(An adaptation of Paul Krugman’s commencement address delivered at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass., on May 21, 2016.)
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.
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.
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. 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, having tons and tons of it doesn’t really do much for you.
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. 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, 1967 was the Summer of Love - and in 1969 only 17% of white Americans thought black-white marriages were O.K. A plurality still disapproved into the 1980s. But today, almost nobody admits to having a problem with people of a different color marrying.
More recently still, we’ve seen a dramatic sea change on another marriage question: All of a sudden, most Americans are also O.K. 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. 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. 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, “O.K., 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 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.
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.
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 pre-existing 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 1% 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.
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.