The following speech was addressed on May 9, 2012 to the Denver Forum by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
“It’s great to be with you and I am delighted my good friend George Mitrovich asked me to speak to The Forum today.
I came to Denver to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Migrant Workers Health Act at the Community Health Center Convention. Celebrations are a wonderful time to look at what our country valued a half century ago – and to compare it to the values of our own time.
In the anti-immigrant fervor, it is hard to imagine, that a nation would decide to protect the health of migrant workers. And yet they did.
So today, at The Forum, I would like to talk with you about what is going on in our country, to suggest we need to renew our faith in one another.
A nation works best when all of its people feel that they have a role, when all can fully participate, when each is inspired by an ideal greater than one’s own desires; for everyone needs to be part of a compelling mission. The Framers of our country believed that, President Kennedy believe that, as did my father and Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Obama.
America was founded as a “mission into the wilderness.” And in that wilderness, we have explored new frontiers – in science, business and politics. We accomplished the most when we had a sense that we were connected to one another. Sometimes that happens because in fact we are. Americans feel World War II was the good war – in large part because all participated – fought, worked in factories, accepted wage and price controls. Sometimes we feel connected because we feel enlarged by the mission of a few – putting a man on the moon. Or connected to the courage of a small but determined group – the Civil Rights Movement in the early sixties and protesting the war in Vietnam.
Today, I fear that one party has shrunk the American dream and made it only about ME, what is good for me, how wealthy can I become; how I can pay lower taxes. The focus on the ME is a loss. Each of us is important to be sure, but we are enlarged when we are part of something greater.
This was not always the case.
There was a time when we leaders from both political parties referred to John Winthrop’s speech about the “shining city on the hill.” Winthrop first wrote about that city on the hill, Arabella, as his little band of Pilgrims braved stormy seas, rough weather on their voyage to a strange land, to establish a new kind of community.
“We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality.
“We must delight in one another, make the condition of others our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together.
“Consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.
“Beloved there is now set before us life and good, death and evil and in that we are commanded to love the Lord our God and to love one another.”
Dwight Eisenhower quoted the passage to the troops, the night before the D-Day invasion. John Kennedy spoke about that shining city the day before he was inaugurated before a session of the Massachusetts legislature. Ronald Reagan used it as well, when he searched for the image of America whose admirable actions at home would set a standard for what could be achieved across the globe.
Ah, you may think, that ol’ city on the hill patter. It is used so often that it’s become a cliché. Ah, America is destined to be exceptional. You think HILL – with all that it implies about being better than others, above those in the valleys.
But to read Winthrop is to see that you become a beacon of hope, not by announcing that you have reached the mountain top, but by BUILDING a CITY – which I guarantee is a lot messier and difficult than climbing the mountain.
I have climbed mountains – the Matterhorn when I was 18 and Mount Rainer when I was 50, and many in between – Mount Adams, Mount Hood, Mount Washington, and Mount St. Helen’s. The trek up is full of fatigue and difficulty – and can be really cold. Making the summit is exhilarating. I may feel breathless, but I am stunned by the beauty of the range and thrilled that I have been able to put one foot in front of the other, attached the crampons, tied the ropes and reached the top. I have a sense of accomplishment, a boast that can never be taken away.
The thrill of building a city is different because it is a never-ending enterprise and you only contribute a part. You may dig a ditch, pave a road, teach math. You may run a non-profit that helps the elderly, or the hungry or the abused. You could work in a factory, producing a new pharmaceutical that cures a malady. Seldom is the task finished. There is always more to accomplish, more rivers to cross, more trails to walk and hills to climb.
Livable cities require people to work together, discuss and argue together. It requires flexibility and the ability to listen. Winthrop himself was impeached for being too loose with the rules. But the impeachment didn’t solve the problem. In fact those early settlers soon learnt that politics requires compromise, graciousness, and yes forgiveness if the city is to flourish. After being impeached, Winthrop won the next election! Those colonists kept at it and learnt a lot. They saw the need for voting, the rule of law, for respecting one another. They kept at it. The settlers found that they were better off when the city functioned effectively.
Not surprisingly, these values captured the imagination of politicians as different as Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama. They knew that no nation gets to stay great just because the beginning was auspicious. You have to create that which you want; you have to work at it.
When my uncle John Kennedy was president, he was asked to define happiness. Just for this moment think what you would say.
He answered by referring to the ancient Greek definition of happiness: “The full use of your powers along lines of excellence”
For the Greeks, one could only be truly happy in a well functioning society. Prodigious talents are great, but if you don’t have a sphere in which to develop them – the schools are of poor quality, discrimination is rampant – it is hard to be fully happy.
Similarly, you aren’t going to be fulfilled, if having developed the skills, you can’t use them. You can’t move to the job because your house has a high mortgage, or no one is hiring people with your skills – you were a terrific at constructing drywall, or were a terrific architect, but now no one is building houses. If you can’t get a loan to start a business, then the odds are you aren’t going to be deeply fulfilled.
The metaphor of that shining city endures because it reflects the abiding truth that we want our lives to be rich and full – spiritually as well as economically, and that the prosperity can only be developed in a well functioning political system. We become fully human in society, not outside of it.
Today, the rhetoric of happiness focuses on private acts – assuming that it is the individual’s personal responsibility to find satisfaction – either by being fabulously successful in business, or for those who wish for a more spiritual outlet, through meditation, eating well, exercising, and going to therapy. Those private acts can be fulfilling – if the society is functioning – if the structure is strong. But if politics are off, then focusing on private well-being is simply sticking your head in the sand.
As Franklin Roosevelt said, in his 1944 address to Congress,
“True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of what dictatorships are made.”
With high unemployment rates, with threats to immigration continuing, with one presidential candidate’s answer to student loans being a suggestion to try a cheaper college, then it is time to ask what can be done for our country.
You better get your politics right. After all the Greek word for idiot was a private person, someone not engaged in public life. John Kennedy said the Greeks discerned that we are fully human only in the good society
So how did America get off-track and how can we get our mojo back?
First, America has always been a nation in which notions of individualism and community have competed as the metaphor by which we understand ourselves. Is America a “We the People” kind of country, or a place where the American dream is all about me, doing as well as I can – period?
Over the last three decades notions of community have shriveled, while individualism has become the American allegory, the story that we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Certainly, the current of individual liberty, individual progress, individual achievement, the extraordinary openness of American life has been perhaps our greatest contribution to the life of all mankind. It has invited the talented, the hard working, from all over the world. It has been our faith that the free individual, operating in open markets and with careers open to the talents, would bring progress on a scale and quality never before known on earth.
So it has proven. Americans built the country, and by labor and brains created a thriving nation – Dewitt Clinton with the Erie Canal, Alexander Graham Bell and the telegraph, Edison and the light bulb, Carnegie and the Bessemer process, Rockefeller, Frick Oil, railroads – transportation expanded and improved. Americans excelled in science – Salk and the polio vaccine, Craig Ventor and the genome discoveries. We set the bar for entertainment, Jack Warner and Hollywood, Sarnoff and television, Walt Disney – characters, animation, magical parks.
And in the last two decades it has been Americans who once again have launched amazing breakthroughs – Bill Gates with the personal computer, Steve Jobs – iPod, iPhone, iPad, Jeff Bezos and Amazon and Kindle! It is thrill to mention their names and awesome to imagine how much has already been accomplished. They dreamed, they created, they built, and they produced. The freedom to make their dreams come true gave them a great deal of satisfaction and happiness, not only for them but for their fellow American who participated in the building of the country, and for all of us who can shine in that reflected glory.
But there is a darker side to that glory. Individualism unchecked can sometimes seem like an infection run wild. The captain of commerce is a robber baron to his competitors and an exploiter to his workers. The business that gives life to a community is later discovered to have poisoned it with waste. The liberty of expression that shelters the artist also shields the most virulent pornographers.
Commerce creates wealth, raises living standards, and supports the advance of civilization. Yet for whole periods of our history, commerce has seemed to immerse the whole nation in greed, rapaciousness, dishonesty and the exaltation of money and the death or burial of virtue.
It is one thing to be an entrepreneur to create a product that improves our lives – think personal computer, iPod, microwave, GPS. You see my values!
But not all innovation is a social good – even if it makes a few people wealthy. Credit default swaps and derivatives may have a narrowly circumscribed use to help reduce risk, but they were too often used for the banker not the customer, speculation ran wild, with the result that a financial system made a few players fabulously wealthy while at the same time weakening our country.
Ideas matter, they have consequences. And for reasons I find unfathomable around 1980, Ayn Rand’s philosophy ascended. Her hero was the person who was not tied down by family, friends, and connections to neighbors or the larger society. Freed from the other, the individual’s talents could shine. Rather than asking about our neighbors, the Ayn Rand hero thought only about his own self. Create your own life. How are you doing? And, if you aren’t doing well, then blame yourself. It’s your fault baby! As Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko proclaimed, “greed is good.”
Those who preach the value of the free market and unfettered individualism tell us to just start our own business, be an entrepreneur. One presidential candidate claims, “if you don’t have a job, its your own fault” – this when one out of four Californians are searching for full time work. In one presidential debate the audience cheered that a person could be left to die, because he had no insurance. In another they jeered at a soldier risking his life for our country – because he was gay. Rick Perry lost his front-runner status because he defended the Dream Act, legislation providing college education for children of illegal immigrants.
Defined benefit pension plans are attacked, not because they are more efficient – which they are, costing 46% less than defined contribution plans – but because workers have a choice. But why should I know better than professionals? Why shouldn’t I simply yield to their superior wisdom? The rhetoric of choice ignores the value of education and experience.
Our political dialog focuses on the right of individuals to stay different and to pick and choose at will their own models of happiness and fitting life style, not on how we work together to build a better society for all. The very idea of improving society through legislative action is under attack.
And yet, imaginative businesses require a balance between imaginative, entrepreneurial, innovative individuals and the society in which they live. Failed states don’t produce great enterprises just as dictatorships ruin lives. Check out Sudan and Venezuela!
Coinciding with growth of the “greed is good” philosophy have been four other developments which have broken the ties that bind us to one another and the common good: crony capitalism, globalization, what Christopher Lasch called the revolt of the elites, and an anti-institutional animus. The result? A tsunami of me, myself and I which threatens to devastate the institutions and values needed for a free people.
Crony capitalism exists where the wealthy use their power to insure government policy helps them. Examples abound. My brother Bobby, a great environmentalist, detailed how the policies of the Bush administration encouraged companies to spend money on the politics rather then investing in their business. For many decades, it was illegal for coal companies to dump the debris from the destruction of mountains in Appalachia into streams and waterways. The coal companies even went to court to argue that the law was wrong. They lost. So rather then invest in new technologies that would protect the streams and waterways in West Virginia, they “invested” in politics, hired lobbyists and got the definition of “fill” redefined, and with the new interpretation, they could level the mountains, and fill the streams and waterways.
Look at the financial industry. The Chamber of Commerce, said it would “spend whatever it takes” to defeat the consumer financial protection bureau. From 2009 through the beginning of 2010, it was one of the biggest spenders among the more than 850 businesses and trade groups that together paid lobbyists $1.3 billion to fight financial reform.
And even after it was passed, the financial establishment kept up its attacks. Last year, the financial industry flooded Congress with 2,565 lobbyists. JPMorgan Chase, which received $25 billion in TARP funds from taxpayers, spent nearly $14 million on lobbying during the 2009-10 election cycle; Goldman Sachs, which received more than $10 billion from taxpayers, spent $7.4 million; Citigroup, which was teetering on the brink of insolvency and received a $45 billion infusion, has paid more than $14 million to lobbyists since 2009.
Crony capitalism is not a new phenomenon. In 1833 Andrew Jackson vetoed the bill that extended the charter of the Second Bank of the United States. His message resonates today. It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.
Many of our rich men have not been content with equal protection and equal benefits, but have besought us to make them richer by act of Congress. We must take a stand take a stand against any prostitution of our government to the advancement of the few at the expense of the many .
The second thing that has accelerated the attack on the notion of the common welfare to which our country was once dedicated is globalization.
In the 19th and 20th century American business leaders saw that it was in their best interest for their fellow Americans to be well-skilled, well-educated, with a work ethic that could take all comers. They also wanted riverboats that operated smoothly – on sea, rivers, lakes or canals. They wanted reliable railroads, and highway that ran east-west, north-south, large, and so smoothly that trucks and cars could move with ease. They built sewage systems, and insisted that the air and water be clean, and wilderness, forests and parks be set aside for the common good. Businesses’ bottom line improved with healthy and productive workers. And, the union movement that fought for higher wages and better pensions meant that the workers had enough money to buy the cars, radios, dishwashers, cornflakes that Ford, GE, Whirlpool, and Kellogg’s wanted to sell. Knowing they had good pension, they could spend, without fear that they would end their lives in poverty.
So they taxed all, but particularly the wealthy to pay for the shared benefits. When I grew up, my family paid a marginal tax rate of 90% because as my grandfather said, he wanted a country in which all could do well, not just the few. And for a while, Republicans agreed. Hoover raised the tax rate from 25% to 63% for those earning over $100,000 per year.
But now, corporations can shift their production and customer base overseas. Why do they need good schools in the US, or roads here, or sewage systems that work?
Globalization is great for corporations, perhaps less good for countries. A corporation leader’s first priority is management compensation, shareholder value, customer satisfaction, and their employees. Those who once would be our community leaders, no longer have to burden themselves with the cumbersome task of building a civic society, no longer need all the people to live in safe and orderly neighborhoods here in their home countries.
A German car company – Audi – advertises that you should buy their expensive car ($50K) because the roads are in such awful shape – and aren’t getting fixed. Wouldn’t it be better to pay a higher tax so the roads are smooth and you won’t have to buy such an expensive car – both you and the country will be better off!
This brings us to Christopher Lasch’s revolt of the elites, the third development that has helped break the ties that bind us to one another. The elites of our times are not tied to a single country. We are more like nomads than rooted people. We travel, move, flee or go. We are not settled. So, of course, we are captured by commerce not country. Why should the elite be loyal to their fellow countrymen? They don’t need to educate them, or provide good public transportation, or decent health care – or even jobs.
Power derives not from running the Rotary or Lions Clubs, or local church group or helping non-profits house the homeless, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked; it comes not from territory but from the ability to move quickly. Traveling light rather than holding on tightly is now the asset of power. Rockefeller liked his railroads and oils rigs – but they were here, in America. In contrast, Bill Gates moves around the world, Apple with its light iPhones and iPads had at one point last summer more cash than the US Treasury.
The contemporary global elite seldom put their lives on the line in battle. Nor do they burden themselves with chores of administration, management, welfare concerns or for that matter bringing light or morally uplifting civilizing and cultural crusades. Active engagement in the life of middle class is no longer needed. On the contrary it is actively avoided as unnecessary costly and ineffective. Concern for the poor, or upward mobility is merely a quaint notion.
In the last ten years, rather than describing what we ought to do and teaching discipline, restraint, duty, and responsible savings, the elites instead encouraged – DEBT!
Finally we come to mistrust of government, maybe the most potent threat to the notion of the common good. The denigration of government has its sources in a 20th century that feared, with reason, the heavy hand of the state. Governments in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the horrendous dictators in the South America and Africa surely deserve criticism. Totalitarian governments gave rise to a eloquent critiques, George Orwell’s 1984, Aldus Huxley’s “Brave New World.”
For much of the 20th century, social critics feared government power. They feared that that the state would control us. And so focused on negative liberty, human rights.
Government can be problematic. But those critics gave little thought to what would replace it. What happens if the public space is emptied, or at least narrowed? The answer is clear, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” People magazine, gossip, discussion of hairstyles, dress, not what is needed for the public good. People fled the public square, filling it not with power, but with a focus on personal drama.
Government, which was once the place where we could make our most solemn common decisions, is derided. Now it is cool to deregulate and privatize our tasks and duties – schools, health care, even water. The pursuit of money is the only thing we have in common.
As de Tocqueville said, setting people free makes them indifferent. The individual is the citizen’s worst enemy. The citizen is a person inclined to seek her or his own welfare through the well being of the city, while the individual tends to be lukewarm, skeptical or wary about the common cause, the common good, the good society, the just society.
But in the last analysis, all nations depend on virtues that have nothing to do with money. Courage, self-sacrifice, honor, duty, stoicism, and truth: these are the essential virtues of a democracy and none of them can be bought. And those values were lost as we entered a world where “greed was good.” A nation needs to instill virtues and values of selflessness in order to survive.
Our soldiers risk their lives. They know courage, loyalty, hard work, self-sacrifice. But it is not only in war that societies must turn to qualities not found in commerce. Societies at peace also require firemen, police, rescue workers, teachers for our toughest schools. No man goes into a burning building for mere money. Values not found in commerce need nurturing – to fight our wars, to police our streets, to teach our children, to care for they dying.
Yet, in a nation that values only money, it is tough to get them to honor those virtues that would help the soldiers. The suicide rate of returning vets is way too high. Recall how much shame it took for one party to fully fund the health needs of the first responders of 9-11.
So where can the values of responsibility, hard work, courage, loyalty be nurtured and how can we construct a government that merits trust? I see four possibilities – religion, service, universities, and yes government itself in which people do participate in the decisions that affect their lives.
First, religion: At one time, religion provided a counterweight to the rapacious tendencies unleashed by capitalism. Greed is not good in the pews. But now, religion too is divided. As I argue in my book, “Failing America’s Faithful,” the right has shrunk God, as it focuses on three issues – abortion, same sex marriage, and stem cell research. Critical questions to be sure, but not the full range of God’s interest, I wager. In fact there is little discussion of Jeremiah’s warning, “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit.”
And what about the left? Some have abandoned organized religion seeing its hypocrisy and flagrant misuse of power. Others think that the First Amendment prohibits faith’s power to enter the public square.
It was not always thus, my father for instance wrote a front-page article for LOOK magazine, “Suppose God is Black.” Then God was a big God, not created in the image of His followers but demanding that we see the God’s face in the hungry, in the immigrant, in prisons, yes, even in our enemy as pointed out in Matthew 25. We were called to love our neighbor. In fact, many young evangelists are not content to be against abortion and gay marriage. They want to reduce poverty; they are part of the creation care movement. And, the left is also rediscovering faith – with new groups forming such as Catholic for the Common Good, and Faith and Politics, following the example set by Jim Wallis and Sojourners in Washington, DC.
A second restraint on greed and promoter of greater commitment to country could be the service movement. Campus Compact and other such organizations have grown dramatically over the last two decades. The numbers of young people who are engaged in service is stunning, far beyond anything ever experienced in our nation’s history. The retired too are making their contribution to communities, by helping schools, hospitals, child care centers, nursing homes. The free voluntary association is, as DeTocqueville rightly saw, one of the fine distinguishing marks of the United States. While we may no longer boast, as did Senator Frank Norris, that he hoped our voluntary service would lift Shanghai “up and up till it is just like Kansas City,” we still believe that caring about others, is a value to be honored.
In my mind, community service leads naturally to politics. While many care about community, unfortunately that concern seldom translates to a respect for politics, or the importance of a government devoted to prosperity for all not the few. Sadly, many of those who happily serve their fellow human beings in Habitat for Humanity, the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Sierra Club or any number of equally worthy association; do not like to see themselves as citizens. They like the word volunteer – because that sounds selfless, but citizen sounds too political.
When I was on a mission to make Maryland the first, and still only state to require service as a condition of high school graduation, I talked with thousands of high schools students and countless classes. One in particular sticks in my mind. I went to one where all the students had performed service, and the teacher has asked them to describe what they did – clean up a stream, plant trees, tutor younger children, raise money for the Red Cross. One young man told how he delivered meals on wheels to an elderly couple but that he had to stop at one point because they had a problem with Social Security.
So naturally I asked, well why he didn’t help them with the Social Security issue.
He answered, “Well that would be politics.”
Oh, I said, that is rather solipsistic of you, and since the class had not yet studied for the SATs they didn’t know what I was talking about, I explained: you are willing to help if it is community service, if it feels good, but not if could help the couple, if it means getting involved in politics.
Well that started a lively discussion, and the teacher, who was a friend, called me three months later to say, that the students were still debating the idea of politics and community service.
But I can’t give up on service. I think that so many young want to make a difference. It is critical to demonstrate that politics is a way to amplify their voices, make the mission that they have devoted themselves to attract a larger following. You may want to tutor a single child – but service can teach that you have the power through politics to help many more. Politics gives you the chance to transform whole systems – it enlarges the scope of what can be accomplished.
Recently I was at a college, one of the top twenty in the nation, where half the students studied abroad, I asked what countries they admired the most – other than America.
Many mentioned the Scandinavian countries – because of their high standard of living, accessible education and universal health care. A few mentioned Brazil for its ability to bring so many out of poverty while ending its dependence on foreign oil. A few even alluded to Bhutan, which has replaced GDP with happiness measurements.
Most interestingly, at the end of the discussion a few mentioned that they had never felt particularly tied to America. When I mentioned that our values are important and worth of imitation, and that I would be happy if I could impose our values on others, they were horrified. I mentioned it may not be possible, but we have good values. They immediately raised torture, Guantanamo, and extraordinary renditions.
This was a college, which had neither a club for College Democrats, or College Republicans.
Politics and government held little allure. Even the idea of America didn’t attract much interest. These extremely bright and capable students simply believed that they could pursue their dreams without worrying about the system in which they operated.
A three-day conference in Washington, which attracted thousands of presidents and deans from colleges and universities around the nation, asked me to speak on a panel about citizenship. About twenty people showed up. The next panel – dealing with emotional intelligence had a packed audience.
If our young, the most privileged, the most educated, abandon interest in America, then we will be a poorer nation for that loss. Indeed the world will be poorer, for other nations will have a greater hold on the imagination – Brazil, China, Bhutan.
This brings me to the universities and their role in engaging the young in a new vision of America. Of course, universities could simply accede to what one might describe as the bulldozer of history, and focus efforts on helping each individual student hone those skills, which will make her or him most marketable.
Or universities can become the thought leaders who not only describe what a good society should be, but actually undertake the work of creating that society. They can be the change that is needed. Adam Micnik, who was the intellectual force in Solidarity in Poland, famously counseled his compatriots rather than fight the Communists head on, better to build an alternative society. When the Fall comes, as it inevitably would given the rottenness in the system, the men and women of Solidarity would be able to step in – which indeed they did.
And where better to instill those values than at our colleges and universities. One college president described his job as small town mayor. You have traffic, jobs, utilities, labor unions, and questions about sustainability. In short you have in each of your institutions, many of the same challenges that our country faces. Yet, by making sure all do well you will insure a stronger campus and a better college or university. The prologue to the Constitution speaks to creating a more perfect union. The continual and constant devotion to improvement leaving a better life for the next generation is the central virtue of a college or university.
The task of universities is two fold. First to make sure that students develop their talents. Notice that I did not say, “provide opportunities” for students to succeed. Some don’t know how to take advantage of opportunities. Some have too much static in their lives – poor preparation, a learning disability, a jobless father, sick mother, addicted brother, no car and no public transportation, no mentors or models of success.
Second, show that opportunity need not be an empty promise but a genuine commitment to the success of all. Those who have done well have been lifted by a network of relationships and institutions. We are connected to one another, need one another and have responsibility for one another. “We labor and suffer together; delight in each other,” wrote John Winthrop.
By making sure that all do well, you can show by example, that it is in the good society that people have the best chance to use their talents.
I hope therefore that college presidents, deans and the students themselves will accept this challenge. As we need them to inspire students, professors and staff, if that “shining city on a hill” is to be realized; we need them to create the new model by which a nation can indeed govern itself.
Finally, I hope government can bring about its own reform, so that it attracts those innovative souls who are thrilled with what they can accomplish to make a better country. Of course, like all institutions there is the share of the tired, and lazy and stodgy. But with leadership, whether from the top or the bottom much is being changed.
I love the story of a bureaucrat deep in the depths of the CIA who saw that the culture of keeping information to one’s self is devastatingly self-defeating in the war on terrorism. He figured that he could change the culture if he took the lessons from Wikipedia and made it cool to share information. So he started it – and it worked. When he described his success with the man brought in to get people to share information, the big shot was thrilled and eagerly offered to give him a budget. The lowly bureaucrat turned him down. First, because once you give money, then you can always take it away. Second, he pointed out that it was anti-authoritarian bent of the project that had induced so many to sign on.
Community policing and community parole and probation has helped to reduce crime in countless cities by changing the way neighborhoods and police work together.
The race to the top is an innovation in which funds flow to those who do a better job of educating children.
Stories of exciting initiatives abound. But they are seldom heard because of a self-defeating narrative that government is too big, too slow, and too retro.
So today, I hope that we can change our narrative. Bid Ayn Rand adieu, and reunite that metaphor of the city – not as cliché, but as an abiding truth about our country and ourselves.
Rather than accede to Ayn Rand’s philosophy that each person makes it on his or her own, you can take a different tack. We are free when we are economically secure. We are happy when we are using the full range of our talents. We can’t be satisfied if we do well while others suffer. America is an idea. That idea isn’t perfect, but we can always improve it.
To paraphrase my father’s speech at Berkeley in 1966:
“In the world and at home we have the opportunity and responsibility to help make the choices which will determine the greatness of this nation… You live in the most privileged nation on earth and you are the most privileged citizens of that privileged nation for you have been given the opportunity to study and to learn. You can use your enormous privilege and opportunity to seek purely private pleasure and gain. But history will judge you, and, as the years pass, you will ultimately judge yourself, on the extent to which you have used your gifts to lighten and enrich the lives of your fellow man. In your hands, not with presidents or leaders, is the future of your world and the fulfillment to the best qualities of your own spirit.”
I close with the words John F. Kennedy began his presidency with, “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you – but ask what you can do for your country.”