Meeting the Challenge of Slow-Motion Crises

The United States faces three slow-motion crises—the future of work, climate change, and the federal debt—that we risk not tackling until it is too late.

Originally published at Colgate University News

May 21, 2018

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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

On Sunday, May 20, CFR President Richard Haass delivered the commencement address at Colgate University. In addition to a few “life lessons,” Haass focused on three slow-motion crisesthe future of work, climate change, and America’s federal debtthat he argues we risk not tackling until it is too late.

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President Casey, members of the faculty, and soon-to-be graduates of the Class of 2018—good morning. It is a treat to be here with you today. 

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Truth be told, I enjoy commencements, as they tend to be one of the few occasions when just about everyone is happy. What makes it all so interesting is that people tend to be happy for different reasons. Some cry tears of joy and pride, others surprise and relief. You know who you are. Whatever.

Thank you for the honor of being asked to speak. And thank you as well for including me with these four highly distinguished individuals of such accomplishment being honored today with degrees by the Colgate community.

I want to begin by congratulating those graduating. Let me reassure you that despite a career that often took me to Washington, I will not filibuster. I’ll do my best to keep this at, or at least close to, 13 minutes. I take seriously the notion that I am a large part of what stands between you all and your degrees.

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This will rightfully be a day for you all to be celebrated. But first, I’m going to ask you to do one thing. Please stand, turn, and thank the parents and family members, professors, and friends who helped get you to this point.

Alas, that pretty much ends the cheerful part of my remarks. Get ready for a dose of reality. The reality is that the world you are entering is one filled by a large number of uncertainties and threats. The quantity and quality of the challenges facing the United States and the world are unprecedented in my experience. A rising but illiberal China, North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Russian interference in democratic elections and its willingness to use armed force both to change borders and sustain a regime guilty of war crimes, Syria’s devastating civil war, Iran’s destabilizing activities in much of the Middle East, the unravelling of important parts of the global trading system—these are but a few of the challenges awaiting you. Hovering above them all is the fundamental question of whether the United States will continue to disrupt important elements of the world order it did so much to build and so much to maintain over the past 70 years. And then there are all those issues here at home.

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My intention, though, is not to depress you. I promise. Even less is it to convey a message of hopelessness. To the contrary; one of the few things I have learned in the more than four decades since I graduated college and in the course of working for four presidents of the United States is that little is inevitable. People and ideas matter. People and ideas are what determine history. My hope is that many of you sitting before me today will depart this campus determined to make your own share of history.

Toward that end, I want to focus on three issues that in important ways will shape the world you will inhabit. The question is how you plan to prepare for this reality and what you intend to do about it.

The three issues are the future of work, climate change, and America’s growing federal debt. All three are crises even if we rarely see them as such.

Think about it. We tend to use the word “crisis” to describe a sudden, sharp, unpredictable event. Pearl Harbor, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Global Financial Crisis, and September 11 all come to mind.

The three crises I intend to talk about this morning are different. They are slow-motion crises. They are already under way. We should not be asking if they will happen, but rather at what pace and with what effects.

We should also understand that none will get better, much less resolved, if left alone. Neglect is not benign. What isn’t done can be every bit as consequential as what is.

What is more, time and inaction work against us in all three cases; the consequences will grow while the window for relatively modest and inexpensive remedies will close. The problem is that slow-motion crises tend not to generate the focus and sense of urgency that lead to needed action. My goal is to change just that for those of you here today.

Let’s begin with the future of work. I would bet a significant percentage of the parents or grandparents with us today have held only a handful of jobs during their lifetimes. Many of them graduated from school, joined a company, and worked their way up the ranks. All the while many of their employers provided health care and contributed to their retirement. They may have even received that fabled gold watch—you know, the sort of watch that told you the time and nothing else—at retirement.

You, today’s graduates, face a trajectory that could hardly be more different. The average American worker starting out now will know a dozen or more separate jobs during his or her lifetime. One reason for this future of non-stop change will be emerging technologies. Artificial intelligence, robotics, driverless vehicles—these and other developments will eliminate a good many jobs currently performed by people.

To be sure, new jobs will also be created. Some of them we cannot yet foresee. I didn’t know what a web developer was when I was your age and I am not entirely confident I could tell you today. But now over 163,000 Americans earn a living doing just that. The problem is that the new jobs will require skills that are different and more demanding than those associated with the jobs that are disappearing. The mismatch we already see between skills in the work force and those required for emerging jobs will grow.

So what will it take to narrow this down? Those of you graduating today will have to discard the notion that you have finished your education. Apologies. But this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. That’s why they call today “commencement,” not “conclusion.” Lifelong learning and periodic retraining will become the new normal.

The premium on highly educated workers with specialized skill sets will grow. Lower-skilled, lower-paying jobs will be the first to be automated, but even higher-paying jobs that require greater levels of education and training will not be immune. Demand will continue to grow for employees good at collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, and the ability to draw connections across disciplines that machines cannot—or at least cannot as yet—perform. The education you have received at Colgate puts you in a good position to succeed in this changing economy. Again, though, your strong undergraduate education is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success.

This country will also need to restructure the relationship between jobs and benefits. With much of actual and projected job growth in part-time, contingent, or gig employment, and with job-switching becoming more frequent, it makes little sense to tie retirement and sick leave to particular jobs. Instead, portable benefits should be introduced that follow the individual from job to job.

Such reforms will not just happen; it will require citizens—that is, you and the people sitting next to—along with those who represent them to bring them about. It will take enormous effort, as others will surely oppose such changes. The stakes are high: if we fail to enact such reforms, the American people will become even more divided and even more disenchanted. Should this come to pass, the United States will be unable to continue to do many of the things that have done so much to improve lives around the world and here at home.

The second slow-motion crisis I want to discuss is climate change. In your lifetime, Miami may no longer be a viable spring break destination. The Maldives may no longer be a dream honeymoon destination; indeed, the Maldives may no longer be.

It is widely, if not universally, accepted that human activity contributes to climate change and that climate change is real. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer than any since 1850. The ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998. The intellectual and political holdouts maintaining that climate change is a hoax are members of a modern flat earth society.

The consequences of global warming include rising sea levels and flooding, which puts low-lying coastal areas and entire island countries at risk. Storms are becoming more frequent and more severe. Climate change can also cause water scarcity and pose a threat to various forms of animal, marine, plant, and insect life as well as increase the prevalence of disease-carrying insects. For good reason, climate change is already an important issue for many of you.

A response to climate change needs to include elements of mitigation, adaptation, and possibly geo-engineering. Mitigation refers to measures that reduce the amount of carbon and other gases causing climate change released into the atmosphere, and can involve decreasing fossil fuel use, expanding the use of alternative sources of energy, preserving or replanting forests that absorb carbon dioxide, and taxing or regulating activities that contribute to climate change. Such steps, including the 2016 Paris climate accord, are all warranted but not close to being enough given how much climate change is already in train.

Policies focused on adaptation include discouraging people from living in coastal areas that are vulnerable to flooding or relocating those who do or updating building codes that affect where homes and offices are built or how they are built. Adaptation doesn’t promise to solve the problem as much as manage it. But, sometimes management is the best that realistically can be hoped for in this imperfect world we inhabit.

Geo-engineering, which would attempt to reverse climate change, for instance by putting particles in the atmosphere that would block some of the sun’s rays, is a nascent area that needs to be explored further to come up with approaches that are viable, affordable, and safe. This may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but geo-engineering promises to trigger a pressing national and international debate sooner than you think.

My point is this: it is not enough to avoid plastic bags, recycle bottles, avoid living in areas prone to flooding, install solar panels, and drive fuel-efficient cars. You should learn enough about the policy options relevant to climate change (or other important issues, for that matter) so that you put yourself in a position to know which municipal, state, corporate, national, and international policies and initiatives to support and which to oppose. Those elected can only be held accountable if those who vote them into office are able to challenge them on the substance of the issues and, if need be, to vote them out—or even take their place.

The third looming crisis is America’s federal debt, which stands at $21 trillion and is projected to reach well over $30 trillion in a decade. In case you couldn’t understand it, that’s trillion with a capital T.

I raise this subject fully aware that for many of you the pressing subject is less the nation’s debt than your own. My own view is that this country should find a way to forgive or reduce student debt in exchange for various forms of national service. Employers can also help those they hire. It is neither equitable nor wise for a society to allow so many to set out on careers to do so with such a burden.

Indebtedness at the national level is a problem that many advanced economies share. What makes the United States unique is its role in the global economy, the scale of its debt, how quickly the debt has grown, and the extent (more than 40 percent) to which this country relies on other countries to finance its deficits.

As the federal government has to borrow more, interest rates already on their way up will rise even more as foreign governments and markets come to question our ability to repay its debts. With higher interest rates, a greater amount and portion of government revenue will be needed to service debt, meaning there will be less money for education, less money for basic research, and less money for infrastructure. At the same time, economic growth will slow. High debt will limit the government’s ability to deal effectively with the next recession. You should not assume the government will be able to provide sufficient funds to tide you through a period of disability or your retirement.

Both decreases in revenue and increases in spending are fueling this growing debt burden. This debt is already larger than the nation’s total annual economic output and instead is growing at a faster rate than our economy. Yet another cold truth is that we cannot grow our way out of the debt we are accumulating.

Our fiscal situation requires adjustments to both spending and revenues, the latter being a euphemism for taxes. Some taxes—including corporate and inheritance taxes—may need to be increased. In terms of expenditures, any serious conversation on how to get America’s fiscal house in order has to include health care and entitlement reform; namely, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

I want to add a word of caution here, though. Significant cuts in what we spend on national security—on defense, diplomacy, foreign aid, intelligence, and homeland security—are not the answer. What we spend on national security as a percentage of our annual national output is well below the Cold War average. What is more, the threats we confront in the world are both numerous and dangerous and dealing with them requires considerable investment and effort. We would pay a high price if terrorism were to become more frequent and violent, if weapons of mass destruction proliferated, if wars become more numerous and more destructive. The good news, and I told you there would be some good news, is that we can have both the guns and the butter we need without increasing the debt so long as we make good choices overseas and domestically. How we spend public money is far more important than how much we spend.

I could give a list of my proposals for increasing revenues, reforming entitlements and health care, and where to decrease spending, but it might be Monday before we concluded and I would break my declared 13-minute rule. More important, my purpose today is not to persuade you of the correctness of my recommendations but rather to persuade you of the need to put yourself in a position where you can come up with your own and rigorously judge those of others. Your generation is not responsible for creating this enormous debt, but it will be responsible for fixing it. This may not be fair, but it is your lot.

It is difficult to exaggerate the stakes when it comes to these three slow-motion crises. A failure to adapt to the future of work will lead to widespread, long-term unemployment that is sure to prove corrosive to families and the society. A failure to confront climate change will require far-reaching and costly changes in where and how we live and increase natural disasters, refugee flows, disease, and conflicts. A failure to tame our ballooning debt will leave us with fewer resources to devote to improving this society or the world and it will leave us more vulnerable to the whims of markets and the policies of other governments.

I appreciate that I have painted what some of you may judge to be a bleak picture. But as I said earlier, little in life is inevitable. While I am rarely accused of being an optimist—my latest book is called A World in Disarray—I am optimistic about the possibilities. That we know these crises are unfolding is a good thing if we choose to do something about them sooner rather than later.

All of which brings us to making the right choices. A democracy requires not just an engaged citizenry but an informed one. Our first president, George Washington, said it best in his farewell address: “In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public option, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”

This is where you, the Class of 2018, come in. As I argued some minutes back, education must be an ongoing component of your life. Too many of us tend to think of education as if we were filling up the car with gas. We go to college, we fill up our tank, and we drive off until the tank is empty.  Instead, you will want get off the highway of life from time to time and top off your tank. The change of pace and the fresh fuel will do you good.

You also owe it to yourselves and your country to get and stay informed.  Read one or more quality newspapers: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Financial Times. Commit to reading at least one quality magazine: the Economist, the Atlantic, the New YorkerForeign Affairs. Set aside enough time for good history and biography.

And let me suggest one additional pursuit. From time to time, listen to a podcast or visit a website or watch a cable show that you disagree with. Don’t limit yourself to the echo chamber that is much of cable television and the Internet.

And never forget that facts still matter. On Colgate’s seal are the words Deo ac Veritati (For God and for truth). Your relationship with God is for you to decide, but your relationship with the truth must be unconditional.

But don’t be content with just acquiring what is correct. Act on it. I would hope that some of you will choose to become economists, scientists, or teachers, or go into business, politics, journalism, or the law and tackle these issues directly. Some of you may choose to focus on a life that involves foreign policy and government. It worked for Peter Tarnoff, a Colgate graduate who was also one of my predecessors at the Council on Foreign Relations, and I’d like to think it has worked for me. But even if you choose other paths, be it medicine or music, the military or math, finance or philosophy, exercise your citizenship. Citizenship is a privilege, but with privilege comes responsibility. There simply is no excuse not to vote. Nor is there an excuse for not knowing about the issues and candidates you are voting on.

One final point. What you don’t do can matter as much or more as what you choose to do. I am fortunate to be able to be able to stand here to say that I have reached this point in my life with few regrets. But those I do have stem most from things I failed to do and failed to say when it mattered most. So, when in doubt, make your errors ones of commission rather than omission.

I mentioned when I began that today is called commencement rather than conclusion for good reason. To this I would add commitment. I hope you will leave this campus more committed than before to studying and then doing something about the issues certain to shape your future. I can think of no better way to put the education you have gained here at Colgate to better use.

Thank you again for this opportunity to speak with you today, and Godspeed to the Class of 2018.

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