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Editor’s note: Erskine Bowles to graduates — ‘Get mad’

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I’m a sucker for graduations. The sense of accomplishment is palpable, and the future seems so promising. As I sat in the bleachers of American University recently to take in a ceremony for the School of Public Affairs, I was ready for a commencement address that would be both uplifting and inspiring.

Erskine Bowles said he left that speech at home.

Instead, the former Clinton White House chief of staff launched into something approximating his stump speech as the co-chair of National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, the ill-fated bipartisan panel that was supposed to provide a way forward for a Congress divided over economic policy.

Bowles said he hoped to get the graduates mad: “Mad at me. Mad at my generation. Mad at us for kicking the can down the road, for ducking the really tough choices.”

The result, he said, is a future far from bright. Last year, he said, 100 percent of the revenue the nation took in went to so-called mandatory spending, to pay interest on the debt and meet obligations for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The money for everything else, to fight wars overseas and pay for homeland security, education, infrastructure and so on was borrowed, roughly half from foreign countries.

“That is crazy,” he said.

He went on: We’re spending too much on health care. We’re bearing disproportionate responsibility for keeping the world’s peace. We have an ineffective tax code. We have too much debt, and a good chunk of the interest we pay is going to other nations so they can lift their own economies, and become more competitive with us.

“I want to get you mad enough to use that social network of yours to stir up your friends, to see if you can get some real action out of my generation, and more importantly out of these politicians in both parties here in Washington, D.C.”

It was not the sort of speech I expected. But judging from the applause, the kids sounded up for the challenge.

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