Paul Krugman delivered the Bard College at Simon's Rock Commencement Address on May 21, 2016. Below is the full text of the Commencement speech.
Good morning, students of Simon’s Rock! I’m so glad and honored to have this opportunity to talk to you all. I’m always happy to spend time with young people in general, but this is special, because my wife Robin Wells and I have long associations with this area—in fact, my parents spent many happy years living in Great Barrington, just down the road, and we have always admired this school. And now we have direct personal ties too, so this is great.
It’s also, by the way, very scary. I’ve done hundreds if not thousands of talks over the years, to all kinds and sizes of audiences, but believe it or not this is my very first commencement speech, and the truth is that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. If I bomb—in particular, if I’m really boring—what happens in Great Barrington stays in Great Barrington, right?
So, what can I talk about? I’m not going to give you career advice, except for the obvious: work hard and stay focused. Nor can I claim any special expertise in the art of living, although I like to think I’ve learned a bit about life satisfaction. Mainly, what I’ll try to do is talk about being a citizen—a citizen of the United States if that’s what you are, a citizen of wherever your home is if not, and a citizen of the world, always. And I want in particular to talk about the attitude that you need to have to be a good citizen—which is also, I think, an important attitude for making the most of your own life.
For what you need to do, politically and personally, is try for a bit of hard-to-maintain balance.
To be a good citizen, you need to acknowledge both the bad and the good—to face up to things that have gone wrong without dismissing things that have gone right. You need to see that the answer to the question, is the glass half-full or half-empty, is both—but we can try to fill it further, and it’s our duty to do whatever we can to make that happen. And you need to really, really internalize something that seems trite but isn’t: the way to fill that glass is to keep on plugging, and never give up.
And something like that is also important in your personal life, as I’ll try to explain in a bit.
First of all, let’s talk about this world you’re graduating into, and how it has changed from the world I faced at the same point in my life.
Now comes the point where I say, in an old man’s voice, “When I was your age…” And you know, believe it or not, I once was your age. And it was tough, let me tell you—I had to walk 12 miles barefoot to class each day—OK, that’s not true. In fact, in some ways life seemed easier to me then than it seems to many of today’s students.
You see, I graduated college in 1974, which was the tail end of the long period of steadily rising living standards and opportunity that followed World War II. Actually, it was a recession year—but we all expected the good times to come back soon, and just keep rolling. I don’t remember any of my classmates being worried about making a living, or of not being solidly middle class.
While we didn’t worry about ending up poor, we also didn’t think much about becoming rich. Successful, yes, but there just weren’t many superrich people in the 1970s, and it didn’t seem like a goal even worth striving for. A few years later, when I was finishing economics grad school, everyone wanted an academic career, which would be prestigious and, we hoped, interesting. It was only underperforming students who, unable to get assistant professor jobs, had to suck it up and go to Wall Street, poor guys.
Strange to say, they’re now the ones with multiple mansions. But you know, I don’t think I would have wanted to follow them even if I had known that was how it would turn out. I think I understood, even then, that while having enough money not to worry about it is definitely nice—Robin and I definitely don’t sneer at textbook royalties—having tons and tons of it doesn’t really do much for you.
And that’s true, by the way, of all kinds of success. I know academics who have, by any reasonable standard, wonderful lives but are torn up inside because they’re not at Harvard—and others who are at Harvard, or somewhere comparably prestigious, but are miserable because they haven’t gotten a Nobel. You don’t have to live that way!
But back to the way it was: what I remember about graduating back then was feeling fairly calm about my personal prospects. I had all the anxieties about life, love, the universe and everything that anyone that age—your age—has, but I didn’t worry about being poor, I had no expectations of becoming rich, so life didn’t feel like an obstacle course most of us wouldn’t finish.
Now, of course, it does. When I talk to students—even students at prestige institutions like Princeton, where I taught until recently—almost all of them seem to have a sense of being in a desperate race, where failure to place near the front will be disastrous.
And while they may be more anxious than they really should be—you can, even today, have a very satisfying life without making hundreds of millions or billions of dollars—their sense that it’s a high-stakes rat race isn’t just a state of mind. We really have become a vastly more unequal society, in which a few people make incredible amounts of money, while ordinary families struggle to afford some key, necessary things, especially a decent environment and education for their children. So it makes sense to worry about whether you’ll make it into the magic circle, and how you’ll manage if you don’t.
All this makes the world you’re entering very different from the world I graduated into, and for someone in the position I was then, a worse world in some important respects.
But notice how I phrased that: for someone in my position. You see, I was a straight white male, who also had the good fortune to come of age at a time when anti-Semitism was no longer socially acceptable. If I had been a woman, or a person of color, or of a different sexual orientation, things would have been tough and limiting even in 1974. And a few years earlier they would have been far worse.
So while the struggle for money has gotten harsher and uglier, in other respects the world has definitely gotten better.
Now, I’m not saying that sexism, racism, and other forms of prejudice have gone away. Just look at this year’s presidential election! But a lot of what’s driving the vileness is surely the sense some people have that the traditional monopoly of white men on power and status is under threat.
And you know what? They’re right.
If the bad news about how America has changed since I was your age is that it has become vastly more unequal in terms of income, the good news is that it has become far more tolerant and open in other ways.
Let me give you one example where we can put numbers on the change (hey, I’m a numbers person, not a people person. I told you that I don’t claim any special expertise in the art of living!) It so happens that Gallup has been asking Americans whether they approve of interracial marriage for a long time. So we can go back to the days of my youth for a quick check on racial attitudes—and they were truly amazing, in the worst way. The 1960s were the Age of Aquarius, 1968 was the Summer of Love—and in 1969 only 17 percent of white Americans thought black-white marriages were OK. A plurality still disapproved into the 1980s.
But today, almost nobody admits to having a problem with people of different color marrying; there are surely some secret disapprovers, but even the felt need for hypocrisy represents enormous progress.
More recently still, we’ve seen a dramatic sea-change on another marriage question: all of a sudden, most Americans are also OK with marriages between people of the same sex. That’s amazing for anyone who remembers events as recent as the 2004 election—I like to say that George W. Bush ran, and won, as America’s defender against gay married terrorists. But since then we’ve had another huge outbreak of tolerance and decency.
Overall, have things gotten better or worse since I was young? Well, both; but I would say that on the whole we’re a better society, experientially and morally, than we were. Also, by the way, the food has gotten better, and the coffee has gotten infinitely better. Trust me, you have no idea.
And if our politics seem crazy right now, well, that’s probably a byproduct of the good things happening in our society as a whole. There are people whose simmering anger over social change was brought to a boil by the sight of a black man in the White House; a lot of those same people will get even madder if the next person sitting in the Oval Office is a strong woman. But those people aren’t America, just a piece of it—and a shrinking piece.
So you’re graduating into a society that has gotten better in some important ways but worse in others. My question now is, what caused the good things to happen? What will it take to turn around the bad things?
And the answer is, people who care, who work at it, and who keep on plugging even in the face of reverses.
Some of you surely know the history of civil rights in America better than I do—I’ve seen some of your course readings!—but let me pontificate anyway. It isn’t a tale of good things happening by chance, but neither is it a tale of sudden, transforming revolution. Instead, it’s a story about activists, political leaders, and ordinary citizens painfully pushing giant stones up a slope, year after year, and not giving up when those stones slid back a ways.
You see, people could have despaired of achieving racial equality when the Civil Rights Act produced a white backlash that swept first Richard Nixon, then Ronald Reagan, into office. They could have given up on feminism when the effort to get the Equal Rights Amendment through the states stalled in the 1970s. They could have given up on advancing gay rights when George W. Bush exploited the anti-gay backlash to help win the 2004 election.
But they didn’t. They kept up the pressure on multiple fronts—dramatic demonstrations, quiet political organizing, giving money, keeping up the social pressure to make raw prejudice ever less acceptable. Even seemingly trivial things, like the way people were portrayed in the movies, helped—when I was growing up, God looked like Charlton Heston, now he looks like Morgan Freeman, and my guess is that this matters more than you might think.
And bit by bit the tectonic plates shifted. Sometimes the progress has been painfully slow—as I said, if you don’t think racism and sexism are a lot of the story about what’s going on politically, you’re not paying attention. But sometimes dams seem to break all of a sudden, as has happened with gay marriage.
Still, that’s the story of prejudice, of racial, gender, and social inequality. What about economic inequality? Hasn’t that been a story of unbroken defeat?
No, it hasn’t—and I’ve been at least a peripheral player in some of the victories we’ve won on that front, enough to give you a personal take.
I’ve already mentioned the 2004 election a couple of times. It’s hard to convey to people your age just how terrible a blow that election was for many of us. We’d seen politicians get away with the politicization of 9/11, then lie us into war—which was obvious even at the time—and reap political rewards as a result. And all of this was in the service of an economic agenda aimed at making the rich richer and undermining the social safety net. It would have been all too easy to give in to despair on that terrible Wednesday morning in November 2004, and stop even trying to fight the wrongs.
But then Bush announced that he had a mandate to privatize Social Security, which, strange to say, he’d never mentioned in the campaign. A lot of political pundits took it for granted that he would get it done. But he didn’t. Politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid took a stand; policy wonks like, well, me repeatedly hammered home the wrongness of the arguments; ordinary citizens rallied. And they—can I say we?—stopped the bum’s rush.
That was a negative victory. The next question was, “OK, that’s what you’re against, what are you for?” In the year or so following the surprise victory against Social Security privatization, there was a loosely structured process of discussion and debate among progressives, taking place in meetings, in print, online, and on the airwaves, that crystallized into a determination to try once again for major health reform.
Again, policy wonks played at least some role, which for me required among other things mastering a whole new subject—I’m not a real health care economist, but I learned to play one on TV, and more importantly in columns and blog posts. And two remarkable things then happened.
First, over the course of the Democratic primary in 2007-2008, it became a sort of entry requirement that each candidate have a plan to cover many if not most of the uninsured. That was a big change from the whipped-dog attitude that prevailed for many years after the failure of health reform in 1993, and it happened, above all, because voters, mobilized by activists, demanded it.
And there was a broad convergence on what reform should look like, too: Thanks to the wonks, the plans ended up looking quite similar—what we actually got is closer to the Clinton proposal than the Obama proposal, but it’s not an important distinction. What mattered was that Democrats became far more ambitious than anyone could have predicted just a couple of years before.
And then a landslide election delivered not just our first black president but briefly, briefly, a supermajority in Congress—and reformers were ready to go. President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid barely got health reform through Congress, but they pulled it off.
Robin and I watched the final vote on the Affordable Care Act live—on CSPAN, I’m sorry to say, but that was good enough—and it was a deeply emotional experience, because we’d been part of a movement that did something real and important for peoples’ lives.
How important? I don’t know if you’ve seen videos of the signing ceremony for Obamacare, but you can hear Vice President Biden saying, in a loud whisper, “This is a big fucking deal.” And it was! It’s not the system anyone would have built from scratch, a lot of people fall through the cracks, but 20 million people who wouldn’t have had health insurance without that reform now do.
Wait, there’s more: even people who had insurance have a lot more security and freedom thanks to Obamacare. If they should happen to lose their job, they know they can get coverage. If they decide to quit their job, they know they can get coverage. That, too, is a big Biden deal.
And it’s also a significant blow against inequality. Obamacare delivers its biggest benefits to people with lower incomes and other forms of bad luck, like preexisting medical conditions; it’s paid for in part with higher taxes on the rich. In fact—hardly anyone seems to know this—under Obama tax rates on the top one percent have gone up quite a lot, pretty much all the way back to where they were before Ronald Reagan. That by itself isn’t enough to reverse the huge increase in inequality since 1980, but it’s a start. So is financial reform, which isn’t quite as much of a big Biden deal as health reform, but not trivial either.
Oh, and as long as a Democrat gets to name the next Supreme Court justice, we’re going to get effective action on climate change too.
Just to repeat: I’m not saying that we’re doing great. That glass is still half empty. What I am saying is that if you keep working for good things, and don’t give up easily, sometimes good change happens. Or more accurately, sometimes you and other people who haven’t given up can make good change happen.
When does this process of constant struggling end? Never. I may have mentioned that we’re going through another election right now. It’s possible that this one will end with another terrible Wednesday morning. On the other hand, it could very well end with another window of opportunity, another chance to push through policies that aren’t perfect, aren’t what you’d ideally want, but will make the world a significantly better place.
The point is that if we avoid the worst and make progress toward the best, the reason this will happen will be because people who care did their best to make it happen. And that means all of us.
So go out there, be citizens, and make the world a better place. Don’t be complacent, but also don’t forget to celebrate the good things both in the public sphere and in your own life, instead of dwelling on the disappointments. And drink some of that 21st-century coffee—like I said, you have no idea how good you have it.