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Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch’s Commencement Speech at the Brooklyn Campus


Alka Gupta,Assistant Director of Public Relations
Brooklyn Campus,
Long Island University

Mr. Chairman, Mr. President, distinguished guests and, most of all, students:

This has been a real thrill for me. I’ve never marched in an academic procession before: When I finished school I was getting ready to go into the Army. I’ve never gotten an academic honor before. So, this occasion is very meaningful to me.

But what is even more meaningful is the thrill that I get when I’m around young people who have completed their education and are on their way to professional accomplishment and to making this world a better place.

I have to tell you, I’ve been spending too much time in Albany watching people chase money and trying to break through the morass of politics -- some of which is meritorious and some of which isn’t -- to address the serious problems we face. The only thing that gives me cheer is the fact that there is a generation, here and elsewhere, that can benefit from the mistakes my generation made.

Let me tell you briefly about two great problems that we face and that you are going to have to deal with in your lives. They stem from the fact -- although it’s always been extremely well motivated -– that we’ve been spending more money than we should on public goods and services. We’ve finally reached the point at which government, instead of being an ever-expanding source of incremental public services, is going to be facing the reality of having to cut back and manage itself better.

The first great threat -- the thing that concerns me most -- is the rate of increase in state expenditures. This is not unique to New York State; it’s applicable to every state. The increase is occurring largely in the health care area. There has been a double-digit annual expansion of Medicaid costs in the State of New York, and it is squeezing out expenditures on higher education and on our infrastructure.

There are a million of you around this state studying at institutions of higher learning. You are our future. As we cut back on education spending, we are ensuring that we will be limited in the future in our capacity to grow and thrive and deal with the next generation of problems. In short, we are eating our seed corn.

State governments also have the primary responsibility for all of the public infrastructure in our states -- roads, highways, school buildings, parks, subways. We are cutting infrastructure spending at an alarming rate around this country. The needs are piling up in this area in trillions of dollars because it is the easiest area for politicians to defer or deflect. It is the easiest because the gestation period of any infrastructure project generally outlasts the term of office of most people who are elected in politics.

So these are real dangers. I don’t mean to suggest that the solution to our problems lies only in reducing spending. Spending reductions have to be accompanied by finding sources of revenue –- and by a cultural change, with people recognizing that a society like ours can thrive and prosper only if individuals are willing to contribute a significant and measurable percentage of their efforts and the wealth they accumulate to the public weal.

The second problem we face is that, because of the pressure of rising costs, this country is going through a mood in which the public is angry at politics and angry at politicians, not without cause. But the frustration is leading to a nastiness and a climate that has very serious adverse ramifications. Whether it’s the tea party or an anti-immigrant bill in the state of Arizona, we are seeing more and more evidence of people’s unwillingness to accept what has made this country great.

And politics, even though people are angry at it, is the way decisions get made in a democracy. Democratic politics is filled with ambiguity and clumsiness and delays, and the best people in the world do not always get elected, and the world of ideas does not always penetrate the political system adequately. But the system is better than any other system we’ve devised. We have to tolerate it, encourage it and, most important of all, participate in it.

So I want to remind you all, when you are tempted to sit back and criticize those of us in public life for doing an inadequate job, that you can effect change. All of you in this room, collectively, have more power than half the politicians in Albany. But you have got to choose to exercise it.

Whatever your chosen profession is going to be, please never forget that you can have an impact. As an individual, you can. As a group of people, you can have an effect on who gets elected to office and the quality of the people who serve in public life. In a democracy that is the only way you can ever get anything changed.

When I graduated from school more than 50 years ago, my first job was in Washington, D.C. At that time, in 1959, Washington, D.C., believe it or not, was a totally segregated city. There was no apartment house in downtown Washington with any resident whose skin wasn’t white. And today we have an African-American president.

When I got to Washington, everyone was beginning to worry about the American economy. People were writing books about the “post-industrial society.” They all watched the growing economy in Asia and realized that it would pose a very serious challenge to the United States. Who imagined that we would have computers, the internet, and all the other technological changes that have transformed our economic and social life?

You will see many such changes in your lives, and you can make a difference by shaping those changes. Your education gives you the tools to make that difference. And, please for God’s sake, you’ve got to do better than our generation.

God bless you, and good luck.

Posted 05/20/2010

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