David Dayen and I attended the EmpowerChange summit at UCLA today, put on by the American Democracy Institute. Bill Clinton gave an address, which I transcribed (rather roughly) and am pasting below the fold.
I didn’t get the chance to attend any significant portion of any of the workshops that were offered at the summit; I caught the tail-end of the ecology workshop, but that was just about it.
I will say that this was probably the only speech I’ve attended as media in which the media got the worst seat in the house. We were shunted all the way to the back corner of Royce Hall for the speech.
You know, for most of my life, I was the youngest person doing what I was doing, and then once I was the oldest guy in the room, and I trace the journey from there to here.
I’ve been briefed on what you’ve been exposed to and I want to talk about the world beyond this auditorium-the world of your future. I’ve been to about 90 countries since I left the White House. I’ve gotten AIDS drugs to 71 countries, and my foundation has operations in Latin America and Africa. I’ve worked on Tsunami relief and now I’m working on greenhouse gas emissions. I raise money from the wealthiest, but my office is in harlem, the epicenter of the child obesity problem. So I see the world in a way that’s more fully than I did when I was president. I have my meetings, but I might be out in the country talking to people who have never been elected to anything. I was in a rural area of Malawi, and we were building a 100 bed hospital. And we got construction jobs to people who had never drawn a paycheck.
I look at America and think about what it will be like for you. Obviously there are a lot of good things about the modern world. You have opportunities through your own efforts and the encouragement of others. And this crowd is so much more interesting than if we had had a meeting like this 30 years ago. It’s more diverse in terms of religion and culture, and there are more women. But the world beyond here has three challenges:
1) persistent, enduring inequality. Half the world’s people live on less than $2 a day, and 130,000,000 never go to school. Just that many more don’t have teachers. 1 in 4 deaths will be from AIDS, TB, malaria, or dirty water. We have people with AIDS in America, Europe and Japan, but with the drugs you can still lead a normal life. There is persistent inequality. After 6 years of economic recovery, you take President Bush’s line to Iowa, you might get roughed up before you left because the gains have gone to the top 1%. Median incomes have declined by $1000 this decade. 4% of Americans have fallen below the poverty line working full time. Half of bankruptcies are from healthcare. And we have lousy programs at keeping people well. I’m the oldest of the baby boomers. We will be ranked first in one category: the oldest senior population on earth. Male life expectancy is 83 years, female is 85. But if we use the same medical services, we will impose an unconscionable burden on your ability to raise kids. And if these obesity rates and diabetes continue, this generation will be at risk of having a shorter lifespan than their parents.
2) The energy use patterns are completely unsustainable. Because of global warming (and thank goodness Al Gore won the Nobel Prize) and because of resource depletion, we are losing forest cover, potable water, topsoil at substantial rates-only Brazil and Argentina substantially increased grain production. We’re extincting species at the fastest rate in human history. According to some geologists, we only have 50 years of recoverable oil. And the world’s population is projected to grow to 9 billion by mid-century. Putting this in perspective, the first person on the African Savannah 150,000 years ago was in Tanzania, and our predecessors wandered around Africa for 90,000 years. By 8,000 years ago, there were 5 great civilizations-Iraq, China, Middle East, Mexico and Peru. And then India. It took us 150,000 years to get from 1 to 6 ½ billion, and we’re going to 9 billion in 43 years. Gives us a new perspective on immigration, doesn’t it? All these people will be born in the countries that can least support them. And by that time all these people will be praying to take us back to 2007 when there are no problems.
3) We’re more interconnected than many of us can manage. We have a cluster of identity conflicts. The most severe is represented by Al-Qaeda-a global anti-cosmopolitanism. They want everyone to agree with their version of Islam, which got them in trouble. But if you see the conflict between Tamil and Sinhalese Buddhists, between Israel and Palestine-the Tamil conflict is taking twice as many lives as the conflict in Irsael. And more Israelis will die from organized crime than from Palestianians. And then there is the Muslim population in France. Or the British-when they had their terrorist attacks, they were homegrown British citizens whose Muslim identity was stronger than their British identity, and even stronger than the identity with other Muslims. Same thing with immigration in the US. It’s based on interdependence. We can’t just stay with our crowd.
In that environment, there are three great responsibilities, particularly if you want to exercise a leadership role. First is, be the best you you can be. You live in a time and circumstance with a luxury nobody else has had in the last 50 years. You can choose what you want to do with your work. Throughout most of human history, people worked to stay alive. You have dreams and ability, and don’t denigrate what you will wind up doing with the waking hours of your life. Find joy in your life and your work when you have the option to do so. That’s what makes the global economy work. The second thing is, be a good citizen. It’s unconscionable, with the depth and complexity of the elections, with the issues facing the world, that voter turnout is so low, especially with young people who have more tomorrows than yesterdays. And I would argue that the third thing you have to do is find some way as a private citizen of advancing the public good through citizen service. There will never be a time with the market economy will solve all the world’s problems, which is why the Gates foundation is making such a difference, or why my foundation by spending only 10% of what the government spends, accounts for 30% of new additions to drug programs. And this is sweeping the world. There are 1 million foundations. Half of them are formed in this decade. When I became president in 93, there were just about none in Russia, but now there are 400,000. China has 200,000 registered NGOs, and there are at least 500,000 in India. But there’s something everyone can do. I recently wrote a book designed solely to show why there is an explosion in citizen activity and how everyone can take a difference now matter who they are or how much time they have. We need to change the definition of being a good citizen to do something all the time to contribute to civil society in America and all around the world.
Just one example-I just recently came from the US conference of mayors in Seattle and announced that my foundation, working with the 40 cities around the world, had brokered discounts for green technology. And that I was helping every city in America do the same thing. When Gore and I concluded the Kyoto treaty, the Congress believed it would ruin the economy. Nobody believes that any more. People know that we caused global warming and we need to fix it. But there was little thought about operationalizing it. So very few of those who signed it will meet or beat the targets. But look at those who did.
Tiny Denmark, governed by a conservative coalition, has beaten its Kyoto targets and grew the economy 50% with no extra energy use and reduction in greenhouse gases. The result is that their unemployment rate is the same as ours but their median wage is going up. They took the opportunity to generate jobs. And there’s the United Kingdom, the country most close to ours. Their wages are rising and inequality is going down, and they’re meeting Kyoto targets too. They thought about how to operationalize it. You know how to use technology, you know the options available. Goldman Sachs commissioned a study that says that if the United States reached Japan’s efficiency level, and China, Russia and India did too, it would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 20%. But we need to reduce 80% by 2050. But the point is, you can all be a part of that. I organized these cities and we’re going to start with energy efficiency by retrofitting buildings. Many cities couldn’t afford it, so we got the banks to sponsor it, and the utility savings will pay off the financing. And if it doesn’t, the bank guarantees will kick in. But that 5 billion-if you double it-there are three square block areas of Los Angeles that are worth more than 5 billion. So the amount of money available is way lower than it ought to be. And doing something is one thing, but knowing how to and having the infrastructure is another thing. But people like you can lead the way. And with oil at $80 a barrel, it’s economical. India has dedicated 500 million to clean energy. We have to have a successor to Kyoto and sign onto it in a hurry. It is the key to your economic prosperity in the future.
And one last thing: we’re working toward a presidential campaign. But what you need to do is make sure the election is not taken from you by triviality. I watched the debate for 2 hours. And I didn’t mind Hillary being asked the immigration question, I minded that none of the other candidates were asked about it and had 30 seconds to respond. And if we turn immigration into a 30-second sound bite, the politics of fear and division will win. We have 12 million people here undocumented and most of them are working. Nobody wants to discriminate against people who have come here legally, but you can’t throw out all those people either. This is a mind-boggling problem. And don’t you let them turn it into a 10-second soundbite. And no president gives drivers licenses. The states do that. But that soundbite allows people to fulminate. It’s a serious issue. And climate change is a serious issue. But I didn’t learn anything about climate change, education, healthcare, the most urgent domestic problem that most families face, about wage stagnation, about how our young people can afford college after deliberate government policies making it harder to afford college-right now, you have a better chance of going to college if you’re at the top 25% of your income group and the bottom 25% of your class than the other way around, and less if it’s vice versa. No matter who you are, this is your life, and there will never be a time when citizen action can supplant the need for effective government.
Right now, my life isn’t in politics. If Hillary wasn’t running, my life would be in the non-governmental world. And you can get a lot done. But our most effective work is done when poor countries ask us to do things and rich nations help us finance them. There is no country that has solved healthcare by relying on the market model. It won’t work. You need public involvement and a public framework. This is your life. Whoever you’re for, whatever your party, don’t let this election be taken away. You may not have a more important election. The choices made by the next president and the next Congress will decide whether in the future, you have a world that likes America, or whether they’ll see us in a much more negative way, and whether we can reach across these divides, or continually bumping up against each other. Whether we will slowly let the American dream die by giving tax cuts to my income group and borrowing money to pay soldiers, or whether everyone will play their part in making it stronger.
These are huge issues. And regardless of politics, just ask that the candidates and their interlocutors in the media give the issues they attention they deserve. Don’t make artificial fights. Make reasoned judgments. Have your feelings, but don’t escape the reality-based world.
Ron Suskin co-wrote the memoirs of Paul O’Neill. He then wrote a book about the neocon foreign policy choices, called the one percent solution. They lamented that we’re of a lower order because we are all trapped in the reality-based world, whereas they understood that if America had the guts, they could change reality. And presumably, Iraq has changed that. And I say, I was raised in an alcoholic home. I spent a long time trying to get into the reality based world, and I like it here.
Escaping from it is something that we do at a hazard. You need to have your feet on the ground. Wish the world as it could be, but understand the facts. And in order to live a fulfilling life, you need work that you can be proud of and do it as best as you can. You will need to be a voter, activist, someone who cares. Someone concerned about public problems and advancing the public good, even if you’re not in office and it’s not election season. Being a citizen in the 21st century can be demanding, but it can be the most exciting, diverse time in human history. And if so, it’ll be because of the visions of countless millions of people. And I hope you’ll lead the way.