Bill Clinton

By Meacham, Jon | Newsweek, January 4, 2010 | Go to article overview

Bill Clinton

Meacham, Jon, Newsweek

Byline: Jon Meacham

From his vantage point as a global philanthropist, the former president talks about the 21st century's interdependent world as it is--and as it could be, if we do the right things.

Meacham: What are the issues you think are the most important right now? And what do you think Americans should be thinking about in the next year or two?

Clinton: Well, first, I think [it's] important to get the framework right. For me it starts with acknowledging that this the most interdependent age in human history. It goes way beyond trade. The rich world was as trade-dependent before World War I as it was in the 1990s, but we didn't have the Internet, we didn't have so much travel, and we didn't have so much immigration and so much diversity, so much shared scientific research. We're linked in so many different ways that we can't get a divorce. Our actions impact each other, whether it's in an obvious place like the Middle East or why we should care about what happens in a borderless area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Interdependence could be good, bad, or both, and today it's both.

My simple premise is that the mission of the 21st century is to build up the positive and reduce the negative forces of interdependence. If you ask me my position on anything, I may give you the wrong answer, I may make a mistake, but I think I have the right filter. I'll ask myself on any profound issue: will this increase positive interdependence or reduce negative interdependence? If it will, I'm for it. If it won't, I'm against it. I really believe creating a shared intellectual framework--not just for policymakers and business leaders and labor leaders and education leaders, but for real people who intuitively know this is true--is a precondition for not only the United States, but others making good decisions going forward.

Now, the main negative forces of interdependence fall into three categories. There's too much inequality in economic opportunity, health care, and education both around the world and within most--not all, but most--wealthy countries. And the inequality has been increasing roughly since the 1970s. Now, we had a four-year period in my second term where the bottom 20 percent's income increased in percentage terms more than the top 20 percent, but [that progress] went away again. And so that's a problem everywhere.

The second big cluster of problems is the instability problems: terror, WMD, ethnic conflicts, avian influenza, the global financial crisis. All these things can spread like wildfire because borders don't mean much.

The third cluster of problems is really rooted in global warming. The world is not sustainable. And I don't think that the truncated e-mails from the University of East Anglia undermine the fact that [the world is getting warmer].

People say all the time that President Obama is working on too many things at once. He may be--we all have limits to our supply lines--but the problem is you want him working on the economy unless your kid can't get a swine-flu shot, in which case you want to know why there's not more swine-flu vaccine, you know. Or if you're a park ranger at Rocky Mountain park and the beetles are eating up your trees and have never been that far north in the history of America, you want him working on climate change.

It's really fascinating to see the inner relationships of all these issues. Think about health care. Whether you care if everybody is insured or not, it's fundamentally an economic issue. You can't just keep, in effect, spotting the competition $900 billion a year. We're almost [at] 17 percent [of] GDP for health care. The next most-expensive country is Switzerland, at 11 and a half [percent]. They're older than we are and more remote, so their delivery-system costs should be much higher than ours per person. And then Canada is next, at 10 and a half [percent], and then all our major competitors are between 9 and 10 [percent]. …

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