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Planetary Problem Solver: Bill Clilnton


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MEACHAM: Sir, you've now been at several different levels of both public power and political and philanthropic influence. What are the obstacles that you see to the kind of change that you argue we need. Is it cultural?

CLINTON: Sometimes. For example, if you look at the health-care challenge, it's part cultural. We are preconditioned to believe that we have the best in everything that matters. And in some sense our health-care system is the best. We're great at cancer detection and treatment; we're great at managing crises and heart care--otherwise somebody else would be giving you this interview. [Clinton underwent a quadruple bypass in 2004.] We're really good at that, but a lot of the basic things we don't do very well, yet we don't know it. Then there's the economic problem, which is our employer-based system that made a lot of sense for the industrial era, but it also means that 50 percent or so of America's people get their health care through employee-based systems and only pay about a fourth of the real cost of it. So it's hard for them to focus on the fact that the reason they haven't gotten a pay raise in the last seven years is that their employers are having to take money that they earned that they wanted to give them as pay raises and put it into their health care.

So I think we have imperfect knowledge on the part of otherwise rational voters, and I think we have cultural resisĀ­tances in health care. The same thing is true in energy. You have imperfect knowledge. A lot of people believe that the only way for a country to get rich, stay rich, and get richer is to burn more carbon fuel. If that's factually accurate, some people think, then even if global warming is a problem, we won't address it before there's a calamity because people are not going to agree to make themselves poorer. It's easy for me to say that. If you cut my income 10 percent I'd still be in great shape, and my daughter would be all right, and everything would be fine. But you can't ask people who can't pay their grocery bills to, in effect, [take a] pay cut to solve this problem

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MEACHAM: What you're describing is the end of "future preference" [the idea that each person has an obligation to sacrifice today for the benefit of tomorrow, a longtime Clinton principle].

CLINTON: Yeah, I'm worried about it. The rich countries' problem is rigidity and the poor countries' problem is capacity. Then we all share a problem that was best articulated by the philosopher Ken Wilber. He's got this theory that there are basically 10 levels of consciousness--the way we view ourselves, the way we view others--and that it's almost impossible for people to keep up with what circumstances require. If you live in an interdependent world, you have to believe as a starting premise--it doesn't mean you'll never go to war, doesn't mean you'll never fight, you can't be naive or stupid, doesn't mean we shouldn't be out there trying to get the leaders of Al Qaeda--but you have to believe that in an interdependent world, what we have in common is more important than our interesting differences. And the only way to celebrate and make the most of our differences is to get rich out of our differences, create vibrant markets out of our differences. It enables people to have fevered debate in politics without stealing elections or shooting the opposition. For me, if you ask how do you live with inequality, instability, and unsustainability, my answer is you've got to build the capacity of the poor people of the world and build the flexibility of the rich countries and move away from rigidity.

Then in both places the rise of nongovernmental organizations gives us real hope. You know, half of America's foundations have been created since I became president. It's an exploding thing. The promise of being able to create partnerships with governments and the private sector and proving we can do things much faster, cheaper, and better is really important. I just think that you have to make the financials work. If you don't make the financials work, you're just whistling Dixie, and we're all just giving speeches.

You and I don't agree on everything, but I'm not going to shoot you if you win the next election.

I've been thinking about Rwanda. Look at what [Rwandan President] Paul Kagame has done. Yes, they've done a great job of getting investments, and, yes, they're the best users of NGOs I've ever seen. But the most important thing they have done is to build a genocide memorial, which grippingly chronicles what happened. It's on top of the most massive crypt in the world; it has the bones of 300,000 of those who were killed. Kagame said, "We're going to do all this. We're going to tell the truth and face the truth, and that's all we're going to do. And then we're going to let it go." And so he creates these reconciliation villages. You get a free plot of land for a house, but you have agree to live next to someone of the opposite ethnic group. And they run all these co-ops where women from different ethnic groups are making baskets or whatever and selling them all over the world. Every person--without regard to their ethnic group--every adult male goes out and spends one whole day once a month on a Saturday cleaning the streets, from the richest to the poorest, and it's all designed to say, "Hey, this happened to us and it was horrible, and the only way for it not to happen again is for us to let it go, to focus on what we have in common." It's a metaphor for what the world has to do.


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