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.

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Comments

Mayu says:

So what does this mean for our discussion? Does it tell us something that a prominent politician like Robert Kennedy was trying to shift the way we talk about wealth in a time of relative prosperity? Some might say a paradigm shift as fundamental as this is a luxury only afforded in times of prosperity, whatever that means. But I tend to think that an economic downturn is an opportunity to rethink fundamental assumptions.
It’s too obvious (and really repetitive) to say that we’ve been in bad economic times. Most of us are unsatisfied with our jobs and job prospects, especially in terms of how much we will make. Hard economic times make it more difficult to buy things we want for ourselves and our loved ones while executives make a hundred times the amount that we do (sadly, I’m not exaggerating).
It’s times like these that we’re forced to give our lives a long hard look and ask ourselves “am I really happy?”
It’s the very times that we are uncertain about our future, when we aren’t sure if we will be better off than our parents that we are able to face the fact that money might not make the world go round.
Dr. Swerdlow has promised us a journey that will change the way we look at wealth, the American Dream, and our concept of happiness. Let’s join him in this discussion and see where it takes us.

Natasha says:

As a fun little exercise, I googled the following: “define: the American Dream.” Here is the first definition: “The traditional social ideals of the United States, such as equality, democracy, and material prosperity.” Another definition offered by Merriam-Webster defines it as: “an American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity.
I find it fascinating that the only portion of this definition that is not vague is the emphasis on material wealth. There is only one way to explain material prosperity – having enough cash to buy the stuff you want.
I think that what RFK termed as a “poverty of satisfaction—purpose and dignity…” is a great example of what you, Dr. Swerdlow, have defined as a conceptual lag.
RFK spoke in 1968, and today in 2012, 44 years later, a great number of existential questions are on the lips of many Americans, but especially Millennials.
If we are to rewrite the American Dream perhaps there should be something in our definition about a wealth defined in terms of purpose or community. We often emphasize the individual nature of American society, and while we are individualistic, I believe we are also profoundly joined by a sense of community and concern for others.
Also, if wealth and capitalism are so fundamental to our nation’s history and success – at least until more recent years – how do we redefine the American Dream without erasing the two? Can we create a more humanitarian capitalistic system? (Does that even make sense?)

Joel L. Swerdlow, Ph.D. says:

“A more humane capitalism.” Maybe you’ve identified in one phrase what must become our ultimate goal.

Mayu says:

Really interesting question. Is our goal a more humane capitalism?
Natasha, I definitely agree with you that as individuals, we are asking for a society that better matches our values: caring for others and our communities.
But is this possible under a capitalist paradigm?
Not to be overly pessimistic, but there are studies that say people who work on Wall Street are clinical psychopaths and other that say being rich correlates with unethical behavior (DeCovny, “The Financial Psychopath Next Door,” 2012; Piff et Al, “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior,” 2011).
It seems like money does something to make us care less about others, but it may be that the unethical psychopaths are the ones who get ahead and make the financial world go round.
So here are our choices as I see them: change the culture of Capital to advance ethical and humane behaviors or ask for an entirely different framework.

Sources:
DeCovny, Sherree. “The Financial Psychopath Next Door.” CFA Magazine, March/April 23, no. 2 (2012): 34-35.
Piff, Paul K. “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) online, February 27, 2012. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/02/21/1118373109.abstract

Joel L. Swerdlow, Ph.D. says:

Just to make all of this more complicated, it can be argued that more “good” is done by having people devote their talents to making huge amount of money and then later in life giving it away (Bill Gates is an example) than by having people spend their entire career “doing good.”

Mayu says:

The super-rich do have the capacity and the potential to do good, and you’re definitely right that some, like Bill Gates, do a lot of good.
It would be interesting if we could calculate the amount of “good” someone has done and weigh it against the “bad” they have done, not to put anyone on trial, but to have the ability to determine if we would rather that people do significant but small “good” things or have people do a large amount of “good” while/after doing a lot of harm.
Of course, this is really subjective and probably impossible to do.

Thoughts?

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