Lately it occurs to me…

The Baccalaureate Address

Yale University

Yale University

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We leave together. You leave Yale College after four years; I leave the Yale presidency after 20. I find myself thinking about a Grateful Dead song written in 1970, the year I came to Yale as a graduate student. You know the words: “Lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it’s been.” It’s been a long trip, but, for us, more wonderful than strange.

Each of you has had the opportunity to learn from teachers who are among the world’s most brilliant scholars, and to grow in the company of some of the most exceptional young adults to be found anywhere—your classmates. You have had access to extraordinary research laboratories, libraries, museums, and musical and dramatic performances. You have lived four years in an environment of high energy and high achievement—in the classroom and the newsroom, on the stage and the athletic field, in the concert hall and the art studio, in community service and political debate. In the course of all this activity, you have come to know yourselves more completely. These pleasures now give way to a new set of challenges and opportunities as you explore the world that is all before you.

Some of you know exactly what you want to do in the years ahead—whether it is medicine, the law, the military, starting a company, or—this year in particular—playing professional hockey. Congratulations! We wish you every success. As for the rest of you who are not so sure, I feel myself, for the first time in 20 years of baccalaureate addresses, in true communion. You, and I, are going to need time to figure out what’s next, time to consider where our true passions lie and how we might give them the fullest expression.

It is not an easy world out there. We are still suffering from the effects of the most severe recession since the Great Depression, and the American political system—once a global model of effective bipartisan governance—has become so polarized that it is nearly paralyzed. It seems astonishing, but this spring, in the aftermath of a mass murder at an elementary school just 25 miles from here, the US Congress could not manage to restore even the most moderate restrictions on the sale of assault weapons to private citizens. And gun control is just one of many critical issues on which this nation appears to be at an impasse. How about ensuring an adequate K–12 education for all Americans? Or repairing our congested highways, deteriorating bridges, substandard airports, and obsolete passenger railroad services? How about supporting scientific advance and the innovation that flows from it? Or resetting our expectations about entitlement benefits? And how about concerted action to mitigate the severe economic and ecological consequences of global warming?

Right now, you may not be thinking first and foremost about these issues. You quite properly may be thinking about where you will find an apartment, whether you will find a job, or, if you already have one, whether you will like it. You may also be thinking about whether and when to apply to graduate or professional school, and, more generally, how these important near-term choices might help you build a life that is personally and professionally fulfilling. Because Yale has encouraged you to think this way, you may also be contemplating how the lives you are starting to create might make a difference to others—to your families and your communities, and how you might be of service, as so many of you have been as students, to causes larger than your own personal fulfillment.

I am thinking about my next steps, too. And just like you, I am hoping to find work that is personally and professionally fulfilling, and that makes a difference in the lives of others. Uncertainty about these matters is a source of anxiety for us all—for you and for me. But I think we are up to it! You have overcome a lot of challenges as you worked your way through Yale, and so have I. There is plenty of upside ahead, at what we economists call the “micro” level, the immediate personal and professional spheres that we occupy.

But what about the “macro” level? What about the big-picture issues that lately have been so inadequately addressed by our political processes? These may not be at the center of your current plans, but let me suggest that there is plenty of opportunity here, too. In my explanation, I will focus principally on the United States, but every country in the world faces similar questions about education, infrastructure, innovation, entitlements, and climate change. The answers to these questions are going to have a huge impact on your personal and professional lives—affecting your incomes, your security, your health, and your well-being. Your involvement with these issues can make a difference.

Consider K–12 education. For more than a century, American primary and secondary education was the envy of the world, producing the world’s most literate labor force and creating a huge competitive advantage for the United States as North America and Europe industrialized. Today, on the most widely used international test of comparative achievement, the performance of 15-year-old Americans ranks 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math among 34 OECD countries, and almost all OECD countries are far below Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong on all three tests. In a world that rewards skills and requires them for middle-class jobs, we need to do better.

We need to invest in infrastructure, or the economy will fail to grow at its potential. We missed our opportunity to shorten the recession four years ago, by failing to invest heavily and speedily in transport and communications infrastructure. This would have created millions of jobs in the short term and laid the foundation for future growth in the long term. We still need these investments.

Education and infrastructure are prerequisites for the health and prosperity of any nation, but innovation—the creation of new products and new industries—is the engine that drives economic growth. And innovation depends on the continuing advance of science. The Congressional majority is eager to curb the growth in government spending—and reluctant to recognize that education, infrastructure, and science are investments in our future. Such a Congress risks America’s economic leadership. We need to turn this around.

We also need to take a longer-term perspective on the sustainability of our largest entitlement programs: Medicare and Social Security. In the current political environment it is almost impossible to have a rational discussion of these subjects. Yet if we fail to curb the growth of these benefits there will be over the next three decades a massive intergenerational transfer of income from your generation to mine, placing your prosperity at risk and penalizing generations to come. We need to restart the conversation, and develop a humane, fair, and sustainable solution.

And while we are talking about penalizing future generations, our insufficiently restrained emission of carbon into the atmosphere is on track to require the relocation of coastal populations around the world and cause severe droughts in once fertile agricultural regions, within your lifetimes. Earlier this month, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in over three million years. This level is more than 40 percent higher than concentrations prevailing before the Industrial Revolution began in the mid-eighteenth century. Now is the time for stronger economic incentives, stricter performance standards, and large investment in carbon-free energy technologies. The strategy for such investments should take full account of lessons of the massive 1960s commitment to space and defense technology, which gave us high-performance materials, computers, the Internet, and global leadership in science and technology that propelled scores of industries and created millions of jobs.

The theme that unites all the elements of the program I am suggesting to you is this: we need to take the long view. If we fail to invest in education, infrastructure, and innovation, we shortchange the future. If we fail to rationalize entitlements, your generation’s prosperity will be jeopardized. If we fail to address the challenge of global warming, your children and grandchildren will live in a world burdened by the enormous costs of coping with environmental disruption and human dislocation.

In our current polarized political environment, taking action to ensure the future may seem almost impossible. But I believe that you can make a difference. We need fresh voices at the table, and you, the best-educated citizens of your generation, need to be among them. The powerful groups that are currently dictating inaction on government investment, entitlement reform, and global warming are driven by a combination of parochial, short-term self-interest on the one hand, and ideology on the other. Yet the macro consequence of these micro-motives is that my generation is attempting to privilege itself over yours—kicking the can of long-term investment needs and fiscal and environmental sustainability down the road. No one is openly advocating taxing your generation to support ours. But this will be the consequence of our current political paralysis, should it persist. You need to rise to this challenge, speak for yourselves, and lead your generation to a better life.

It will not be an easy campaign. You will need to confront strongly entrenched interest groups on both sides of every issue, but you will find allies, because your aspirations will resonate with the best instincts of our nation. America has a history of looking to the future. Even in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln opened western lands for free settlement, established the land-grant colleges, authorized the building of the transcontinental railroad, and founded the National Academy of Sciences. After the Second World War, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower sent war veterans to college, subsidized home ownership, built the nation’s highways, and invested in science and technology on an unprecedented scale. What we have done before as a nation we can do again. We need your engagement, and your leadership, to make it happen.

Women and men of Yale College Class of 2013: let us go forth to new challenges, taking with us the best of what your four years, and my 20, have taught us. Follow your passions and shape lives of personal fulfillment, but listen carefully to what I say to you tomorrow when you graduate. I will then “confer upon you the degrees in Yale College as recommended by the dean, and admit you to all their rights and responsibilities.” Take those responsibilities seriously. Stand up for your generation and those that follow. Protect the future from the parochialism, partisanship, and paralysis of the present. Participate, speak up, and lead this nation and the world to the future you deserve. I will be working alongside you.