2006 Human Rights Day Conference

Governor Arne Carlson, Plenary

December 1, 2006

Former Governor Arne CarlsonArne Carlson spent 30 years in elected office including service in the State Legislature, State Auditor, and for eight years as Governor of Minnesota. He currently serves as Chairman of RiverSource Funds (formerly American Express Funds) and has emerged as a leader in working with Congress on a variety of reforms.

Plenary Speech by Governor Arne Carlson

Well, thank you very much. That was certainly a very kind and exaggerated introduction for which I am deeply grateful, but I'm also grateful to the Department of Human Rights and to all of you for participating in what I hope will be a day of reflection. I think it's healthy for any community to come together, put aside whatever other items are on their agenda and start to think about what kind of a community we are, what kind of a community we would like to be, and start to lay plans as to where it is that we want to go. In sports terms we call it a timeout.

"As you watch our national and local debates you begin to realize that it largely consists of people screaming and shouting past each other. It's not a surprise when surveys are taken that more people know more about the Three Stooges than they do about the quality of their own government."

We have an opportunity to celebrate the successes that have been made in the broad area of human relations. We also have the opportunity to better understand and comprehend the challenges that lay ahead. But simplistically when you look at life today in America there's been a radical change over the past 30-40 years. I remember a couple of weeks ago my wife was tuning in during the state fair to one of our beloved local TV channels known for soft news, such things as how many calories does a hotdog have at the state fair, and so I jokingly suggested that maybe she wants to turn the channel to a more hard news station. Her response was typical, and by that I mean, typical of literally all of us, and that is -- "I've had enough hard news -- none of it is good."

In that truth lies an enormous warning for every single one of us. As you watch our national and local debates you begin to realize that it largely consists of people screaming and shouting past each other. It's not a surprise when surveys are taken that more people know more about the Three Stooges than they do about the quality of their own government. It's not a surprise that people embrace the culture of celebrity and the pop culture much more than anything that is substantive, and yet out there are enormous problems that are not going to wait for us to decide whether or not we're going to address them.

Global warming -- each and every year of neglect makes the consequences that much worse; globally, economic competition and whether or not this nation is properly and adequately preparing itself for the kinds of competition that has already commenced elsewhere; and thirdly, the issue of war. Involved in a war from which we find it enormously difficult to extricate and enormously difficult to even focus in terms of our own mind on issues of substance.

Then we have America's favorite pastime, the staggering federal deficit which now exceeds eight and a half trillion dollars. When translated to the accrual system of accounting, that will shortly reach forty-five trillion dollars. We essentially bank on the rest of the world to sustain our lifestyle, a lifestyle that we are not prepared to pay for. Within that context we have the enormous emergence of the economies of China and India. I think there's generally economic agreement that over the next 40 years both economies will be larger than that of the United States, and that will have an enormous impact on the global distribution of power. Their economies over the next decade are projected to grow between seven and eight percent; ours will be at least half that, if not just one-third. But what is disconcerting is the production of scientists and engineers. They're growing over a million a year, and that number is increasing. We in the United States are graduating 60,000 a year, and that number is decreasing. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out when you draw the lines, the enormous impact that that's going to have in our capacity to grow a quality economy.

Now when you look at all of these problems, you have to also look at America's political system. In very broad terms we see one -- a lack of a national vision. If there's anything that I would argue that is hurting us the most, it's the inability of our leadership to give us something above ourselves to look towards. We have allowed political parties to persuade us. The party loyalty supersedes national and community loyalty, and news almost always defines public policy and the context of what the Republicans and the Democrats think. There is very little focus on what the general public as a whole would expect. One of the greatest tragedies of this administration has been its politics of dividing people and conquering. The United States was not built on the notion that we are here to divide our own public. I would argue that if you read Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, "if you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there," and that's sort of where we are today, but we also have another set of realities that confine our capacity to act.

The United States was not built on the notion that we are here to divide our own public.

One is contrary to public notion -- our resources are limited, both in terms of people and in terms of money. When you're moving out deficits at the rate that we are, that speaks to the limitation of our financial capacity. When you look at school test scores out of K-12 and realize that anywhere from 20-40 percent are not cutting it even at the most minimal levels of expectations that ought to tell us something about human resources.

Secondly, time is not limitless. China, India, other nations are merging who want to be players in the world's economy and are not going to sit back and wait for us to make up our mind. Global warming is not going to cease and wait until we decide whether or not it's serious.

The third constraint, regardless of what our views may be, it's hard to say that America's educational system is adequate. Now, in the mist of all that gloom, lies enormous opportunity and it's that opportunity that I think that all of us should start to focus and that's the role of vision, of insisting upon leadership that brings out the best in us and does not appeal to our worse -- a leadership that begins to recognize that if our children do not succeed, we do not retire, we do not succeed, understanding a linkage between all of us.

I think back to the great leaders of our time. Franklin Roosevelt: A nation in depression, a nation into the great war, at no point coming out with messages of pessimism, but messages of alliance building, messages of hope, programs that were designed to bring us together, programs that were designed to strengthen us. Eisenhower with the crusade in Europe: just hours after he gave the directive for the invasion of Normandy, an enormously complicated strategy, he sat down with pencil and paper and wrote a letter to the American people and to President Roosevelt, and he said, "I have been extraordinarily well served by my commanders and my troops," and he went on to praise the role that they all played, and he concluded by saying, "if there's any failure tomorrow, the responsibility rests entirely with me." That is leadership.

Or you think of John Kennedy, summoning us as a nation to begin to recognize that the day of asking government to do for us, but instead focusing on something he learned in high school, and that was, "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," and he launched us into a national vision, a vision of Peace Corps, a vision of food for peace, a responsibility to the United States to assume a world lead role, not by flexing its military muscle, but building relationships based on the expectations of the disadvantaged nations of the world.

Then you look at the marvelous leadership of Ronald Reagan. We were wallowing in pessimism. He focused on the cold war, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and made it abundantly clear and no uncertain terms with his optimism that that wall, Berlin, will come down, and we shall prevail. You take a look at the journey of Martin Luther King who took us up on the top of a mountain. He didn't go to that top of the mountain and say, let's talk about dividing America. He preached again that there can be a better life, and it lies in the capacity of people to come together and bring out again the best in themselves.

Or Mahatma Gandhi, who sold his own people on the enormous power of nonviolence, recognizing that through that type of effort, we can accomplish meaningful results. All of our great leaders have laid out a national vision, a vision of optimism, a vision of hope, a vision of expectation, but much more importantly, recognizing the individual value of every single human being without any ands, ifs or buts. That is the strength of a national vision.

Take a look at the remarkable response that Barack Obama is receiving today and part of the reason is he's one of the few political leaders in America that understands the role of vision. He understands he has a thirsty, hungry nation that is dying for a vision of togetherness, and thankfully it has appeal.

It would be my hope that through organizations like yours that we could also create a national vision, a vision that focuses on our children. We are leaving them debt, we are leaving them war, we are leaving them all the challenges of global competition -- that is not much of a legacy. Perhaps, we ought to have a national vision that says the next decade is the decade of the child, a recognition that every child has value and that we as a society are going to do all in our power to maximize their opportunities for success, recognizing that their success is not only our success, but it translates to the well-being of our nation and of the globe. The first would be in the field of education, commencing if you will, with day care, with early childhood learning, with all of the programs that properly prepare children for education, but it also means fundamental and sometimes disagreeable changes in K-12. Our school day is too short; you're not going to win in global competition with the day that is two-thirds the working day and then expect success,

Two, our curriculum is too soft. Why is it that in sports we challenge students, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute to excel and when we get in the classroom anything goes? Our system has to be geared to maximize the enormous potential that every single child has. If family units are not working, creating boarding schools, but starting to look at every single option that we have available so that every child succeeds. Yes, it's going to mean sacrifice; yes, it's going to involve more funding, but it's also going to involve change, and it's going to allow each child to understand what we expect of them and then asking them to commit.

It also means universal access to health care. We cannot as a society in any way, shape or form deny expectant mothers prenatal care or children access to the best health care that we have available, but there's also a tradeoff. The tradeoff is that we decide to become a healthy society. We learn to eat right, we learn to exercise, we learn to do those kinds of things that make us healthy, and that's a bridging, if you will, not just of rights, but also of responsibility. A healthy society is one that we have to grant to our children, because that is a vehicle to their success.

Thirdly, a national policy that there shall be no financial barrier to success -- none. The tragedy of our society is that we never ever focus our full attention on the enormous cost, both in terms of human and financial costs, on faulty outcomes. To put away a child in a training school after they've been adjudicated by court costs us somewhere in the vicinity of $45,000 a year. That's more expensive than a year at Harvard, and yet we as a society sit back and pretend there's no cost to locking people up; there's no cost for faulty outcome. The truth is we allow ourselves to become a less safe society. We have more people in lock up in America today than any industrialized power in the world, and even with that lock up, we're less and less safe. Far better is it for us to truly learn to invest, to invest in our children from the time of their birth, in health care, in education, in well-being. Then access to the highest level of education and training that allows them to perform at their peak skill. If they want to become a carpenter, that's splendid -- we move them on that path. They want to become an engineer -- we move them on that path, but at no point do we restrict access to that success because of financial limitations.

Now those are broad policy parameters in which a thoughtful society rests. Now some people here will say, "Well gee, Governor, I thought you were going to talk about discrimination." Let me tell you, that discrimination as part of our national vision has a price that's far, far too high for any one of us to pay. It has no place in a society that truly loves its children. It has no place in maximizing opportunities for our children. It must become a part of the past because the honest bottom-line truth is, when you look at the enormous financial impact of the baby-boomer retiring. For those of you in this room who look forward to your retirement, I hate to tell one fundamental truth and that is your retirement is predicated on the success of the children, and that means every single one of those children.

Think about it this way: Suppose a doctor at the University came up with a cure for cancer tomorrow morning. Do you give two hoots about the color of the skin of that doctor? Do you give two hoots about his religious beliefs? Is it going to make a difference in whether or not you take the medicine? Wouldn't it be nice if we as part of our national society began to truly embrace the notion that every single child is important, and their success is our success? That truly to me is elevating the height or human dignity, of giving our children the opportunity to recognize that they're part of a global economy. Oh, I'd love to see much more emphasis on the Peace Corps, much more emphasis on college overseas exchanges, much more emphasis on understanding other people, other cultures, and toning down the enormity of our own domestic arrogance, and beginning to realize that we are a part of the globe, and we'd better start learning to get along with our neighbors, and in order to do that, we have to understand them. Our diversity here domestically in America is one of the greatest assets that we have because it gives us global access that other nations don't have.

I want to applaud you for setting aside this day. I want to applaud you for your efforts, and I also truly hope that you will convey the expectation to all of our leadership, whether it be religious or political or business, that the time has come for a national vision and prayerfully a vision that focuses on the well-being of all of our children. Thank you very much.