President Bill Clinton may be a majority stockholder of the world's ideas. Tuesday morning's Chicago Ideas Week event featured a one-on-one talk with the former president and TIME managing editor Rick Stengel. In just over an hour, Clinton brainstormed solutions for mortgage relief, unemployment and government paralysis and that was just the warm up.
The conversation turned to American pride, the personification of corporations and, ultimately, what it will take to pull the country out of this 9% unemployment rate-sized rut. Still, Clinton was as optimistic as he was emphatic, balking only at his own insistence. "I try to say 'I don't know' at least once an hour," he told Chicago's Chase Auditorium. As an audience, we were lucky. It's not everyday you're able to see neurons fire at this pace, let alone be in a room with a former president. "You've just visited the most interesting place in the universe," Stengel said through a closing round of applause, "Bill Clinton's mind."
The theme of the week is "ideas." Here are a few of President Clinton's:
On the housing crisis: "This is killing us." It's obvious Clinton can't understand why we're dumping devalued property into a depressed market, while throwing Americans out of their homes. He stressed that mortgage interest rates or leasing options should be made available to homeowners who face foreclosure. The priority should be eliminating the bad debt that collectively sinking American homeowners. "If you live on a block where someone else's home has been foreclosed, your home went down in value too. It's affecting everyone." He's convinced that an economic boost would only require getting foreclosed homes off the market by offering cash-strapped home owners leases on their own properties with the option to deal back into mortgages later. "We've got to clean this debt up."
On economic growth: "We're majoring in the minors." "The real unemployment rate is at least 15% and that's not counting those with part time jobs who want full time employment," Clinton said as he dug into the country's economic failings, which have led to an infection of American confidence. "It's about more than money," he said. "It's about how you provide for your family and about how you feel when you wake up in the morning." While, he recommends focusing more attention onto the manufacturing sector, he also called to repatriate corporate profits currently overseas. There's obvious hostility on the issue, attempts in the past haven't always gone smoothly and companies want to avoid high taxes as they bring their wealth back into America, but it's an issue ripe for bipartisan reform. "We need to repatriate corporate cash to bring this money back to hire Americans," he said.
On the power of youth: "The modernization movement is real. And it's extremely hopeful." Between the Arab Spring, the rioting in London and now the Occupy Wall Street protests taking place here in the U.S., global youth have mobilized. Clinton compared the Occupy Wall Street movement to the early Tea Party movement, citing both groups' demand of accountability instead of bail outs. "But we'd be in a terrible funk if we let the banking system collapse." He drew comparisons to the Arab Spring, specifically the protesters in Egypt's Tahrir Square. "They knew what they were against, but they didn't quite know what they were for." He talked of a modernization of Egypt happening long before any action of revolution. Unrest came out in part because the country's people outgrew it's own stunted system. And the fight isn't over. "The problem in Egypt is that 400,000 people get a college degree each year, but there are not 400,000 new college-level jobs," Clinton said.
On Steve Jobs: "He had a sack full of guts."
Clinton, a friend of Jobs', told the room about the real gift the Apple visionary gave him. He got an iPhone in advance to the release "God, he was like a kid with a new toy," Clinton said but gadgets don't solidify relationships. When Clinton's daughter Chelsea left for Stanford in 1997, Jobs called the then-president to invite him to use his property near Palo Alto whenever he wanted to visit. "What he gave me was the opportunity to see her. He gave me time with my daughter."
Just as Clinton had watched Jobs lead the pack in American innovation, he also saw him getting sicker. "He was always thinking. It wasn't like there was a new idea everyday, but he was so determined and focused, and when he got sick, he just got better."
"I went to see him a few months before he passed. The last time I talked to him, he said, 'This cancer I have is clever. It keeps coming up with new ways to attack me. I don't think I have any weapons left, but I had a good time trying to beat it."'
On America: "We don't want too much government, but we want enough."
"America has overcome many of its prejudices. The only bigotry we have left is that we don't want to be around anyone who disagrees with us," Clinton said as he lobbed another comment right in Congress' direction. "This is one of the reasons there's a political paralysis in Washington."