We’ve Known for a Long Time that Something’s Wrong
On March 18, 1968, forty-eight hours after declaring his candidacy for President, and (as we shall see, only about five years after the nation’s leaders began to talk about a need for “economic growth,” Robert Kennedy called America’s obsession with growth into question.
Speaking to students at the University of Kansas, Kennedy described what he called a “poverty of satisfaction—purpose and dignity—that afflicts us all… too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.”
Even now, it is impossible to read these words and not wonder how Kennedy thought this speech might help him get votes. Accusing people of caring more about possessions than about their own communities is unlikely to make them feel good about you.
“Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all,” RFK said. “Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.” Kennedy continued:
Our Gross National Product [renamed Gross Domestic Product in 1992] 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. [Whitman and Speck were mass murderers who achieved notoriety in the mid-1960s] 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.
We will return to RFK’s ideas. But for now, his 1968 speech at the University of Kansas provides an important clue: In the midst of its greatest economic growth ever recorded, with unemployment below 4% and falling (and economists promising permanent “full employment”) something clearly had gone wrong in the U.S.