Robert F. Kennedy Challenged Our Ponzi Scheme Pursuit Of Growth For Growth’s Sake. When Will Come Another?

Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated 45 years ago today. He was one of the few national politicians ever to challenge 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.

Who can doubt that our global economic system is now the biggest of Ponzi schemes?
It appears Kennedy gave (at least) two speeches on this subject. One in Detroit on May 5, 1967, where the key part begins, “Let us be clear at the outset that we will find neither national purpose nor personal satisfaction in a mere continuation of economic progress, in an endless amassing of worldly goods.”

He gave a second speech at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968, and we have the audio of some of his remarkable words:

Here are the key lines:

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a 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 advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.

It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.

It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, 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 that we are Americans.

When I first wrote about this RFK speech 4 years ago, it seemed like Obama might be RFK’s heir. At that time, Obama appeared to be one of the few major politicians who constantly challenges our unsustainable economic worldview today (see “Obama gets the Ponzi scheme“).

Here’s what Obama had been saying, again and again, on a bigger stage to a bigger audience at the start of his Presidency:

  • “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 not merely the cause of the deepest recession since the Great Depression but, if it continues, it will be the downfall of modern civilization and our collective prosperity.

Since 2009, however, Obama has mostly been silent about the inherent unsustainability of our economic system. And so the question remains, will we find the kind of bold political leadership in time to avert the climate catastrophe, the kind we lost 45 years ago today?

33 Responses to Robert F. Kennedy Challenged Our Ponzi Scheme Pursuit Of Growth For Growth’s Sake. When Will Come Another?

  1. Jeff Huggins says:

    Turning the Corner, Shifting the Paradigm

    I appreciate this post — thanks for it! — and I agree.

    Two things …

    First, President Obama talks in such a way that makes it seem like he really gets the two problems — and they are interrelated in many ways — climate change, and our unsustainable (not to mention unsatisfying in other ways) economic system. But then he turns around and makes equally loud statements, even more often, that seem to indicate that he has either bought into business as usual, or at least that he has decided that even though society needs these big paradigm shifts, he’s not going to be the one to lead us to them. “All of the above” as an energy strategy? “Competitiveness” and (more of the same) global trade and so forth as a continuation of the same business-as-usual economic paradigm? He says one thing and then shouts — and does — another. So does he REALLY get it? Or is he mainly an excellent talker? Who can tell?

    But that raises another question. I don’t see much — do I? — coming out of CAP (the other parts of CAP) that is pushing for a fundamental change in our underlying economic paradigm. Am I mistaken, Joe? It seems to me that CAP sides with the Democrats and progressives, of course, but that support stays largely within the confines of the problematic economic paradigm that is accepted by both major parties. One flavor of it is “liberal” and one “conservative”, but both largely support, and are dependent on, growth in personal consumption, growth in free trade, and growth, growth, growth (on a finite planet!). Is CAP really pushing the Dems to champion fundamental shifts in that paradigm? If so, where can I read and see that, and why isn’t it working to have an influence on President Obama and the other Dems?



  2. Raul M. says:

    My guess is that when Congress noticed his speach other things started happening that some felt were more important than those directions Obama presented.

  3. Dave S. Nottear says:

    “will we find the kind of bold political leadership in time to avert the climate catastrophe, the kind we lost 45 years ago today?”

    Magic 8-ball-2013 (shake-shake-shake) says; “R U Serious?

    Crappy answer – I don’t like it, shake-shake-shake somemore…

    Magic 8-ball 2013 says:
    This culture couldn’t tie it’s own shoe laces, let alone elect a competent leader!

    Crappy answer. I don’t like it. Smash-smash-smash Magic 8-Ball for telling the truth.

  4. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe wrote: “Since 2009, however, Obama has mostly been silent about the inherent unsustainability of our economic system.”

    Gee, I wonder what happened.

    Oh, yeah, that’s right — in 2009 he actually became president.

    Once that happened, he started to “mostly be silent” about a number of things that he campaigned on. And his administration started bashing his supporters who wanted to talk about those things as “the professional left”.

  5. Joe Romm says:

    Well, it was from really mid-2009 on.

  6. George Leveto Sr. says:

    Well although he’s not exactly the same, he was the closest we may come to the same results. At the time he w
    as cheated out of the presidency by Bush’s own brother ,the then governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, maybe we need to give him another chance, he’s the only person I can think of to relate to America’s needs especially after Obama? Try Al Gore..!

  7. M Tucker says:

    Tuesday, June 4th, was the day of the Democratic primary in California. I was listening to the returns on the radio so I was up late. I had school in the morning but I was too wound up about the primary, I was in bed and glued to the radio. It was very exciting. Bobby Kennedy was winning in California and that meant he had a shot at defeating Humphrey to become the Democratic candidate for President. I felt sure he would win the election. I really wanted him to win. He was the only candidate who promised to do the things our nation needed. He was certainly the only candidate who made speeches like the ones Joe quoted.

    1968 was a tough year. Every night on the news we saw the fighting in Vietnam. Every night we saw American soldiers in the jungle or rice paddies or in villages shooting and being shot at. We saw wounded Americans, some crying, some screaming in pain. Every night. Every night body counts and bombing accounts. Every night. And this had been going on for a few years by that point. We also had nearly nightly reports of anti-war protests on college campuses, in front of the White House, in cities around the country. We also had civil rights demonstrations in cities and college campuses.

    In January after what seemed to be endless accounts of fighting at the isolated Khe Sanh airbase the Tet offensive suddenly erupted. The news accounts were shocking. Reporters were side-by-side with soldiers in active combat. In February we have a front page photo of a VC officer being shot in the head. We have violent civil rights protests killing several student protesters. By the end of March President Johnson announces he will not run for reelection.

    The campaign for the Democratic nomination was very intense. McCarthy had been the only anti-war candidate in the race and I was not too impressed with him. Many college students liked him and with their support McCarthy made a strong showing in New Hampshire. Kennedy jumped into the race just after New Hampshire.

    Despite his victory in New Hampshire Johnson announced he would not run. Between the NH primary and Johnson’s announcement it was less than two weeks. Kennedy jumped in with a very active schedule of travel and speeches. On April 4th Kennedy had a busy schedule of speaking events: Notre Dame, Ball State, and ending with a speech in a ghetto neighborhood in Indianapolis. After the Ball State speech Kennedy learned that Martin Luther King Jr had been assassinated. Kennedy was told by state police that they would not provide security if Kennedy went to Indianapolis. Kennedy gave his speech anyway. It was a moving speech. As riots broke out in other cities Indianapolis went to bed, after Kennedy’s speech, in peace.

    That was April. There was more violence in May. Violence was a regular nightly event in 1968 at home and abroad. I was excited about Kennedy’s candidacy but after the MLK assignation I had a lot of fear. It was just after midnight, June 5, I remember lying in bed listening to the returns, waiting for Kennedy’s victory speech, listening to the speech, I felt great, Kennedy had won, the news coverage was ending, then…the end of the dream. I lay in shock. I felt like I was floating above my body. Complete and utter disbelief. Both Bobby and Martin in a few months time. I will always remember that. It is a permanent part of my life experience.

  8. Mark Arnest says:

    My mother, who is right about basically everything, says that while the assassination of JFK was terrible, it didn’t dramatically change the country’s course – while the assassination of RFK opened the door for Nixon to become president.

  9. Mark Shapiro says:

    Clean energy is patriotic.
    Clean energy is conservative.
    Conservation and efficiency are patriotic and conservative. They are core American values.

    Keep repeating those messages (and the others) if you want our leaders, Democrats and Republicans, to lead better.

  10. Joan Savage says:

    Let’s take RFK’s statement to the logical conclusion. Obama apparently did not.

    Damage-and-repair from accelerated climate change will inflate the GDP to an astounding degree. This is not a good thing.

    GDP measures economic activity, not prosperity. Rebuilding oceanfront and paying off crop insurance are just like RFKs earlier examples of pollution, tobacco ads, and ambulances that go into the GDP.

  11. Mary Harte says:

    There is not one person, but a whole organization, Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, trying to change society’s catastrophic mindset… check it out here….
    and their new book, “Supply Shock,…”
    Herman Daly lives there… write a piece about this organization, Joe, for CP! Bobby would be so proud of CASSE…

  12. atcook27 says:

    Jeff, if Obama where to do any more than just speak occasionally about such things, he would share the same fate as poor Bobby and his brother (that is, the rearrangement of one’s anatomy so as to be inconsistant with life). The last thing we need is to add Obama’s name to the list. You know the one: JFK, Bobby, MLK, Malcome X, John Lennon etc, etc. Unfortunately society is not allowed to organically shift in response to science, logic, sense and reason. These things don’t maximise profits for our Corporate elites!

  13. Michael Dowd says:

    We were moved to tears by this, Joe.


    ~ Michael & Connie

  14. atcook27 says:

    I watched an interview from the 70’s with John Lennon yesterday. In it he say that when he was a boy he was asked by his teacher what he wanted to be when he grew up. His response, after some thought, was “happy”. His teacher told him that he didn’t understand the nature of the question. His response was “No miss, you don’t understand the nature of life”! True story.

  15. Jeff Huggins says:

    And so the question remains …

    “And so the question remains, will we find the kind of bold political leadership in time to avert the climate catastrophe …?”, you (Joe) ask. It’s a very good question. But an excellent and actionable question is this: What can we DO to do our darn best to make sure that we find such bold political leadership in time?

    And so my earlier question to you remains, Why not begin pressing Hillary Clinton (and any other would-be contenders for the Democratic nomination for president, as soon as they seem like they might have that goal in mind) with pointed, timely, concrete questions — questions that lend themselves to, and demand, concrete answers? As I’ve said before, one recommended question for Hillary is this: “If you were president today, how would you rule regarding the Keystone XL pipeline? Would you approve it or deny approval? Please be clear, decisive, and concrete. Thanks.”

    By beginning to ask such concrete questions, including this one and others, NOW, we can not only begin to learn more about Hillary (as she is thought to be the current front-runner for the nomination, I hear), but, importantly, we can also let it be known to other would-be contenders that we are SERIOUS this time around, and that we will carefully vet any wanna-be nominees with respect to their stances on climate change. This time, we should let it be know — early — that we will simply not support candidates who are not serious, credible, compelling, and courageous when it comes to climate change and how they’ll deal with it if elected.

    Do you agree? (a concrete question)



  16. Suzanne says:

    Great article Joe.

    We live in a world of 7 billion people that is predicted to reach between 8 and 10 billion by 2050. We need leaders to realize that endless economic growth is unsustainable and cease with the all-growth, all the time mantra.

    45 years after RFK and not much has changed. Many good people and organizations have excellent ideas on alternatives to GDP (Mary H. earlier mentioned CASSE and a steady-state economy). In addition to Herman Daly, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen are some other big names suggesting change.

    It’s time to promote economic alternatives that empower people with sustainable livelihoods and respect the environment. And reduce consumption, especially in the developed world. And that’s just a start…

  17. Jeff Huggins says:

    atcook27, thanks for the comments. Can you tell me, please, what interview of John Lennon you saw (i.e., in what documentary, or what title, or identifying information on YouTube, or etc.)? I’d like to see that one. I’m a great fan of John Lennon’s and have a small collection of such documentaries and quotes. Thanks.

  18. Asher Miller says:

    Immediately after the election (and Hurricane Sandy), Obama was finally asked about climate change. And this is what he said:

    “If the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change,” he added, “I don’t think anybody’s going to go for that. I won’t go for that.”

    As long as we use GDP as our measurement of well-being, we won’t find the political courage to meaningfully and precipitously address our climate/energy crisis.

    This is something that those of us concerned about the climate crisis have to understand, because a meaningful price on carbon will have a drag effect on economic growth.

    There are ways to address that, but this is one of the reasons why we have to recognize that these are SYSTEMIC crises that will require a shift in virtually all aspects of society, including our economy.

  19. Brian R Smith says:

    “..will we find the kind of bold political leadership in time to avert the climate catastrophe, the kind we lost 45 years ago today?”

    You mean will we find it in the POTUS, don’t you? I don’t hear discussion of other candidates for that role, in or out of government, because it’s obvious that tackling the multiple political obstructions to climate progress will be nearly impossible without POTUS leadership.

    Given the premise, and given that we know the critical importance of raising the level of public understanding & concern on climate in order to support POTUS (& congressional hawk) policy & legislative efforts, don’t we conclude that climate leaders could be doing more, should be doing more, as a strategic priority, to create that public support??

    RFK was riding a powerful wave in”68 on a board fashioned from his own innate passion and integrity. I campaigned for him on campus. He believed in the power of a president to act regardless of the push-back.

    Obama has lost control of his wave, with too many sharks in the water, and his fans on shore are not at all sure how to save the situation. Do we put our faith in the president’s resolve to swim against the outgoing tide of political interest in climate, which could be as effective as appealing to Jesus, or do we agree (quickly) to launch our boats and organize to battle the sharks.

    We have the boats, plenty of ga$, lots of anti-shark devices, and residual memories of what a Manhattan-scale campaign can do. It’s time for the uber-coalition of climate leaders to convene to develop a national media and networking strategy that builds on the major work & common goals of tens of thousands of institutions and millions of individuals. Collaboration is on the rise among groups & sectors. To actually do the possible, killing off the sharks and creating science based consensus for action in the public, there will have to be a bigger, more unified effort. Donors desperate for climate solutions will want to be at the table.

    Do we somehow think the weight of climate intelligence will win the day, seep into the political agenda in time against all odds? This is a PR battle. The disinformers have been chasing us with an ax for decades. We haven’t figured how to fashion all our toothpicks into a big enough club to fight back. Or realized that we could. We have, I think, the OBLIGATION to lead where Obama cannot or will not lead. It’s a PR battle at this stage and if it’s not taken seriously by those capable of getting the necessary forces together to win it, well, game over for sure, no matter how good the science and the risk analysis is. Just one more step….

  20. atcook27 says:

    Brian, you ask some great questions. I’ve often wondered why we haven’t seen a coalition of the sane attempt to stand up against denialist lunacy. Where are the Cloony’s, Pitt’s or Gates’s engaging the public and calling for action? Something which is potentially heartening is that James Cameron is making an 8 part mini series this year about climate change and apharently he is rallying the troops. After watching Avatar it is obvious that this is a guy that gets it!

  21. Joan Savage says:

    Brian, Thank you.

    In line with your remarks, I add that we should never confuse a movement with its most articulate spokesperson.

    As you said, “RFK was riding a powerful wave in ”68,” and as I was in that wave too, I know he could have done nothing without us.

    And you said, “We have, I think, the OBLIGATION to lead where Obama cannot or will not lead.”

    Exactly. We have to be like the hundreds of freedom churches, the people whose names may never be recorded in the press, but who make all the difference.

  22. Brian R Smith says:

    Yes and we can do it, in steps, win the necessary political victories. There are close to 50M American climate issue voters and a lot of them actually do go to church. Absent a single voice for the movement, there still needs a go-to authority that helps to steer the revolution. We have that authority. Climate scientists address the nation. President & Dems back them up. Media frenzy. Floodgates open.

  23. Jeff Huggins says:

    Thank Goodness: Neera Tanden (CAP President)

    I just saw CAP’s President, Neera Tanden, on Hardball with Chris Matthews.

    I’m not saying “Thank Goodness” because I was particularly impressed with tonight’s discussion. She did fine, of course, and this was the first I’ve seen of her, but climate change didn’t come up (even though the topic of discussion among Chris Matthews, Joan Walsh, and Ms. Tanden was what President Obama should try to accomplish in his second term). And, in typical fashion, the trio saluted the goal of growth. (I offer that comment in the context of the recent post about Robert Kennedy and the fact that he understood the problems with the conventional grow-grow-grow paradigm.) Indeed, Ms. Tanden’s comment was “what we’re not doing is economic growth really well.”

    So then, why do I say “Thank Goodness”? Because, in looking at Neera’s background on CAP’s site, I was excited to see that she must have a remarkably close and direct relationship with Hillary Clinton! My goodness, Neera has worked with and for Hillary extensively, in roles that must certainly have involved a very direct, close, and trusting relationship.

    Remember the concept of “six degrees of separation”? Well, it seems that there’s only One degree of separation between Neera and Hillary. That should be very good for the climate movement, right, at least presumably? Joe and CAP and Neera ought to be able to convince Hillary not only of the vital importance of addressing climate change (if she doesn’t already appreciate that importance enough), but also, we ought to be able to find out, concretely and forthrightly, where Hillary stands on climate change, and what she would do to Lead the country to address climate change if elected.

    To begin with, as I’ve proposed before, I think we should begin to ask, and press upon, Hillary this concrete and timely question ASAP: “If you were president today, how would you rule regarding Keystone XL? Would you approve it or deny approval? Please be clear, specific, and decisive. Thanks!”

    The sooner we begin to ask such questions, and the more (and louder) we ask them, the sooner we will impress upon Hillary that we are serious about climate change, the sooner we will learn how she responds and what she thinks, and the sooner we will demonstrate to all would-be Democratic nominees for president that we want a candidate who is clear, committed, compelling, and courageous when it comes to climate change and how we should address it.

    I urge readers here to read Neera Tanden’s bio on CAP’s website. She has been in and out of CAP as well as in the Democratic administrations of Bill Clinton and President Obama, in addition to the extensive work she’s done with Hillary. In my view, CAP ought to be able to have an important and helpful influence on Hillary with respect to the most important issue of all at this point, climate change; and CAP also ought to be able to help the American public (and progressives) find out, and understand, Hillary’s views on the topic in clear and concrete terms, well in advance of the primary processes and all that. In other words, well in advance of the need to determine whether Hillary is the right nominee, or whether the climate movement needs to help identify and enlist better candidates.

    Let’s note the close “one degree of separation” between CAP’s President and Hillary Clinton; and as progressives, let’s utilize that in positive and proactive ways to help propel the climate movement forward.

    Thank Goodness.


  24. Merrelyn Emery says:

    The scientists accompanied by the churches would be a powerful force in America. Your idea is getting sharper every week Brian, ME

  25. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Lennon was, in my opinion, a secular saint, a man who will be seen, if humanity enjoys any posterity, as a great moral example. His elimination was no ‘lone nut’ murder.

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I very much doubt that we will see eight billion, let alone the 14 billion that I saw one lunatic predicting for 2100 the other night. He recommended a ‘New Green Revolution’, God bless him!

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’d say that that is the real Obama, although I know of few occasions when he did not speak with a ‘forked tongue’, as the TV Indians used to say, so it’s hard to judge.

  28. Ken Barrows says:

    Let’s start talking about what things we need to reduce. Cars is a good start.

  29. Raul M. says:

    Thanks Michael, It is nice to hear fron others that feel much has happened since the Bible was written and that we really have invented (as people) many things and situational problems that didn’t exist way back when.

  30. Dave S. Nottear says:

    Cars are a good, specific start. But if we start at the very top, in general:

    1. Expectations
    2. Population

    I think both will be reduced, but that the majority of reductions will be involuntary.

  31. Brian R Smith says:

    Thanks ME. I can’t help hammering on it because it’s so obvious the PR battle can’t be won in it’s particulars without coordination. Quashing the lies that there is confusion over the science and that that the consensus among scientists is shaky, for example, two of the most talked-to-death roadblocks to progress, this can’t be left to just sort itself out. What’s the point of endlessly tagging a neutered and uncaring MSM with responsibility for the great climate stall? It is squarely on climate leaders to own this problem.

  32. Dave S. Nottear says:

    Ken, how about this.

    The Industrial Way of Life is a Tax on the planet.

    Jesus said: “Give to Caesar what is Caesars.”

    I’m not christian, but I agree.

    I would say,:

    Participate the least necessary – contribute the least necessary, and accept the least necessary.

    Each person has to decide for themselves what is “least necessary.”

    Or they can let Fate, FEMA, or Homeland Security decide it for them.

    (note – homeland security bought a lot of ammunition, but no diapers. Just keep that in mind… and remember who was in office when homeland security was deemed a necessity… and whose “way of life is non-negotiable”. okay, enough babble.)

  33. Joan Savage says:

    I catch the drift, but just so you both know, I wasn’t being literal about the freedom churches for our present time. A church was a primary grassroots unit of the 1960s. Some still are, and some are talking about climate change, particularly those with socials and suppers.

    We need to think outside, in more ways than one. Here are three other examples of grassroots organizations that come to mind: booster clubs for outdoor team sports, hunting and fishing clubs, and food co-ops. All three are places where people talk face to face about what the weather is doing to us, and sometimes – about why that is happening.