Commencement 2013: Questions for Ben Bernanke

Tis the season of college Commencement ceremonies, where speakers are invited to address the graduates, giving them some advice and words of wisdom for this major transition time in their lives.

Ben Bernanke

Ben Bernanke

At my institution, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, the Class of 2013 will be addressed by none other than Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, whose son and daughter-in-law met as Simon’s Rock students.

Of course I am curious to hear what Mr. Bernanke will tell these spanking-new A.A. and B.A. graduates.

I wonder if he will mention the touchy issue of student debt, which the eminent economist Joseph Stiglitz just called a contemporary crisis on the same order of magnitude as the housing bubble crisis of 2008.

Stiglitz doesn’t mince his words in responding to the news that “total student debt, around $1 trillion, surpassed total credit-card debt last year.”  While it’s possible to learn to control credit card spending, he says, “curbing student debt is tantamount to curbing social and economic opportunity. College graduates earn $12,000 more per year than those without college degrees; the gap has almost tripled just since 1980. Our economy is increasingly reliant on knowledge-related industries.”

In other words, young Americans and their families can’t afford not to do whatever it takes—including going into debt—to get that college degree, and beyond that graduate degrees as well.

The students I know are increasingly aware of their place in the big picture of American society.

Those who must take out loans to afford their college educations do so with eyes open, knowing that these loans will form a ball and chain around their ankles for many years to come.

I wonder if Ben Bernanke will talk about this?

Will he talk to this year’s graduating class about how, unlike with credit card or mortgage debt, it is almost impossible to discharge a student loan in bankruptcy court?

Will he explain why interest rates on Federal student loans are so much higher than the interest rates on the loans the Federal Reserve has made to the banks that caused the financial crisis of 2008?

As Mr. Stiglitz observes, “if the Federal Reserve is willing to lend to the banks that caused the crisis at just 0.75 percent, shouldn’t it be willing to lend to students, who will be crucial to our long-term recovery, at an appropriately low rate? The government shouldn’t be profiting from our poorest while subsidizing our richest.”

Besides the $1 trillion in student debt, there have been other major records broken in the past few weeks that Mr. Bernanke could address.  The Dow Jones has climbed above 15,000 this spring, a benchmark many thought would never be reached; and the carbon emissions rate has climbed above 400 parts per million, causing polar sea ice melt at rates and levels not seen in human history.

Will Mr. Bernanke talk about how and why it is that in a time when wealth disparity between the 1% and the rest is growing ever vaster, while the planet heats up and becomes ever more unstable and vulnerable, the stock market is soaring as never before?

I would be quite interested to hear his take on that.

Generally Commencement addresses are exhortatory in style.  Go forth, ye graduates, and conquer the world!  Or make it a better place!  Or do well for yourselves at least!

Today’s graduates need all the encouragement they can get as they make their way out into a society, a world and a planet where only the richest can feel secure—and even for those folks, climate change may make a mockery of that sense of stability.

The qualities most needed today are collaboration, creativity and resilience, along with a willingness to think outside the box and go for the roads less traveled.

Students at Simon’s Rock, a non-traditional early college for brilliant non-conformists, have all of these qualities and more.

I am proud to have accompanied some of them on a piece of their journey, and look to them to lead the way into the future we must all confront.

I hope that Ben Bernanke, who well knows the school and the type of students it attracts, will speak to them frankly and in good faith about the challenges ahead and how best to be not part of the problem, but cutting-edge leaders in the quest for solutions.

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