When Paul Ryan took to the stage in Mooresville, North Carolina, as Mitt Romney’s running mate, he attacked President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark about the role of government in supporting private innovation. But while Republicans have been clamoring to make this election a false dichotomy between the private sector and the public sector, Paul Ryan — heir to a private fortune made by building public highways — is a gaping pothole in that plan. Paul Ryan is a living, breathing GOP example of how public infrastructure and private entrepreneurship work hand-in-hand.
Paul Ryan’s great-grandfather started a construction company to build railroads and, eventually, highways. According to the Web site of Ryan Incorporated Central, the company was “founded in 1884 with a single team of mules building railroad embankments in Southern Wisconsin.” And in the 1800s, railroad construction was subsidized by the federal government. Mid-century, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act into law, providing taxpayer dollars to fund the construction of a transcontinental railway. All railroads thereafter connected to, and benefited from, that public investment.
At the turn of the century, Ryan Inc. turned to road building. A subsidiary family corporation, Ryan Incorporated Southern, states on its Web site, “The Ryan workload from 1910 until the rural interstate Highway System was completed 60 years later [and] was mostly Highway construction.” The $119 billion spent by the federal government on the Interstate Highway System was, by one account, “the largest public works program since the Pyramids.”
A current search of Defense Department contracts suggests that “Ryan Incorporated Central” has had at least 22 defense contracts with the federal government since 1996 , including one from 1996 worth $5.6 million.
What’s funny is that Mr. Anti-Spending secured millions in earmarks for his home state of Wisconsin, including, among other things, $3.3 million for highway projects. And Ryan voted to preserve $40 billion in special subsidies for big oil, an industry in which, it so happens, Ryan and his wife hold ownership stakes. Yet Ryan wants to gut financial aid for college students, food stamps for hungry families, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security — the very things that have, historically, helped poor families climb the ladder of opportunity in America.
“Of course we believe in government,” Ryan said to the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza. “We think government should do what it does really well, but that it has limits, and obviously within those limits are things like infrastructure, interstate highways, and airports.”
Actually, is it any wonder Romney likes him so much?