2017 Commencement Remarks

Nancy Birdsall, May 20, 2017

Thank you Dr. Calhoun, for that kind introduction. As the old joke for speakers goes: I only wish my mother and father could have heard all that you said. They would have believed you. Now I’m at the age when I wish my adult children could hear all that you’ve said. They would know better.

Wow: What a big and beautiful crowd. Beautiful and smiling, with good reason, on this day of celebration and pride – for you the graduates, and for your families and friends that have supported you in the accomplishment we honor today. I congratulate all of you, wholeheartedly.  

I‘m enormously pleased to receive an honorary degree from this fine university, and extend my thanks to your president and to the university’s board of trustees. I am a graduate of a small Catholic women’s college, and proud of it. But my college, Newton College of the Sacred Heart, founded only in 1946, closed as an independent women’s college in the 1980s, when it merged with Boston College – and lost its distinctive personality and franchise as among the finest of Catholic women’s colleges.

That was a long time ago; for many of you graduating today, I realize that the early 1980s sounds like ancient history – a time before many of you were born when many women’s colleges, and especially Catholic women’s colleges, were closing or going coed. At the time it seemed virtually all women’s colleges might be swallowed up forever. That was ironic; it happened because in the 1970s many of this country’s oldest and finest private universities were finally accepting women as undergraduates. That reduced the number of applicants to women-only institutions. I saw the result with my own daughters, who could not be persuaded to apply to women’s colleges at all.

For me personally there is therefore a special satisfaction in receiving a degree from NDMU, a university which includes the very first Catholic women’s college (College of Notre Dame of Maryland) to be created in this country, officially opening its doors in 1895-96, and that has found a way to survive and serve and thrive over three centuries.

It is a good thing for this city and state, for the country and indeed for the world that your institution, and now mine, has endured, retaining its initial mission to educate women -- at the time of its founding a brave and radical breakthrough on the part of the School Sisters of Notre Dame – while at the same time becoming a university, and adjusting to this century’s critical needs and demands for increased access to adult, continuing education for both men and women.

In the hallowed tradition of commencement speakers, I now move on to my advice for you on this day of commencement – the first day of the rest of your lives. To be honest doing an “advice” speech is not something I know how to do, let alone do well. I’m accustomed to talking about data and evidence and policy, not personal paths or ambitions.

But here goes. I have two pieces of advice. The first is that today and for the rest of your life, you not only take pride in what you’ve accomplished, but keep in mind how lucky you are.

Of course luck alone cannot explain why you’re here. You have worked to get where you are.  And you may not feel all that lucky: you may have a lot of student debt; you may be unsure of your job prospects; you may have health problems; you may be dealing with unfair challenges as an African-American or an undocumented immigrant; you may be a single mother, or simply a woman too dependent on a man; you may be a single father; you may have tough family responsibilities that weigh on you.

Still my message is that today and throughout all of the rest of your life, you remember to remind yourself often that you are among the very luckiest of the world’s 7.5 billion people.

What makes you lucky?

Most important, you won the global “place” lottery – for most of you simply by virtue of where you were born -- in one of the world’s richest countries.

Consider this question: Who is better off in crude income terms: A member of the richest 5 percent of households in India, or a member of the poorest 5 percent of households in the United States?  This is now a well-known question posed by professors teaching an introductory course in development economics.  Take a moment to think about it . . . . . The answer is it is better – again I am talking only in income terms – to end up in the poorest 5 percent of the income distribution in the United States than in the richest 5 percent in India.

How is that possible?  The richest 5 percent of people in India certainly does include some very rich people -- millionaires and billionaires. But in a country of more than a billion people the richest 5 percent amounts to more than 50 million people, and the evidence from good studies tells us that most of those more than 50 million are poorer than the poorest 5 percent of Americans.

In addition, you are lucky because you have a college or higher degree. It means that even if you had the relatively bad luck to be born into one of the poorest one-fifth of households in the United States, and that may be the case for some of you graduating today, there is almost a 100 percent likelihood that with your college degree you will escape that income category as an adult.

Instead you are far more likely to become a member of the American middle class. It’s true that the middle class in this country is declining in size and compared to the past is capturing a smaller share of total income than the truly rich. Still, the ‘place-of-birth lottery’ matters. You are considered a middle class family in this country if your household income is between about $50,000 and $130,000 for a family of four. Now take a moment to guess to yourself what percent of people in all of the developing world – including some of the richer countries such as Brazil, China, Poland and Turkey -– lives in households of four people with income at or above $50,000 a year. . . . . The answer: just 3 or 4 percent!  

This is not to say that there are not terrible and growing inequalities among Americans in income, education, health, and even happiness. It is just to remind you that are on the lucky side of one key part of that ledger.  

One other point on the global place of birth lottery. For all the manifest political dysfunction in the US today, this country is still a working democracy. But more than 60 percent of the world’s people live in countries, based on press and religious and other rights and freedoms, that the Freedom House, an independent institution in Washington, considers either “not free” (including China, Ethiopia and Russia) or only “partly free” (including Bangladesh, Nigeria and Turkey).  You and indeed all of us here today are in the luckier 40 percent of the world’s population.

Of course getting your degree today means you’ve translated some initial good luck into a personal achievement by dint of your own effort. I do not mean to deny that. But even then my guess is there was an element of additional luck for you personally: Your parents were middle-class themselves and well-educated; you went to good schools in Maryland; your mother or father was poor but believed in education above all and set high expectations for you; a teacher or high school coach or Notre Dame sister cared about you and saw your potential. Even good health, even being a good test-taker are forms of good luck!

The evidence from behavioral studies, by the way, is that recognizing your own good luck makes you much more understanding of the plight of those less lucky than you are. In this country prejudice can make it bad luck to be born an African-American male. Discrimination can make it bad luck, in terms of your expected lifetime income, to be a female, or to be disabled or LGBT. Recognizing your own good luck, with your degree from NDMU, will make you more aware that other people’s failures -- to finish high school, to keep a job, to buck drug addition -- is more often the outcome of bad luck than of poor character. Recognizing your own good luck will help you see that with rare exception, there is no such thing as the “undeserving” poor.

Recognizing your good luck – winning the global place-of-birth lottery, finishing a BA or better degree– will make you more understanding of the effects of poverty and discrimination on people here in the United States. I hope it will also remind you of the barriers to a good life the developing world’s extreme poor face. Poverty everywhere is more a matter of bad luck than of laziness or lack of ambition.

Now comes my second piece of advice: Be a modern missionary of some sort. Find a mission that you care about while making you a productive contributor to a better world: whether as a artist, a pharmacist, an athlete, a politician, a manager, or an educator in a technical field you have come to know and love well -- as in the case of your own university president – an expert on the education of nurses.

A mission is not the same as a passion necessarily. It is not something that you can plan. It is something that you discover with time, usually as a result of just working hard and being responsible to your family and your community.  Sometimes you find it as a result of hard compromises between family and job responsibilities, or between professional ambition and the joys of a hobby: photography, music, gardening, sports. Or you discover your mission because of small daily blessings –when your spouse gives you a hug or your daughter’s soccer team wins the tournament, or your best friend survives a terrible automobile accident.

Let me explain better with a bit of my own story – of how I got to be a wonky missionary.

I went not only to a Catholic college – until graduate school I attended only Catholic schools. I did not stay a Catholic but I did, apparently, pick up something of the missionary spirit. Perhaps that is what led me to focus as a graduate student in economics on development – that is on the question of why developing countries grow or fail to grow, and why and how their people enjoy or not higher income, better health, more education, greater justice, and more opportunities to participate in the social and political life of their communities and nations.

That focus on development studies made me eligible and pleased to work at the World Bank and then the Inter-American Development Bank for almost 20 years. These are not banks in the traditional profit-making sense but banks that work to reduce global poverty by making loans and providing advice to poor countries. For all the imperfections and failures of these development banks, one thing I can assure you of is that their staff are missionaries of development; they want to see development happen. They want to see the end of poverty in the developing world. They want to eliminate suffering and injustice, get all children in school, see the end of tyranny and conflict – they want a better life for more people everywhere, and they work hard on that mission. 

After 20 years at the banks, I wanted to reduce travel and get home on time for dinner most days before my two younger children followed my eldest to college. So I left the banks and took a research position at a think tank. There I was meant to be an expert, ideally widely published and quoted – but not necessarily a missionary in the cause of development. Once there I realized I missed having a larger mission.  

Then along came a gentleman from Silicon Valley wanting to put many millions of dollars into starting a new and different kind of think tank – not a think tank for the sake of research, but a think tank with a mission – to make a difference in the lives of the world’s poor by bringing independent analysis and evidence to bear on the migration, trade, aid and other policies and practices of the United States and other rich countries, and of the World Bank, the United Nations and other powerful rich world institutions that matter for the world’s poor. And so I became the founding president of the Center for Global Development.

I was lucky (there’s that luck again). Over the years, I landed in good jobs in a field of work that is not only analytically challenging but is morally compelling. I found my mission. I got to be a wonky missionary.

One last reflection. I believe that a mission has to do with bringing your ambitions and talents somehow to the common good. Much of what constitutes the common good in this country is at risk today –environmental protections, applications of science to better health, to our climate crisis, ongoing reforms of the criminal justice system, women’s reproductive rights, African-Americans’ voting rights, Muslims’ freedom to exercise their religion without fear, for all of us to democracy itself. It’s painful for me; I work on global development at a moment when “global” – the idea of making the rest of the world, beyond America, a better place – is out of fashion, in favor of what President Trump calls putting America first.

For many of you, I hope you find a mission – whether here in Baltimore, in this country, or in the world, that has to do with resisting the attitudes and policies here at home that are putting               the lives of our own children and grandchildren, and of the world’s children and grandchildren, at risk.

So tomorrow, and in all the days ahead, remember you are lucky – lucky among other reasons to be a graduate of NDMU; and look for and follow your mission -- find your way of working as a modern missionary for the common good, in your community, your city, country or the larger world.

That’s starting tomorrow. Today and tonight: Let us celebrate!

Congratulations to the class of 2017!