Yale University Class Day Speaker, President Bill Clinton

Thank you very much, Caitlin,
Bobby, ladies and gentlemen. I wasn’t sure I was
coming to fashion week. President Levin, Vice President
Lorimer, if I had — you know, all I got was this
little class napkin. I feel if it were a little
bigger, I’d turn it into a doo-rag so I could
feel right at home. [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE] I just went over and said a
word to Dean Brenzel, because you may have seen he had an
article in the Huffington Post. It said, now if they’d asked
me to give this speech, this is what I would have said. It’s really good. It’s really good. But if you had done that then
I’d have missed all your hats. How could anybody possibly be
worried about the future of the world when it’s in your hand? [APPLAUSE] I mean anybody with this kind
of judgment and head gear will have no problem solving
all the other challenges. Let me say, in all seriousness,
I’m honored to be here. I congratulate the graduates,
and I want to thank you and your families, your friends,
the faculty and staff for letting me share this day. I am profoundly grateful to
Yale because of the things I learned, the professors I had,
the friends of a lifetime, the fact that I still work with a
lot of people from Yale in public health and endeavors we
have together in Ethiopia and in Liberia. The President of Liberia,
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is here and I thank her. But most of all, I’m grateful
because if I hadn’t come here I never would have met Hilary. [APPLAUSE] So, she’s been in Shanghai for
two days at this big world expo they’re having over there, and
she called me last night and told me she had given this
speech and how much it meant to her, how much you loved it. She didn’t prepare me for your
sartorial splendor quite as much as she should have, but
I’m very proud of the work she’s doing and I’m very
grateful to Yale because I would have missed it if
I hadn’t come here. And we’ve had a remarkable
life together. I say that because we’ve been
gone from Yale since 1973 — that’s 37 years, if
my math still works. And yet it seems to me as
if we were here yesterday. So I thought and
thought and thought. I said how can I be brief,
which I owe you — you know, when you have as good a sense
of humor as you’ve displayed today, you’re at least entitled
to a short speech, and still say something that
might be helpful. Here’s the best I can do. The world you are going into
that you will shape, should be the most interesting, exciting,
fulfilling, stunning time in human history. I mean after all, we’ve torn
down all these barriers of time and space and people are no
longer confined to where they were born, and so America has
become explosively diverse. You might be interested to know
that at our pavilion in Shanghai, one of the things
that is most emphasized is how there’s somebody here
from everywhere. I’m trying to get the World Cup
of soccer to come to America in 2018 or 2022, and my main pitch
is this is the only place you can go where everybody will
have a home team cheering squad. It’s an amazing thing
and it makes life a lot more interesting. The internet is amazing. When I became President,
believe it or not — I know for a lot of you this is the dark
ages, but it was really just yesterday — on January of
1993, January 20th, you know how many sites there were on
the entire worldwide web? 50. 5-0. More than that have been added
since I started talking. The average cell phone on
the day I took the Oath of Office weighed five pounds. Now you know somebody like me
with big hands has to have one wide enough so that you only
had to redial about one in every four times. It’s a fascinating time. Look at all these scientific
discoveries that have been coming out — the genome was
sequenced first in 2000, probably the major scientific
advance of the eight years I served, and I spent a lot
of your family’s tax money trying to get that done. [LAUGHTER] But certainly the most amusing,
off-shoot of genome research appeared the last couple of
weeks when we learned that every one of us in our genomic
make up are between 1% and 4% descended from neanderthals. And I’m glad all of us made it
because if only the men had made it, we’d never
hear the end of it. And now we all have an excuse
for every dumb thing we’ve ever done going back to age five. It’s great. I say that but it
is interesting. It is interesting furthermore
that the genome sequencing’s first profoundly significant
finding was that, from a genetic point of view, all
human beings are 99.9% the same. Then Craig Ventor’s independent
project said, no that’s all wrong, we’re only
99.5% the same. Now with three billion units,
4/10 of 1% is significant, but from a social, political,
philosophical point of view, it doesn’t matter. You just look around this vast
crowd of your classmates, every single physical difference you
can see is the product of somewhere between 1/10 and 5/10
of a percent of your genetic makeup. And what I want to say is
most of us spend 99% of our time thinking about that
1/10, the 5/10 of 1%. You’re going to have a lot of
people tell you, and it’ll all be true, how smart you are, how
gifted you are, how fortunate you’ve been, how, as our
committee said, if we just give one of you a lever, you
can move the world. It’s all true. What I want you to take a few
minutes thinking about is the 99.5% of you, because my basic
belief is the only way that you can make the most of the world
that lies before you, is to believe that it’s interesting
and fascinating and profoundly important as all of our
diversities are, our common humanity matters more. And that leads us to certain
fundamental conclusion, as does the fact that our fate has
caught up with the fate of the planet which we occupy. I think about this a lot now. I think about what young people
who have more tomorrows than yesterdays are to make of the
world they have inherited. It’s really quite
extraordinary. I read just this week, we had
this amazing breakthrough in physics attempting to determine
how life on earth began, and the results seem to suggest
that subatomic elements of matter, which normally under
the laws of physics would be expected to cancel each other
out over and over and over again so life could never have
formed in the first place, didn’t because there were
slightly more positive than negative elements of the most
basic building block of matter. If that’s true, it is
a metaphor for how you have to live. Thank God and the primordial
slime that positive outweighed the negative. That’s about it, and about
what you have to do. And I say that because the
world you live in for all of its joys has three
problems not very much in evident here today. It is too unstable, it is
too unequal, and it is completely unsustainable. So that if you want your
children and grandchildren to be sitting on this lawn with
their own inevitable choices of funky hats, you got to deal
with those three things, and you gotta deal with them as an
integral part of your life, not something that’s over here that
you think about sometimes, because these three challenges,
that’s where your 99.5% to 99.9% comes in. It doesn’t matter how smart you
are, it doesn’t matter how wealthy you grow, you’re
going to have to share that with everyone. The world is too unequal. Half the world’s people live on
less than $2.00 a day, a billion on less than $1.00 a
day, a billion people have no access to clean water, a
billion people go to bed hungry every night, two and a half
billion people have no access to sanitation, one in four of
all the people who die on planet earth this year will die
of AIDS, tuberculosis, Malaria and infections related to dirty
water. 80% of them will be children under five. Those are the killers
of the poor. And there are no health
networks out there for many of them. I work with wonderful people
from Yale, who just took a picture with me before I came
in, and our Health Access Initiative in Ethiopia and
Liberia, and Ethiopia, when we started, the country has 80
million people, 58 million live in villages of fewer than
1,000, 60,000 villages, there were 700 clinics in
the whole country. Now moving toward 17,000. We get 17,000 built, everybody
will be within a day’s walk of a health care. These are things that we don’t
think about all the time, but the world is unequal. You’re sitting here getting a
degree from one of the greatest universities in history,
founded in 1701. There are more than 100 million
children today that still never darkened a schoolhouse door,
and another 100 million who go to school but not really,
because they don’t have trained teachers or adequate
learning material. When even one year of schooling
in a poor country adds 10% a year to learning
capacity for life. It’s an unequal world within
wealthy countries — most but not all, the world has
grown more unequal. The day before the financial
meltdown, 2/3 of American families after inflation had
lower incomes than they did the day I left office seven
and a half years earlier. Median family income dropped
$2,000 while the cost of health care doubled, the cost of
college after inflation went up 75%, and America fell from
first to tenth in the world for the first time since World War
II in the percentage of our young people 25 to 35 that
had four year degrees. Now I think the Bill just
passed by Congress to cut the cost of student loans, the cost
of repayment, and let all of you pay it back as a share of
your income is a very good start, because that means
people can graduate from college with a degree and still
join Teach For America, still join the Peace Corps, still
join Americorps, still go out into rural areas and serve
people, or go halfway around the world. This is a very good thing,
but we have to face the fact that our own country
grew more unequal. The world is more unstable. It’s entirely too unstable. We deal with the threat of
terror in every country — in America, all the way from the
first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 to this poor
tragic Pakistani man who got two degrees in America, got his
citizenship, used it to fly home to Waziristan and learn
how to make a bomb and tried to set it off in Times Square. Thank God he didn’t learn
his lesson very well, and people escaped unharmed. But it shows you that when you
tear down all the walls and you can break through all the
barriers of information, that the same things that empower
you to get access to more information more quickly than
ever before, could empower you to build bombs. It’s an unstable world. The financial crisis started in
America, pretty soon it’s all over Europe, then it hurts
Latin America and Asia. Now you’ve got Greece, a very
small part of the European union imperiling the whole
enterprise of the common currency and spooking investors
around the world in every place that has significant debt. We have to reduce
the instability. And the third thing we have to
recognize is that because of the way we produce and consume
energy, the world you live in is totally unsustainable. Oh, I know the climate change
deniers got a little juice out of some stolen emails at the
University of East Anglia, but an independent scientific panel
just reviewed them and said they confirm what everybody
knows — the world is warming at an unsustainable rate that’s
going to lead to radical variations in temperature. When we had this huge snowfall
in February, all on the East coast, all the way down to
Florida, they opened the Olympics in Canada and it was
so hot up there they were afraid they wouldn’t be
able to start some of the outdoor winter sports. The National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration just released this week its finding
that April was the hottest April ever recorded. Clearly, we have to do
something, and a lot of people are discouraged because
there was no agreement made in Copenhagen. I’ll come back to this, but the
reason there was no agreement in Copenhagen is simple —
unlike when Al Gore and I tried to take this issue on, now
nearly everybody accepts the fact that climate change is
real and caused by human activity and we gotta
do something about it. But many people still don’t
believe we can do what we need to do and still
grow the economy. When I was your age, a little
younger, Martin Luther King used to say, used to quote the
great French writer Victor Hugo, saying there’s nothing
so powerful as an idea whose time has come. Today with regard to this
climate change issue, we ought to say there’s nothing more
destructive than an idea whose time has come and gone and
people just won’t give it up. The truth is that if we change
the way we produced and consumed energy in an
intelligent way, it would do more than anything else we
could do to reduce inequality, start an economic boom,
stabilize our future, as well as deal with the
sustainability issue. It is the greatest opportunity
this country has faced since we mobilized for World War II,
and this time it can be entirely constructive. [APPLAUSE] And I’m going to make this
point a little more explicitly in a moment, but one problem we
have in the modern world is we got access to more information
than ever before, but we don’t all listen to the
same information. America’s a much more tolerant
country today in most conventional ways. It’s not as racist as it used
to be, there’s not the religious prejudices as used to
be, it’s not as sexist as it used to be, it’s not as
homophobic as it used to be — we’re getting there. The only place where we’re
bigoted now is we only want to be around people
who agree with us. You think about it. And in our media habits, we go
to the television stuff, we go to the radio talk shows, we
go to the blog sites that agree with us. And it can have very
bizarre consequences. Hawaii, the State where
President Obama was born, has done everything they can to
debunk this myth that he wasn’t born in America. They’ve done everything but
blow up his birth certificate, put it in neon lights and hang
it on the dome of the Capital. But 45% of registered
Republicans still believe that he is serving
unconstitutionally. Why? Because they’ve been told
that by the only place they go to get information. I force myself to listen to
people who disagree with me, and to try to get into
a fact-based mode. So I will say again, I think
that this is an enormous opportunity for you, but you
have to understand just about anything you think is wrong
with the world can be categorized as a result of
too much inequality, too much instability, or too
much unsustainability. So the mission of every
citizen, not just in the United States, but every empowered
person in the world in this time has to be to build up the
positive and reduce the negative forces of
our interdependence. Whenever anybody asks me,
what’s your position on x, y or z, I have this little filter
that automatically runs the question through and I ask
myself will it build up the positive and reduce the
negative forces of our interdependence? If it will, I’m for it. If it won’t, I’m against it. And I think it’s really
important to think about that. Now let’s talk about
what that means. It means that we have to be
relentlessly committed to change, and change is hard. We once had a member of
Congress when I served as president who used to say,
you know what they say about change, let’s
do it, you go first. It’s hard. First you have to have a
vision of the future. We’ve got to put America, and
increasingly the world, more determinedly in the
future business. Secondly, we have to ask
the right questions and answer them. Most the time I was
in politics, we debated two things. If you looked at the news or
read the press, usually people talk about two things. One reason I combed the blogs
is that they go beyond that. But most discussion is what are
you going to do and how much money are you going
to spend on it. You agree? We’re going to do something in
health care, how much will it cost — no, no, you should cut
taxes, how much will you spend, right. There’s almost no discussion
about the third question, which I predict to you will be the
most important question, public question, of your next 20
years, which is whatever you’re going to do and however much
money you have or don’t have, how do you propose to do it,
so you can turn your good intentions into real changes
in other people’s lives. The how question will
determine how well we move into the future. And the last point I want to
make about that is that when you’re determining how to do
something, your goal should be what in game theory is
called a non-zero sum game. One of the most influential
books I’ve read since I left the White House is
Robert Right’s Nonzero. A zero-sum game, as all of you
know, is the Yale-Harvard football game, right. I mean there’s gotta be
a winner and a loser. We now in college football make
people play 50-11 overtimes until somebody drops, if
necessary, until there is a winner and a loser. We’re in the pro basketball
championships — fascinating time — they’ll play as many
overtimes as they have to until somebody wins, and you know
somebody won because somebody lost. A non-zero sum game is where
both parties can win. Zero-sum games are more fun on
the playing fields — they don’t work in the 21st century. If the world is interdependent
and too unequal, too unstable, too unsustainable, obviously,
if you wanted to change, you have to find a way for
everybody to win. And that means politics is
important, that means what you do for a living is important,
and how you do it is important. Think of this. Throughout most of human
history the vast mass of humanity didn’t have a
thousandths of the choices you have before you today. People didn’t have any choice
about what they did for a living — they worked to eat
and support their families and have shelter and keep people
alive, and all over the world today most people
still do it that way. You have choices. And as you make those choices,
you should do what makes you happy — most people are
happiest doing what they’re best at. But you should relentlessly,
relentlessly, every single day check yourself and say, am I
building up the positive and reducing the negative forces? Am I helping to create a world
in which we can all win? Am I reducing the inequality,
instability, unsustainability? Am I building all these
wonderful positive things that I have loved
so much in my life? And, as I said, that requires
you to be good at work, be responsible when you have your
own kids, cast intelligent and informed votes. And it also, in this new
century, requires all of us to be part of some
non-governmental movement. The NGO movement — which many
of you are already actively participating in, in community
service here, around the world — is older than the Republic. Benjamin Franklin organized the
first volunteer fire department in the United States before the
Constitution was ratified. We’ve been doing
this a long time. But the whole movement has
been in overdrive for the last 12 years. We have about a million
foundations and 355,000 religious institutions doing
this work in America — half of the foundations have been
established in the last dozen years, and there are parallels
all over the world — private citizens doing public good. The work we do in our
foundation with Yale is an example of what we try to do
all over the world, in energy and climate change and
health care and education. We try to figure out how to do
things faster, better, at less cost, and then get it adopted
either by government or in a new business model, so we can
go on and do something else. You need to do that, because
you got a good deal out of that 1/10 to 5/10 of a percent of
your genetic makeup that was different. No matter how hard you work,
no matter what you had to overcome, you’re still very
fortunate to be here today. You got a good deal,
and you have lots of choices going forward. Some of those choices should
be to do public good as private citizens. [APPLAUSE] The problems with poor and rich
countries are fundamentally different, and your needed
here and around the world. The problem with poor people is
they’re just is smart as we are and they work harder just to
keep body and soul together, but they don’t have systems and
organized structures that give predictable consequences when
they exert good efforts. Just think of just the little
thing you’re taking for granted here today. You’d be shocked if this
microphone went off and you couldn’t hear a word I’m
saying, or if those lights failed. You know when you leave here,
if you’re hot and dry you can get a drink of water
and you’ll be fine. I spent a lot of my life in
places where none of that is taken for granted. We take things for granted
that other people don’t have. So, for Haiti, for example, the
work I’m doing now with the UN, and we have to build them
systems so that the gifts of their people can be manifest at
home and they don’t have to come to the United States or
Canada or France or someone else for people to say boy,
those people are smart and gifted and wonderful. Less than 2% of the African
American population is Haitian. 11% of our African American
physicians are Haitians. The head of one of the largest
foundations in America’s a Haitian American. Some of the most important
people in the health care community in New York
City are Haitians. The Haitians are rather like
the Palestinians — they’re only poor in their own
backyard, and they deserve a better deal and a chance to
build a better future for their children and I think you can
give it to them. [APPLAUSE] But it’s important to realize
that the reason that can happen is there is an enlightened
self-interest in the cache transfers that all these
wealthier countries and multilateral organizations are
going to send to Haiti. They’re our neighbors — we
realize our interdependence and we want it to be positive. But that means we have to
keep getting better, too. And the problems of wealthy
countries are just the reverse. We have systems, otherwise you
wouldn’t be here today, but the problem with all systems is
that at some point, going back to the Sumerian civilization
8,000 years ago, the people who are a part of those systems
acquire a greater interest in holding on to their position
then continually advance the purpose for which the system
was set up in the first place. So you tell me how we get
off spending 17.2% of our income on health care. No one else spends more than 10
and one-half, and we now have 40 countries with lower infant
mortality rates than we have, and we are ranked 35th in
overall health outcomes. And the people who fought the
attempt to reform health care and finally provide coverage to
everybody said we were going to mess up the health care system. We spend 30% of our health care
dollars on paperwork, no one else spends more than 19 from
all sources — that’s $215 billion a year, that’s twice
what it would take to give everybody insurance. So we have to be in the reform
business, and we have to do it with education, we have to do
it with government, we have to do with finance, we have to do
with the financial regulations, we have to do with energy. And every place we do it
we should ask ourselves a simple question. What will give us more positive
interdependence and reduce the negative interdependence? A lot of this fight over the
recent financial transactions has, to me, missed the point —
not so much whether it’s legal or not but whether it’s legal
or not, does it make us more unstable without doing anything
to create more businesses, more jobs, more investment,
a broader future? If the answer is yes, we
should stop doing it whether it’s illegal or not. You need to put the right
filter on your glasses when you look into the future
and ask these questions. You need to ask yourself
what you can do about it. And let me just like
one final thing. I talked about all these
problems, but nobody could stand where I’m standing and
look at you and be pessimistic about the future. And I have always believed, the
one thing I have never changed my opinion on from when I was
your age, I’ve always believed that cynicism and pessimism
were cop-outs — they’re an excuse to take a dive. They’re self-fulfilling
prophecies. [APPLAUSE] And, for example, people have
been betting against the United States since George Washington
took on King George — you should go back and read
some of the things. Oh, Washington is nothing more
than a mediocre surveyor who lost every battle he was ever
involved in before this. He doesn’t even have a
good set of false teeth. Abraham Lincoln’s a baboon —
be better if somebody killed him before he could take the
Oath of Office — an editorial in an Illinois newspaper. I could go on and on and on. Nobody remembers the naysayers. In the end, all that endures
are the builders, and in the end even the builders are
forgotten and all that endures are the ripples of what
they built, and that’s good — that’s a good thing. So, go out there
with a happy heart. Learn to live with confidence
in the face of all these changes, and give other people
the courage to live with confidence in the
face of change. A lot of these whacko things
that are happening in American politics today are not really
what they seem, they’re just people screaming — stop the
world, I want to get off. The problem is you can’t stop
it and you can’t get off. And since we’re all stuck, we
better make it better together. Thank you. Good luck, and God
bless you all.

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