’s economically beneficial to the country, and that yields more revenue to the US, therefore more tax revenue to the federal fisk.

So CBO’s models aren’t good enough for this. To your question about what happens in the ten years, because of some of the Byrd Rule ten year window scoring, the corporate tax rate cuts are permanent, whereas the individual cuts are basically eight year cuts. What that means is not what you see in some of the really lazy journalism, which says a whole bunch of Americans are going to get tax increases because nine years from now the code may revert to today’s code, and they may be earning more money and therefore be paying more taxes. What this really means is that there’s a piece of legislation moving that’s going to create a different rate structure for the next eight years, and then they’ll revisit it on the eve of that eighth year. That’s what’ll probably happen.

AH: One final question. What advice would you give to Scott Frost in his new role as the Nebraska football coach?

BS: One of the things he’s done that’s just been genius is – Nebraska’s fans have no pro sports, and with 80 of 93 counties that are really, really rural, you don’t have a whole bunch of shared experience in a rural ag state like Nebraska, so football unites the state. He has gone out basically every 12 hours for the first four days after he was hired, and said a very basic true thing and then did a mic drop and walked away. He said, “Football has a responsibility to unite the state of Nebraska.” He starts talking about how the football team has to have an identity that will require us to recruit above our population base – we’re only 1.9 million people – and he goes, “Some people have said that means it will be harder for us to recruit than a lot of the national powers that we’re recruiting against. That’s okay. We believe in working harder than everyone else.” Boom! Then walked away. So I don’t think I have any advice to give him right now, because not only is he going after a whole bunch of four and five star blue-chip recruits that Nebraska hasn’t historically gotten, and he’s landed a couple of them this weekend, but he just talks about basic, fundamental, Nebraska virtues. This work ethic for the state – that needs to be a touchstone for the football program.

ML: Thank you for your time today.