Former President Bill Clinton spoke at graduate commencement on Friday evening, May 6, 2011 on the campus of the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. The university had worked with the Clinton Climate Initiative in its $32 million sustainable energy and building retrofit project. Former President Clinton was awarded an honorary doctorate at the commencement ceremony.
…And, I want to say, uh, I, I must have told twenty people in New York this week, I got to work in the city on some of the things I was in, I must have told twenty people I was coming here. And they said, well how do you get to the University of Central Missouri? I said, well, I have to, I’m flying to St. Louis to have lunch with some friends and then I’m going to Sedalia, and then I’m going to drive from there. There weren’t many people in New York that knew where that was. [laughter] And then I said, if I were you I wouldn’t be laughing because this campus is the place that is creating the possibilities of the future with the training programs, with the advances in energy efficiency, with all the things that they are thinking about and doing.
And so, I know this is a happy time for the graduates and I know the families just want to cheer, but I want you to take just a few minutes to try to think about what this degree ceremony means, what your futures mean in terms of what’s going on in America and the world today. I mean, we’ve had a busy week after nearly a decade of effort, uh, United States military found Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan and I know [applause, cheers] we all are proud of that. But, and it happened at a time when more and more there’s a movement toward Democracy in the Muslim world, more and more people are renouncing terror and embracing a constructive future. But still, people looking for opportunities we had in New York City just a few months ago, a young man who came to the United States, got two university degrees, married a young woman from the Middle East, or from Pakistan, with a university degree and then, like a lot of people in this terrible economy he lost his home, he lost his job, he went back to Pakistan, learned how to make a bomb, and came back and tried to set one off in Times Square in New York City.
What are we to make of a world where there is so much good, where you can be out here in the middle of the heartland of America, and because of the Internet and other technologies, know just as much about how most efficiently to produce and consume energy as anybody on Earth, how you can imagine how to organize other things and create a modern economy for America, take advantage of all these things, how you can be alive at a time when ten year olds can get on the Internet and learn in thirty seconds stuff I had to go to university to learn, in my, back in the dark ages? All these great things are going on. The Human Genome Project has already told us how to guard against the prospect of women who have a genetic predisposition to it ever getting breast cancer and having to serve, suffer a mastectomy. We’re getting very close on seeing people who have a predisposition to Parkinson’s and how to head that off. By the time that the graduates here are old enough to have children in elementary school, except for the older graduates, you’ll probably be able to go in and take an annual physical exam just by standing in a tube and having it scan you up and down. And because of nano technology you may able to find tumors that are presently undetectable so that almost a hundred percent of malignancies will be manageable. And you can recover from it.
It’s an amazing time. But, even though we felt pride in what happened this week, and for those of us live in and around New York and remember that awful day of nine eleven two thousand one, a certain grim understanding that what happened had to come to pass, it still is frustrating to see so many apparently contradictory things going on. We can learn all this stuff about the economy but, why are we having such a terrible time getting out of this mess we’re in? Even before the financial meltdown in two thousand eight the economy only produced two and a half million jobs in this decade. There were real problems there.
How are you supposed to make sense of all this stuff that’s going on and what does your degree have to do with it no matter what it comes, in what area it comes? That’s what I want you to take just a few minutes to think about. You live in the most interdependent age in history. If you never left the borders of the State of Missouri you would still be affected by things that are happening half a world away.
You got how much land flooded out now in the southern part of this state? And I don’t know, those of you who are a certain age remember in nineteen ninety-four we had a huge flood on the Mississippi River and we were told, I was, that it was a five hundred year flood. We wouldn’t have another one like it for five hundred years. And all I had to do to protect people was to move people and we moved whole communities in nineteen ninety-four beyond the hundred year flood plain and we’d all be fine. Guess what? We turned out not to all be fine in Missouri, didn’t we. All these unbelievable things are happening in the climate as it changes. What does all this mean? It means that even if you never leave the borders of Missouri what you do here will affect people half a world away and what they do will affect you.
It means that the walls that we used to call borders look a lot more like nets than walls today. We live in an interdependent age where we cannot escape each other. Interdependence can be good or bad or both. Human nature being what it is, interdependence is both. It’s good and it’s bad. For example, the fact that we live in a borderless world enables you to find out things on the Internet in a hurry. To move around the world at lightning speed and get information. And also facilitates terrorists and the transfer of technology and money. The fact that we can travel means that people how never’s, parents or grandparents never could have dreamed going half a world away can go. It also means people you wouldn’t dream of letting you get very close to you can come. It’s a part of the world we live in. So, no matter what your training is, if you want to make the most of your life you h
ave to face this interdependent world with its positives and its negatives. And you have to ask yourself some simple questions.
Question number one. What would I like the world to look like when my children are my age? Or, in my case, when my grandchildren are my daughter’s age. I know what the answer is for me. I would like to live, I would like them to live in a world where opportunity is equally shared. And where we share the responsibilities as well as the blessings of the earth. Where we celebrate our differences, our religious, racial, ethnic and all other differences, but we think our common humanity matters more. That’s the world I’d like to live in. That’s the world I’d like for my children and the grandchildren I hope to have to live in. That’s what I want. You got to be able to answer that question. Then once you answer it you have to say, well, how would you build that kind of world? My answer is, to build a world of shared opportunities and responsibilities you have to build up the positive and reduce the negative forces of our interdependence. That’s what I spend my life trying to do. It’s what I tried to do when I was president, what I try to do now.
That brings me to the next question. What are the most important negative forces of interdependence? You know what the positive ones are. You wouldn’t be in these chairs if you didn’t. The world’s a wonderful place, but it has three huge problems. Number one, it’s highly unstable. That means we worry about terrorism, attacks from people who don’t live here, but can come here. It means that a financial crisis which started in America could spread instantaneously to the United Kingdom, to Ireland, to Iceland, then, then all over the world. Now, not all instability is bad. If there’s no play in the system, if there’s no uncertainty then we all kind of deadened and creativity is driven out. But if there’s too much people just can’t live with it. There’s just too much worry, too much anxiety. So we have to reduce the instability in the modern world.
There’s too much inequality in the modern world. Within and among countries. I spend most of my time working in really poor places. Before the earthquake in Haiti two thirds of the people lived on less than two dollars a day. Before the earthquake eighty-five percent of the people had no electricity in their home. There was no sanitation system. That’s what really caused the cholera outbreak. There was no sanitation system.
All over the world I see people who are just as smart as I am and work harder, but who don’t have opportunities, where their kids can’t go to school or there’s no health care, and there’s no structure of jobs, and they may not even have houses. So there’s inequality there. Then within countries we have it. Except for my second term of all the wealthy countries on earth the United States has the biggest increase in income inequality since nineteen eighty-one of any country on earth, of any wealthy country. I think it’s because we’ve embraced some bad ideas, we’ve gone from being a country that believes that companies should be run for all the stakeholders, the customers, the employees, the communities, and the shareholders to believing that only the shareholders matter. That doesn’t give you a very good result. And pretty soon you wind up with a financial meltdown we had on Wall Street.
We also have spent too much time arguing that the government is always the problem and would mess up a two car parade. Uh, when the only successful country’s in this interdependent world, the really successful ones, have both a strong private economy and an effective government. And increasingly, a good non, not for profit sector, a nongovernmental sector. But, from World War Two to nineteen eighty-one the bottom ninety percent of Americans earned sixty-five percent of the income. Top ten percent earned thirty-five percent. That’s quite a lot of inequality, enough to keep us working harder to be rewarded. Top one percent had nine percent of the income. The average CEO of a corporation earned forty percent, forty times what the average worker did. From nineteen forty-six to nineteen eighty-one.
Since nineteen eighty-one here’s what’s happened. The bottom ninety percent’s share of income has dropped from sixty-five to fifty-two, the bot, the top ten percent’s gone from thirty-five to forty-eight, the top one percent’s gone from nine to twenty-two, and the average CEO now earns more than two hundred times the average employee in accompany. No one can say that this is because of productivity or economic success, it is a deliberate increasing of inequality as we have come to emphasize money more than ideas, production, and people [applause] to become more of a shareholder than a stakeholder society. And I say this, this is not a Republican or a Democratic argument, it’s the new radicalism that I never saw before. In nineteen eighty-seven Sam Walton, then the richest man in America, and an Arkansan, and a Republican who I don’t think ever voted for me [laughter], although I don’t think his wife ever voted against me, so they cancelled each other out [laughter], but anyway, Sam and I were working on an education thing and he was in my office in nineteen eighty-seven when the stock market collapsed. So, he went out and called New York. I said, how much money did you lose today? He said, just me, my family and I? I said, yeah. He said a billion dollars. Now, in nineteen eighty-seven a billion dollars was real money. [laughter] Why do I tell you this? I said, how do you feel? He said, let me tell you something. He said, tomorrow morning I’m gonna get up and get in my airplane. Now, Sam Walton’s airplane was a Cesna single engine or a Piper Cub, I can’t remember which, that he flew. He said, I’m gonna fly over to west Tennessee to the newest store and I’m gonna buzz the parking lot. And if there are pickups in the parking lot I don’t give a rip what the stock price is, I’m in this for the long haul for my company. Now, you don’t hear people say that today.
Give you another example. We have, in northeast Arkansas, near Missouri, we had a company that I recruited called Nucor, founded by another Republican from North Carolina named Ken Iverson. Nucor paid a weekly bonus, their average wage was about half what the steelworkers made, they made steel from recycled materials. But they paid a weekly bonus and they gave every employee in the mid eighties fifteen hundred dollars a child for every child they had in college. This is, that’d be like four thousand today. Okay? Every one. There was a guy in South Carolina that sent eight kids to college working for Nucor. So, in one year in the eighties Nucor lost money ’cause all manufacturing lost money in America. I still have a copy in my personal files of a letter that Ken Iverson, who is now passed away, but I don’t believe he voted for me when I ran for president, he was a good Republican, but he wrote this to his employees, including all of my friends in Arkansas that worked in that plant. He said, well, we lost twenty percent of our revenues this year. And you know we have a strict lay off policy, so everybody’s gonna take a twenty percent pay cut ’cause nobody’s losing their job. What I want you to know is this is not your fault. You did everything I asked you to do. He said I do consider it my fault. I should have been smart enough to figure out how we could be the only company in the world not caught up in this. Therefore, while your pay is going down twenty percent I decided to cut mine sixty percent. And he didn’t have any stock options on the sly, they had corporate headquarters, no corporate jet, no nothing. Straight sixty percent cut in his compensation. Those guys would have jumped into the molten steel for this man. Why? Because we were all in it together.
Look, folks, on health care, on energy, on economic policy, on trade, on balancing the budget, on a lot of things there is a legitimate, basically a little more conservative or basically a little more liberal argument you can make here, but if you don’t think we’re all in this together we are toast. That is
the fundamental decision you all have to make. [applause]
So, if you ask me a question about anything, and I want all of you to think about it, what’s your position on x, y, or z? I will immediately ask myself, will this make the world less unequal and less unstable? If it will, I’m for it.
But there is one last problem which you have answered about as well as anyone in America, here at this university. The model that has taken us this far is also not sustainable because of the way we produce and consume energy. Global warming is real. Above the Arctic Circle this year all the plants bloomed fifteen days early. Soon you’ll be able to take a ship across the North Pole in the summertime. That’s the good news. The bad news is when that happens the ice on top of Greenland will start to melt like crazy and if it all flows into the North Sea, that’s eight percent of all the fresh water on earth, it could block the Gulf Stream and make northern Europe, northern Canada so cold they won’t be inhabitable in the wintertime and those are some of the most powerful economies on earth.
And there are lots of other things that are happening. You go down to Australia. There’s a huge liberal conservative debate in Australia on climate change, but it’s not about whether it’s real or not. It’s about what to do about it. ‘Cause they know it’s real. They’re getting killed by it.
So, the final thing I say is, most people for most of the last twenty years in America have said, okay, this is either not real or it is real but, alas, we can’t do anything about it because the only way for a country to be rich and get richer is to burn more stuff and put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And, if you get a university degree one of the things you’re supposed to do with it is to be able to think about new things and take information and process it and then share it with your family and friends and communities. I believe that changing the way we produce and consume energy is the single most significant thing we can do to put America back to work again, to create new jobs, to create new businesses, to create new technologies, to bring manufacturing back to America, to get us going again. [applause] That’s what I believe.
And, I believe that based on work that I have been doing all over the world. We’re trying to close landfills in Mexico City, in Lagos, Nigeria, in New Delhi, India. We’re trying to convert public transportation units to clean natural gas buses in Lima and Sao Paulo. We’re trying to retrofit hundreds of schools in South America and Europe. We’re trying to reforest massive acreage in Africa and South America. I’m trying to take the Caribbean from having the most expensive electric rates in the world to being completely economically self sufficient. I do this for a living now. That’s one of the things my foundation does. And I am telling you America could go great guns. And I have just this for evidence. I don’t know if you remember this, ’cause I was president so long ago. But, in nineteen ninety-seven Al Gore and I made a deal with a bunch of other countries in Kyoto in Japan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And forty-four countries signed that agreement and ratified it and they were weal, a hundred and seventy countries signed it, but forty-four of ’em were wealthy enough so that they had to actually reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by a fixed amount. United States did not sign it because the U.S. Senate voted against the Kyoto agreement ninety-five to zero before I sent it to ’em. The only time I ever lost a bill in Congress before I sent it to ’em. ‘Cause they thought it was a terrible plot to bring America to an end.
But these other countries did. Now here’s the interesting thing. They had ’til twenty-twelve to meet these targets, forty-four countries. Only four countries, here we are in twenty eleven, are for sure gonna meet these targets. Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and the U.K., the United Kingdom. In the last decade they have all been lead by both center right and center left political parties, that is, their equivalent to Republicans and Democrats. And they have full, chosen different ways to reduce their emissions. But here’s what you need to know. Before the financial meltdown in two thousand eight all four of these countries had lower unemployment rates than the United States, faster job growth rate, faster business growth rate, and less income inequality than we did because they changed the way they produced and consumed energy.
So, you tell people, come to the University of Central Missouri and look what they did to retrofit their buildings. Ask them how many people got jobs out of it. Ask them about the new training programs that came out of it. Ask them what they have learned about using energy more efficiently that will help America to come back. That’s a big part of building a future of shared opportunities and it’s right here [emphasized] on your campus. You should feel [applause] very, very proud of it.
The American college and universities, uh, have a committee on, it’s called their climate commitment, and I was asked to work with them, my foundation was. So we worked on this. Dr. [Betty] Roberts was calling the names of the young people who work in the Clinton Climate Initiative who were working with you on this. And it’s been a real honor. But when the, when the economic crisis hit in two thousand eight the only two colleges in the whole country that were working on this that decided to stay the course and not delay were a little college called Lee College in Houston, Texas and the University of Central Missouri. You said, I don’t think I will wait. [applause] I think we still should be [applause, cheers] creating the future. You should be really proud of that.
And I want to thank the Bank of America for working out the financing on this. Because the real problem when you go around, ask the people here about it, ask them how they use geothermal energy, ask them how they changed the duct system and the heating and air conditioning and the windows and the lighting and how many people came to work here. The real problem with doing this is financing. If you decided you wanted to build a coal fired power plant on this campus and you got permission to do it, twenty year financing, no problem. If you wanted to build a nuclear power plant, poof, thirty year financing, no problem. Do you want fifteen year financing to build a new future that employs far more people for the money you spend and anything else you can do in the energy area? They say. I’m sorry, it’s not available. Bank of America and the university administrators, they found a way to do it. and so I want to thank them, too.
And I want you to just think about this as a metaphor even if you’re not interested in this topic. Here you had a university, some traditional students and some nontraditional students, some visionary administrators and some people who didn’t mind having to think about more than one thing at a time. Who, in the, where I grew up, in the vernacular, who could walk and chew gum at the same time. [laughter] And they decided it be a really good thing to put a lot of people to work and put this university on the forefront of energy efficiency in a way that would take a building that goes back way over a century and put it way into the twenty-first century and make this university a model. And, in the process, learn some things about training programs and software and other things that would really make you more powerful. This is about sharing the future in terms of its opportunities.
So, again, none of you have to agree with my view of the world. But if you don’t, you darn sure need your own and it needs to be based on facts. Evidence and the aspirations of ordinary people work way more than anybody’s ideology here. And I just think that [applause] this is a, I just think that this is a wonderful , wonderful thing that has been done. So, when you leave here, somebody says, what’d you get your degree in? What are you gonna do? What do you think the world’s gonna be like in ten years? What’s the meaning of th
e Osama Bin Laden thing? What’s the meaning of the retrofit that you did? Anything. The way I think about it is, does this event reduce the negative or increase the positive forces of our interdependence? If this event does, if it makes us less unequal, less unstable, less unsustainable, more equal , more stable, more sustainable. If it builds hope and reduces fear I am for that. Because we have to create a future we can all share. Believe it or not, we been through, you know, some very bleak years these last three or four years economically. And when people look around America for a place that refused to just retreat into a shell and kept looking for a way to move into the future they’re gonna stumble right on to you. Because of what you did on this energy issue. And you will always look like, to those of us who care about this energy thing, the little engine that could. So, I ask you [applause], I ask you when you go out of here and you think about the rest of the world to carry this in your heart. Look, most of my life’s been lived. I’ve had a great run. I just want everybody else to have the same life chances I did. And I don’t believe you can have ’em if we don’t have a world of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities where we know we have differences, where we know are differences matter, but where we know our common humanity matters more than our interesting differences. [applause]
And we can never afford to live in a world where we stop thinking and where we can’t stand to be around somebody that disagrees with us. I just read a fascinating book, ’bout a year ago, called The Big Sort, s o r t, by a guy named Bill Bishop who lived in Austin and he was a Democrat and one of his most important neighbors was a Republican and they lived in a Democrat neighborhood and the Republican moved out because the neigh, the other neighbors were mean to the guy. And he moved from a neighborhood that was overwhelmingly Democratic to one that was overwhelmingly Republican and he said, Bishop’s book said, both our neighborhoods were poorer, both our neighborhood were poorer.
We have gotten to where we are, over our racial, our religious, our gender discrimination, we just don’t want to be around anybody that disagrees with us. We’re all a little like that, aren’t we? We’ve got to share the future. A metaphor of that is this campus and this energy project. Thank you for doing that. Thank you for giving my foundation a chance to work on it. Don’t forget it when you leave here. And look for other ways to do your version of what your alma mater did with energy in a very, very tough time.
Good luck and God bless you all. [applause]