"At the base of a hill in Granville, Ohio, which I used to climb to reach my alma mater, Denison University, are the words 'You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.' Scholars spend their most productive years searching for truth and sharing their work with students and public audiences.
"We celebrate today those scholars and the achievements of their dedicated students who have mastered blocks of subject matter and developed disciplined attitudes which could encourage lifetimes of continuing study and personal growth.
"This is a high moment in the lives of those who will receive diplomas and in the lives of all those who have given love and support to these graduates. It is a moment to celebrate stewardship, sacrifice, and the long view which affirms that we must always say to each succeeding generation, 'You will do better than we have done, you must do better than we have done, and we will do all we can to support your dreams because they are embodied in our dreams.'
"We celebrate this idealism and achievement at a time in the life of our nation when economic prosperity is widespread and our nation enjoys unparalleled standing economically, politically and militarily relative to other nations. Our opportunities for constructive leadership are abundant.
"Ironically, our current prosperity has been achieved during a time when scandals in Washington fill the newspapers and investigations seem never to end. Both houses of Congress are busy investigating White House activities and campaign law violations, and the Senate is investigating Congressional campaigns as well. Meanwhile, charges and countercharges stemming from the ethics investigation of the Speaker of the House have forced leaders of that body to conclude a truce on ethics complaints until June 12 a temporary measure to prevent administrative chaos.
"Some political columnists have concluded that the American public is so overwhelmed by charges of political wrongdoing that 'ethics fatigue' has set in. Many citizens see unethical conduct among public officials as unfortunately pervasive, if not universal.
"But this is surely an intellectual 'cop-out.' Justice will be served to those officials who violate the public trust. The turnover of office holders is more substantial than often noted, and aggressive reporters, political competitors, and a better informed public are all enforcing higher standards of conduct, year by year.
"In fact, scrutiny of individual behavior by our government officials has intensified to the point where even the most minute missteps are exhaustively investigated. As columnist Robert Samuelson recently wrote: 'The threshold for scandal has moved so low that Washington is almost never without one.'
"But as we have sharpened the scrutiny of personal conduct to unprecedented levels, our efforts to ensure truth in the large policy debates of the day have atrophied. Our failure to search for and speak the truth in public discourse is, I believe, a far greater danger to our democracy than the scandals that now dominate news reports.
"Increasingly, our nation lacks the zeal to search for the truth in public policy. Officials who consistently make unsound arguments often do so because they believe that their constituents do not want to find the truth which could adversely change their incomes, job prospects, and lifestyles.
"For example, such a predicament is before the American public as private negotiations seek to produce a monumental bargain in which hundreds of billions of dollars would be transferred from producers of tobacco products to tens of millions of injured individual parties. That manufacturers would voluntarily enter into negotiations to relinquish such huge sums demonstrates the overwhelming strength of decades of medical evidence against tobacco.
"Yet the argument is being made that tobacco must somehow be saved from the risks of litigation. Tobacco jobs must be protected, tobacco farmers should continue production, as should cigarette manufacturers. Adult smokers should encounter no impediment or increased cost to a product that will shave years off their lives and cost the nation hundreds of billions of dollars in increased public health care expenses. Even with regard to children, objections are raised to FDA regulations that seek to shield youth from tobacco advertising and promotions. Throughout the debate on tobacco, evidence has taken a back seat to expediency.
"A much less dramatic example of the subordination of truth is the current public argument over the accuracy of the Consumer Price Index. This measure of inflation, known as the CPI, is the basis for calculating yearly cost of living benefit increases in Social Security and other entitlement programs. It also is the basis for calculating adjustments to income tax brackets that are designed to prevent bracket creep.
"The accuracy of the CPI measure of inflation is essential. If it is too low, taxpayers and retirees will lose ground to inflation. If it is too high, government deficits will soar as payments to beneficiaries outrun our ability to pay for them.
"Last December, the Advisory Commission to Study the Consumer Price Index reported to the U. S. Senate Finance Committee that the Consumer Price Index will overstate changes in the true cost of living for the coming years. Their best estimate of that upward bias was 1.1 percent a year. They further stated that the CPI had been overstating inflation for recent years by 1.3 percent annually.
"Senator Patrick Moynihan of New York had the courage to point out that changing the Consumer Price Index to reflect the Advisory Committee's report was the intellectually honest response. Further, he observed that an accurate CPI would not only avert fiscal disaster, it would lead to a balanced federal budget and substantial new confidence in the long-term integrity and solvency of the Social Security system.
"Voices calling for accuracy were drowned out immediately by labor union negotiators, representatives of senior citizens, and even groups representing all taxpayers that count upon upward bias in indexing deductions.
"The search was on, not for truth or accuracy, but for reasons to discredit those who had the temerity to even ask questions that could limit cost of living adjustments to the actual rate of inflation.
"A similar disregard for the truth may develop in the area of international trade. I have been intrigued recently by a notion explored by the economic consultant, A. Gary Shilling in Forbes Magazine. He quotes C. Harvey Monk, Jr., chief of the Census Bureau's foreign trade division as saying that the U. S. Customs Service is not counting 10 percent or more of American exports.
"If 10 percent of U. S. exports in 1996 were not counted, our reported trade deficit would fall from 114 billion dollars to only 31 billion dollars. If the undercount was as much as 15 percent, we would have enjoyed a surplus of 11 billion dollars.
"The remarkable strength of the dollar in the face of huge reported trade deficits offers a clue that the Census Bureau is on to something. Imports are carefully counted by Customs because of import taxes collected. No similar incentive has ever stimulated counting exports. For example, to save trouble, the U. S. simply accepts the figures of our largest export trading partner, Canada, and adopts these figures as our official count on U. S.-Canada trade.
"But woe to the public official who begins to make a case that accuracy is necessary. An army of protectionists already enraged by the movement to freer and fairer trade awaits to affirm that the 'truth' is self-evident. They proclaim that we are awash in foreign imports and threatened by overwhelming immigration, legal and illegal, which purportedly shakes the foundations of our economic future.
"People of differing political philosophies will often disagree on what actions should flow from available evidence. But what is disturbing about the three issues that I have mentioned is that evidence and the truth it supports is being ignored because it is inconvenient. The truth is being ignored regardless of dire long-term consequences, because it might make too many people unhappy in the short run. In place of truth, we get policy debates based on expedience, polling data, and the political impulse to satisfy the immediate cravings of the public.
"The jury is still out on tobacco, the Consumer Price Index, and the accuracy of export-import trade statistics. But truth must not be rendered irrelevant just because it is inconvenient.
"I am confident that scholars of integrity will exemplify the age-old search for truth. In complex public issue findings, there will always be a range of honest disagreement.
"But will each of you invigorate our democracy by coming to a well-reasoned position on tobacco, the Consumer Price Index, and foreign trade statistics just for starters and publicly state where you stand?
"Will you demand of your legislators and your President that they speak out with the courage and the wisdom that they should exemplify, with a search for the truth as their major criteria?
"My charge to all of you who receive diplomas of achievement today is that you must continue to cherish, develop, and defend the academic traditions of this university. Equally important, you must continue to develop your own capacities as truth seekers and truth tellers through study and public witness.
"The idea of searching for the truth and then telling the truth as you have found it is a difficult but not a new idea. What is new today is our public recognition and celebration of each of you as potential champions who will enrich the dialogue of our society and renew the idealism and hope that undergirds the best moments of our lives.
"My generation knows that you can do better than we have in finding and articulating the truth. We know that you must do better in bringing confidence to governance based on honesty in human dialogue. We must support not only your dreams, but the opportunities for each of you to speak out with confidence. Congratulations on accepting the challenges and the rewards of citizenship in this great country."