Robert Kennedy’s economic lesson for Trump

Weeks before he died 50 years ago, RFK said it's crazy to destroy the environment in the name of economic growth.

In 1963 Civil Rights Leaders meet with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and other officials at the White House. CREDIT: Abbie Rowe, National Park Service/JFK Library, Boston
In 1963 Civil Rights Leaders meet with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and other officials at the White House. CREDIT: Abbie Rowe, National Park Service/JFK Library, Boston

Donald Trump’s economic policy is based on the fatally flawed notion that ending regulations, particularly environmental ones, is the key to faster economic growth. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY), who was assassinated 50 years ago, on June 6, 1968, explained just how misguided that view was just weeks before he was killed.

Candidate Trump explained to CNBC in May 2016 one of his core strategies for boosting economic growth: “We’re going to be getting rid of a tremendous amount of regulations.” Weeks earlier, Fox News’ Chris Wallace asked how he’d cut the federal budget, and Trump replied “Department of Environmental Protection [sic]. We are going to get rid of it in almost every form.”

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Trump and Scott Pruitt — the ethically-challenged Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — are certainly gutting our environmental protections. In January, the New York Times listed “67 Environmental Rules on the Way Out Under Trump.” And, most infamously, a year ago, Trump became the only world leader to abandon the Paris climate agreement, the unanimous agreement among 200 nations to work together to cut carbon pollution and avoid catastrophic global warming.

In reality, slashing EPA regulations is very counterproductive. The 2016 “Draft Report to Congress on the Benefits and Costs of Federal Regulations” by the Office of Management and Budget found that over the previous 10 years, EPA’s air regulations cost the economy $41 to $48 billion (in 2014 dollars) while providing benefits worth $172 to $668 billion.

The same report found that Energy Department efficiency standards  —  which Trump has frozen —  cost the economy $7.5 to $10.6 billion but provided $19 to $32.6 billion in savings. And it found that the joint EPA and Transportation Department “rules pertaining to the control of greenhouse gas emissions from mobile sources and improved vehicle fuel economy” had costs of $9.5 to $18 billion and benefits worth $35 to $64 billion.

Of course, lots of those benefits were things like reduced health care costs because the air got cleaner  —  and those benefits don’t show up in our primary measure of economic growth, GDP (gross domestic product). Indeed, based on the way GDP is measured, reducing sickness and death actually appears to lower economic growth.

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Who can doubt that our wildly unsustainable global economic system is now the biggest of Ponzi schemes  —  where the economy appears to grow faster the more we burn fossil fuels and destroy a livable climate?

Robert F. Kennedy explained why GDP is a useless measure of economic well-being back in the 1960s.

Robert Kennedy was one of the few national politicians ever to challenge our monomaniacal pursuit of GDP to the exclusion of true economic well-being. In a speech in Detroit on May 5, 1967 he pointed out: “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.”

Weeks before he was killed, he spoke on this subject at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968  —  in what President Obama called “one of the most beautiful of his speeches.”

Here are the key lines (with emphasis added):

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.

In sharp contrast, Scott Pruitt actually told the Heritage Foundation in April that in analyzing new environmental rules, the EPA will stop counting the value of lives saved.

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Kennedy’s view of economic well-being makes clear that Trump’s policies are driving this country toward the greatest economic — and environmental — calamity we have ever known.