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Commencement remarks by Alice Rivlin

Here is the text of remarks delivered by keynote speaker Dr. Alice Rivlin at CSU Monterey Bay's commencement on May 19, 2012. Dr. Rivlin is a member of President Barack Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, founding director of the Congressional Budget Office and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

I am very proud to be receiving a degree from Cal State Monterey Bay in the company of this great looking group of graduates. And you should be very proud of yourselves. You have worked long and hard to be standing here in cap and gown. You have a lot more knowledge crammed into your brains than you did when you came here. You have acquired a lot of new skills—both inside and outside the classroom. Sometimes you wondered whether it was all worth it—staying up all night to finish that paper, struggling to understand something that didn’t make sense to you, wondering if you would ever actually need that complicated formula that was so hard to learn. But there were other moments when you suddenly thought, “Ah, now I get it!” or spent hours digging into a subject that wasn’t assigned, just because you were fascinated by it. Those are the great moments when the intellectual effort is its own reward — and there will be many more in your future.

You have done a lot of growing up here.You have met people very different from yourselves. You have tried to listen to them and figure out where they were coming from. You have worked together in a team or a group or a club to make good things happen on this campus—whether it was winning a game or raising money for a cause or volunteering or putting on a show. At least I hope you have, because those teamwork and cooperative skills are going to prove at least as useful as the facts and theories you crammed into your heads as you move into jobs and communities and raising your own families.

I stress teamwork, cooperation, and respect for each other, because I am deeply worried that our political system is moving rapidly — and dangerously – in the opposite direction. Political discourse is increasingly strident, argumentative, and polarized. We are not just imagining this because it is an election year. There is plenty of evidence that political parties are more homogeneous than they used to be — more uniformly conservative or liberal – and the middle ground is disappearing. This polarization is very clear in Congress. Republicans are more strictly conservative — consistently advocating less government action, lower spending (except for defense), and lower taxes, especially for the affluent, and less regulation. Democrats are consistent in advocating more government action, less willing to cut spending (except for defense), more inclined to regulation, especially of environmental pollution and financial institutions, and more willing to raise taxes, especially on the affluent.

Votes in Congress are far more partisan, even on foreign policy. Often they are not about policy —just about making the other side look bad. Moderates are disappearing — retiring or being defeated both in primary and general elections. Compromise is a dirty word, suggesting weakness and lack of principles. Members of congress who work across the aisle to hammer out bipartisan positions that a majority can support are now ostracized by their own party. It has become essential to hold to the party line and blame the other side for failure to solve the problem. If you listen to political rhetoric, you hear “blame, blame, blame” and impugning the other side’s motives — not much about working together to solve problems.

This good-bad, win-lose mentality is entertaining and exciting. It is great theatre. It is like a close football game among traditional rivals. It is fun to shout and cheer for your side. It adds to the excitement to pretend that the other team is a bunch of monsters or wimps, who don’t deserve to win. But in a game one side wins, the other loses, and it is over. All the winner has to do is celebrate—they don’t have to govern. But our nation’s future isn’t a game!

I am not saying we should not have hard fought elections—that is how democracy works. But we have to be prepared to work together across party lines when it is over. This did not happen after the elections of 2008 and 2010. We have to make sure that 2012 is different—no matter who wins. Extreme polarization undermines problem solving. The win-lose mentality is fine for sports, but a terrible way to run a country, especially this country right now. Under our constitution, polarization produces gridlock—no action at all—and we can’t afford gridlock. We face serious problems that will deteriorate rapidly if we do nothing: rising public debt, climate change, immigration, and increasing inequality—to mention four of the most important. These problems only get worse if we ignore them.

The framers of our Constitution worked hard to craft a political system that would protect us from authoritarian rule. They were reacting against a powerful king, but they were also afraid of winner take all democracy, which they called “mob rule.” They gave us an elaborate structure of checks and balances to slow down policy changes and protect the rights and views of minorities – a president with limited powers, two equal houses of Congress, a Supreme Court with life terms. Any one of these power centers can stop or slow action, and it is very unlikely that one party will control all of them at the same time, especially when the country is pretty evenly split down the middle as it is now. Getting things done in our system requires negotiation and compromise. Otherwise, we get policy paralysis—lots of shouting and blaming, each party painting the other as villains and scoundrels, but no action. We hear plenty of anger, but anger is not a strategy. It doesn’t solve problems.

The example of polarization in which I have been most involved with is our looming federal debt problem — the challenge of how to stabilize our rising debt without derailing the economy’s still fragile recovery. The problem is not is so much the current deficit, which reflects the still far from complete recovery from recession. The problem is that, as we look ahead, our country is on track to borrow more every year even as the wars in the Middle East wind down and the economy recovers. If we don’t change policies in a sensible way, our debt will continue to increase faster than our economy can possibly grow. This is like your credit card debt going up faster than your income month after month — it is not sustainable.

Now, if you listen to political speeches, you hear a lot of blaming. D’s blame George Bush — for cutting taxes, expanding Medicare benefits, starting two wars, and for allowing the financial crisis that threw the economy into recession. R’s blame Barack Obama — for spending more and cutting taxes to alleviate the recession. But none of this blaming is actually relevant to the reason why deficits are projected to keep rising even after the wars wind down and the recession is over. Reason for that is huge projected increase in older people — the baby boom generation retiring and living longer – and the fact that health costs are rising. Over the years both political parties have supported retirement benefits and health care for seniors—under Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Now the number of seniors is on track to double and health care costs are rising — partly because health care is more effective than it used to be and partly because of waste and inefficiency in our system. Those facts together, which are neither party’s fault, will drive spending up faster than the economy can grow. Revenues won’t grow that fast, so debt keeps rising. This isn’t a surprising problem and it isn’t unmanageable, we just have to figure out how to accommodate twice as many seniors and their health care without closing down the other things we want the government to do or bankrupting the country.

I served on two bipartisan commissions set up to deal with this looming debt problem that came to the same conclusion: we have to do two things at once. One is slow the growth of spending, especially the growth of health care spending. The second is reform our complex, loophole-ridden tax code so that we raise more revenue with less drag on economic growth. We don’t have a choice between slowing spending growth and increasing revenues. Stabilizing the debt requires that we do both. Moreover, we have to do both slowly and carefully, so that we don’t derail the recovery. Arithmetic, not ideology, drives the solution.

Most of the key players in Washington actually understand this imperative, but they can’t bring themselves to act on it. The last several years have seen one missed opportunity after another to get it done — Simpson-Bowles Commission, the Domenici-Rivlin Task Force, the Gang of Six, the Biden group, the negotiations between President Obama and Speaker Boehner, and most recently the so-called “Super-Committee,” set up after the debt ceiling debacle in 2011. All failed to do the job because Republicans were not willing to take the risk of agreeing to revenue increases and Democrats were not willing to risk agreeing to entitlement cuts. No one wanted to make the first move and they could not figure out how to jump together. The resulting gridlock is scary because every delay makes the long-run problem bigger and harder to resolve. Politicians unwilling to compromise and make difficult decisions are taking risks with your economic future and undermining confidence—both here and around the world — in the viability of our form of government. We send young men and women to fight and sometimes die for the idea of democracy, but we are not making our democracy function to solve our own challenges right here at home.

Stabilizing the debt is not the only big problem that requires a bipartisan solution and will get worse if we do nothing to change the course we are on. Climate change is probably the scariest example. A couple of years ago we were having debates about how to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and cut emissions of green house gases. Should we have a gradually rising tax on carbon or gradually tightening controls under a cap and trade system? Now we aren’t even having that debate because one party is denying there is even a problem. Immigration reform is another example. It will take bipartisan negotiation to forge a compromise that will include strict law enforcement and a path to citizenship for law abiding immigrants that are already a part of our communities. Meanwhile people suffer. Growing inequality is another problem that threatens our future unless we face it on a bipartisan basis. All of these challenges are manageable. But polarized politics and gridlock are preventing us from managing them.

So what can you do? I think you can do a lot. Changing the tone of political discourse has to start with public pressure on politicians to stop the blaming and demonizing and start solving problems. Now that you have your degree from Cal State Monterey Bay, you can be part of this pressure wherever you are. You don’t have to focus on national issues, although I hope you do. So much depends on not letting paralysis on these issues drag us down. There are plenty of similarly polarized issues right here in California, at both the state and local level.

In whatever situation you find yourself, you can make it your business to seek out people with views different from your own, express what you think, but listen to them; try to find some common ground. Resist thinking of those with different ideas as the bad guys and making them think the same of you. Go to political meetings and challenge candidates, who are ranting about the evil opposition. Ask them what they would actually do to solve a problem, how their solution would work, how they would pay for it, and how they would work with the other party to get it done. Question simplistic solutions — make clear you understand that unpopular steps may have to be taken, that you value politicians’ willingness to compromise if it moves the problem out of gridlock. Tell them you don’t like being pandered to, that you are willing to bear some costs if necessary to live in a country with a functioning problem-solving democracy that manages its challenges. Constructive civil discourse can start with you.

Congratulations and good fortune in whatever you do.