Monday, Feb. 22, 2010 | 11:17 p.m.
Former President Bill Clinton spoke expansively Monday night on the challenges facing America and the world from the stage of the Colosseum at Caesars Palace.
The 42nd president looked tired after a recent procedure to put two stents in a coronary artery, although the crowd still took to his conversational speaking style.
He drew on themes that have become his post-presidential life's work: the growing interdependence of humanity, and how to build on the best aspects of that interdependence while dismantling the worst.
In describing that new interdependence, he noted rapid technological change -- there were fewer than 50 sites on the Web and cell phones weighed 5 pounds when he was elected president in 1992.
Now, many people in the developed world have access to information and communication at their fingertips, binding us together whether we like it or not. But the flow of goods, people, money and armaments also carries extreme risks, in the form of terrorism or financial panics that spread the world over, Clinton said.
Regardless, it isn't changing.
"We can't get divorced," he said. "You can't put the walls back up."
Clinton played an integral part in his wife's failed presidential campaign, including helping her win the Nevada Democratic presidential caucus when he hustled for votes on the Strip. But after swimming again in the tumultuous waters of partisan politics in 2007 and 2008, "The Big Dog," as Democrats like to call him, seems to have moved past the disappointment of the campaign.
Instead, he's returned to a life that had grown on him after leaving office -- speaking around the world, usually for six figures, about themes that often cross ideological boundaries; responding rapidly to mass tragedies, such as the Haitian earthquake; and working with his foundation on issues that have always animated him, including climate change and access to health care and education.
There are three key challenges facing both the United States and the world, Clinton said.
The first challenge is inequality. A billion humans survive on $2 per day; a billion more survive on $1 per day. And, 100 million children don't go to school.
In the United States, the top 10 percent of wealthiest Americans got 90 percent of all the wealth created during the first decade of the new century, he said. Meanwhile, he noted, job growth and incomes stalled for poorer and middle-class Americans, while college tuition increased 75 percent after inflation and health care costs doubled, further pulling down the middle classes.
The second problem, Clinton said, is instability. One small event can lead to catastrophe. For instance, a wave of foreclosures hits Nevada, and the government of Iceland goes bankrupt. The ability to move money and weapons around the world with ease gives terrorist power to terrorize. The failure to establish protection against these dangers is a failure of modern society, he said.
Finally, the way that humans produce and consume energy is unsustainable, Clinton said, gently mocking climate change denialists.
He called the failure to fundamentally change our energy portfolio during the past decade a great environmental and economic mistake -- and singled out Nevada in particular.
"If Nevada had taken up my challenge four or five years ago to become the first energy-independent state, you wouldn't have the unemployment you have today," he said.
(In fact, solar plants require little ongoing labor, so it's not clear what effect a massive investment in solar energy would have had in the long run.)
The challenges in solving these three problems are different in rich and poor countries, Clinton said. Poor countries don't have enough capacity.
"They don't have systems that guarantee predictable results," he said.
He added: "Think about this encounter we're having: You'd be shocked if the lights went off. I've spent time in places where you can't take that for granted."
He said he's kept up at night fearing that Haiti will have heavy rainfall before sanitation systems are built in time to deal with it.
Rich countries, while having enough capacity, are too rigid and unable to change to respond to new challenges, Clinton said.
In his only foray during the speech into what could be called partisan politics, he chided Republicans, though not by name, expressing bafflement at America's refusal to learn from health care systems of other advanced countries.
Switzerland, for instance, has a private insurance system like that in the United States but spends just 11.5 percent of its national income on health care, compared to more than 17 percent in the United States. The difference is $1 trillion dollars.
"I don't understand it. And I am bewildered why we think this is the one area where the rest of the world has nothing to teach us," he said.
The same rigidity -- or "partisan gridlock" in Washington parlance -- could prevent reform of the financial system, leading to disastrous effects, he said.
Clinton challenged the audience to serve, to fill in the gaps where neither the private sector nor government are willing or able to solve problems.
Despite the challenges ahead, Clinton said America would continue to lead the world.
"People that predict America's demise ought to read a little history. George Washington was derided as a mediocre surveyor with bad false teeth who never won a battle in his life. He turned out to be a pretty good general."