“Wear sunscreen" was the advice to of Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich to the class of '97. She also told new graduates to sing, floss, remember compliments and "don't be reckless with other people's hearts." It was good advice, charmingly told.
But this is not the commencement address I would give to the class of '13. They are graduating into a less carefree world. For them, a college degree is not a guaranteed ticket to upward mobility or even, for that matter, middle-class stability. Premature aging from overexposure to the sun may be the least of their worries.
In light of this, here is my advice:
Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '13, I want you to remember two things about what I am about to say:
First, politics is everything. It will determine the course of your life as much as will your choice of work and whom you marry. I know this sounds cliche, but if you don't vote, you are ceding decisions about your personal future to someone else.
Second, vote for politicians who are empathetic. A leader has to be able to put himself in other people's shoes to understand their struggles. If he can't, don't vote for him. He won't care about you either.
When I say that politics is everything, look at the impact of governance on the fortunes of people in the 20th and 21st centuries. The stark examples of East and West Germany, and North and South Korea, represent the perfect social experiment. Here, a people with the same culture and work ethic were divided and subject to different political and economic systems. One side thrived, and one didn't.
That says a lot about the power of democracy and the free market to unleash human potential.
But the analysis doesn't stop there. When you compare the lives of average Americans to those of people in Norway, the Netherlands, Canada and Sweden, we come up well short, with more economic insecurity, destabilizing inequality and less work-life balance. Travel if you can and see for yourself.
The best government turns out to be one that marries a free market with a solid social safety net — think universal health care and low-cost university education — as well as strong regulations to protect workers and the environment.
That's why politics is everything.
Do you think the reason there are no Bangladeshi-type garment factories in the United States is because Walmart and the Gap have a moral compunction against exploiting American workers with a $37-a-month minimum wage and rickety, fire-trap factories? Of course not. It's because our government protects us from this kind of life.
But it hasn't done nearly enough. We are the only advanced nation that doesn't guarantee employees paid sick leave or vacation time. The Dutch enjoy 20 days of paid annual leave. For the Norwegians and Swedes it's 25 days.
We have none because we elect too many politicians who have no empathy. They get vacation and sick time; why should they care if some hard-working restaurant server doesn't?
Want to know what an antitax politician really is? Someone who will vote against investing in public schools, parks and infrastructure, and who will privatize Medicare and Social Security.
Want to know what a politician who says he opposes regulation is really against? A clean environment, controls on Wall Street and giving workers safe conditions, living wages and the right to organize.
It's depressing, I know, but remember the power of your vote. You can keep these politicians out of office.
You can tell billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch and plutocrats like them that no matter how many hundreds of millions they spend to get you to vote for politicians who will cut their taxes and let them pollute, they can forget it, you are not that gullible.
You can choose leaders who will stand with average Americans over the rich. It will change America for the better if you do.
Oh, and when you go outside, it's probably a good idea to put on some sunscreen.