Obama: Don't Worry If It's 'Socialist Theory or Capitalist Theory...Just Decide What Works'

By Susan Jones | March 25, 2016 | 10:21 AM EDT

President Barack Obama shakes hands with attendees at a "Young Leaders of the Americas" town hall in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, March 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

(CNSNews.com) - Thanks to advances in technology, "You don't have to settle for the world as it is; you can create the world as you want it to be," President Barack Obama told young people in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Wednesday. "You have the freedom to build the world in powerful and disruptive ways."

One of the young community organizers at the town hall picked up on that point, saying she honestly believes that the world needs to change. She asked Obama for his advice on creating social change -- in her case, by empowering young people living in poverty.

In the course of answering the question, the president indicated that the "sharp division" between "capitalist and communist or socialist" is starting to blur, and instead of clinging to any one of those ideologies, people should just do what works to create change:

"[S]o often in the past, there's been a sharp division between left and right, between capitalist and communist or socialist," Obama said. "And especially in the Americas, that's been a big debate, right?  Oh, you know, you're a capitalist Yankee dog, and oh, you know, you're some crazy communist that's going to take away everybody's property.
 
"And, I mean, those are interesting intellectual arguments, but I think for your generation, you should be practical and just choose from what works. You don't have to worry about whether it neatly fits into socialist theory or capitalist theory -- you should just decide what works."

Here is the entire exchange between the president and the young activist at Wednesday's "Young Leaders of the Americas" town hall in Buenos Aires:

QUESTION to Obama: [Y]ou mentioned two things during your speech before. One was that this is the generation that needs to make a change in the world -- and I honestly believe that.  And then you also mentioned that we cannot expect to create those changes if we keep on doing the same things over and over for this amount of years.  And in my opinion, when it comes to businesses, that's kind of the way things are working right now.  And when it comes to social entrepreneurs like myself...there are very few countries that have a framework to empower people and social entrepreneurs to create those kinds of businesses.  

So my question is, what would be your advice for social entrepreneurs to keep on doing this hard work?

(The young woman told Obama she runs a nonprofit organization focused on "creating social change by empowering youth living in poverty and by generating civic participation.")
 
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Okay. Excellent. Well, I started in the nonprofit sector in community work, and so it's something that I care deeply about.  Each country is different. In the United States, most social entrepreneurs are typically financed through the private sector. Essentially philanthropies, rich people, or businesses, they finance it. Other countries -- it will come through the government and the taxes that people pay.  
 
But what we've learned is that for many of the social problems that we face, it has to be a combination of the private sector and the nonprofit sector and government working together to really make a difference. And what do I mean by that?  So I'm sure if you go into a poor neighborhood in Argentina, just like a poor neighborhood in the United States, there are a lot of different kinds of problems. You have, first of all, economic issues because these communities don't have jobs, businesses have not invested in them; in some cases, it may be factories that used to be there moved away, and so the jobs that people used to have there no longer exist.
 
So part of the effort has to be how do we bring private-sector businesses and attract investment into those communities to create jobs. That's point number one.  But the businesses may not come unless the government has built the infrastructure -- the roads or the Wi-Fi connections or what have you. So the government has to make an investment. And even if the businesses and the government are prepared to do what they need to do, the human capital -- the people -- they have to make sure that they're getting the education that they need, the training that they need.  
 
In some cases, in the United States at least, if they're very poor communities, you have young people who have been in poor families for generations.  So they may not even know what the inside of an office building looks like. They may never have experienced what it means to go to a job at a certain time and structure their day in an organized way. And that's where a nonprofit, a social entrepreneur, can come and say, we'll partner with young people and have a professional or an adult who is working with that person and showing them, this is what's possible for you. Opening their eyes to telling some young girl in a poor neighborhood, you can be a computer scientist and why don't you come with me, and this is what computers are, they're not that complicated, this is what coding means, and if you can do math, then you can start coding. And suddenly, just by them seeing the possibilities, that inspires their effort.  
 
The point is, is that each of those pieces are important. I don't know enough about how social entrepreneurs and community organizations and nonprofits are financed here in Argentina to give you a good opinion. I could give you an opinion -- politicians always can give you opinions, but I can't give you a good opinion because I don't have enough information about what changes might be made to give an organization like yours more support.
 
But one of the things that's interesting that's happening in the United States is that you're starting to see organizations that are kind of a blend of for-profit and non-for-profit. So they might have a business component that, let's say, sells handcrafts and artwork that's made by a community for profit, but then the money goes into financing the social programs that help give people these opportunities. And how they're treated in terms of taxes and the corporate organization -- that's going to change by country.  Each country is going to have a different model. But more and more, I believe that that's going to be the wave of the future if we want to make progress on these problems.
 
I guess to make a broader point, so often in the past there's been a sharp division between left and right, between capitalist and communist or socialist. And especially in the Americas, that's been a big debate, right? Oh, you know, you're a capitalist Yankee dog, and oh, you know, you're some crazy communist that's going to take away everybody's property. And I mean, those are interesting intellectual arguments, but I think for your generation, you should be practical and just choose from what works. You don't have to worry about whether it neatly fits into socialist theory or capitalist theory -- you should just decide what works.  
 
And I said this to President Castro in Cuba. I said, look, you've made great progress in educating young people. Every child in Cuba gets a basic education -- that's a huge improvement from where it was. Medical care -- the life expectancy of Cubans is equivalent to the United States, despite it being a very poor country, because they have access to health care. That's a huge achievement. They should be congratulated.  But you drive around Havana and you say this economy is not working. It looks like it did in the 1950s. And so you have to be practical in asking yourself how can you achieve the goals of equality and inclusion, but also recognize that the market system produces a lot of wealth and goods and services. And it also gives individuals freedom because they have initiative.
 
And so you don't have to be rigid in saying it’s either this or that, you can say -- depending on the problem you're trying to solve, depending on the social issues, that you're trying to address what works. And I think that what you’ll find is that the most successful societies, the most successful economies are ones that are rooted in a market-based system, but also recognize that a market does not work by itself. It has to have a social and moral and ethical and community basis, and there has to be inclusion. Otherwise it’s not stable.  
 
And it’s up to you -- whether you're in business or in academia or the nonprofit sector, whatever you're doing -- to create new forms that are adapted to the new conditions that we live in today.

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