Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor of National Review, grew up in Kansas City, graduated summa cum laude in history from Princeton, and co-authored The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.
Tell us about growing up with a Hindu dad and Lutheran mom. My father is the sort of Hindu who grumbles and makes himself scarce when somebody comes around trying to raise money to build a temple in town. My mother was very much a devout churchgoing Lutheran. As is frequently the case, they compromised by raising us “nothing,” but my two brothers and I all became Christians in adulthood.
How did that happen to you? The fullest answer to that has to do with workings of the Holy Spirit not fully known by me.
How did you become a conservative? Through reading. I was one of the cool high school kids who had a subscription to The Economist.
Chicks dig that … Yeah. I now regard The Economist as a hopelessly squishy publication, but it started me off in that direction. I had a bunch of conservative friends who were always pushing Atlas Shrugged on me. Eventually one of them got it for me for my birthday just to make me read it.
Influential in your life? It probably delayed my rightward movement by a year. I also started reading National Review. That had a big influence on my political views by exposing me to arguments for social conservatism that I was not exposed to in public school or at Princeton. Then my religious journey: Not only did these conservative social principles work, but they were the way that God meant for us to live.
So you are reading National Review and at some point did you decide, “I want to work there”? I had an internship there the summer between my junior and senior years of college. I applied to a bunch of law schools in my senior year and wasn’t excited about going. This was in 1995 and the Republicans had just taken control of the Congress for the first time in 40 years. National Review was expanding its Washington bureau, and I agreed to join.
1995 was an exciting time: Why did the Republican Revolution fail? The attempt to try to govern the country from Capitol Hill just wasn’t going to work. A lot of people will tell you in a poll they want government to spend less money and to do less even, but if you are trying to ax a particular program like the Small Business Administration, there are always more people who benefit from that program and will vote on it than there are people who dislike it and will vote on it. The benefits are concentrated, the costs defused.
What lessons from that experience are applicable to 2013? The broader conservative coalition’s message sometimes becomes overly narrowly focused on federal spending. It’s one thing to restrain federal spending, but there has to be an explanation of how conservative ideas can reform these dysfunctional tax and healthcare systems we have, in ways that make it easier for people to start jobs and businesses and families. We have lost sight of that over the years.
Are the problems now different than they were in Ronald Reagan’s time? In the late 1970s and early 1980s he faced low economic growth, high inflation, gas lines, and a decline in national self-confidence. For each of these challenges there was a conservative solution. Decontrol energy prices and we are not going to have gas lines anymore. Cut tax rates from 70 percent to 50, and then eventually to 28 percent. Tighten control of the money supply.
Sounds pretty good … These things worked tremendously well, but rather than learning from that success, Republicans too often have tried to slavishly mimic it. At a completely different time they think the answer is, “Let’s keep bringing that top tax rate down. Let’s keep clamping down on inflation even though inflation has been about 2 percent average over the last five years, lower than it’s been at any decade since the mid-60s. Let’s keep building up defense as though we were still up against the Soviet Union. If you want to have Reagan success you’ve got to apply conservative insights to our challenges, different challenges than the ones he faced.
How should the GOP’s economic message be improved? We can’t simply contract out economic policy to The Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Club for Growth. We need to have a pro-family economic policy, in addition to a pro-family social policy.
What should we say about the tax burden on middle class families? In 2008 the chief difference on taxes between the Republicans and the Democrats was that conservatives wanted to cut the corporate tax and to keep the top tax rate low: Nothing in that for middle class people directly. Reagan cut middle class tax rates and kept middle class taxpayers from being constantly kicked into higher tax brackets by inflation. There has to be, I think, a middle class component to the tax message: We should expand the child tax credit so middle class families get some relief.
Our audience of Patrick Henry students here may not be familiar with the impact of the child tax credit. How valuable are they now to their parents, and how valuable do you think they should be? That’s a trickier question than it sounds like. The current size of the tax credit for children is $1,000. I think it should be about $5,000. But what a lot of people—even sophisticated tax analysts—overlook is the way our entitlement system combines with our tax code to discourage people from having kids.
Tell us about it … Before Social Security and Medicare, one of the reasons people had kids was to take care of them in their old age. That basic generational bargain is still in effect: It’s just been socialized and collectivized by Social Security and Medicare. As is often the case when you socialize something, you’ve changed the incentives. So right now if you don’t have kids you get the benefits of Social Security and Medicare made possible by other people making the financial sacrifices necessary to raise children. If you actually do the math on that, you need something like a $5,000 tax credit in order to make the government neutral on the question of whether you should have more kids.
Do you think a $5,000 tax credit would lead parents to have more kids? It’s not bribing people to do something they don’t want to do: Extensive international evidence says that doesn’t work. We are in a country where what demographers call ideal family size or desired family size is larger than actual family size, which suggests that people would have more kids if the economics of it was a little easier.
One more question: Why are winners of the National Spelling Bee almost always either homeschoolers or kids of Indian ancestry? Are there ever homeschooled Indian kids?
Watch Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Ramesh Ponnuru: