Last night, former President Bill Clinton spoke to an audience of 2,100 at the annual dinner of the Economics Club of Grand Rapids. He began his speech with a joke about Bono, who spoke last year at the Economic Club, saying thank you “for the introduction, the welcome, and for giving me the only time in my life when I drew a bigger crowd than Bono.” The joke set the stage for much of the media coverage of his speech, which focused on the most trivial comments he made, downplaying the seriousness of many issues that Clinton spoke on during his talk.
Much of Clinton’s speech emphasized the need for finding “common ground.” He argued that this is important regardless of one’s politic views and affiliations and began by speaking of his work with President George H.W. Bush raising money for the Asian Tsnuami and Hurricane Katrina relief and being honored for it by the National Underground Railroad Museum. He said this was particularly important because many Americans are searching for “a common ground” out of the “clamor and din of modern life.” He went on to say that whatever ones politics are, there are five questions that we must all be able to ask and answer–what is the fundamental nature of the 21st century world, is it a good or bad thing, how would I like to change it, what steps would necessary to make those changes, and who is supposed to take the steps.
According to Clinton, most people see the 21st century as a globalized world, although Clinton himself prefers the term “interdependence” rather than “globalization.” Countries are tied together through economics, travel, information technology, and people are increasingly learning in common. As an example of this, he cited the mapping of the human genome and the international space station, arguing that it proves the world is interdependent.
He followed up by stating that while that answered the first question, the second question is answered by saying that the world is both good and bad. He highlighted the fact that the state of the world is good for the people at the dinner–they are able to afford fancy clothes and he could fly here on an airplane–but there are three serious problems with the modern world. He said that the world is unequal, unstable, and unsustainable. Clinton told the audience that many people are not part of the globalized economy and that half the population are living on less than $2 per day. He argued that it not trade–an oblique reference to the fact that Clinton and other Democrats have been criticized for their support of NAFTA and other neoliberal trade agreements–that is causing this, asserting that instead trade lifts people out of poverty. Aside from income inequality, Clinton also referenced a lack of education, disease, and lack of water as further indicators of inequality in the world.
Clinton argued that the world could be characterized as “unstable” because of terror, weapons of mass destruction, and the potential for epidemics being spread because of our interdependence. He mentioned the potential threat of avian influenza and compared it to the flu epidemic of 1918 that killed some 25 to 50 million people. He then focused his attention on weapons of mass destruction, highlighting the potential for terrorists to acquire such weapons. He drew the current United States showdown with Iran into the discussion, stating “it’s one of the reasons that I hope that we’ll find a way before disaster develops to keep Iran from continuing past a certain point with its nuclear program.” He further stated that he believes once Iran realizes that if they use a nuclear weapon “it would be the end of their country” that they will not do it, although he said Iran would give the material to terrorists. Finally, he said that terrorism makes the world unstable. He did say that he believes the 21st century will be less violent than the 20th century, with less people “being slaughtered” over political violence in the 20th century–but that it is perhaps scary for Americans because many now feel that they could be the victims.
Clinton declared that the world is “unsustainable” because of climate change, which he argued is now largely considered to be a fact. He said that it will change agriculture and living patterns, ushering in major changes in peoples lives, pointing out as an example the situation in Darfur, which was exacerbated by a drought. He also cited resource depletion as further proof that the world is not sustainable, arguing that trees, water, topsoil, and species destruction are threatened. Similarly, oil is being depleted quicker than people thought, with some estimates suggesting that oil will be depleted in 35 years. Population growth will be an additional problem, with the majority of the growth being in areas that cannot support additional people.
In light of these problems, Clinton argued that “we cannot be naive” about the realities of the world and that a strong security system is necessary. For Clinton, this system includes not just the military, but interagency cooperation and even integrated health systems. However, security will not be enough, because you “cannot kill, jail, or occupy everyone who is or might be against you.” Instead, allies are needed and relationships with other nations can help greatly. Clinton said that while he supports the war in Afghanistan (where he called for more troops) but not Iraq, the costs are astronomical compared to the total cost of meeting the UN Millennium development goals, which he placed at $120 billion per year. He said that if the United States pursued the development goals, there would be fewer people “making bombs and blowing themselves up.”
Clinton also called for “home improvement” or the continual improvement of the United States. He placed this in the context of Michigan’s economy, which has been particularly hard hit. He said West Michigan is doing better than some areas because of its diversified economy, but that overall the United States is in a difficult place. Despite productivity growth, a record high stock market, increased corporate profits, and other indicators, wages for the median wage earners have remained stagnant. Clinton claimed that it is not possible to have a strong middle class in a global economy without a source of new jobs every 5 to 8 years nor can you maintain a stable social fabric unless you can compete with the strongest competitors. He mentioned that the United States has failed to work with the world community to address climate change and healthcare, with the United States being far behind other countries. He cited the successes of Great Britain and Norway as possible models for success, while also advocating for personal actions such as switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs. Clinton argued that fighting climate change and improving energy efficiency by doing things such as retrofitting buildings to be more efficient could be the biggest mobilization of American since World War II and provide a significant boost to the economy.
Clinton focused a portion of his comments on the recent conflict in Palestine, blaming Hamas for the current situation. He said that Hamas took away security from the Palestinian people rather than focusing on the hungry, arguing that this is what happens when people only look at their differences. He said that the Palestinians could develop their beaches to improve their economy if only they could set aside their differences. Clinton argued that outside of Palestine most of the Palestinians he knows are professors and that the only poor ones are in Palestine, where politicians have “grinded them down” talking about their differences. He further said that if the Israelis and Palestinians could put their differences aside, they could become the economic powerhouse in the Middle East. Clinton’s simplistic comments assigned no fault to Israel, nor did it look at the historical aspects of the conflict.
Clinton argued that everyone needs to participate for changes to take place in society. He cited the growth in charity as an example of success in the country. He said that philanthropy–for example through his foundation–can make significant changes in addressing many of the problems that he talked about. He argued that people should find hope in the world and that there are things that can be done to improve it, especially if people realize that they can seek “common ground” rather than divide themselves. Clinton asserted that if people looked beyond what was different and focused on what is the same–truly seeing people as people–there could be fundamental change in the world.