The following is a speech from former UNC System President and White House Chief of Staff, Erskine Bowles, at this year’s Commencement Ceremony.
“How about it sisters? I got one! I am very, very proud to be a graduate with this famous class of 2013.
I listened to what your valedictorian said, I listened to what Dalia said. You are strong. You do work hard. You’re thoughtful. You got a lot of courage. You’ve got a lot of guts and you’ve done a great job here at Peace.
And you know what? I wrote out a nice little graduation speech to give you all today, but I decided to leave that dribble at home. I did it for a couple reasons, but before I get to them, I want to tell you one thing: You know when A. B. was introducing me, he went through this long laundry list of things I’ve done and it reminded me of when my uncle Sam in Greensboro, NC passed away.
When he died, the obituary editor called my aunt and asked about him. And my aunt went on and on about him like A.B. did about me. And after a few minutes the obituaror said, “Now Mrs. Bowles, you do know that we now charge. Yes, we charge five dollars a word for every word we put in the obituary.” She said, “Oh no, no I didn’t know that.” She said, “In that case just put in there ‘Sam died.’” That’s not even the funny part – this is a true story! And, he said, “Well Mrs. Bowles we’d really like to do that but you see we have this five word minimum.” She said, “Oh my goodness.” She said, “In that case, just put in there ‘Sam died, Cadillac for sale.’” If I don’t get home soon that’s what my wife is going to put about me. I have been on the road for 24 straight days, but I really wanted to be here.
Now I understand what this great leader is doing for this University. Somebody asked me to describe what it was like to be president of a university. I said, ‘Look I’m going to tell you exactly what it’s like. It’s like being the CEO of a cemetery. It is. You got lots of people underneath you, but ain’t nobody listening!’ So, you should give this great leader a big hand.
So, I left the dribble at home. I figured you could live without a few platitudes. If any of you want to see it, email me and I’ll be glad to send it to you. But look – today, I wanted to come here to Peace, a place that I love. I’ve spent a lot of happy days here sisters. Oh, man. But I want to make you do something that your professors here have made you do for the last several years – I want to push you. I want to push you hard. I want to push you out of your comfort zone. I want to make you think. I want to make you mad. I want to make you aware. I want to make you angry – angry at me – and angry at my generation for kicking the can down the road; for shirking our responsibility. I want to make you angry enough to use that social media of yours to reach out to your friends – to stir them up and demand some real action from my generation and from those politicians in Washington, DC.
Sisters, I’m talking to you! For you see, I believe that if we don’t get these politicians in Washington – on both sides of the aisle, the right, the left, the republicans, the democrats, in the White House, and in Congress – all of them, to wake up and to put this ultra-partisanship aside, and to pull together rather then pull apart, we face the most predictable economic crisis in history. Fortunately, for you, it’s also the most avoidable economic crisis in history. But, I don’t think there’s any question that the fiscal path that our nation is on is simply not sustainable. These deficits of over a trillion dollars a year – they are like a cancer – a cancer that will destroy our country from within. A cancer, that if left alone, is going to destroy your economic future and the future of every Peace graduate over the next several years. Let me give you just one arithmetic example, one little piece of math. If you look at the operating statement of our country – your country last year – not 20 years ago, not 20 years from now – now – and you took all of the revenue that came into the country from every single source – every single bit of it was spent on what’s called our mandatory spending and interest on the debt. Mandatory spending is principally what we spend on the entitlement programs of Medicare, Medicaid, and social security. So, what does that mean to you all, all of you? It means that every dollar this nation spent last year on the war, on national security, homeland security, education, infrastructure, and research – every single dollar was borrowed and half of it was borrowed from foreign countries. That is crazy! That is nuts – and when I talk to people my age about this and I ask them, “What do you think causes these deficits?” They come back to me and say, ‘Oh its waste, fraud and abuse’ or ‘foreign aid’ or ‘oil subsidies’ or ‘Nancy Pelosi’s airplane.’ You could take those things and put them in a thimble.
There are 5 principle causes of the problems that we face today, and we (you and me), we’ve got to face up to them. And we’ve got to push people in my generation – you’ve got to push them to make the really tough decisions. The first big challenge we face is health care. We spend a day twice as much, too times as much, as any other developed country in the world on health care. And you know what, I’d probably be okay with that if our outcomes were twice as good as anybody else’s, but they’re not. We rank somewhere between 25th and 50th as a nation in such important outcome measures as life expectancy, infant mortality, and preventable death. And you know those 40 million people that everybody’s always talking about who don’t have health care insurance? They get health care. They just get it at the emergency room – at eight times the cost of being at the doctor’s office and that cost doesn’t disappear. It gets cost shifted, and it gets cost shifted to you in the form of higher taxes and higher insurance costs. In 1981, we spent 10% of the federal budget on healthcare. Today, we’re spending 25%. By the end of this decade it will be a third and it won’t be long before all this country can do is take care of a couple of old coots like A.B. and me and buy a few tanks. Healthcare – we have to address it.
Number two is defense. We spend more on national defense than the next 17 largest countries combined and that includes both Russia and China (and I’m not even counting the amount we’re spending on the war). I think America is baring a disproportionate responsibility for global world peace, and I don’t believe we can afford to be the world’s policeman. And I think Admiral Mullen, who was chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff under both President Bush and President Obama, got it right when he was asked what our nation’s greatest national security problem is. He didn’t say these terrorists. You know what he said it was? He said it was these deficits because they would chew up every single resource that we need for things like your education. Let me give you one example of how crazy it is. Today, America has a treaty with Taiwan that we’ll protect Taiwan if they’re invaded by the Chinese. There’s just one problem with that. We’ll have to borrow the money from China to do it. It’s crazy.
Number three – we have the most inefficient, ineffective, globally anti-competitive tax code that man could dream up. I could ask the finance professors at Duke University to design a better one and even they couldn’t design a stupider one than the one we have. I do hate those Dukies. I swear I do. I can’t help myself.
Number four – social security. Social security over the next decade will be 900 billion dollars cash negative. Now some people say that I want to throw aunt granny off a cliff or, I want to balance the budget on the backs of granny. Hey, I am granny. No, what I want to do is make social security sustainably solid so it’ll actually be there for the people that need it. You know this Roosevelt guy who created social security? He was a very smart guy. When he created social security, life expectancy was 63. You got social security at 65. That is a very smart guy. Today life expectancy is 79. You get social security at 62 – we have an arithmetic problem. We have to make some very small changes in social security to make sure it’s actually there for you when you need it. Let me give you one example. One of our recommendations was to raise the retirement age , your eligibility age for social security. We wanted to raise it one year – 40 years from now – we wanted to give you a chance to get ready; and one more year – 65 years from now when my grandkids will be eligible. But it’s little teeny changes like that that you have to make to make the promise of social security real. So, they’ll really be there when your generation comes along.
The last problem we have – the last challenge – is interest on this 16-trillion-dollar debt. Even at today’s artificially low interest rates, we are spending 230 billion dollars a year on interest. Let me put that in some kind of relative scale for you. That’s more than we spend at the Department of Commerce, Education, Energy, Homeland Security, Interior Justice, State, and the court system combined. And if interest rates were at their median level like they were in the 1990’s or the first decade of this year, we’d be spending not 230 billion dollars, but 650 billion dollars a year on interest. And if we take the ostrich theory and just stick our heads in the sand and think we could do nothing, by the end of this decade we’ll be spending over a trillion dollars a year on interest. That’s a trillion dollars that we can’t spend in this country to educate our kids, to build the infrastructure we need to move our goods to the market place, or to do high value added research on campuses like mine so we create the next new thing in this country. And you know what makes it doubly bad? It’s a trillion dollars that we will be spending principally in China – the countries we’re borrowing money from to educate their kids, to build their infrastructure, to do the high value added research on their campuses so the next new thing is created over there, not here, and the jobs of the future are there, not here. That is crazy and it has to stop. This is not a problem that we can solely grow our way out of. It’s not a problem we can solely tax our way out of, and it’s not a problem that we can solely cut our way out of. What I want you to do today – you graduates of Peace College – is I want each one of you to think about this. I want you to think about it the way that Ernest Rutherford did. He was the great Nobel Prize winning scientist, and when his Nobel Prize winning project was running out of money he turned to his team and said “Hey, we’re running out of money, now we got to start thinking.” Well you know, that’s what America is – we’re running out of money, now we got to start thinking. We’ve got to make the tough decisions, the hard decisions, and the politically difficult decisions.
I’m confident that if you – if you – push our leaders in Washington, DC to put this ultra-partisanship aside to pull together, to make these really hard decisions, then the future of this country and your future is very, very bright and we can compete with the best and brightest wherever they are. But if we don’t, if my generation keeps our heads in the sand, if we keep kicking the can down the road, if we keep shirking our responsibility, then I believe that we’re well on our way to becoming a second rate power.
Please, please don’t let this happen. Get mad. Get angry. Tell your friends. Demand that my generation and our elected officials deal with this problem before it becomes a crisis. Do it for yourself. Do it for your classmates sitting next to you today. Do it for those beautiful children that you’re going to have in the not too distant future. Please, do it for our country! Thank you and congratulations on this - your big day.”
- Erskine Bowles