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Faculty convocation speech by economics professor Martha Olney: One thing you all learned at Cal

Good afternoon, Class of 2003! Thank you for asking me to speak today. Your invitation is one of the greatest honors I’ve received. So thank you!

I understand that some of you are a bit nervous that I’ll say something about economics. Well, yes. But I also want to talk about your Cal education in general. What do we, the faculty, hope you have learned at Cal?

Your first big challenge will come some time in the next two weeks. You will be asked to use the skills and knowledge you acquired at Cal to address a serious problem with wide ramifications: Your parents are coming ... and they’re bringing cameras!

Martha Olney
Martha Olney (Peg Skorpinski photo)

It may be mom and dad who are coming. It may be grandma and aunties. Sisters. Brothers. Some of you may be in families like mine, with a mom and a momma. Or maybe for you it’s Dad and Papa. And for some of you, it will be mom and step-dad sitting over here, and sitting over there, dad and step-mom. Have you acquired the skills and knowledge to navigate the day?

You know what will happen. After the ceremony, all four parents will gather around. They will beam with pride. But then . . . the cameras! Mom wants a photo of you with your best friend. She says to your step-dad, “Oh honey, come over here and get this picture of my baby!” Your step-dad hurries over with his camera. Your step-mom glances at your dad, sees a pout begin to form on his 53-year-old lower lip, and pushes him over to get the same photo. And there you are, living your worst nightmare: your dad, elbow to elbow with your step-dad, both of them wanting you to look into their camera and give them a big Go Bears! smile.

Think of it as a test run for your wedding.

What have you learned at Cal that can help you through this moment? Perhaps we have taught you something in the classroom that you can draw upon. Did you take any psych classes? Is this the time to launch into a gender studies discourse about the social construction of familial relationships? In poli sci, did you study conflict and resolution? Perhaps a brief science lecture explaining how the angle of incidence of your dad’s flash, together with the angle of incidence of your step-dad’s flash will ruin both photos?

Or, was it outside of the classroom where you learned what to do now? The Sproul steps at lunch time? Perhaps that’s not a good model to follow right now. Late night conversations in the residence halls? Now might not be the best time to gather your folks together, lounge on a couple of twin beds, and launch into a three-hour discussion of relationships, love, and competition.

So what do you do? Economists – see I told you I’d get there – would encourage you to think about the various assumptions that each of you brings to this moment. Here’s my guess: Mom and Dad are both so proud of you – their Cal grad! – that they can hardly contain themselves. Their love for you is bubbling up and over. Your step-dad loves your mom. Your step-mom loves your dad. And through that there’s so much love floating around you that you can almost see it. Mom and Dad, whatever their differences in the past, are both thinking “Wow. Look what we did. Despite our problems, we managed to raise a kid who is graduating from The Best Public University in the World.”

So what do you do? Put an arm around your best friend. Let a big old unrestrained smile cover your face. Raise your other arm and together with your friend, call out “GO BEARS!” And just then Dad and step-dad will snap the photo, love will surround you all, and all will be right with the world.

It’s amazing what a “Go Bears!” can do! And it’s part of my message for today. When life tosses you a challenge, call out “Go Bears!” and remember what you learned at Cal.

What have you learned? Is there really any one thing that you all learned? Yes, I think so. Despite your diversity in majors, in classes, in extra-curricular experiences, you have all shared many of the same experiences and learned many of the same things at Cal.

You are the Class of 2003. During the four (or so) years you were in college, more so than for any other class in Cal’s history, the world has changed.

  • When you started college, the Dow and the Nasdaq were soaring with no apparent end in sight. But both stopped soaring and hit their highest levels during your freshman year. Since then, the Dow has fallen over 25 percent and the Nasdaq has fallen 70 percent. When you started college, people were seriously entertaining dreams of retiring at 35. Now you just hope that by the time you’re 35, you can afford to move out of your parents’ house!
  • When you started college, cell phones were expensive and faculty teaching in Wheeler Auditorium rarely made announcements about turning them off. Now, even your parents have called you during Professor Jowett’s Poli Sci 2 lecture and just like the embedded reporter on CNN, you can hold up your phone and send an instant video of a Hummer cruising along Telegraph.
  • When you started college, a foreign attack on America had not happened since the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Now, you will always remember where you were on September 11.
  • When you started college, there were signing bonuses for taking jobs and hundreds of applicants for each apartment. Now there are signing bonuses for taking an apartment, and hundreds of applicants for each job.
  • When you started college, America had allies around the world. Now it sometimes seems America has enemies around the world and virtually unchecked super-power military might.
  • When you started college, men your grandfather’s age who had, shall we say, a little bit of trouble in bed didn’t feel compelled to share that information with the rest of us. Now, we have Viagra.
  • When you started college, the government did not check to see what classes you were taking or what books you read. Now, the Patriot Act threatens our civil liberties.
  • And last but not least: When you started college, graduating seniors consoled themselves by saying the Big Game was “only a game.” But now, We’ve Got The Axe! Go Bears!!

It can be daunting to step off into this world, with all the changes in just the past four years. But you have a Cal Education. You are equipped to handle all of these challenges and more. When life tosses you a challenge, call out “Go Bears,” and remember what you learned at Cal.

And what is it that you’ve all learned at Cal? At Cal, you’ve learned how to be a citizen in our world.

In economics we teach skills as a means of teaching a way of thinking. (To be honest, we don’t think you’ll remember many of those specific skills for very long!) Our goal in economics is to demonstrate the role of assumptions in arguments. Every conclusion rests upon assumptions. When we change an assumption, equally logical arguments may bring us to a different – yet equally valid – conclusion. People of good will can disagree not because one is “right” and the other is “wrong” but because they bring different assumptions to the argument.

Policies that promote economic growth at home – import cheap toys and instead use our workers to produce biotech research – give us strong growth but can leave other countries mired in poverty. If you assume that only the United States matters, it’s a smart policy to support. But if you assume that when the U.S. gains while others lose, the world is not better off, then it’s not such a smart policy. Assumptions matter.

Tax cuts that benefit one class of people over another may have positive economic results, but are they “right” for society? If you assume that only “the economy as a whole” matters, it’s a smart tax cut to support. But if you assume that the distribution of income also matters, then it’s not such a smart policy. Assumptions matter.

Forgiving international debt – celebrating “Jubilee” – may allow struggling third world countries to devote more resources to pressing social needs, but is it the best long-run policy? If you assume that debt payments are crowding out social spending, it’s a smart program to support. But if you assume that with no pressure to re-pay, these countries will simply acquire equally high debt levels in the near future, then it’s not such a smart program. Assumptions matter.

At Cal, we hope we have given you the tools and the wisdom, to contribute to these debates. The answers are not easy; the “right” assumptions are not obvious. But if you contribute, you can make a difference. At Cal, every one of you – no matter what major, no matter what classes you took – every one of you has learned to be a citizen of the world.

The world you are stepping into is not in good shape. International diplomacy is perhaps at its worst point in anyone’s memory. But even if you were not a political science major, you can make a difference. At Cal, you have met people from all over the world, whose assumptions are sometimes different than your own. You can contribute to useful, productive dialogue. You have a Cal education. When the world is in conflict, remember what you learned at Cal: You have learned to be a citizen of the world. “Go Bears!”

The states are facing the worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In California, the shortfall between tax revenues and spending is so large that even if we eliminate – eliminate – practically every dollar of spending for anything other than education, health, and human services, California will still have a deficit. But this means eliminating practically all spending on

  • transportation
  • housing
  • commerce
  • courts
  • subsidies to counties & cities
  • environmental protection
  • consumer services
  • corrections
  • law enforcement
  • and more

Unless taxes are increased, we will have to make cuts to education, health, or human services. Hear me clearly: Children will suffer if we choose to avoid a tax increase. But even if you were not an economics major, you can make a difference. You can volunteer to be a reading buddy in your neighborhood school, or to provide music in a nursing home. You can encourage your folks to become foster parents. You can lobby or write your public officials and share your assumptions about what values should be reflected in our state budgets. When vital services are threatened, remember what you learned at Cal: You have learned to be a citizen of the world. “Go Bears!”

The world faces a health crisis that threatens everyone’s future: politically, economically, as well as medically. Not SARS, which has so far killed – in total– about 600 people worldwide. No, the health crisis that threatens our global future is AIDS. In 2002, 3.1 million people died of AIDS, nearly 9,000 people PER DAY. But even if you were not an MCB major, you can make a difference. You can contribute to research funds. You can beseech our public officials to use some of America’s wealth to help solve this current-day plague. When disease threatens our future, remember what you learned at Cal: You have learned to be a citizen of the world. “Go Bears!”

And on graduation day, when your family wants One More Picture, just flash that big smile at them and say: GO BEARS!

Thank you, and Go Bears!

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