Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker said the current economic crisis is a “wake-up call” that America must regain its competitiveness in math, science and engineering fields.
Volcker told 500 Union College graduates on Sunday that he has attended many commencements in recent years — especially at universities with strong programs in math, science and engineering — and has noticed how many Ph.D students are from China, India, Eastern Europe and Japan and how few Americans there are.
“More and more these days, those men and women from abroad — trained in our best schools — are going home,” he said.
Volcker led the Federal Reserve System — the nation’s central bank — from 1979 to 1987 and currently serves as chairman of President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. He said one of the country’s leading venture capitalists told him half-jokingly that if the United States wants to retain its lead in technology it should staple green cards to the degrees of all these foreign students.
Volcker said the current economic crisis has been largely of our own making.
“For too many years, as individuals and as a nation, we’ve been spending beyond our means,” he said.
The last two decades have been seen as a triumph of finance with the growth of complex financial instruments and enormous compensation for traders and finance executives, which Volcker said has been out of line with previous experience. However, he called it a “hollow” victory.
“The real income of average workers barely rose. Chronic deficits in our foreign trade have been the order of the day as our manufacturing became less competitive. In some industries our technology lead has been threatened,” he said.
In addition, the country is dealing with decaying roads and bridges, problems with airports and threats to its water supply and waste management.
Volcker said he believes the worst of the economic crisis has passed. He added that the 21st century presents tremendous opportunity to deal with global warming and develop ways to increase the country’s energy independence.
In addition, the United States must grapple with the rising economic powers of China and India. Also, despite poverty, sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest growing region in the world. China is investing there and looking for natural resources and future markets. He encouraged graduates to learn Chinese or go to Africa.
“Or, stay right at home and join Teach America or do any other of a million things that can provide a sense of reward and a sense of satisfaction,” he said. “It’s a bigger world, a competitive world, but a world of opportunity. I trust you will make the most of it. Good luck.”
The college awarded Volcker an honorary doctorate of law degree. It also gave an honorary doctor of science degree to Martin L. Perl, who won the 1995 Nobel Prize for the discovery of a new elementary particle, the tau lepton. Perl is professor emeritus of physics at Stanford University.
Perl told the graduates that he had not planned to go into physics. He was working at General Electric in chemical engineering but took a few physics courses at Union College. It was there that one of his professors told Perl that his interest was really in physics.
In his address to the students, graduating senior Sean D. Mulkerne told them that life is what they make of it.
“This is your chance to seize that moment and work unremittingly toward that goal — limited only by your imagination,” he said.
College President Stephen Ainlay praised the graduates for giving so much to the community during their time at the college, whether it be raising money for victims of domestic violence, cancer or AIDS, helping build a house for Habitat for Humanity or mentoring Schenectady inner city students in science.
Courtney Pantalone of Schenectady, who majored in political science, said she does not have a permanent job lined up yet but will be working in the college admissions office this summer. She would like to work in public service, possibly as an aide in a Congressional office.
“I was taking a political science class and really liked it, and it took off from there,” she said.
Gabrielle Ahl of Ballston Spa, who majored in French, is going into the master’s teaching program at Union with the hope of teaching at the high school level. She enjoyed her time at Union. “I think I’ve made some of my best friends here and the faculty, you couldn’t ask for better professors,” she said.
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