Monday, January 30, 2012

Robert Kennedy on Shortcomings of GDP in 1968

Every year or two, I run across this lovely quotation from Robert F. Kennedy about the fundamental shortcomings of gross national product as a measure of well-being. It's from a speech he gave at the University of Kansas on March 18, 1968, and a transcript is available here.  Here's RFK:

"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."

Although economists sometimes stand accused of worshiping GDP, this charge is untrue. Every introductroy economics textbook, including my own (available here through Textbook Media), acknowledges these shortcomings, although I confess we lack the poetic cadences of RFK. But the quotation can be a nice supplement when introducing students to the concept of GDP, or when looking for a topic for a short writing assignment or essay question.

The speech isn't long, and if you are a connoisseur of political rhetoric, it's worth reading. Of the current politicians on the national stage, I don't think any of them has the lovely touch with self-deprecating humor at the start of this kind of talk. Here's RFK warming up the audience--and remember that there are many Kansas students in the audience who don't especially support him:

"I'm very pleased and very touched, as my wife is, at your warm reception here.  I think of my colleagues in the United States Senate, I think of my friends there, and I think of the warmth that exists in the Senate of the United States - I don't know why you're laughing - I was sick last year and I received a message from the Senate of the United States which said: "We hope you recover," and the vote was forty-two to forty. And then they took a poll in one of the financial magazines of five hundred of the largest businessmen in the United States, to ask them, what political leader they most admired, who they wanted to see as President of the United States, and I received one vote, and I understand they're looking for him.  I could take all my supporters to lunch, but I'm - I don't know whether you're going to like what I'm going to say today but I just want you to remember, as you look back upon this day, and when it comes to a question of who you're going to support - that it was a Kennedy who got you out of class."

It's also hard to imagine that the speechwriters for any contemporary politician would let them finish a speech with this kind of classical reference and slightly obscure flourish: " I want the next generation of Americans to look back upon this period and say as they said of Plato: "Joy was in those days, but to live.""