20 December 2015, Berkeley, San Francisco, USA
Thank you so much, Diane. Chancellor Dirks, deans, faculty. Jonathan, thank you for that great address. Alumni, friends, parents, significant others and insignificant others, members of the great class of 2015. As you can see, the economy has worn me down. But we are in a recovery. As former Secretary of Labour, I do have to warn you, it's still a lousy job market. But there are two pieces of good news I want to share with you. First, college graduates are doing far better than they did last year, and secondly, in a few minutes, you're going to be a graduate of the best public university in the world.
With your degree, you will be on the winning side of the great divide. That great divide is one of the largest challenges we confront as a society, and it's not just in the United States, but it's in almost all other countries as well. The United States, along with other rich countries, is heading back to the wealth concentrations last seen in the Gilded Age of the 19th century. The American economy today is about twice as large as it was 30 years ago, but the median income has barely risen. When I say median income, that's different from average, right? Shaquille O'Neal, that basketball player, and I have an average height of six-foot-two. Do you get my drift? People at the top bring up the average. That's why we need to look at the median, half above, half below, and median incomes have barely increased, adjusted for inflation, over the past 35 years.
Most of the income and wealth has gone to the top. When I say this, sometimes I'm accused of being a class warrior. I am not a class warrior. I'm a class worrier. There's a difference, two letters, but it's more than that. I worry about a nation, a society growing too divided, with a middle class that is shrinking. An economy cannot be sustained as an economy when the vast middle class and the poor don't have enough purchasing power to buy what the economy can produce. A democracy cannot be sustained when the rich have enough political purchasing power to buy what elected officials can produce.
Why this fundamental change? What has occurred. Partly it is due to, over the last 35 years, something we call globalisation. Globalisation is one of those words to have gone directly from obscurity to meaninglessness without any intervening period of coherence. But when I say globalisation, I mean the integration of not only product markets but also direct investment, and also to some extent immigration, everything else that brings the world together. Gone forever are the good manufacturing jobs for Americans without much education. But partly it's also due to labour replacing technologies, technologies that have replaced bank tellers and telephone operators and elevator operators and service station attendants, and soon many professional services.
The problem is not the number of jobs. Jobs are returning. The problem is that the wages of most of the jobs that are returning are lower than the jobs that were lost during the Great Recession. At the same time, Americans are segregating by income into different towns and cities, more than we've ever segregated before. Being rich in America essentially means not having to come across anybody who's not. Moreover, widening inequality and climate change together are conspiring all over the world to impose hardship where supplies of food and water are growing scarce, where the poor live in low-lying areas that are prone to flooding, or in homes most likely damaged by extreme weather. You see how these issues are absolutely inextricably related to one another. The challenge is daunting, but we have no choice but to reverse these trends, and they will be reversed, either through reforms or populist insurrection. Reform is the more prudent direction.
Three things I'd like you to carry away with you. A recent study showed that a week after graduating, only 2% of graduates remembered anything their commencement speaker said, so I'm going to be very pointed about these three things, all right? If I come across any one of you certainly within the next two months, I'm going to ask you what these three things were. Number one, a first in this era of widening inequality, always make sure to respect those who don't have the education or the status you do. A college degree is not a licence for arrogance. In fact, respect everybody you work with, regardless of their station.
My first job, 50 years ago, was working in the Senate office of Robert F. Kennedy. It sounds glamorous, but my job was not glamorous. I ran his signature machine. You know what that is? There's a little pen at the end of a long wooden handle, and I would push a little button and make sure that all of the letters to constituents were lined up exactly right so that the pen and his signature were appropriate and lined up nicely. It was a fine job, but after three months, I was going crazy. I was so bored that I did something that I'm not terribly proud of. Will you keep it in this room please what I'm about to tell you? I snuck in at night, and on the same typewriters, the Selectric we then had typewriters, that the secretarial pool then used, I wrote letters on Robert F. Kennedy's stationery to my friends. They were letters like, "Dear Mr. Dworkin, congratulations on having the largest nose in New York state." Then I used the signature machine, "Robert F. Kennedy." My friends still have this. I see them on their walls framed.
But then one day, one day after months and months of this, I was standing in the Senate hallway, in the hallway of the office building there, and the elevator doors opened, and out came from the elevator Senator Robert F. Kennedy, surrounded by his aides, looking like he was doing, and he was doing very important work, and I had not seen him. I'd not even laid eyes on him. I saw his signature, but I had not actually seen the senator. I was so excited. He looked at me and he said, "How you doing, Bob?" He knew my name. I couldn't believe it. He had asked me a question. I couldn't even summon the answer out of my throat, I was so overwhelmed. But I'll tell you something. From that day on, if he had asked me to work his signature machine for the next three years, I would have done it. Respect. Respect.
Number two, I've talked to you about these trends, widening inequality and the interaction between widening inequality and climate change. I hope that you will help, you will help reverse these trends in some way, in some way. Thank you. You will. You will be in positions to exercise leadership. You don't have to be a secretary of some cabinet department or President of the United States in order to exercise leadership. You can exercise leadership in very modest ways. Leadership is the art and the practise of getting many people around you to focus on problems that they would rather not focus on. They'd prefer to deny that the problems exist or they prefer to escape from the problems or blame others for the problems or find relief in cynicism that says nothing can be changed. The role of a leader is to overcome these escape mechanisms, these work avoidance mechanisms, and you, every one of you, will be in a position to do that.
Third and finally, know the difference between tenacity and martyrdom. In other words, be tenacious but don't burn yourself out. If you're going to change the world for the better, even a little bit for the better, you're going to need patience. It is not easy to do. There are going to be setbacks. Change doesn't come easily. You'll need to accept what you cannot change, at least right away. Dedicate yourself again and again to changing what you cannot accept.
Members of the great class of 2015, go forth and do your best. Comfort the afflicted, even if that means occasionally afflicting the comfortable. Use every opportunity you get to renew and reenergize yourself. May your work be filled with meaning, may your days be filled with purpose, and may your lives be filled with joy. Thank you.