Opinion and Forefront

DANIELS: College grads must rise to the moment

May 4, 2013

DanielsThe words below are excerpted from a speech Daniels gave in February to Princeton University alumni on accepting the university’s Woodrow Wilson Award. The entire speech is at www.purdue.edu/president/speeches.


We meet in a time of continued economic stagnation. Economic growth in 2012 was a depressing 1.5 percent, half the historic average. Three million fewer Americans are employed than when this so-called recovery began. Economic inequality is growing, and unprecedented trillions in transfer payments have not reversed the trend. It was well said that, “We need a recovery from this recovery.”

Worst of all, there is evidence that hope has been shaken. In even worse economic moments, Americans never lost confidence in a better tomorrow, or belief that the route to it was self-improvement and hard work.

But today, opinion pollsters find unprecedented levels of discouragement. The December Gallup Poll found that, by 50 percent to 47 percent, more of us expected the future to be worse than the past.

These fears are not irrational. On the contrary, they are based in the objectivity of arithmetic: We now owe more than a full year’s national income in national debt, growing at $2.5 million per minute, plus more than four years’ income in unfunded liabilities in entitlement programs. No entity, large or small, public or private, can remain self-governing, let alone successful, so deeply in hock as that.

To confound the skeptics of history, and to restore an America of personal liberty and upward mobility, will require commitments by our leaders to solvency, dignity and unity. We must begin making the fiscal decisions that place the future above the past, our children’s welfare above our own, and the national interest above any special interest.

That will require a view of our fellow citizens that assumes the best about them, believing they are capable of grasping the dangers of our current direction and rising above the cheap politics of something for nothing.

The new leaders I hope are en route will respect the personhood and capacity of their fellow Americans. They will resist the instinct to assume the posture of Benevolent Betters who must make decisions for the poor little dears out there. They will be leaders who see their countrymen as creatures of dignity, not objects of therapy, and seek to empower rather than patronize.

These leaders must speak the language of unity. They will recognize that big change requires big majorities, a new national consensus well beyond any we have seen; and that the vilification of any other American or group of them is unwarranted and unacceptable.

Is Princeton preparing its graduates for the nation’s service in our era? Are they departing this place well-versed in the history and philosophy undergirding free institutions? Have they noticed that self-government is not the natural order of things? Have they read about the disaster that always awaits nations that spend vastly beyond their means on the assumption that “this time is different?”

Do they grasp the simple truth that, without a vibrant, growing private economy, there is no hope for the poor to rise, or the young to live better than their parents, or for there ever to be enough revenue for whatever size government we choose?

By definition, I know that today’s Princetonians have the talent they will need. I know they will have the networks and associations of influence through which effective public action becomes more likely. If they have developed also a commitment to solvency, to dignity and to unity, then they will be well-matched to a time of rare and grave consequence.•

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Daniels, formerly governor of Indiana, is president of Purdue University. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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