Robert F. Kennedy challenged our Ponzi scheme pursuit of growth for growth’s sake, much as his heir, Barack Obama, does F. Kennedy was assassinated 41 years ago last week.  He challenged our monomaniacal pursuit of GDP in “one of the most beautiful of his speeches,” as Obama described it an August 2008 NYT profile of his economic thinking.

Obama is one of the few major politicians who constantly challenges our unsustainable economic worldview today (see “Obama gets the Ponzi scheme“).  Let’s listen to RFK’s remarkable words and then Obama’s:

Here is the transcript:

We will find neither national purpose nor personal satisfaction in a mere continuation of economic progress, in an endless amassing of worldly goods. We cannot measure national spirit by the Dow Jones Average, nor national achievement by the Gross National Product. For the Gross National Product includes air pollution, and ambulances to clear our highways from carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them. The Gross National Product includes the destruction of the redwoods and the death of Lake Superior. It grows with the production of napalm and missiles and nuclear warheads…. It includes… the broadcasting of television programs which glorify violence to sell goods to our children.

And if the Gross National Product includes all this, there is much that it does not comprehend. It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. It does not include the beauty of our poetry, or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials…  The Gross National Product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America — except whether we are proud to be Americans.

Now here’s what Obama has been saying, again and again, on a bigger stage to a bigger audience:

  • “I want us all to think about new and creative ways to … encourage young people to create and build and invent “” to be makers of things, not just consumers of things.” (4/27)
  • “The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.” (4/22)
  • “We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand.”  (4/14)
  • “We can let the jobs of tomorrow be created abroad, or we can create those jobs right here in America and lay the foundation for our lasting prosperity.” (3/19)

After praising RFK’s speech, Obama goes on to discuss sustainability with the NYT reporter:

The second point Obama wanted to make was about sustainability. The current concerns about the state of the planet, he said, required something of a paradigm shift for economics. If we don’t make serious changes soon, probably in the next 10 or 15 years, we may find that it’s too late.


The NYT profile, “Obamanomics,” ends:

Based on the collective wisdom of scientists, global warming really does seem to be different from any previous environmental crisis. For the first time on record, meanwhile, economic growth has not translated into better living standards for most Americans. These are two enormous challenges that are part of the legacy of the Reagan Age.

Unsustainable pursuit of short-term “wealth” at the expense of sustainable prosperity — growth for the sake of growth — is both the cause of our current economic collapse and the underlying principle of the conservative movement for decades now:

H/t People and Place.

26 Responses to Robert F. Kennedy challenged our Ponzi scheme pursuit of growth for growth’s sake, much as his heir, Barack Obama, does

  1. Doug350 says:

    Imagine! We would probably be in a different place had RFK been allowed to live. A lot could have been accomplished in the past 4 decades … let’s hope we can do it in the next 4 decades.

  2. stras jones says:

    I’m really, really not seeing the kind of radical, consensus-shaking ideology in Obama that you are. His economic team is incredibly orthodox, incredibly Wall Street-centric, and very much obsessed with constant GDP growth.

  3. Alan D. McIntire says:

    So President Obama opposes “growth for growth’s sake”. So far during the current administration we’ve had shrinkage. Let’s see how well THAT goes over with the voting population/

  4. Ted G says:

    Visionary idealistic words always come easily to the lips of those living off the proceeds enormous trust funds like the Kennedy Brothers. There father, many say through criminal means, supplied them with generous slices of the GDP pie. The rest of us scramble for the crumbs that fall from their overstuffed mouths. Obama has been granted a seat at their groaning table and never has to worry about money as long as he lives thanks to his book deals and public pension to come. Hypocrisy is so so easy for the chosen few.

  5. Richard Brenne says:

    This is truly a magnificent, poetic and insightful speech by Robert Kennedy, though his father’s ruthless quest for wealth that laid the foundation for the family’s political power, as well as political and personal corruption and recklessness (see Seymour Hersch’ “The Dark Side of Camelot”) must also be remembered. And having 11 children is about the least sustainable thing one can do.

    Still, the words themselves are enlightened and empowering.

    I agree with Stras Jones that as much as I like Obama, circumstances are such that he often seems to be trying to sustain the unsustainable, as Jim Kunstler most skillfully reminds us.

    Maybe in his heart Obama gets that what we’re doing is completely unsustainable, but, like Abraham Lincoln, he can only lead us as far and as quickly as we’re willing to follow.

    Just as sex used to be biology but is now largely a marketing tool, sustainability is what nature finds for every species, not just a slogan for corporations and others to bandy about.

    If we don’t find sustainability for ourselves, nature will certainly find it for us, and believe me, that is not a pleasant process.

    Right now we’re fighting an avalanche with a pea shooter. We will need to constantly recallibrate as reality comes calling.

  6. paulm says:

    Thanks for this. Great post.

    So Kennedy was killed because he wanted to share things round!

  7. Leland Palmer says:

    Whatever Obama’s views of economic growth, his actions regarding climate change so far seems sincere and heartfelt. It’s too little, perhaps too late, but his actions and the actions of Chu his Energy Secretary are logical, reasonable actions, I think.

    Growth for growth’s sake is probably not a good idea, although we could have a continually growing economy and not destroy the biosphere, IMO. If we lived in arcologies, chemically synthesized our food, recycled nearly all of our wastes, got our energy from solar and other clean energy technologies, and had practical carbon sequestration by mineral carbonation to regulate the climate we could have pretty much any sized population we want. But in order to do that we would have to practice “segregation” – we would have to segregate ourselves and our economic growth from the Earth’s ecology.

    This segregation is possible, IMO, especially if we get out into the solar system and develop space colonies, with their own independent and pretty much self sufficient ecologies.

    One of the sad, sad things about our current global heating path is that it really did not have to be this way.

    A truly intelligent species would not have done things this way, IMO.

  8. Phil Eisner says:

    We have the technology to mitigate the global warming for this century; we have a politician in Obama who probably has the potential to lead the world to appropriately use the technology; but I will have to see what Obama and the American people and our representatives in Congress actually accomplish this year before I believe that the world will mitigate global warming. Everything is stacked against us. We have a late start; there are too many people on earth; the two largest countries in the world are poor and determined to be rich in the manner of our capitalist society. Almost everyone is too materialistic. All told, I give us a 5% chance to save the world!

  9. Phillip Huggan says:

    Holy shit he would’ve been just like his brother in navigating human extinction threats. Very easy to sacrifice to fight the good fight when you realize men like that lived and died for their convictions, for their respect for future generations (I wouldn’t exist if nuclear winter).
    JFK’s ability to learn on the fly during Cuban Missile Crisis will be regarded by history as the greatest moment ever. But my hero list just added another American. That on the fly response is the textbook example…I wonder if RFK formed his sustainable society convictions before or after his brother’s death, but is none of my business.

  10. Obama, as a realist, I think, must recognize that, at least on paper, it is highly unlikely, given current trends, that the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will slow down soon enough to prevent calamity. As an optimist, he believes it’s possible we will find a solution to our climate dilemma if we just try hard and long enough.

  11. Rick Covert says:

    I know that Bill Maher is just an entertainer but the piece “New Rules” he aired on Friday, June 12 was close to the way I feel about Barack Obama’s handling of the banks, health care and global warming.

    It is his handling of global warming legislation or his weak proposals in proportion to the effort required to reduce CO2 emissions that has me greatly concerned. I know he has demonstrated leadership early on in his first 100 days but lately he has lacked the fortitude and resolve to get the job done. If we are stuck with an energy and climate bill that commits us to only 3% CO2 reductions over 1990 levels by 2020 I can’t see how we are going to avoid some very unpleasant consequences for the climate we are accustomed to.

  12. Phillip Huggan says:

    You guys put out a Battle of Falulljah video game. I take back my praise. Your last Prez said its USA or them. I choose them.

  13. Pat Richards says:

    Now, this is what I call a weekend post, Joe! Thanks for reminding us of how far we’ve come and how long people of real conscience and concern have been working on the issues vexing us today.

    As for a couple of the comments above… it’s amazing and sad how some people are so locked into themselves that they can hear truth spoken honestly and eloquently and their immediate reaction is to write something cynical and hateful. In the immortal words of Mr. T, “I pity the fools…”

  14. Ted Getzel says:

    The GDP is a summary of billions upon individual economic and social choices made day to day by each of us. Paper or plastic, sirloin of tofu, Hummer or Prius, suburb or city, train or car , we are each in our choices responsible for its growth. Once we enter the world we must consume or we die. Our choices marginally affect the end number, but the pressure of population growth here and around the world leads to growth of the final number. No individual choice is more important in the growth of GDP than the choice to procreate. To save the Earth we cannot allow natural growth to continue in the human settlement scarring the beatific visage of Gaea. To save the Earth the pitter patter of tiny carbon footprints must be silenced – especially among the wealthy in the developed world.
    Robert Kennedy was a very wealthy and highly educated human being. I am sure he was familiar with the works of Malthus and probably aware of the work of Paul R. Ehrlich (The Population Bomb, 1968) at the time he made this poetic speech – yet he chose to father 11 children.

  15. Bob Wright says:

    Its ironic that Eisenhower warned of the MIC, and RFK spoke of a sustainable economy all those years ago, but the MIC has grown and found new enemies, and our unsustainable economy has grown, is teetering on oil scarcity shock, and has been exported through globalization.

    My guess is we are talking about a sustainable, carbon neutral, non-destructive economy that lets the person with the right combinatiion of brains, ambiton, energy, personality and luck (legally) succeed to the best of his/her abilities, while affording shelter, food and health care to the least of us.

    How do we pull that off? Beats me. The best model seems to be the EU with its high taxes, universal health care, EU wide environmental projects like RoHS, IMDS and REACH, tiny cars, extensive mass transit, renewables projects in Germany, Spain…, nuclear in France. Somehow they produce and export enough food products and goods to keep trade balances relatively neutral and unemployment relatively low, and even with all that awful regulation, EU corporations seem to find a more stable financial environment than found in the US. Of course, the EU has a stable population and “guest workers” willing to take menial jobs.

    So its Obama’s job to do the best he can (with democratic legisators beholden to special interests) to find what works and move ahead while the Repubs marginalize themselves seditiously sqawking about ACORN, J Wright and Michelle’s dresses.

  16. Brooks says:

    Regardless of Robert F. Kennedy’s background, his points about the GDP are dead on.

    I remember my disgust to find that the cost of cleaning up the Exxon Valdez oil spill ADDED to our GDP. Insane.

  17. Phil Giudice says:

    The transcript posted didn’t track RFKs words completely. I think I have captured it more accurately below. Very moving.

    Too much and for too long we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product now is over 800 million dollars per year. But that gross national product, if we judge the United States of America by that, that gross national product counts air pollution, and cigarette advertisements and ambulances to clear our highways from carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder and chaotic sprawl.. It counts napalm and it counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities, it counts weapons, rifles and fixed knives and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

    Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry, or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America — except why we are proud to be Americans.

  18. Greg Robie says:

    When RFK gave this speech the dollar was a silver certificate. Now, it too, is a federal reserve note; a measure of indebtedness. In 1968 the Bretton Woods agreement was still in force. Trade deficits were balanced annually in gold. The IMF and World Bank existed to assist in such a fair approach to trade.

    Whether such a currency and economic relationship among nations could have been bent to value things as Kennedy articulated is an irrelevant question today. Today’s global economic system is based on extraction, exploitation, and externalization. Its currencies are (and in the US, anyway, unconstitutional) fiat currencies denominated in debt. Together such an economic system can only have a cancerous affect.

    Is thinking the Ponzi scheme of global capitalism can be greened (made sustainable; be based on dynamics other than these three “E”s) like believing pigs can fly; like expecting there will still be an ice extent of 4 million square kilometers the Arctic in September of 2012; like thinking atmospheric methane will be stabilized at 1700 ppb by anytime (that will make a difference for humanity)?

    As noted in another comment, the administration’s team is, economically, trying to sustain the unsustainable. As long as citizens can still rationalize going to social gatherings 400 miles distant over a weekend (and I did this two weekends ago), can they do otherwise?

  19. Kate says:

    Good for him. Here in Canada, emissions plans have yet to be started (more detail in a recent post on my blog – link is probably on my name). Can we have Obama too?

  20. Ponzi schemes end in collapses. There are some obvious limits on Planet Earth, like the total mass of people can’t exceed the mass of the planet, no matter how good the technology. But:
    The Universe is infinite. If the ponzi scheme is kicked off of the Earth, it can continue, as long as it never stops moving outward, away from Earth.
    Back here on Earth, expect a population crash along with a real economic crash. It hasn’t happened yet, and the people running it aren’t going to be dissuaded without the use of force. Hopefully, the force of law will happen. If we are lucky, we can avoid extinction.

    Will an intelligent species ever evolve? We are the missing link.

  21. It is encouraging to see that most on this list agree that we need to move to a less consumption-oriented, less growth-oriented economy.

    But few people are talking about the policy that would make this possible. If work hours remain constant, then slower growth will mean higher unemployment. The only politically feasible way to slow growth is Dutch-style choice of work time. The Dutch can choose part time work, and employers are required to honor the request unless it creates a hardship for their business. As a result, the average Dutch worker produces and earns about as much per hour as the average American worker but works 25% fewer hours and earns 25% less in total.

    Working and consuming less would dramatically reduce ghg emissions. See

    There are always a few people who deny that it is possible to by saying:
    – capitalism requires growth.
    – I can’t afford to work less.

    But the Netherlands shows that a capitalist economy can have shorter work time and slower growth that we do in the US. And it shows that Americans could afford to work less if we consumed less; note that bicycling is the main form of transportation in the Netherlands, while most Americans live in neighborhoods where they have to drive every time they leave their houses.

  22. Rick says:

    So how does a trillion dollars and more being borrowed and spent as fast as possible to fire up the economy – fit in with this pedal powered minimalist future?

  23. How is the family of humanity to sensibly organize to respond ably to the human folly, avarice and stupidity that is now being consciously perpetrated by those few million greedy people who possess a lion’s share of the world’s wealth and the power it purchases? After all, a tiny minority is primarily responsible for the Earth being ravaged and threatened as a fit place for habitation by our children.

    When are the morally bankrupt, super-rich Masters of the Universe among us to be held to account for having disgracefully institutionalized the ‘goodness’ of their pathological arrogance, conspicuous consumption and excessive hoarding for the benefit of none others than themselves and minions? For many too many economic powerbrokers and their bought-and-paid-for politicians
    short-term financial gains, power accrual, economic expediency and political convenience have directed their thought and behavior.

    Perhaps it is time for many ordinary people not only to deploy these words from Mohandas Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”, but also to live out this great man’s example of principled, peaceful, refusal to submit to arrogant, dishonest, avaricious and dishonorable authority that is relentlessly degrading Earth’s frangible environment and recklessly dissipating Earth’s limited resources in our time.

    Perhaps honesty, more transparency, constructive personal action, accountability and necessary social change are in the offing.

    Scientists have a duty to warn and to inform; leaders of the family of humanity have a responsibility to act with moral courage and a willingness to do the right thing. At least some scientists appear to be doing their duty. Except for a precious few, great human beings like President Barack Obama, the human community appears to be virtually bereft of adequate leaders.

  24. Ed says:

    To paraphrase another Kennedy:

    It is not what you should do to battle climate change, it is about what you should stop doing!

    The time for action is long since passed. No amount of greening up the economy will keep our economy turning the way it did. Don’t ever make that mistake. From here we will need a serious redesign of our society. As citizans of the developed world we have adopted a lifestyle that is so thoroughly unsustainable that reducing emissions cannot be achieved by greening up technology (not nearly fast enough). Urgent action is needed, and urgent action is needed now. That means the “Change” Barack is addressing will come to everybody’s doorstep. Forget inter and transcontinental air traffic, forget a weekly trip to the stripmall to update your lifestyle with the umpteenth gadget brought to you by Philips and produced in Korea. Forget your daily drive from the suburbs to work.

    Life will become more simple, harder, more community oriented andlow tech and high tech will meet each other on equal footing (Internet meets Permaculture, Solar panel meets shovel and rake) Lots of jobs will be lost, lots of new ones will be created (for instance repaircenters will blossom as will recylcling plants). But generally speaking our consumption based, easy credit society is dead and burried (and for our own sake we should not try to revitalize it into a zombie economy) and that means a paradigm shift for all of us, from New York to L.A. from London to Moscow and from Bejing to Sydney. And I argue that we should embrace this change now and demand the same from our leaders. Roosevelt needed the streets to drive his New Deal in action. Obama, Merkel and Brown need the streets as well to drive the Green New Deal forward. We can kickstart the change by our behaviour but we need the politicians to back us up and give us the momentum via legislation, persuasion and education. If we don’t drive our points home, nature will drive them home for us and we will end up in the World Made by Hand scenario envisioned by James Howard Kunstler. When remains to be disputed but much of the current developments indicate sooner rather then later.


    Ed Kuipers

  25. Chris Winter says:

    Brooks wrote (in part): “I remember my disgust to find that the cost of cleaning up the Exxon Valdez oil spill ADDED to our GDP. Insane.”

    Yes, and the cost of appealing the penalties in the class action suit, which ExxonMobil was doing until late last year. Along the way, the penalties were cut from $5 billion to $507 million. ExxonMobil is still fighting having to pay interest, which would total about $444 million.

  26. Chris Winter says:

    Stras Jones wrote: “I’m really, really not seeing the kind of radical, consensus-shaking ideology in Obama that you are. His economic team is incredibly orthodox, incredibly Wall Street-centric, and very much obsessed with constant GDP growth.”

    I take the point about his economic team, and many (notably Paul Krugman, whom I respect) feel his recovery plan has defects.

    On the other hand, his administration is indisputably a radical break with the previous one. We need look no further than the new NOAA report on climate change impacts in the U.S. to see that the long suppression of federal-government climate science has ended.

    I agree that Obama is closer to the standard-model ambitious politician than to a radical persona. I don’t want to get too deeply into politics here, but it’s clear he’s implemented some radical changes in policy and is pushing for more.