President Osgood, Board of Trustees, Dean Smith, faculty, family, friends and most of all the graduates of the class of 2010 with your green ribbons and all. I’m thrilled to be with you today to celebrate your graduation, to receive with gratitude and humility an honorary degree, and to share some ideas with you. But especially to touch ground in this place, a revered site in the long history of progressive thinking in action in our country. Pull the thread of social justice and economic advance in this country, and much of the fabric comes back to this very special place.
When I think about the lives of political leaders in the past decade who led our country into two useless wars and a massive economic crisis, I often refer to the immortal words of a great lawyer, Joseph Welch, who remonstrated against the ranting of Senator Joe McCarthy by declaring, “You’ve done enough! Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you no sense of decency?” But where did Welch himself imbibe of that decency? Of course, it was here at Grinnell College. When I describe the soaring potential of our age to solve problems of hunger, poverty and disease, I often turn to the miracle of the semiconductor in the digital age that it has wrought. But where were the first transistors studied and from where did those studies lead to a new global industry? It was of course in the introductory physics course here at Grinnell College, where Robert Noyce, a young student, was enthralled by the new device which he would then carry to Silicon Valley and from there to the world. And when I describe the potential of public action to solve social problems, to put ethics into practice, I like all of you of course look to the New Deal, to the programs like the National Emergency Relief Administration that inspired all of the progressive public policies that followed. And from where did the New Deal draw much of its inspiration? From the brilliant ideas, amazing administrative capacity and unswerving vision of Harry Hopkins, advisor of FDR, administrator for the nation, and son of Grinnell College.
We are all heirs of the past and stewards of the future. We are shaped by our parents, communities, churches, mosques, temples and synagogues, and by our colleges, which shape us at the moment of our maturation from students to adult moral agents. You, graduates, are very lucky to have been shaped by Grinnell College, and the world is lucky for that as well.
While I’m thrilled to be here, I can’t say that I’m thrilled with state of the world we find ourselves in today. Frankly, I had hoped and expected better with the turn of the political page last year. But we have found, as I perhaps should have known, that the rut in which our country finds itself is deeper than an individual or a single administration. We are facing a societal crisis, one that will now fall partly on your shoulders, graduates of 2010. Fortunately, you are prepared to shoulder it.
My own discipline of economics is sometimes called the dismal science, but I promise to spare you of that today. My message today is drawn indeed from Welch, Noyce and Hopkins; that decency, science and management capacity can fix what ails us. There is no reason for despair. But there is no option for complacency either. Of course, pessimistic or optimistic as I might be and optimistic I am, you are free to discount my words fully and form your own judgment. After all, the best recent definition of an economist is a person put on the planet to make astrologers look good. I prefer a slightly older and more elegant formulation, that an economist is a person who, when he or she sees that something works in practice tries to find whether it works in theory. And that’s not quite as silly as it sounds, because if we can understand the essence of what makes something work in practice, if we can create a sound theory of success, then we can multiply the good, limit the bad, and thereby improve the lot of the world. That after all is the challenge of all of us that would combine thinking and action.
If we start from that vantage point, there is indeed much to describe that is not working today. You, graduates, will enter a somewhat frightening job market, though I predict that with your special skills and knowledge you will find important footholds for your economic future. It is for the millions of your generation without a college degree, whose poverty and circumstances led them to drop out of high school, or stop at high school graduation, or required them to withdraw from college in order to pay the family bills that life will be especially hard. But our worries extend past the economy to the larger society and its very purpose. A massive oil spill threatens the gulf coast just a few years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Our national capacity to prevent and to respond to disasters, whether human or natural or more realistically a combination of the two, has been shown once again to be sorely wanting. And I shudder to think that Halliburton was instrumental in the current failure. That company has carved an arc of disaster from Iraq to Nigeria to Louisiana, protected time and again by unsavory people in high places.
Our worries extend to Afghanistan where the end of the Bush administration regrettably did not put an end to our nations tragic and wasteful overreliance on the military. Afghanistan is an impoverished, drought-prone landlocked country destabilized by decades of war, suffering from water stress, from a lack of schooling and from desperately inadequate infrastructure. It is, in short, a country facing the scourge of extreme poverty. Its national income is about ten billion dollars per year, roughly 300 dollars per person. Yet, America will spend 100 billion dollars this year, ten times Afghanistan’s national income, in a futile and misguided effort to restore order through a military approach. We could raise that country’s income ten-fold, but instead we will leave it in even deeper rubble. One reason for this tragic blunder can be inferred from pictures of President Obama and his war cabinet of generals, politicians and advisors. We don’t see one true expert on Afghanistan – on its culture, language or history – within that group.
Our worries extend to our public morality, where business leaders publicly defend the right to deceive. Wall Street became a place where Goldman-Sachs – and I promise you, no relation to your speaker today – peddled toxic assets to clients while shorting those same assets in its own proprietary trading. Goldman then had the audacity to declare that its clients just have to look after themselves, caveat emptor, buyer beware indeed. Despite the claims of Goldman’s CEO, this is certainly not God’s work, to me or to the rest of America.
But I promised you that I would not be dismal, and I will keep my promise. Not one of these problems is beyond solution. As a country, we have just not been thinking straight, we have been drifting, a combination of greed at the top, confusion in the public, and a political system that has created a corrupt mutualism of politicians and corporate lobbies. In short, we have not been applying Grinnell’s triple standard of decency, science and management capacity. Despite this poor performance in recent years, I side firmly with President John F. Kennedy who said, “Our problems are man-made. Therefore they can be solved by man, and man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again.” And I side with you, graduates of Grinnell College, who are already choosing Kennedy’s way through exploring the world in your third year abroad, by joining the Peace Corps, the GrinnellCorps, Teach for America, the One Campaign, the Millennium Campus Network, Unite for Sight, Partners in Health, the Milliennium Villages Project, and other efforts. By standing and helping Haiti in its urgent relief needs today. I side with you in opposing the Arizona immigration code, which commands its policeman to chase down its own residents on the basis of fear rather than cause. I side with you in opposing the Obama administration’s policies of holding countless prisoners outside of the country and aggressively denying them their day in court, a shocking repudiation of a standard of justice that goes back hundreds of years, and is at the core of our legal and moral tradition.
We are, graduates of 2010, facing an again an age-old battle of two ideas. The first holds that the world is dangerous and hyper-competitive; that we need to take what we can before someone else grabs it; that life is harsh and sometimes even ruthless; that only the tough survive. The other idea holds that humankind is a species of designers, problem-solvers and strivers; that we don’t have to accept our follies and our missteps as inevitable; yes, that human nature is flawed, that we are wired to see the world as us versus them, but that we can know ourselves, and most importantly, recognize our common humanity and thereby aim to do better. I don’t deny the need for you and me and for America to be vigilant in the face of threats. But I do deny that we should define the world by its dangers rather than by its opportunities. There is, I would assert, an inherent benefit for all of us in choosing the more optimistic course, the one based on a vision of cooperation and mutual gain, what economists would call the gains from trade. When we choose the aggressive or defensive course, we are condemned to spend vast sums merely in opposing others, we are condemned to missed the opportunities for finding mutual advantage, and we become, wittingly or not, reckless gamblers with the fate of the planet, making the spread of war, environmental destruction, and social division all that more likely. We live in a time of resource stringency, when conservation and wise use of our resources, natural, human and financial, will be vital for our survival.
It is time to deploy decency, science and management in the interest of humanity. We now spend – and waste – much of 750 billion dollars each year on the military, as much as the rest of the world combined, while spending roughly one-twenty-fifth of that amount, a mere 30 billion dollars to combat the diseases, hunger and deprivation that lie at the root of conflict and instability. Let us invest in peace more than in war. You are the generation that can end poverty on the planet. Take the tools you need and get the job done. We lose around 10 percent of our national income each year to crime, and we incarcerate two million mostly young and poorly educated young men, yet we refuse to spend even one percent more of our national income in the preschool, head start and other programs that are proven to help poor children to escape from poverty. Let’s invest in education rather than suffer the blows of crime and the waste of young people that lack the skills for the twenty-first century. We face a growing swath of ecological disasters as we dig deeper for coal and oil, as we hydro-fracture the shale underneath our farms, and convert our food grains to biofuels, and allow greenhouse gases to concentrate evermore dangerously in the air. Let us invest a small part of the steeply rising costs to clean up, before it is too late, in the research, development, demonstration and deployment of clean energy sources.
These are ideas and the spirit of social purpose that I ask you, the graduates, to carry forward from Grinnell College today. During your years at Grinnell, you have been part of a revered community seeking the truth, drawing strength from diversity, yet grounded in a common humanity, and founded on the deepest faith that knowledge is power that can be deployed for the common good, or as Grinnell’s mission statement puts it, “The College aims to graduate women and men who are prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good.” With the skills and values that you have learned, you are not only empowered to find your own personal way around the dangerous twists and turns we now call the U.S. economy, but also around the challenges that your generation will face and that will define the very future of this planet, the end of poverty, the sustainability of the planet, and the avoidance of conflicts on a crowded earth. You have learned well that we are entering a new era, in which the United States is but one of many powers, and in which our fate and that of the world will depend more on our ideas and values than on America’s weaponry and military bases. Grinnell’s values have helped to guide this country, and through you they can help to inspire the world. Take your values from Grinnell today - social purpose, community, diversity, management skill and scientific knowledge - and go forward to show what you can do to improve the world. This is your turn, the great challenge of your generation. Congratulations to you, the graduating class of 2010.