Rivlin: ‘Congratulations on choosing public policy’

Alice M. Rivlin
Alice Rivlin
Alice M. Rivlin Former Brookings Expert

May 22, 2017

Editor's note:

The following remarks were delivered to graduates of the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy on May 19, 2017.

Graduates and members of the McCourt School extended family:

I have taught at McCourt School as a part-time visiting professor since the fall of 2003—almost 14 years—and absolutely loved being here, especially interacting with students. The McCourt School is fortunate to attract such a talented, lively group of young people from all over the United States and the world, who want to serve the large community and make it better. Their presence speaks well of McCourt and of this generation of young people. It gives us older folks hope for the future of the world.

I want to start by congratulating the graduates, not on getting degrees, but on choosing public policy as a discipline and a career.

I want to start by congratulating the graduates, not on getting degrees, but on choosing public policy as a discipline and a career, especially at this tumultuous and trying time in public life, here and in other countries. You didn’t come to McCourt to get rich. I’m sure each of you had at least one conversation, in which a relative or friend said, “You are studying what? Public policy? That’s no way to make serious money. Go to business school or law school or med school or drop out and develop an app you can sell for a million bucks!” But you had higher aspirations for public or community service; you came to McCourt; you worked your tails off. Now you are graduating and moving into jobs in the policy world. We should all be grateful to you for making this choice.

I, for one, am especially grateful that you are plunging into the policy world right now. We never needed you more!

I have been in public life for a long time—more than half a century. I have seen some very low times in American public life. I was in grad school in 1950’s McCarthy era, when loyal-hard-working public servants—as well as writers and actors and scientists could find their careers shattered by an unfounded suspicion that they had secret communist sympathies. I was already launched on a policy career in the turbulent 60’s, when the country was wrenchingly divided into opposing camps by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. That was a violent time of assassinations and riots. I stood in my office window on the Mall on April 5th, 1968, and watched black smoke from burning buildings rise over 14th Street the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King. I lived through the shameful disintegration of Richard Nixon’s presidency, and, at closer range, through the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton. I was appalled and angry that a charismatic, well-motivated, intelligent man—a man I served with great pride and still admire–could damage the public’s trust in government with such stupid, self-serving mistakes.

But I have never been more worried about our democracy’s ability to make sound public policy than I am right now, which is why we so desperately need your—and your generation’s– help. So let me tell you what I am worried about. It is not specifically President Trump. Putting an angry, impulsive, totally inexperienced man in our highest office is highly risky in a dangerous world. It is a symptom of the current dysfunction of our politics. But I believe our Constitutional checks and balances are strong and will enable us to survive these risks.

I am also not so worried about America’s economic future. We face some daunting challenges—steeply rising inequality in income and wealth, lagging wages, and coping with the stresses of rapid technological advances, global warming, an aging population and an increasingly interdependent world. But our economy is strong and resilient, and constructive efforts to forge policy responses could put us on a track to more broadly shared sustainable prosperity and enhance our capacity for world leadership.

What worries me is that we are not working together to forge those policy responses.  Our political leaders are not even addressing the serious concerns of average Americans. They are yelling accusations at each other across a widening political divide. They are blaming and demonizing each other. Political campaigns have turned into ugly shouting matches, and governing has turned into continuous campaigning. The casualties have been civil discourse, respect for facts and knowledge, and above all the fundamental idea that making policy always requires listening to each other’s views, finding common ground, and forging a compromise that most of the participants can live with.

All of you know that making group decisions always involves compromise–whether the group is a family, a club, a university, a city, or a nation. Compromise is especially necessary in making national policy for the United States, because our founders built this necessity into the Constitution. They feared the tyranny of a strong executive as much as they feared mob rule. So they gave us this complex structure under which legislating requires compromise within the House and the Senate, between the two chambers, between the Congress and the President, and sometimes with the courts.

In recent years compromise has become a dirty word in American political life.

But in recent years compromise has become a dirty word in American political life. Bipartisan action in the Congress has dwindled as the Republicans have become more conservative and the Democrats more liberal. The centrists in both parties who used to broker bipartisan agreements are a vanishing breed. The result has been policy gridlock in Washington. Congress and the executive lurch from crisis to crisis—even now that Republicans nominally control both congress and the White House–avoiding government shutdowns and artificial debt-ceiling emergencies by passing short-run stop-gap legislation, while failing to address the serious longer run challenges that the country faces. The problem is not so much polarization of views, but unwillingness to engage in civil discourse about those views and seek compromises that will mitigate the problems.  The tragic gridlock over health reform is only the most recent and obvious example of the high cost of failing to work across party lines to craft major legislation that can command broad support.

If the problem were confined to Washington, it would be not be so serious. But the partisan blaming and demonizing of politicians in Washington reflects increasing isolation of groups in our society. There are lots of fault lines surfacing these days and multiple identity groups. There are Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, the coastal elites and Americans of the heartland; the rich, the middle-class and the poor. There are gender and sexual orientation identities, racial and ethnic and religious identities, gun-lovers and gun haters, environmentalists and climate-change deniers; pro-life and pro-choice believers. Not to mention race-car enthusiasts and chess fanatics and micro-brewery aficionados.

Most group identities are not new, but social media and electronic communication have allowed people with similar attitudes, interests and loyalties to find each other and communicate with each other—often intensively and exclusively. That intensified, exclusive communication can give people the security and confidence of belonging to a like-minded group; it can also make them feel fearful and threatened if the group perceives other groups as incomprehensible, hostile, or immoral and is only exposed to caricatures of opposing views. Above all, this splintering into increasingly isolated groups is a catastrophe for public policy.

So what can you do to revive constructive policy dialogue and start addressing public challenges again? I would urge this class to do two things:

  • Practice the art of engaging with people who think differently from you. No matter what your job or what community you feel comfortable in, seek out people who are not like you and find out how they think. Practice solving problems together. It won’t be hard to find problems—internal tensions in your organization, community divisions, national or global issues. Seek out the “other side” and engage them in genuine dialogue. Breaking out of you own mind-set is hard, and the more you practice, the greater contribution you can make to private and public policy.
  • Go into politics at some level—any level. A lot of polls tell us that your generation of students is idealistic and eager to contribute to their communities, but turned off by elected politics, which they regard as hypocritical and corrupt. It will be tempting for you to say, political life is too stressful for me. I’ll join a non-profit and fight for good causes; I’ll work in the private sector and improve my company’s understanding of public issues; or I’ll take a public job, but a technical or analytical one that keeps me out the political fray. These are all good things to do. But sooner or later screw up your courage and jump into politics—whether you work in a school board campaign or run for national office—and bring your skills in brokering compromises with you. Elected politics will not get better until competent, well informed, well-motivated young people, like McCourt graduates, decide to make it better. Our politics is broken, and only you can fix it.

I wish all of you successful and personally rewarding careers in public policy.