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?