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November 30, 2004 / Robert N. Clinton

Politics, The Gross National Product & National Identity

I was recently reading Mark Kurlansky’s excellent popular history 1968: The Year that Rocked the World and came across the following portion of a speech delivered in 1968 as apart of Robert F. Kennedy’s ill-fated candidacy for the Presidency:

” We will find neither national purpose nor national 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 naplam 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.”

As I read this truly classic speech, I was struck by the fact that despite the truth of the statements today, no current politician could or would deliver this speech on the 21st Century stump and stand any hope of being taken seriously or getting elected. That thought led me to realize what a barometer of our contemporary national values the quoted talk represents.

In 1968, when this speech was delivered, Robert Kennedy presciently saw that the nation was poised on the precipice of deciding between its commitment to loftier noble humane values or values measured almost exclusively by materialistic considerations reflected in the Gross National Product (now the Gross Domestic Product). The late 1960s and student rebellions of that era perhaps epitomized that debate, as the Kurlansky book wonderfully demonstrates. While the generation of the 1960s would like to think its values and its revolution “relevant,” the reality is that the total irrelevance of the humane concerns expressesd by Robert F. Kennedy in the quoted remarks to contemporary political debate suggests that the 1960s generation lost their revolution. The current values of the nation reflect precisely what Robert F. Kennedy warned against almost 35 years ago. The question he posed, however, remains the question for today. Given the current values and what we have become, can we remain “proud to be Americans?”

 

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