Former President Bill Clinton gave a standing room-only audience at Salesforce.com's technical conference a lesson in global and U.S. politics Wednesday evening, citing three "huge" problems facing the world: economic inequality, financial instability, and an unsustainable energy model.
Speaking at the Dreamforce 2010 conference in San Francisco, Clinton also reflected on topics such as Congress's 2008 bailout of banks, tax policy, and how much the Internet has grown and cell phones shrunk in size since he first took office in 1993. "We want a global economy, but half the world's people are still living on less than $2 a day," said the former President, who left office in Jan. 2001. Also, many children never go to school, even though each year of school adds 10 percent to lifetime earning capacity in poor countries, Clinton said.
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Clinton described the world as unstable but interconnected: "The very rapid movements we need of information and people and money let this financial crisis [happen]. It began in the U.S. and spread instantaneously across the globe." A terrorist, meanwhile, can train in Pakistan, then try to blow up a car in New York City. The recent WikiLeaks controversy, in which confidential government documents were leaked on the Internet, could hurt American efforts to gather intelligence, Clinton said, with sources afraid of being found out and possibly even killed as a result.
Citing a lack of sustainability caused by how the world produces and consumes energy, Clinton made a plea to fight climate change. "We have to find an economically viable way to deal with [climate change]." He griped that the recent national elections, which gave Republicans control of the U.S. House of Representatives, meant the election of an "enormous number of people who don't believe in climate change."
Clinton also stressed the need to unlock opportunities in technology and energy, and endorsed companies looking to the future. "The companies that stay in the tomorrow business will do great in the 21st century."
Defending the Obama administration's health care reform, Clinton said the United States is spending too much of its gross domestic product on health care in relation to other countries. The United States also lags behind other countries in areas such as student achievement, rail service, and use of electric cars.
Noting the controversial 2008 bank bailout, known as TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program), Clinton said he would have voted for it because "we were facing a total collapse in credit." Those in the Tea Party movement hated TARP, Clinton said. But "everybody hated the bailout," he stressed. "President Bush hated it. The question is did you need to do it."
The Internet's phenomenal growth since Clinton's 1993 inauguration was also noted. "There were a grand total of 50 sites in the entire Internet. More than that have been added since I started talking [this evening]," he said. Cell phones at the time weighed 5 pounds, he recalled.
Clinton acknowledged the pros and cons of being an ex-President: "The great thing about being a former President is you can say whatever you want. The sad thing is nobody cares anymore."
Clinton's arrival at the event was delayed an hour by bad weather. To fill the gap before the start of Clinton's presentation, Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff held a talk onstage with singer Stevie Wonder, who preached a message of unity and said his blindness actually has been a blessing. "The reason I can say it is I believe that in my life, it has allowed me to have a very objective point of view," said Wonder, citing the issue of race as an area where this objectivity has manifested itself.
Clinton noted the irony in following Wonder onstage: "After a lifetime as a mediocre musician, I never thought that Stevie Wonder would be the opening act for me."
Also at Dreamforce on Wednesday, Benioff made clear his irritation with Microsoft for trying to upstage the conference by having Segway riders promote Microsoft Dynamics Online outside the event. The Segways featured signs saying, "I didn't get forced," a reference to Salesforce.com technology. To drive home his point, Benioff brought onstage the man who appears in Microsoft's ad and asked him to come back to Salesforce.com. The man, referred to as Bernard, said "yes" and high-fived Benioff before leaving the stage.
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