I attended a talk by the 42nd President of the U.S., William Jefferson Clinton last night at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, part of the Distinguished Speaker Series. Packing a wealth of stories, stats and a good sense of humor, he promised and then delivered a framework we can all use to make sense of today’s complex world in which we live. Wondering about what caused the financial meltdown of September 15, 2008? How about our education crisis (according to Clinton we slipped from first to tenth in the past decade)? Or how we’re to “win” in Afghanistan? For most of us, it takes every bit of our energy to deal with life’s immediate challenges, let alone trying to sort fact from fiction from all the information we’re bombarded with in today’s fragmented and often biased media ecosystem. His talk gave a fresh perspective on how to interpret the world today and some guidance on what we can do to affect change.
The number one definining characteristic of the 21st century is our global interdependence. The result of our diversity and new technologies like the Internet carry with it both good and bad consequences. Posit for a moment that we know the good things, namely technology. Most of the bad consequences of our interconnectedness are defined by inequality and instability.
Inequalityis presented primarily in education and income. One billion people live on less than $1 per day, one billion people will go hungry tonight and one billion don’t have access to clean water. One quarter of everyone who dies on the planet this year will be due to tuberculosis, malaria, AIDS or dirty water. And of the dirty water victims 80 perent will be under five years old. In the U.S., 90 percent of our growth in recent years has gone to 10 percent of the population.
Instabilityis created by how quickly thing can spread, from terrorism (easy access to information) to Swine Flue (permeability and uprootedness) to the world financial crisis (inter-connectedness of financial systems). Even with $3 trillion in cash, a whopping 2 million factory workers in China are unemployed because the rest of the world is not buying as much of their exports.
In light of the complexities in our interconnected world, we need a framework from which to act. How do we respond to these many challenges? Not more liberally, but in a more “communitarian” fashion — more succinctly put, by focusing on creating win-win situations. For every situation or decision, he asks “will this bring us closer together or tear us further apart?”
Prime examples where “win-win” has worked are in Iraq where the people ultimately declared a common enemy in Al Qaeda. In Tanzania where our continued efforts to finance AIDS and Malaria relief have demonstrated our commitment their children. And in Rwanda, where the Tutsi leader insisted his post-genocide successor be a Hutu, and engraining in his people the need for win-win by granting land to those who would live next door to someone from the rival tribe.
Another timely example of searching for win-win was through a clear explanation of health carereform, including the back-story on “death panels,” and distinctions between terms like “public option” and “socialized medicine.” Every year we spend 17 percent of our income on health care– money consumers aren’t investing in other things, which gives other countries that much more of an advantage over us on the world economic stage. The bottom line: if you’re not for some kind of change in health care, you are a proponent of win-lose, not win-win.
One of the things that stood out for me most was Clinton’s commentary on the differences between being a sitting president and a former president. “The good news is, you can say anything you like,” he said. “The bad news is that nobody cares about what you have to say…that is, unless your wife happens to be Secretary of Sate.”
While this was met with laughter, it was obvious everyone should care about what this former president has to say. He is using his clout and connections through the William J. Clinton Foundation to make a difference in the lives of millions through several thoughtful initiatives. And while he has raised hundreds of millions from the wealthiest people in the world, he stressed the importance of each individual being called into service in some way. He spoke of the secret of the U.S. economy having always been the strength of our middle class, and how this group must now stand and help the U.S. regain its footing in our inter-connected world. “It’s not enough to work and pay taxes, raise a good family and show up to vote.” There are one million public service groups to which we can donate our time and expertise, over half of which were started in the last year.
While it’s of course possible to donate to the Clinton Foundation, he did not make a direct pitch but rather spoke about Kiva.org, where for $25 you can make the difference in the life of someone anywhere in the world whom the group has already vetted as qualified for needing assistance.
Something else that resonated with me personally, and I don’t think he would have said as president, is how we treat others is dependent upon our own identity and what we think about ourselves. Identity is highly complex, but we need to realize how much we are all alike. In fact, the argument in genomic circles is whether we are genetically 99.5 or 99.9 percent alike. By continually forcing ourselves to communicate with the other side we become more comfortable with one another. When we see how alike we are, we eventually decide that it’s less costly to work with together than to keep killing each other and we collaborate in the interest of finding win-win situations. It is imperative in the modern world that we leave the door open.
While everything President Clinton had to say was in line with my own opinions, I hope his thoughtful presentation gave those of every political persuasion a new perspective on tolerance and possibility. It was awe-inspiring for me to hear this brilliant mind, speaking in his familiar and reassuring tone of so many examples of hope and of what is possible if we work together and apply ourselves to overcoming our collective challenges, be they local or global.
Think win-win and dedicate yourself to some form of public service. And when you do, I hope you’ll let me know about it.