Streams

Opinion: Clinton Global Initiative Shows the Promise of Government

Friday, September 23, 2011 - 09:42 AM

President Clinton left office but remained a public figure. Unlike his predecessor, who devoted time to financial profits through the Carlyle Group and his successor who seems to be enjoying a dose of anonymity, Clinton decided to continue in the realm of social profit.

The Clinton Global Initiative, which has convened for the 6th time this week in Manhattan, brings together world leaders from government, business and the non-profit sector to promote investment in solutions to global challenges such as preventable diseases and climate change.

When you see the head of Pepsi talking about sourcing food locally or the head of international banks bemoaning the financial crisis, you might roll your eyes. However, having these players in the room may be better than not having them there.

While their control over markets and resources can do great damage, it's that same wealth and leverage that can make them useful actors and investors. They talk about "corporate social responsibility" - but they are, at times, candid about profitability as well. When there's money to be made in doing the right things, they are ready to do the right things.

Which is why we need the government players there as well. The elected and appointed officials at CGI -- from heads of state to health secretaries to finance ministers -- are the ones who measure their success against a very different bottom line. While the business community can be a tool in confronting these challenges, it is more often the governments that need to direct those tools.

Unfortunately, government gets a bad rap these days; politics even worse. In America, Congress is at historically low approval ratings. Around the world, the sentiment seems the same. President Obama, addressing CGI yesterday, tapped into that same feeling.

He was excited to be at the conference, he said, because outside Washington, people actually try to get things done. While the joke elicited laughter and reflected the President's real frustrations with a recalcitrant Republican Party, it was also an unfortunate message: the most powerful person in government in the world thinks that government isn't able to do its job.

In that context, one line of President Clinton's stood out. In a conversation with Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, Clinton was asked by an audience member what advice he'd give young people; if, given the level of government dysfunction and gridlock in DC, he would encourage them to go into the private sector instead to create change.

Clinton's response: "Young people don't need to run for office; but they shouldn't run from politics." With an audience of some of the world's powerful business leaders, Clinton reminded us that politics continues to be the mechanism by which we influence the other levers of power, the opportunity we have to make business work for us. Maybe it was said out of the belief that he spent his own life in a worthy pursuit. Or maybe it was a call for people to realize that we are the government and it is us -- and we can complain about it, or we can fix it.

At least that's what I found myself hoping. Because if we really trusted that the business community, unfettered, would solve our problems, then they'd be solved by now. The change agents in that room aren't the CEOs; they are the elected officials who are smart, crafty and committed enough to get those CEOs to work for the public good.

Now, if only we could get elected officials who are as good as the cause for which they are elected.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."

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