UWM students explore issues with former U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan

With the national and global economies going through digital transformations, the U.S. policies on free trade matter more than ever, said UWM student Reid Pezewski.

“The main thing I’m interested in is how economic policies will change with the advent of much stronger technology, like artificial intelligence,” said Pezewski, a graduating senior majoring in economics, finance and computer science. “And Paul Ryan really had some interesting positions during his career with regard to economics.”

And Pezewski was excited to hear the former U.S. speaker of the House and former congressman from Wisconsin talk about this and other topics in person on Feb. 23 at the UWM Student Union.

Students meet Ryan before lecture

Ryan spoke to a gathering of about 25 students as part of the Meals with Meaning series hosted by UWM Student Involvement. The intimate gathering happened just before Ryan delivered the UWM Distinguished Lecture, co-hosted with the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership.

At the Meals with Meaning student event, Michelle Putz, UWM Alumni Association board president and owner of PTZ Consulting, moderated the discussion between students and Ryan.

Many students attending were interested in Ryan’s stance on economic issues while he served in Congress. Ryan told the group he had intended to have a career as an economist rather than a long tenure in politics. The students varied in their political preferences and majors, but about a third were studying economics.

“He seems rather frustrated with the way policy is going on free trade, especially within his own party,” said Averell Charlton Diesch, a junior who also attended the student talk.

Like Ryan did in college, Charlton Diesch is majoring in both economics and political science and said that two are interconnected, especially on trade policy issues.

The overall U.S. economy benefits from free trade, Charlton Diesch said, but there’s collateral damage to consider. “Some jobs will likely be lost in sectors where the U.S. doesn’t have the competitive advantage,” he said. “Economists have proposed many solutions to this, but they tend to be politically iffy (with voters).”

Bipartisanship a priority

Sophomore Kate Jakubowski said she grew up interested in politics from a young age, even though she’s currently a double major in music performance and history. In the last year, she said, she had the chance to meet the Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and senators Tammy Baldwin and Cory Booker.

Ryan’s remarks at the event were not what she had expected.

“The thing that stuck with me the most that he really emphasized bipartisanship, and that’s something I feel like is missing in these days in Congress,” Jakubowski said. “And so I really appreciate his willingness to talk about that and to say that he has worked with people across the aisle.

“Although I lean liberal on the political spectrum, I think it’s really important to hear voices from all spectrums,” she said. “Hearing different opinions is really important, especially in my generation because of our confirmation bias.”

Marketplace of ideas

Charlton Diesch also emphasized the important of the marketplace of ideas when it comes to political negotiation.

“You heard Ryan say, ‘When I think I’m right, I’m probably right.’ But then he still wants to hear the other side, because that could strengthen his idea,” Charlton Diesch said. “The discourse could lead to learning something that could be added so that it evolves into a great idea.”

Pezewski left the event with interest in reading Ryan’s new free e-book in which Ryan uses data and AI to determine the effectiveness of economic policies. Using facts to identify policies that work, what Ryan called “persuasion politics,” is more compelling than relying on ideology to drive political negotiations.

“I really liked it when he mentioned that,” Pezewski said. “It seems that everything has become more emotionally charged and it’s a negative when it comes to being able to make rational decisions. I know that you can’t take emotion out of everything, but I’m worried that we’re losing a healthy balance.”

Over 300 for lecture

Following the student meeting, Ryan also greeted Milwaukee leaders and UWM faculty in the Fireside Lounge before speaking to a crowd of just over 300 gathered for the Distinguished Lecture, moderated by political commentator Charlie Sykes.

In his discussion with Sykes, Ryan touched on a need to find and address the root causes of tuition inflation in higher education and also prioritize STEM disciplines. “UWM does pretty well in STEM,” he said. “I love the School of Freshwater Sciences here. I’ve toured it several times.”

Other sponsors of the Distinguished Lecture event included UW-Milwaukee, UWM Student Involvement, the UWM Alumni Association and the university’s political science and economics departments.

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