MacArthur President Robert Gallucci Addresses the City Club of Chicago
November 28, 2012 | None

MacArthur President Robert Gallucci spoke to 325 guests of the City Club of Chicago, addressing critical issues facing Chicago, the nation, and the world. Specifically, he highlighted the local challenges of reducing violence and improving education; the need for national progress on fiscal issues and a stronger democracy; and the threat of global nuclear terrorism. The speech was followed by a wide-ranging question-and-answer session.

Read the full speech transcript below.

Thanks very much. Thanks. Thank you very much. Thank you all for coming today. Thank you for inviting me to come today. I think it's traditional to give a speech when you stand behind a podium in front of a couple hundred people. And I had, in fact, planned on giving a speech. And I’ll tell you what the speech was going to be. The speech was going to be advice for the new administration. I thought that was a terrific idea. And then I got to thinking about it, first, the speech part and I thought I had given probably enough speeches. And I suspected that you all had heard more than enough speeches. So I wasn’t too taken with the kind of prepared speech part. Then I thought about the second part where I give advice to the new administration. And I thought it was a little presumptuous, just a tad, maybe for me to be giving advice to the administration. I thought it was truly crazy to think that they would like some. So I’ve abandoned the speech idea and the advice idea.

Instead I think what I have for you at lunch are some thoughts about what I think are some of the most important issues we face as citizens of this city – I’ll do this once Tony – this county, the nation, and the world: things we worry about, things we think about, and I want to share those thoughts with you and say these are things I think we all ought to be thinking about. So one way of characterizing this is that, in a modest sort of way, is how we can work together to save the republic, make the city even greater, and make the world safer. We have kind of small objectives at the MacArthur Foundation. [Laughter]

First nationally, when I look at our country, the republic, the first thing that strikes me is that our political system doesn’t seem to work terribly well. I know you all disagree and think it works perfectly but I don’t. If we look at the problems that we face and you’ve heard the shorthand from our fiscal future, climate change, what to do about it, energy policy, healthcare, our infrastructure, one could keep going. We don’t have the sense, or at least I don’t have the sense, that we’re really dealing with these problems adequately. Why would that be? I want to propose to you a couple of thoughts about why that is.

The first is structural thought that we have gotten to a place where in the United States our political culture no longer supports our political institutions. And that’s because our political institutions were designed, and I know probably everybody in this room has read the Federalist Papers or know about them and know about the separation of powers and division of powers, and instinctively know that the way the system is supposed to work is on compromise because it's a very diverse nation. That’s the way it's supposed to work. But we have a culture which has come to the point, not for everybody, but for an awful lot of people who define who’s actually in Washington, and I am talking about Washington now, a culture that shuns compromise, actually that regards it as unethical and unprincipled. And that makes it hard to get things done that are in the national interest, a gap between political culture and political institutions.

The second thing I point to is the quality of our discourse on public issues, which I think has gradually but continually gotten worse and worse, that it is utterly inadequate the way we talk about things publicly. And that has resulted from a number of things, not the least of which is a media that captures an awful lot of people and provides a lot of heat in very little light, as they say, on substance, campaigns, and we’ve just gone through another fueled by a couple of billion dollars aimed at a country that these people must think are filled with people with ADD, or at least very, very short attention spans. When I think about this I think about how it's manifest in some of the debates we have. Think about where we are, and don’t dwell on this, but think about where we are on the fiscal cliff issue. We are on the verge of triggering some truly devastating cuts in our programs, cuts in revenues, but yes, in defense, but I’m right now thinking of social programs, truly devastating cuts, and, of course, doing away with the Bush era tax cuts that would mean increased taxes, not only for the rich, but the poor as well, and the middle class. That it's called a cliff, and that’s probably not entirely accurate. I think before you start thinking wait a minute if there’s a fiscal problem we’ll cut expenditures and we’ll cut – and we’ll increase taxes, and that’ll solve the problem, but it is just too dramatic. It will lead to a recession. And instead of thinking of a happy cliff, think Thelma and Louis in slow motion, right, that’s better imagery.

I heard on the radio in a taxicab two nights ago, Mitch McConnell talking about the situation and he said it's all up to President Obama. It's all up to him. That is like asking him to do the tango alone. And I don’t think that’s possible. I much prefer the characterization I heard from Senator Durbin a couple of weeks ago. He is one of the leaders in the group of; I guess now, eight trying to come to a conclusion, some sort of a grand bargain, or at least the first phase of a grand bargain. And I applaud that but he’s working in a context in which far too many senators and congressman are afraid to do the right thing for the country because they might get caught at doing it which is a bizarre phenomenon and a function of American politics these days. And I mean both Democrats and Republicans.

Another manifestation of the nation’s condition right now that worries me, and I think should worry all of you, is the extraordinary, indeed, unique concentration of wealth and income in this country in a very, very small number of people. Not since the period immediately before the Great Depression have we seen anything like this. And this is worse than that in terms of the concentration. I’m not going to do a lot of numbers here but just think about this for a second. There’s a – we have data on a twenty-five year block of time and we know how much income was increased to whom over this period. And you take this twenty-five year period it turns out that twenty percent of all the income increase gains over that period went to the top tenth of one percent of Americans. That’s three hundred thousand people. At the same time, somewhat phenomenally, substantially less, thirteen point five percent of the income gained, went to the bottom sixty percent. That’s 180 million people. This trend isn’t, I would submit to you on its face, healthy for the country. It has hollowed out the middle class. And that ought to trouble you in my view for ethical reasons and other reasons but it also should trouble you if you’re just concerned about the economy because recoveries are built on middle class demand.

Why did this happen? There are different theories about it but certainly one theory is that with the way money has been injected into politics the political system has responded to those who have the money. And we therefore have a tax system and other bits of policy that have preserved and channeled wealth to a small number of people who have the most influence. There are other arguments that economists like that go to the globalization of the economy. But I don’t want to pick and choose among them. I do want to note that what is resulting, a lot of people have observed—social commentators—is the creation of a new kind of elite who is unconnected, who are unconnected to this country in a lot of ways and therefore aren’t invested in it. They’re not invested in the infrastructure because they don’t use the roads and the rails. They’re not connected to the educational system because their kids are not in public schools, state universities, or community colleges. And in fact, in some important ways, they’re not even connected to the domestic economy of the United States of America because the world now is globalized and they go elsewhere with their wealth.

This is not a complaint here about wealthy people. I like wealthy people. [Laughter] I, like everybody else, would like to be one. In fact, that’s one of the truths. Americans, even poor, poor Americans, typically, classically, unlike Europeans to put it bluntly, are not hostile to wealthy Americans, other Americans who have wealth because they have traditionally always seen themselves as potentially getting wealthy. I mean how do you have a public support for doing away with an inheritance tax or a death tax, excuse me? Well, because some day I could be wealthy and I don’t want to have that tax, alright. So that’s the American dream, that’s the equality of opportunity, that’s social mobility. What I’m telling you here isn’t what – I’ve got me worried about this – is that that’s what’s going. It’s not the equality of condition I yearn for. It's the equality of opportunity to change your condition that I’m worried about us losing. We are now, by the way statistics in the OECD, the least socially mobile country in the whole collection of countries that make up the OECD. That’s extraordinary. It shouldn’t be that if you want to enjoy the American dream you have to go to Denmark. That’s not a good plan. [Laughter]

So what do we do? I think what we want to aim for in our republic is first an informed electorate so that discussion of issues is substantive and sophisticated and subtle and fair and accurate, and then we want that electorate to vote for people. We want all of them, as many as possible, to get out and vote for people. And we want the people they elect to understand that they can compromise and not be punished for it in a primary system. We want them to engage in serious discussion and then we want solid policy produced that’s in the national interest. How does that happen? We work on all these issues at MacArthur and at the other foundations who are represented here. We are particularly concerned about quality media because we think that goes to the quality of the discourse in the electorate. So we support NPR and public broadcasting, and I know you’re all familiar with the verdant world that we advocate. [Laughter] We favor quality documentaries; do everything to accuracy and media, another area in which we’re very active. We do what we think is going to produce that collection of connections between good electorate, good elections, good elected officials engaging in serious policy. We favor campaign finance reform; even in the wake of Citizens’ United decision we think that’s possible. We support research that will inform the discourse. I talked about our fiscal future. Well, we actually sponsored the research by the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Administration that, in 2007, produced the book about our fiscal future that the Simpson-Bowles Commission relied upon. I mean, I was in Bowles’ office and he had a dog-eared copy of that commission report and that still may be the closest thing to a blueprint we have. And that’s still vibrant. I mean front page New York Times these guys are, I think the number was, making forty thousand dollars each for speeches. Not so bad! Now we just have to translate that into Washington somehow.

So I think we have to be concerned about these things. I think we need to study why we have the concentration of wealth and income, what its implications are, what we ought to do about it, and we’re sponsoring that kind of research. So my first point about the country is we have problems that are quite serious, quite deep, but I also think there are solutions and we’re working on it. What about Chicago? Chicago is for me the great American city but I worry and I think you should worry about at least two things which I think undercut that image. One is the degree of violence in this city, the number of people who die by homicide. And the second is our public education system in Chicago. These are not just Chicago’s problems, neither one of them. However, I would note to you that they are particularly severe here. Nationally there’s a twenty year trend of a decline in violence in American cities. We are going the other way. We have, or on track right now to have, the year end with 500 homicides in Chicago, which would be a high over the last four years. Yeah, we had a good October but that doesn’t – that’s not quite enough. And with respect to our school systems I’m virtually a visitor compared to all of you here but I’ve been in this city for over three years. We have some of the best public schools in the country and probably some of the worst. We have to figure this out.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on proving to you that these are important problems. Let’s make believe we’re all lawyers, it's close to that in this audience I’ve noticed, and we’ll just stipulate that, okay. Let’s take violence. What can we do about that? I’ve been impressed with what is happening on the subject of violence. I’ve been impressed with some of the stuff which is short term, which is aimed on the suppression of violence, the work that’s being done by the Chicago Police Department, the U.S Attorney’s Office, States Attorney’s Office, and our Department of Corrections, all of them following in the first instance a program developed by David Kennedy at John J. College which aims to hold whole gangs responsible for individual acts of violence. And it's a complicated strategy but one that seems to be paying off. There’s a Cease Fire program that has former gang members intervene in the interest of suppressing violence. More long term, there are other programs. There is the Becoming a Man program which I’ve found particularly interesting because it goes back to middle school. And it aims to teach kids how to deal with conflict without resorting to violence. And there is our own superintendent leading the Chicago Police Department in reform so that that department works more effectively with neighborhoods particularly, neighborhoods with a lot of minority citizens so we get better policing at the end of the day, and more respect for the police function. Again, our foundation, MacArthur, supports all of this sometimes with studies, sometimes with evaluations, various ways and I’m very happy that we do, and it gives me hope.

In education, the first question I have is what do we know about education here in Chicago? First, I think we know that there’s a connection between the violence I talked about and the education system. Lots of ways probably they connect but one  of the most obvious is that when a kid is killed, is shot, and he goes to a public school, that has an impact on school the next day, and who shows up to school and all that. It interferes with school. Also when kids drop out of our school system they are much more likely to be in that violence equation either as the shooter or the victim. So there’s a connection. We can reduce violence if we could have better schools, if we could keep kids in school. A second thing we know is that there’s a correlation between poverty and poor schools: that it is harder to run a school well and get good outcomes, educational outcomes, in the poorest sections of the city. A third thing we know is the very best schools in this city have good teachers and very good principals and follow an excellent curriculum.

So certainly I think it's easy to say that we might want to work to recruit and retain the very best teachers and the very best principals that we can. And second that we might want to work to eradicate poverty. I’m for all that. But okay, while we’re doing that I think we need to be doing other things. And that’s what we have been doing at MacArthur, thinking about what other things we want to do. I am not dismissing what I just said. I’m just saying that takes a long time. There’s a reason why that movie that was so popular; many of you must have seen it, Waiting for Superman. [Laughter]  That movie Waiting for Superman, whatever you may think of the movie think of the image, waiting for superman takes a long time, right? So what we have been looking at is how kids learn. We were involved in, I think, what I would call traditional education at the Foundation before I got there, and it changed its focus to an understanding literally of how kids were learning these days.  And to me that’s been very interesting.

This is where I sort of came in at MacArthur. We’ve learned a number of things that kids learn both inside of school and outside of school. We’ve learned that kids learn about things they’re interested in, and some of the things they’re interested in they get interested in because their peers are interested in it. And some of the things they get interested in because teachers and their parents actually have an impact on them. It's what we would generally call education. And a lot of time, even in the poorest neighborhoods, is spent by these kids with digital media of one kind or another, social media, or games to put it bluntly. So  what we’ve been trying to do, one way of capturing what we’re trying to do is put all this together for a kind of educational intervention that has a different center of gravity than traditional educational reform.

First, we’ve done some work at a small enterprise in New York City, a quest school in New York with a few grades. And then we’ve supported the opening of a charter school here in Chicago just north of here on the border of Cabrini Green and Old Town that would be from six to twelve with an education philosophy we call connected learning. That is to say trying, in fact, to engage kids in what they want to get engaged in in a way that challenges them to integrate what they’re learning so that they don’t move from history to mathematics to English. But it's more systemic. It challenges them the way a game challenges a kid. And they’re evaluated in the course of doing the work, the way a game evaluates you. You can’t move to the next level unless you’re successful at this level. It's connection. It's systemic. And it's organic evaluation built in. And there is some digital media. We call the program Digital Media and Learning. It doesn’t do away with the need for good teachers, good principals. And it certainly will only succeed if it also meets the marks that you would traditionally have to meet in the core curriculum. But this may be a way of asking more from our kids in order to get more from our kids.

So I would say about this, I’m not claiming right now that you all have to drink the Kool-aid with me but I am saying that we’re excited by this. It may change us from a slope to a step function in terms of moving. There’s a lot of activity that involves these, that we’re engaged in involving this type of learning. It involves cultural institutions in this city. Some of them are represented her, Steppenwolf, the Art Institute, and others, so kids are connected; we call it hive learning, to these cultural institutions. At the same time particularly focused on libraries and we have at Central Library the new media space, and we’re building that out. And we’re going to many cities around the country doing the same thing. This is being embraced nationally as a way of bringing kids out and having them learn at times when they’re not just in the classroom. So I think there’s something there. And what I’m telling you here is this is not an easy problem or it would have been solved. But I’m very excited by this intervention.

Well, I want to move now from improving the city and saving the country to saving the world, so. And I’m going to end on this. So if you think back, and I don’t think you could remember this, but the last three presidents were all asked more than once what is the most critical national security threat to the United States of America or international security? They all said the same thing. And by the way, the people they ran against for office, right, each of them twice, all agreed that this was the most important issue; international nuclear terrorism. You haven’t heard much about that, the most important issue, because they don’t have much to say. And that’s why it's on my list right here. This is a very hard problem. What’s the problem? The problem is very simple, that terrorists are going to be with us for a long time, in case you didn’t get that. We may defeat Al Qaeda here but there’ll always be terrorists and we will always be a target. And the quintessential terrorist act is a detonation of a nuclear weapon in an American city. That’s fact.

The question is, is it plausible? Is it just a movie theme or can it happen? And what I’m here to tell you is this – I have no expertise in anything I’ve talked about till this moment. [Laughter] This is the one thing I know about, okay. And what I’m telling you is it is – it's not – to me it would not be shocking if we lost an American city tomorrow morning. It's shocking in the sense of I would be surprised. I am stunned it hasn’t happened already. The interest is there. We have no way of – how come we didn’t blow ourselves up during all those years with the Soviet Union? Because we had deterrents, we deterred them. We told them if you hurt us we’ll hurt you back. So they didn’t hurt us. That’s what we think anyway. But we can’t do that with terrorists. We don’t know where they live very often and sometimes they don’t care. They actually embrace death in a way we generally don’t. So how do you deter them? How do you defend against terrorists? We don’t have a really good way which we should be confident works to keep terrorists out of America. You may have noticed that. So what they’re aiming for, if we’re not careful, is what happened to us on September 11th, 2001. We will be surprised. We will be surprised but we’ll be surprised times a hundred, right. Three thousand people roughly died on 9/11. I’m not talking about thirty thousand. I’m talking about three hundred thousand people, in the business, called prompt deaths. That means people who die within hours of the detonation. That’s a very big deal. And you don’t slide up to that. you don’t get – well, we’ll get four thousand. It happens instantly. And I’m very worried about this.

I’ll tell you briefly it might be a nuclear weapon that’s already manufactured but much more likely among, in the intelligence community, it's the possibility of an improvised nuclear device using the one thing that’s the hardest thing to get and why it probably hasn’t happened, the fissile material. It's either plutonium or highly-enriched uranium – hard to get but you don’t have to get much. That weapon that will kill three hundred thousand people will have a core, this fissile material that would fit in that water glass. And the whole bomb that would devastate this city built by a non-expert, an improvised device, would be about the size of this podium we think because we’ve actually modeled this. So we got to keep that out continually. So at MacArthur we are focused on this too. We are focused on the idea that we have to control this material, we have to limit it, and even eliminate it. There’s no real need for this fissile material anymore to exist on the planet. We are dealing with the hard cases, the Pakistan, the North Korea, and the Iran. And we’re dealing with some of the worst ideas about how to enjoy the benefits of nuclear energy. I know, let’s use plutonium as a fuel. Bad idea, but it's out there. So I like what we’re doing in this area too, very hard problem, but it also can be addressed.

So I have been advocating to you in these uplifting remarks that you worry about democracy in America, you worry about violence and education in Chicago, and you worry about nuclear terrorism but I’m optimistic. Why would I be optimistic? Last month, five weeks ago or so, our son and our daughter-in-law delivered to us our first grandchildren, twin boys, Will and Ben. [Applause] Thank you. I had nothing to do with it. And when I think about them I think about the challenges I’ve been talking about which will confront the world that they grow up in. And I just got to believe we can do something about meeting those challenges. Thank you all very much!


Moderator:      So it's my honor to ask the questions so I hope you all have more. Carlos Ponce [ph] – there we go. It's not political discourse in – is not political discourse and compromise a factor of our representative selection process a process that gerrymandering distorts and frustrates the ability of communities to organize. Shouldn’t redistricting reform be the first step in political reform?



Robert Gallucci:          That’s one. So yes, I’m not sure it's a first step but it's a step. We have been – you know every ten years you get an opportunity to do this after the census and I have to make just two points about it. One, it's a little more complicated than you might think because there are some people who actually get representatives only because of redistricting. And so you got to be careful. Second, both sides redistrict for their own reasons so it requires a bit of strong political will. California has been doing some of this and it's happened elsewhere. But it's not that simple. It's also not the only thing you can do to get at the problem which was in the antecedent in that question or statement, and it is – you can do things about primary elections too that will help a great deal to stop the movement to both extremes and drive people more to the center. But certainly I’m in favor of more rational redistricting.

Moderator:      Thank you. You left out any discussion about our state. With the…. [Laughter] With the ongoing fiscal crisis in the state what are your thoughts about reforms to improve our state’s condition? How can the city improve its conditions without the state showing similar improvement?

Robert Gallucci:          I don’t know if I’m yet in enough trouble so let me get into some more trouble. [Laughter] I think for – I have no expertise here. I’m a newspaper reader on this subject. But it would seem to me that this state has a serious problem and there are some difficult things politically that should be done. And I hope we get on with it. There is analytically, politically, the kind of problem that we face nationally and we face it – Illinois is in very serious straits. And we need political will in order to make the changes that we need to make. I know that’s a flash to all of you.

Moderator:      I’m sorry. Glen Mazadi [ph], is that Glen?

Glen Mazadi:  Mazadi…

Moderator:      Mazadi – sorry, I didn’t credit you with your question. Tony Irving from the governor’s office; if terrorism is defined as violence and intimidation in pursuit of political aims would you consider the gang related violence in urban areas as terrorism and, if so, how does it change your approach?

Robert Gallucci:          One can have any number of definitions for terrorism and the most useful definition that we work internationally is one that excludes anything the United States of America may ever do. [Laughter] I generally would not – I think there are aspects of terrorism that or qualities of international terrorism that you can find in any situation. You can find it, your worst cases, in your office environment where someone is terrorized for some reason by someone else. You can find it in your community, in your neighborhood, and certainly gangs can terrorize. I’m not at all sure that after recognizing that that one leaps to the application of the solution you set upon internationally with a problem that you have in a city or a neighborhood. So I’d be a little careful about that. At the intellectual level are people terrorized in somewhat the same way nationally and internationally? I would say yes.

Moderator:      What should the Obama administration do about North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan’s nuclear programs? [Laughter]

Robert Gallucci:          Different things…. [Laughter] Very, very, very briefly, the most dangerous country in the world for the United States of America in my view is Pakistan. And I say that not because I think that current Pakistani government wishes us ill. I do not think that. I think, and I know, that Pakistan has an enormous nuclear weapons program much greater than I would venture anybody but a few experts I see around the room would know, enormous program that is going to overtake some of the more traditional nuclear weapon states like France and Britain - has already gone beyond that of Israel. So this is a very serious weapons program in a country in which political control is sometimes a thing and iffy in more ways than one, and in which the military engages in a kind of activity that is provocative to their neighbor, India. So we are concerned about a Pak-India war. We’re concerned about Pakistani control, just maintaining control of the material I talked about that would fit in that glass or the actual weapons themselves. So we have a lot to worry about. Plus, there are those in Pakistan that embrace the most extreme versions of Islam and certainly do wish us ill. So Pakistan is an enormous problem. Iran could well become that for us. It is not yet. Iran, to the best of my knowledge, doesn’t have a centile of that fissile material. All you hear about Iran is that it may produce highly-enriched uranium. It hasn’t yet. If it does, it’ll be a problem guaranteed for transfer to a terrorist group or for the provocation in the region the Middle East. North Korea, a country I worked with or on for a couple of years or so, is a country with nuclear weapons. They did something truly extraordinary. They actually went and tried to build one of these fissile material production facilities in Syria, not necessarily the most stable place on the planet and suffered no consequences. So I worry about North Korea not only because of the threat it poses to two treaty allies, South Korea and Japan, but because it might actually end up transferring this material to terrorists who might act directly against us. So the answer to all these for me from the administration is in the first instance try to engage them either openly, diplomatically, or in a more quiet way, and never take the possibility of the use of force off the table. A cliché but I will tell you from the perspective of the countries we say that to they don’t dismiss that phrase and neither should you.

Moderator:      Joan Stevenson – With much of the public policy going to media that reinforces – with much of the public going to media that reinforces their own political beliefs that is Fox News, internet sites, and so on, responsible reporting gets lost in the noise. How can we fix this?

Robert Gallucci:          Great question! In fact, the data does support the proposition that we all like to reduce dissonance and therefore we all like to listen to people who will agree with us whether in the left perspective or the right. Unless you want information then the data shows, for example, if there’s a hurricane or an earthquake, or something you care about in the world a lot, you do not go to MSNBC or Fox News; you go to CNN, which I find interesting. That means intellectually you know this but emotionally you’d rather not deal with that. You’d rather go somewhere else. For us, I think at MacArthur what we want to do is make sure that what we have available is robust and of the highest quality, the person that said that’s the NPR, National Public Radio, stuff and others for sure. And the second thing is we want to call to account those who are in a public sphere actually speak inaccurately, particularly when we’re pretty certain they know they are so they are purposely misleading. That’s the accuracy part where we support people who go after accuracy and media. At the end of the day the better educated people are the more interested they are in a serious policy debate, the more likely they are to look for that and the market will work. My problem right now is, and your problem right now is, the market is working. [Laughter]

Moderator:      There don’t appear to be other questions.

Robert Gallucci:          Wonderful!

Moderator:      I’m going to give you an opportunity to talk to him afterwards. [Laughter]


Robert Gallucci:          So apparently some people at the MacArthur Foundation where I work have not been, let’s say, responsive to phone calls. And I want you to know… [Laughter] I will talk to them about that. Thank you. Thank you all.


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