Robert Reich addresses Berkeley’s newest graduates

Robert Reich addresses Berkeley’s newest graduates

October 25, 2019 3 By Stanley Isaacs


(applause and cheering) – Well, thank you so much
Diane, Chancellor Dirks, deans, faculty, Jonathan, thank you for the great address, alumni, friends, parents,
significant others, and insignificant others, (laughs) member of the great class of 2015. As you can see, the
economy has worn me down. (laughs) But, we are in a recovery! (applause and cheering) As former Secretary of
Labor I do have to warn you it’s still a lousy job market. But, there are two pieces of good news I wanna share with you. First, college graduates
are doing far better than they did last year. And secondly, in a few minutes
you’re going to be a graduate of the best public
university in the world. (applause and cheering) And, with your degree you
will be on the winning side of the great divide. Now, that great divide is
one of the largest challenges we confront as a society. And, it’s not just in the
United States but it’s in almost all other countries as well. The United States along
with other rich countries is heading back to the
wealth concentrations last seen in the gilded
age of the 19th century. And, the American economy
today is about twice as large as it was 30 years ago, but the median income has barely risen. Now, when I say median
income that’s different from average, right? (laughs) I mean, Shaquille O’Neal,
that basketball player and I have an average height of 6’2″. (laughs) Do you get my drift? People at the top bring up the average, so that’s why we need
to look at the median, half above, half below and median incomes have barely increased,
adjusted for inflation, over the past 35 years. Most of the income and wealth has gone to the top. Now, when I say this sometimes I’m accused of being a class warrior. I am not a class warrior. I’m a class worrier. (laughs) There’s a difference, two
letters, but it’s more than that. I worry about a nation, a society growing too divided with a
middle class that is shrinking. An economy cannot be
sustained as an economy when the vast middle class and the poor don’t have enough purchasing power to buy what the economy can produce. A democracy cannot be sustained when the rich have enough
political purchasing power to buy what elected officials can produce. (applause and cheering) Now, why this fundamental change? What has occured? Now, partly it is due to
over the last 35 years something we call globalization. Globalization is one of
those words to have gone directly from obscurity to meaninglessness without any intervening
period of coherence. But, I’m talking when I say globalization I mean the integration of
not only product markets but also direct investments,
and also to some extent immigration, everything else
that brings the world together. Gone forever are the
good manufacturing jobs for Americans without much education. But partly, it’s also due to
labor replacing technologies. Technologies that have
replaced bank tellers and telephone operators,
and elevator operators, and service station attendants, and soon many professional services. The problem is not the number of jobs, jobs are returning. The problem is the wages
of most of the jobs that are returning are lower
than the jobs that were lost during the Great Recession. At the same time Americans
are segregating by income into different towns and cities, more than we’ve ever segregated before. Being rich in America essentially means not having to come across
anybody who is not. Moreover, widening inequality
and climate change together are conspiring all over the
world to impose hardship where supplies of food and
water are growing scarce. Where the poor live in low
lying areas that are prone to flooding, or in homes
most likely damaged by extreme weather. You see how these issues are absolutely inextricably related to one another. The challenge is daunting,
but we have no choice but to reverse these trends. And, they will be reversed,
either through reforms or populist insurrection. Reform is the more prudent direction. Now, three things I’d like
you to carry away with you a recent study showed that
a week after graduating only 2% of graduates remembered anything their commencement speaker said. (laughs) So, I’m going to be very pointed about these three things, all right? And, if I come across any
one of you, certainly within the next two months I’m going to ask you what these three things were. Number one: First in this era of widening inequality always make sure to respect
those who don’t have the education or the status you do. (applause and cheering) A college degree is not
a license for arrogance. (applause and cheering) In fact, respect everybody you work with, regardless of their station. My first job 50 years ago was working in the Senate office of Robert F. Kennedy. It sounds glamourous, but
my job was not glamourous. I ran his signature machine. (laughs) You know what that is? There’s a little pen at the
end of a long wooden handle and I would push a little
button and make sure that all of the letters to
consituents were lined up exactly right so that
the pen and his signature were appropriate and lined up nicely. It was a fine job, but after
three months I was going crazy. I was so bored that I did something that I’m not terribly proud of. Will you keep it in this room, please, what I’m about to tell you? Well, I snuck in at night
and on the same typewriters, the Selectric we then
had, typewriters that the secretarial pool
then used I wrote letters on Robert F. Kennedy
stationary to my friends. (laughs) And, they were letters
like “Dear Mister Dworkin, “Congratulations on
having the largest nose “in New York State.” And then, I used the signature
machine, Robert F. Kennedy. (laughs) My friend’s still have this, I see them on their walls framed. But then, one day after
months and months of this I was standing in the Senate
hallway, in the hallway of the office building there
and the elevator doors opened and out came from the elevator
Senator Robert F. Kennedy, surrounded by his aides,
looking like he was doing, and he was doing very important work. And, I had not seen him, I’d
not even laid eyes on him. I saw his signature, but
I had not actually seen the Senator. I was so excited. And, he looked at me and he said, “How are you doing, Bob.” (laughs) He knew my name, I couldn’t believe it. He had asked me a question,
and I couldn’t even summon the answer out of my throat I was so overwhelmed. But, I’ll tell you
something from that day on if he had asked me to
work his signature machine for the next three years
I would have done it. Respect, respect. (applause and cheering) Number two: I’ve talked
to you about these trends widening inequality and
the interaction between widening inequality and climate change. I hope that you will help,
you will help reverse these trends in some way, in some way. (one person applause and cheering) Thank you, you will. (laughs) Now, you will be in positions
to exercise leadership. You don’t have to be a secretary
of some cabinet department or President of the United States in order to exercise leadership. You can exercise leadership
in very modest ways. Leadership is the art and
the practice of getting many people around you
to focus on problems that they would rather not focus on. They prefer to deny
that the problems exist or they’d prefer to
escape from the problems, or blame others for the problems, or find relief in cynicism that says nothing can be changed. The role of a leader is to
overcome these escape mechanisms, these work avoidance mechanisms, and you, everyone of you will be
in a position to do that. (applause and cheering) Third and finally: Know the difference between tenacity and martyrdom. (applause and cheering) In otherwords, be tenacious
but don’t burn yourself out. If you’re change the world for the better, even a little bit for the better, you’re gonna need patience. It is not easy to do, there
are gonna be setbacks. Change doesn’t come easily. You’ll need to accept
what you cannot change at least right away. And dedicate yourself
again and again to changing what you cannot accept. So, members of the great class of 2015 go forth and do your best. Comfort the afflicted, even
if that means occasionally afflicting the comfortable. (applause and cheering) And, use every opportunity
you get to renew and re-energize yourself. May your work be filled with meaning, may your days be filled with purpose, and may your lives be filled with joy. Thank you. (applause and cheering)