What Are America’s Biggest Opportunity and Biggest Threat?—Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin

June 15, 2019 Updated: July 6, 2019

What’s fueling increasing investment in Kentucky, which Gov. Matt Bevin describes as the crossroads of America? And what are his approaches to some of the most challenging issues facing Kentuckians today?

During the recent SelectUSA summit in Washington, Bevin spoke with Epoch Times senior editor Jan Jekielek about a range of issues facing the country, including tariffs, pensions, abortion, and school choice. He also talked about his views on the role of fathers in society.

Jan Jekielek: So you’re here for the investment summit, SelectUSA. I wanted to jump right into that because that’s probably on the top of your mind. Any big announcements? What are you doing here?

Gov. Matt Bevin: This is the wonderful thing about SelectUSA. It’s something that the Commerce Department under Secretary [Wilbur] Ross started this idea, saying: “We want people to invest in America. We want people to understand the opportunities that are here for the deployment of capital, what is called foreign direct investment in the United States.”

But for many people who want to unleash the trillions of dollars that they would like to invest in North America, in the United States, in specific states, they don’t know how to begin. How do you make those connections? And so they said, “Let’s host an annual conference in Washington, invite the world to come, invite the governors of states to come and business leaders to come from both sides of the respective oceans, and have a big networking event for two, three days.”

That’s exactly what we’ve been doing, and it’s wonderful. We go home with just so many leads to follow up on. Three years ago—the first one I came to—I met a fellow who is literally now already built a hundred-million-dollar facility in Kentucky, employing hundreds of people in a rural community. And those kinds of things come from an initial meeting that happens.

He heard me speak on a panel, he came up to me afterward, and spoke with our team. You never know where these things will go.

Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. So there have been some studies that talk about how tariffs are actually boosting some of the investment to the USA, and there are companies that—

Gov. Bevin: Crazy idea. I mean, you’d have almost thought the president wanted this.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, exactly. And so are there companies actually moving to Kentucky? Is there any discussion of this? I’m very curious.

Gov. Bevin: Yes. Absolutely. Think about this. The president’s not trying to be authoritarian. He’s not trying to be draconian or any of these other words that everybody likes to use. You would think that he invented the concept of the tariff. But what he does say is that there are tremendous trade imbalances with us in the United States and other well-developed economies in the world. And he said, “Why should we have such trade imbalance between two large economies?”

The way to shrink a trade imbalance is to have more equity, more capital from those countries invested in the United States, where goods that were produced there and sold in America are now using their capital to create jobs and produce those goods in America, sell them to America. That is how you start to shrink those trade deficits. So yes, there are trillions of dollars that are looking for a place to deploy capital.

But think about this as well: Why are people still interested in the United States? It’s not simply because of the president’s policies. [For] people in the world, in a world of geopolitical unrest and uncertainty, the last bastion, seemingly, of stability in the world is North America. In the middle of North America is the United States. And, of course, in the middle of the United States is Kentucky. So this is the case that we make to people, and people understand it.

We also protect intellectual property; we also respect the rule of law. These things—regulatory controls—are there for largely constructive purposes and for the safety and security of people so that the confidence and products, especially consumer products, are there. These are tremendous advantages we have in America, and the world wants to come here because we are also still the largest consumer economy on the planet.

Mr. Jekielek: So any companies you would want to mention that are relocating to Kentucky?

Gov. Bevin: There have been many. I mean, literally there have been over 1,000 companies since I’ve been governor that have either invested for the first time or expanded their operations in Kentucky. It’s been remarkable the amount of success that we’ve had. We have had more foreign direct investment in Kentucky than ever in history, more capital investment in Kentucky than ever.

We’ve had over $20 billion in private capital invested in our state because when you open up the economy, when you’re intentional about cutting red tape and bureaucracy—this pin that I wear is a pair of scissors cutting through red tape. When you mean this—you don’t just simply say it—but you make it easy for people to come and do business. Then they come. So we have the lowest unemployment ever, most Kentuckians working ever in history, highest per-capita income that we’ve ever had and starting to rise, even relative to other states in a way that we’ve not seen for 50 years. Good things are happening, and a lot of it—billions of it—is foreign direct investment, coming from places all over the world.

Mr. Jekielek: Speaking of the unemployment rates, I understand that you have to tackle a skilled workforce shortage. How are you doing that?

Gov. Bevin: It’s not easily done. This is the challenge of every governor in America. If they’re honest, this is the top challenge for every single one of us. The way you do it is you rethink what is the purpose of public education, and of private education? What is it that we are educating people for? To prepare them for—what as Thomas Jefferson referred to as—to become virtuous citizens. It’s not the goody-goodies or holier-than-thous, but to be someone who is working—work as a virtue, to be productive as a virtue, to be an integral part of society. These are virtues. That is the purpose of education.

So what does a governor do? You say, is the real best thing for everyone to go get a four-year degree, no matter in what and whether they’re skilled or not? No. What is it that we need for the workforce of the 21st century? What skills? What training? What abilities do we want people to have when they leave education and go into the workforce? What kind of ongoing reskilling and training do we need to do? This is what I’ve been investing in. This is the first political job I’ve ever had. So I bring the mindset not of someone in politics, but of somebody from the business community, which is where I come from.

Mr. Jekielek: So how is the Kentucky investment climate different or, maybe—you would argue—better than some of the others?

Gov. Bevin: Of course, we would say better. Here’s what we’re blessed with. We’re blessed with things you couldn’t buy for any price. You think about this. We are right in the middle of the United States in some respects, certainly on the eastern half, but fairly centrally located. The riverways and the roadways and the railways that transect through Kentucky—you couldn’t recreate that for any price. The Ohio River, running the entire length of our state, the biggest inland superhighway in America that goes straight to the Mississippi and the Gulf [of Mexico] and the Pacific Ocean through the Panama Canal. You can put something on a barge in Kentucky and take it anywhere in the world in either direction. The fact that we have the lowest energy costs east of the Mississippi River. The fact that UPS has their world shipping hub in Kentucky; DHL has their North American shipping hub in Kentucky; and Amazon is building their primary world shipping hub in Kentucky.

Logistically, there really is no better place in America. If you want to engineer and manufacture products and take them to the world, Kentucky is the best place. I’m not even up to the bragging parts yet; those are just straight-up facts. Then, the things we can brag about is just the quality of life: the quality of our people, the workforce, and the values of our people, the respect for the dignity of hard work. The loyalty of our people, the cost of living, four seasons—none of them too extreme. We’re very, very blessed in Kentucky.

Mr. Jekielek: So it’s sort of a crossroads of America, or [as] you’re arguing, crossroads of the world.

Gov. Bevin: In some respects, certainly of America. And you think about this, when you think about the South, you often think of a southern graciousness and hospitality and ease of living. When you think of the Midwest, you think of industriousness and purpose-filled pragmatism. Well, we’re a wonderful blend of the two. We’re sort of where the southern graciousness and hospitality melds with Midwestern sensibilities of work ethic and business-mindedness, and all of that comes together in a special and magical way only in Kentucky, relative to anywhere else. It is the best of America.

Mr. Jekielek: Speaking of sensibilities, I was just reading this recent op-ed that you wrote for Father’s Day, and it has a provocative title, talking about the fact that it’s the most difficult time ever in America to be a father, or to be a good father. But before I jump to that, I learned in this article that you’re a veteran and also that you have nine children, which is kind of—

Gov. Bevin: A little more than average, a little more than average.

Mr. Jekielek: And is it four or five of them [that] are adopted?

Gov. Bevin: Four of them are adopted.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s amazing. So how did this come about? Were you planning to have a giant family early on?

Gov. Bevin: Not necessarily; so much of it, for anybody, depends on who you marry and what they think about it. And I will say, for any man who’s watching this, if you think you’re going to be the only one deciding how many children you have in 21st-century America, probably not gonna happen. But here’s the thing. If you meet somebody who also has a love for children and a love for family, and you find that as you have one and then maybe two, and then maybe three, that you haven’t lost your mind or your children, then maybe you’re equipped to have more children.

We had five of our own, which is a lot—already a large family. Then we decided to adopt a sixth child. There’s about 167 million orphans in the world, hundreds of thousands here in America that are just looking for homes right now. Why not create opportunities for them by opening our hearts and our home?

So we set out to adopt one child. In the course of adopting this little guy, we learned of a sibling group of three others. They were 10, 7, and 2 at the time—not likely to find a home, given that there were three, given that the oldest was 10. Once you have six kids, really, you know, six, nine—what’s the difference? You know, it’s just the same number upside-down, which is maybe what has happened to our life a little bit. But we’re blessed. I mean, how fortunate we are to be Americans, to have the liberty and the freedom that certainly everything that you broadcast, everything that you focus on celebrates the exceptionalism of this.

But I would hope that we don’t take this for granted. And this was the genesis for that article: for the men of America to wake up, and take our responsibility seriously. We have a responsibility as husbands, as fathers, as leaders in our families, in our communities, in our churches, in our civic organizations, within government, within the private sector, to just man-up and stop living down to this watered-down stereotype of the emasculated, I guess, 21st-century male that Hollywood and others would have us believe us to be. And we’re not. We’re better than this. And society has always depended on strong men and women stepping up in leading within their families.

Mr. Jekielek: Why is it the most difficult time in American history to be a father?

Gov. Bevin: I’ll tell you what, it’s because of things like this [smartphone]; literally every kid, with rare exceptions, seems to have one of these, [and] every adult. And we all spend our times going around like this [looking down at phone], and we’ll have conversations, being this close to one another doing this.

Very few people communicate as they once did. We don’t even understand often as adults what our children are being exposed to, or who it is that’s pouring into them because we’ve abdicated our responsibility for this type of face-to-face dialogue. If we assume that they’re doing good things because we’ve raised them well, we’re deluding ourselves. The absolute proliferation of pornography that exists in America—it’s shocking. And I think parents, if they truly knew how exposed children were to literal and virtual and peripheral images and themes and ideas, the amount of self-harm, the lack of self-esteem, the rise in childhood suicide—there are many, many things that contribute.

I’m not blaming it all on this, but what we have in this device is a wealth of information more than Galileo, or the people who put men on the moon, or Newton, or anybody had. Far more than than somebody like Einstein could have ever imagined. But while we’re rich in information, we are poor in discernment. We are lacking in wisdom because we’re so busy jotting around from this to that. We don’t take time to think. We don’t take time to be still, to reflect, to discern. And this is what concerns me. And we are abdicating our responsibility as adults in America to raise our children to be prepared for life in the years ahead.

Mr. Jekielek: You were saying a little bit earlier that men need to step up, man-up, take their role. Some people would say, “Well, that reduces the role of the woman.”

Gov. Bevin: Not even at all.

Mr. Jekielek: Could you speak to that?

Gov. Bevin: Oh my goodness, I’m far outnumbered in my home. I have a strong and intelligent wife. I have six beautiful, strong, intelligent daughters, who each have their own talents and abilities. If I’m being completely honest, the women are more in charge in our home than the men. We’re outnumbered, and we know it.

But here’s what I would say. It’s not a zero-sum game. The idea that the strength of one comes at the expense of the other is silliness. One plus one can absolutely equal more than two, if done right. But when one is carrying the weight of two, they struggle to even deliver the strength of one. And this is why it’s a combination. You know, traditional families are not traditional anymore. It was last year, in April of 2018—for the first time in America—that we saw more homes for the first time that have children being raised in a home without their biological mother and father than in homes that have their biological mother and father.

That’s not likely to ever reverse again. So what can we do to step up? And whether someone is a biological parent, whether they’re a grandparent, whether they’re a proxy for, whether they’re a neighbor, but the responsibility—I’ll speak to the men. I’m not a woman, I don’t have the authority to speak as one or to tell women what they should do to “woman-up.” But I am a man, and I will tell men that we have a responsibility. I’m looking as much in the mirror at myself in saying this as everyone else. There’s nobody who does it perfectly. Not myself, nor anybody, but we certainly have an obligation to try to the best of our ability.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, I certainly hope that statistic that you just mentioned is reversible, because there’s a lot of studies that I’ve seen that suggest that’s potentially one of the largest problems that this country is facing.

Gov. Bevin: No question. And again, I know this isn’t the whole purpose of this, but think about this, children who grow up in a fatherless home, and so many of these single-parent homes are being led by a woman. And so, interesting, you mentioned women. Women are without question, more often than men, the leaders in their homes, if for no other reason than sometimes, they are the only person in the home as an adult. They are, even when there’s a man in the home, more likely to be responsible for the physical and financial security of their families. Men need to be as responsible as they’re able to be.

So given that, the sad reality is, we know every study that has ever been done, 100 percent of studies ever done, show that children growing up in a home without a father are more likely to drop out of high school, more likely to self-harm, more likely to become incarcerated, more likely to grow up in poverty, more likely to become pregnant out of wedlock or to father a child out of wedlock, and more likely to live in this recidivism world of in and out of prison or in and out of poverty.

Why would we do this to our children if we have the ability to do better? And for men who scatter their seed literally and figuratively, and have children but take no responsibility for being men in their children’s lives, I would encourage them to think otherwise because you’re damaging the next generation in a powerful way.

Mr. Jekielek: Are you able to do anything as governor to help in this?

Gov. Bevin: I write op-eds that make people talk. And you know what, again I don’t mean to be trite about it, but you have to sound the alarm. For people who watch this, who may be people who’ve read the Scriptures—they could be Jewish, they could be Christian—but in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, in the book of Ezekiel, there’s a talk about the watchman on the wall, and the watchman on the wall has a responsibility to do what? To sound the alarm—not to defeat the enemy by oneself, not to defend the whole city or to take all responsibility—but to sound the alarm. And there’s a warning for the watchman. If the watchman does not sound the alarm, the watchman will be held to account.

And in this role as a governor, as an individual—I’m one guy, one imperfect, flawed, less-than-perfect dad, less-than-perfect husband, less-than-perfect governor, less-than perfect anything—but I have a responsibility as someone who stands on that wall, who looks out and sees what’s coming, to sound the alarm. I take that very seriously. I think that is what one person could do.

Someone asked me one time, “What difference can one person really make?” And what I said to them, what I say every time I’m asked, [was], “More than none.” And if you think you can’t make a difference, you’re right, but I don’t choose to agree with that thinking. I believe one person can change the world, can make a difference, can change the trajectory of history, because one person always has.

Mr. Jekielek: Powerful words. So actually, let’s jump to something where you’re legislatively trying to make a difference … with your pension bill. This is obviously a very big deal for you. And last I checked, it was edging closer. I don’t know what the status is to getting enough votes to pass through the legislature. You inherited a difficult situation with pensions. Can you tell me a bit about that and what this bill is trying to address and where we are as of today?

Gov. Bevin: This is a big problem in America. Time doesn’t afford us the ability to go through all the history of it, but defined benefits plans are antiquated. They don’t exist in the private sector in almost any measure any more because, demographically, we can’t afford them. When they were set up, you had 25, 30 people down here working for every retiree. And it worked fine because they’re paying in for the defined benefit of the people who have retired. And it works when there’s 20 and even 15 and then 10 and then eight and then six, but it starts to struggle.

And then four and then three. Nobody our age or younger believes they’ll ever see a penny of Social Security. And yet there’s still 3 1/2 people paying into Social Security for every one taking out. But in some states like ours, it’s not three and a half. It’s not three, it’s not two. It’s not one. It’s less than one paying in for every retiree. This is the demographic trend we’re on in America. Conservatively, in America, we’re underfunded [by] $4 trillion to $5 trillion. I don’t think people understand how much money that is. … I mean it’s ridiculous how underfunded we are. … Where’s that money going to come from?

Nobody is sounding the alarm on that either. So, in Kentucky, we have the $60 billion underfunded liability, conservatively, maybe more like $80 billion. And our total revenue as a state is about $11 billion a year. Where’s the money gonna come from? I had somebody say to me: “Oh, you’re bringing this up for political purposes.” Really? How’s that working for me? I mean, it’s a political loser to talk about this, because it makes people nervous and people say, “Wait a minute. So the lie is really just that? These promises are not going to be fulfilled? There is no magic money machine from which this is going to be coming?” And the answer is no. And so they hate the messenger, but I think it’s my responsibility. Again, I see what’s coming. I have an obligation to sound the alarm and to do everything in my power.

So where do we stand? We clearly don’t have the spine or the ability as a legislative body in our state right now to just fix this as it needs to. There needs to be in America, frankly, a hard freeze on pretty much every public pension plan, in order to be able to fulfill the promise to those working and those already retired. You can’t keep making the same promise to future people. But if we’re not able to make that hard, immediate decision, then we need to eat this apple one bite at a time.

This current bill is one small bite of the apple. It’s the tiniest bite. We’re barely penetrating the skin of the apple, and people are freaking out at the idea of it—of choking on this. But I think if you take one small bite, the sky doesn’t fall. You prove that you can swallow that, digest it, take another small bite. Slowly but surely, we can save the pension system, but it’s in dire, dire straits in America.

Mr. Jekielek: So in a couple of sentences, for the benefit of our audience, what will it achieve?

Gov. Bevin: It will achieve the ability to fulfill the promises made to those already retired and to those who are working toward retirement, who were promised certain obligations and certain expectations and benefits. We have a legal and a moral obligation to fulfill the promises that were made. The only way to make that possible is to no longer promise the same thing to future employees. Because to do so is to lie to them knowingly and to simultaneously be lying to the current and past employees as well.

Mr. Jekielek: I can understand why that might not be the most popular in some places.

Gov. Bevin: Everyone likes to imagine that the lunch really is free somewhere, or at least for them. And there is no free lunch.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s jump to another area, also very contentious. You recently signed a bill into law that bans abortions based on race, sex, and disability, and there’s legal challenges to this. Why did you support this bill? What’s at stake here?

Gov. Bevin: It’s a non-eugenics bill, essentially. The idea that it is—

Mr. Jekielek: Like [Supreme Court Justice] Clarence Thomas spoke to?

Gov. Bevin: Exactly. In fact, when he wrote his 15-page dissent in that recent case that came up through Indiana, it was powerful. He spoke to the absolute truth of what we were attempting to do with this bill. The idea that it’s controversial, that we would say you should not kill a child based on its race, its gender, or the child’s perceived disability, the fact that is controversial should shock us, should concern us here in America, that we’ve become that jaded to the sacredness of a human life that we don’t care that much. Because the irony is, the language that we used was very intentionally drawn, sometimes verbatim from language in the Civil Rights Act, in the Americans with Disabilities Act, literally taking language that has already been affirmed at the highest levels of the land and codifying that into a state statute that says the same rights should be afforded to those who cannot speak for themselves.

And that is apparently too much for Planned Parenthood and the ACLU to handle. The irony of the ACLU being offended by defending the civil rights of someone who can’t defend themselves shows you how hypocritical that organization has largely become. They don’t seem to understand what they’re about. They’re more about politics and about ideology than about the truth and the basis of their origination. But this non-eugenics bill calls into question the thinking of someone like a Margaret Sanger, the woman who started what is now Planned Parenthood. She was a eugenist. She was somebody who believed in eugenics. And eugenics simply said that some people were not worthy of being—

Mr. Jekielek: Reproducing.

Gov. Bevin: Reproducing, that they were undesirable. They might be immigrants, they might be uneducated, they might be people of color, but in her estimation, they were not worthy of the human gene pool being proliferated through them. And so she wanted to eliminate them or to sterilize them. And this is exactly what Planned Parenthood is still attempting to do under the guise of women’s reproductive rights.

Mr. Jekielek: You’re also, from what I understand, a big proponent of charter schools, and this is another contentious discussion in the state: public school versus school choice. Tell me a little bit about why?

Gov. Bevin: I’m a big proponent of children having a great education. I don’t care how they get it. And if a child can get the best education possible through public schools, that should be the primary choice. But if they can’t get the best possible education that way, let’s give them whatever possibility exists. And if it’s a charter school, if it’s a private school, if it’s a voucher, I don’t care. I want the children to have every possibility. I want the children and their parents to come before the teacher’s union and what is best for somebody who’s tenured.

The whole purpose of public education is to provide a quality education, to create, as we talked about earlier, these virtuous citizens who can assimilate into the workforce. How best to do that? By creating avenues of possibility. Every child is different. Every community’s different. Every parental decision is different. Let’s give them choices with the public tax dollars.

Mr. Jekielek: We’re going to wrap up in a moment here, but I wanted to ask, there’s on one hand, this huge opportunity in Kentucky that you were describing, on the other hand, quite a few challenges to deal with, some more popular, some less popular. What would you see as your biggest concern or biggest challenge? What would you like to see to be the legacy of your governorship?

Gov. Bevin: I’ll tell you, I’d like the governors of every other state in America to wonder why their children have to go to Kentucky to get a job. That’s what I’d like my legacy to be. But, in the meantime, my greatest fear for America and for Kentucky is our apathy. I’m afraid that we’re falling asleep at the wheel. I’m afraid that we’re the victims of our own success; that we’re so blessed that we have such abundance that we can afford the luxury of not caring. And that’s the beginning of the end. This is when cultures and civilizations crumble from within. The reason I’ve taken on these challenging things is, this is not my career, I’d never studied political science. I didn’t take a single course in political science. I never aspired to politics.

Mr. Jekielek: Right.

Gov. Bevin: This is my first job. And so I’m willing to take on all of these sacred cows and if some of them need to be turned into hamburger, so be it. This is what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna take these challenges on because it’s the right thing to do. And if the people can handle it, they’ll reelect me. If they can’t, they won’t, and that’s OK.

But we’re going to do the right thing, even if it’s the hard thing.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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Follow Jan on Twitter: @JanJekielek