Read the Commencement Address by Dr. Lael Brainard
67th Annual Commencement Ceremony, May 17, 2014
Good afternoon. President Chodosh, distinguished guests, families, members of the faculty, members of the Board of Trustees, students and especially Class of 2014, it is an honor to be with you here today.
Class of 2014, this is your day; this is your commencement, the commencement of your journey as adults and, yes, as leaders who will inherit responsibility for our great nation and our precious planet. So let me offer a few thoughts to shape that journey.
First, find your focus. This day of celebration no doubt has already been memorialized in thousands of pictures and countless selfies. That is as it should be. But then will come the time to transition your sights from the immediate moment to the longer journey, from ourselves to the community, the country and the broader world. In the months and years ahead, your challenge will be to resist the temptation of the instantaneous snapshot and instead focus on a sustained and thoughtful endeavor in the world. Sustained focus is genuinely difficult when you are relentlessly bombarded with images and emails and random comments from random people in cyberspace, but your time here has given you the framework and the drive to find and sustain that focus. In late September 1789, the first Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Alexander Hamilton was asked by Congress to write a report on public credit, a seemingly mundane task. Three months later, Hamilton delivered a 40,000-word proposal that was breathtaking in scope and ambition. It foresaw the creation of public debt markets for U.S. Government bonds. It proposed a radical way to bind the embryonic political union together permanently in the spirit of shared sacrifice, through federal assumption of state debts incurred for the Revolutionary War. Love it or hate it, no one disputes the brilliance of that work. Even today, it is relevant and controversial, as our European friends wrestle with some of the same questions. Hamilton’s 40,000-word masterpiece was the product of what one biographer describes as a “sustained bout of solitary, Herculean labor” with Hamilton closeted in his study day after day. Imagine how history might have differed had he instead been responding to texts and emails every few minutes, Tweeting, surfing the web, posting selfies and Snapchatting. So every once in a while, just every once in a while, don’t take the selfie, put down the iPhone and focus on what you are doing and can do to connect to how you want to make your mark in the world. A few years ago, as our country was just getting back on its feet after the collapse of Lehman, the world started lurching toward a second massive financial crisis. By this point, our ammunition had been exhausted and we were tapped out. For me, working at the U.S. Treasury at the time, the most maddening part was that the critical decisions sat on the other side of the Atlantic and the necessary authority was dispersed among numerous political leaders. So we invited those leaders at the epicenter of the crisis to a late-night meeting with the President of the United States and it was an epic meeting. Several of the leaders tried to persuade one of their peers to step down. Most of the leaders were trying to persuade somebody else to write a check, knowing it was a deeply unpopular as it was vital. There was pounding on the table. There was posturing. There were tears. And there was a moment of leadership when participants were reminded of their historic shared responsibility and the catastrophic consequences of not taking action. So here’s the thing. I did not post one selfie from that meeting, not one Tweet. By putting down my smartphone and even my pen, I had an experience that will always shape my view of what is possible and how to do it. That meeting, and several others like it, helped eventually to galvanize the grant bargain that restored stability and let our recovery continue. And the insight from observing those leaders was timeless: their rhetoric, their tactics and watching some of the world’s most powerful leaders feel powerless in the face of perceived constraints. So find your focus and make it worthy.
Secondly, take some risks. Travel. Live richly by living shabbily. Expose yourself to new experiences, new ideas and new people. In the years following my own commencement, I did not acquire a stick of furniture. I shared living spaces with dubious characters in shabby neighborhoods. I was pretty handy with a can opener and I slept in a rented car more often than I’d like to admit. I roamed the country and the globe incessantly and I acquired a treasure trove of experiences that continue to inform me today. I tried in Detroit to help one of the big three figure out how to compete with cheaper imports while continuing to manufacture here in the United States. I observed the death of the textile industry in the middle of the miners’ strikes in Thatcher’s England. I bore witness in Mexico City to the devastation wrought by the 1980s financial crisis on lives that were barely connected to the banking system. I witnessed the birth of microfinance in rural Senegal which for the first time enabled small business owners to get credit and grow their businesses and lift up their families. Since that time, whenever I have found myself wrestling with questions about how to help communities wrestling with dislocation or what kinds of solutions actually work, it helps me to remember those people I met during my adventures on the frontiers of the global economy. I don’t any longer have the luxury of interacting firsthand with those communities for months at a time but you do. Indeed, many of you have already started to venture forth and have those kinds of experiences. I can guarantee you, you will be amazed how much those experiences enrich your imagination, inform your judgment and hone your instincts for years to come. Of course, taking risks means you might fail. You might even fall. I was in my first job, the first time I was invited to present at a key meeting with the head honcho of an important client. It was a huge meeting for my boss and for myself. I was dressed in my thrift shop best that day, along with my only pair of heels. I had a tall stack of meticulously prepared killer slides as I strode across the very polished floor of corporate headquarters. The next thing I knew, I was on the floor, my feet splayed out underneath me, slides strewn all over, with my dress split from hem to waist. Luckily, I was too young to let that stop me. Moments later I was standing in front of the hot lights, stapled from hem to waist, winging it without benefits of slides. I like to think of course that’s why they invented PowerPoint and flash drives. But this is the best time in your life for taking risks and for failing sometimes, so embrace it.
Third, make sure you know who has your back. In fact, if you take a good long look around you right now, you will see your home team. so take a moment while you’re still sitting here to appreciate your professors, especially—and you know who they are—that one or two who took the time and interest to connect with you intellectually, who took you seriously as a scientist, as a historian, a writer, an actor, an athlete, and helped you take yourself seriously enough to produce a work of creativity or analysis that you might not have known was in you. Thirty years from now, you will still remember something they said to you that shaped your path. I know I still do. Appreciate your parents. Until you stand in their shoes, it’s very difficult to fully appreciate just how hard they have worked to get you to where you are today or to comprehend that split-screen image that they see of you today as a college graduate and still as a toddler, once again catching their breaths as you take your first steps—this time out into the world of jobs and travel, mortgages and marriages and parenthood. And appreciate of course the friends that you made here, starting with your very first days. These are the friends who partied with you, who pulled overnighters with you, who won games with you, lost games with you and counted down together with you to senior week. Over the next many years, these are the same friends who will know you best, who will be your greatest supporters and collaborators and who will always have your back.
Fourth, take action. When you have that opportunity, act. There is always a temptation to hold back, to keep your options open but there are times when you must act. In my line of work, financial crises happen with depressing regularity. Perhaps someone some time will figure out how to break that timeless cycle of greed followed by fear, the belief in the sure bet followed by the stampede to the exits. But until that time, we can only hope those with the capacity to act will do so, even when there’s no guarantee of success. In our case it fell to a very unlikely duo, the President of the United States and the head of the Federal Reserve, to take the profoundly unpopular but necessary actions that helped to build back confidence, credit and jobs. With skyrocketing unemployment, collapsing trade and confidence shaken, the United States took initiative and led our partners to mobilize a massive rescue of the global economy, and this was one of history’s rare moments when a soft-spoken central banker drew on his academic expertise to don to the cloak of a superhero and rescue the economy. You can only contrast it with the Great Depression to know how critical it is not to reject that mantle of responsibility. Today of course, we confront different challenges, your challenges, seemingly less urgent but no less important. Our economy is growing and incomes at the top are rising but incomes at the middle are stagnating. The promise of economic mobility which is at the very heart of our system is receding. That’s one of the many challenges you will face, together with disease, with climate change. There are so many ways for you to make a difference, from teaching in at-risk schools to raising awareness through blog post to running for state office where some of the most innovative policies are pioneered. The choices we confront in our lives will likely not be as clear-cut, as visible, as monumental as Adam Silver faced earlier in his tenure at the helm of the NBA but let’s all pray that when we do confront those consequential choices, big and small, we do the right thing. We make a difference. We act.
And finally, make your contribution meaningful by making it your narrative, your soundtrack, your screenplay. If you want to make your mark in the world, you have to figure out what animates you. For me, growing up in Cold War Germany and Communist Poland, I was fascinated by how two countries so close in geography and resources could diverge so sharply simply by being separated by the Iron Curtain. Germany built a vibrant market democracy oriented to the West while Poland suffocated under a heavy state apparatus oriented to the Soviet Union. Life in Poland was grim and individual initiative stifled. So it was only natural for me at that time that I was interested in why some societies provide opportunities and initiatives to their citizens while others are unwilling or unable; why some communities are successful at lifting up the lives of the poor and the disadvantages; and of course how America can be a catalyst for opportunity and for democracy through the ideas and the ideals it represents. But you have your own story, and in the years ahead you will choose your mission. You already have a strong sense of what animates you, honed by your time here at CMC. And for those moments when the path you’ve chosen looks daunting, it is helpful to have a narrative, a hero, a soundtrack that motivates you to be dauntless. So let me give you an example. Every day, high-level officials from across the U.S. Government gather in what is called the Sit Room to debate the great questions facing our nation. Sometimes they really are big questions: should we arm the opposition in Syria? Sometimes a bit more mundane: should a certain pot of assistance be spent on scholarships or community development projects? You may have an image of this Sit Room from the television show The West Wing but now picture a room that’s much more cramped, shabby, overcrowded and under-ventilated, and imagine sitting around the table not with chiseled, noble television actors but with normal people sort of like the folks that are sitting here with you today. Some are belatedly cramming, skimming their thick binders, trying to look prepared. Some are deftly maneuvering for advantage, think House of Cards, having prepared for days to make sure their boss gets to lead the delegation or have their pet project rolled out on the South Lawn of the White House. And some are just trying to sound Hermione Granger-smart. In short, sometimes it’s more sitcom than Sit Room. But I have a friend who gets a little misty-eyed every time he sits in that room. He thinks about George Marshall and George Kennan and how they used such meetings to shape a lasting peace from a world of chaos. While everyone else is sharp-elbowing and maneuvering and trying to sound smart, this friend of mine is hearing the music from the movie Glory where the first African American army regiment is leading the charge up the beach to the Confederate fort. He’s picturing himself reaching over just like Denzel Washington to grab the Union flag before his commanding officer falls.
So wherever you find yourself in the next few years, however mundane the daily routine, hold on to that cinematic image, that soaring film score which lifts you and connects your actions to a greater purpose. Let yourself be guided by that purpose and make sure it is grounded in what matters most to you.
Claremont Class of 2014, this is your moment. This is your time. Take some action—not just selfies. Don’t do it for the Vine; do it for the country. Make it count. Congratulations.