Robert F. Kennedy on Defining GDP and Some Other Thoughts

A number of days ago, on a website of a particularly enlightened economist, I came across an excerpt from a speech given by Sen. Robert F. Kennedy on March 18, 1968, at the University of Kansas. He was on the campaign trail in the US 1968 presidential race, and that context makes these words even more amazing. Less than three months later, he was shot and killed in California. Embedded above is a video montage with words from the speech, and the text follows below.

"We will find neither national purpose nor personal 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 napalm and missles 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."

Amongst those who acknowledge the reality of Peak Oil, a number believe that we can continue (perhaps after a brief pause) to increase the energy input into the economy. Given the amount of solar energy available, this is certainly a theoretical possibility. Others believe that, while energy use might decrease, economic growth can continue because of efficiency gains and changes in the nature of the economy (from industrial to information). Data such as that shown below lend credence to this idea:

There are two flaws in this line of reasoning, the first being that this is data only for the US. Much of what is now consumed in the US is now manufactured in Asia. Thus, the energy consumption associated with that manufacturing doesn't show up on the US balance sheet.

The second flaw is the assumption that GDP (Gross Domestic Product), while being a measure of economic activity, accurately reflects the worth of the economy for the humans which take part in it. It certainly includes a number of things which provide questionable benefits for society.

In any event, Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed, my father voted for Nixon, and the rest is history.

Another speech by RFK, as read by his brother Ted, is presented below.

Finally, here in three parts is the speech given by RFK just before he was killed. Those who are still emotionally affected by this tragedy, as I discovered that I am (despite being only ten years of age when it happened), might stop watching when he concludes his victory speech.

Speaking of RFK, You might want to read this one.



Thane Eugene Cesar

The ecological economists worked this GNP/GDP fallacy out many years ago. They are still trying to get a hearing.

Costanza, et al, (1997). An Introduction to Ecological Economics, ISBN: 1-884015-72-7

This book would be a good place to start for anyone who wants to understand what is wrong with neoclassical econ, what a holistic econ might look like, and why we continually screw up on the environmental front.

Importantly, it provides a guide to understanding energy's role in the economy. The book was written before the notion of peak oil hit the street. So one needs to couple the ideas in this book with the new realization that we have to look forward to a world in which energy production is in retreat. The latter, of course, is a result of squandering our FF-based energy endowment on toys and fun and big houses instead of investing in renewable energy capture capital equipment.

Take these ideas and then factor in peak oil and human nature. You get a very dismal picture.

Question Everything


This is a struggle for power, not an academic debate about economic methodologies. It is difficult for ecological economists get a fair hearing when power sits with their opponents; it is not an equal fight. The neoclassical economists (led by the Chicago School cult) are so influential because of their usefulness for propaganda justifications of neocon policy. The neocons (really better described as the corporate elite) will do their best to not allow a political candidate with economic views harmful to their interests to become President either at home or abroad. Until now the fight has been against Keynesian economics and public ownership, where the US neocons used their persuaders (the CIA) to get their way (via military coups and genocides in South America, or other actions closer to home, see: CIA Agents killed Robert Kennedy - ). Expect similar actions if ecological economics becomes a serious political threat. The Iron Triangle has more than three sides.

Indeed, there are alternatives to the GDP, such as;

- Human Development Index, combining normalized measures of life expectancy, literacy, educational attainment, and GDP per capita

- Genuine Progress Indicator, measuring whether or not a country's growth, increased production of goods, and expanding services have actually resulted in the improvement of the welfare (or well-being) of the people in the country (includes resource depletion, pollution, farmland and natural parks area and health, etc.)

- Gross National Happiness, a complex set of subjective and objective indicators to measure 'national happiness' in various domains (living standards, health, education, eco-system diversity and resilience, cultural vitality and diversity, time use and balance, good governance, community vitality and psychological well-being)

- Happy Planet Index, a measure of each country's average subjective life satisfaction, life expectancy at birth, and ecological footprint per capita

GDP: The total market value of all final goods and services produced in a country in a given year, equal to total consumer, investment and government spending, plus the value of exports, minus the value of imports.

Only if exchanged for dollars. You can transport a child to school via your car in which case this service produeced for your child is NOT included in GDP, or via a taxicab or limo service, in which case it IS included in GDP. You can wash your family's clothes in the laundry room/closet of your home in which case it is NOT included, or you can leave them at the dry cleaners in which case it IS included. You can watch your kids after school which is NOT included, or you can hire a babysitter which IS included. You can cook them a meal in the kitchen [not included in GDP] or you can pay the nanny or the pizza delivery guy or the restaurant to do it instead[included in GDP]. Same service performed, different way of counting it.

If you own your home, the amount that you theoretically would pay in rent is included in GDP. I don't know if the feds inflated figures accordingly during the housing boom, but this would seem to exaggerate things a bit.

More critique from Mish.

Furthermore, if we were to sell everything except the shirts off our backs to other countries - lock, stock and barrel - it would be considered to be a boom year as far as the GDP is concerned.

This is what you get when you only operate with an income statement and are oblivious about the balance sheet. We are depleting and depreciating our national assets and loading up on liabilities like a bunch of manic lunatics.

I sense that we are in a time of great change, perhaps of the same historical magnitude as the fall of Rome and the descent of Europe into the Dark Ages, the concommitant rise of the superior power and culture of Islam, the Renaissance, and the drive to throw off the Colonial chains of Europe that swept across the Americas, from Canada to Argentina, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The end of the era of unlimited and cheap energy is certainly part of this sea change.

How the United States adapts to the new environment will determine its future and its standing in the new world order.

A new philosophical framework will be required. Our definition of "good" and "sucessful" will have to change. Over the last three thousand years the ascendent philosophies were, in chronological succession: Paganism, Islam, Christianity and Enlightenment rationality.

The New Age will require a new philosophy, and the people that is the most creative at crafting this new philophy will dominate tomorrow's world, both from a power and cultural perspective.

The brave Dr William Pepper is now the defender of Sirhan Sirhan (a patsy just like Lee Harvey)

One can't help but wonder what the US and the world would have been like, had the forces of evil not killed this man , his brother and Martin Luther King. Great orators and very inspirational leaders. At any rate, the victory in the forces of evil looks like it'll turn out to be a very hollow one at the rate things are going.

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It is very good you point out the fallacy of the GDP in measuring many things and esp. the fallacious energy efficiency increase of GDP production.

Not only is most of the stuff produced outside US, most of the energy expenditure for shipping those goods is calculated 'outside' US.

Further, US has while US has stopped being a nation of manufacturing, it has become a nation of financing. An ever increasing part of GDP growth is now coming from the financial sector. Most of that funny money is domestically based on debt that is growing at an exponential rate.

It doesn't take a first rate macro-economist to understand that this situation is unsustainable, regardless of how many illegal immigrants one takes into the country and refuses to give social benefits to.

And what US does, that Europe does in it's wake. Perhaps a little less efficiently and a decade later, but roughly the same nevertheless.

All the same problems outlined above can be attributed to most European old nations, even if not yet at the same degree of severity.

I no longer wonder why many people are not very optimistic about chances for real change :)

Oh, they'll get real change all right. It just won't be change that will be deliberately chosen and guided - rather, it will be change that is imposed upon us by the reality-based world.

In the early to mid 70s and even beyond, many pols and books and eco-talk (etc.) focussed on energy. I didn’t know those from RFK, thanks, they are excellent.

--I had a brilliant school teacher who told us the truth - some resources are not renewable.

I remember we had Sundays without cars (Switzerland) and I went out roller skating and playing the fool with family blessing. --

Then, because the ‘energy crunch’ and OPECs power play sort of faded away in an vaporous atmosphere of new energy discoveries, Biz as usual, techno jazz, political savvy - i.e. manipulation, the setting up of client states, new style colonialism, expansion of arms industry, etc., - and/or because the imagination, realization, of limits encouraged what we would today call neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, hyper- or uber- capitalism, globalization, etc. whose essential characteristic is forfeiting of the common good in favor of gain, a rush towards private, corporate, small-group, or even nationalist greed and control, took place.

The ‘west’ or the ‘developed’ countries found a way round the limits by adopting a blatantly exploitative strategy wrapped up in a crazed economic ideology, a new religion, a mantra, touted, sold, foisted on everyone, in boardrooms, through the IMF, the World Bank, even the UN, etc. With the threat of superior military might always lurking in the background. See Iraq: at some point the muscle must be demonstrated or the whole system breaks.

The foreign policy of the West, for quite awhile, can be summarized as:
"Trade with us -- on our terms -- or else"

"Thus, the energy consumption associated with that manufacturing doesn't show up on the US balance sheet."

The environmentalists have another term for this creative accounting: Carbon Laundering.

I do not know what RF Kennedy accomplished as a politician, but there is a severe tendency to judge politicians by their words, rather than by their actions…

The whole "hope" thing with Obama is annoying, concretely I do not understand where the hope is leading. I do not think anybody does either…

John Gray makes the excellent point in his latest books (Heresies, Straw Dogs, Al Qaeda, Black Mass etc.) that the Enlightenment is a continuation of the dominant Christian ethos, no more. A religion of progress, which explains perhaps the major blind spot with all economical theories based on growth.

Luarent -

One of the human tendencies that I detest the most is hero worship. And nowhere is hero worship more evident than in the case of JFK and RFK. Both were spoiled brats and ruthless opportunists who shamelessly pandered to prevailing sentiments for expedient political gain.

Why they have been almost diefied here in the US is beyond me. Neither really accomplished all that much, though JFK did manage to almost blunder into nuclear war wth the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A charasmatic leader with a 'vision' is a dangerous thing indeed. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao all had 'the vision thing', and look were it got their people. It would be far better to have a dull colorless president of which we should expect only three things: i) that he speak frankly about the problems we face, ii) that he doesn't spend the country into bankruptcy, and iii) that he makes sure the US minds its own business and keeps us out of pointless military adventures. The current occupant of the White House has failed miserably on all three counts.

He's got the "dull" thing going though.

It's all pure luck and being in the right place at the right time. If Iraq and Afghanistan had gone as per plan, oil was too cheap to meter and the world throwing flowers at our doorstep, we'd be refashioning Teddy Roosevelt's head into Bush's right now.



I find your remarks quite distasteful. The Kennedy family has been tested time and again...the result has at times been finely tempered steel. Clearly, they all have had their faults...from womanizing to drinking to whatever. Nonetheless, few American families have given quite so much of their own blood...when it could have easily retired to the pampered life.

To compare them to Mao or Hitler reveals that you neither lived through those dangerous times, nor do you have any conception of what it ideals they followed.

I shudder to think how you would have handle the Cuban crises or what position you would have stake out during the segregation crisis.

Neither really accomplished all that much, though JFK did manage to almost blunder into nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

My understanding of history is that the leaders of the military were determined to carry out air strikes and/or an invasion of Cuba as a response. JFK wisely chose the response that they were least enthusiastic about, using naval forces to blockade Cuba.

I saw a show on the history channel where a former Soviet submarine commander talked about how they had nuclear tipped torpedoes. They would have used them to decimate the American fleet had the US attacked Cuba and a shooting war started. IMO that would have almost certainly led to an all out nuclear exchange so I find your statement highly misleading. JFK prevented a nuclear war from occurring.

As one who was in his early 20's when JFK was shot, I can tell you that Robert changed after the assassination. During the primary when the words above were spoken, he was gentle and humorous...and mingled easily with the crowds. He knew the risks...but already he had given his heart to the highest of can hear it in his words. Remarkable. That period of time had people who stepped forward...and not for personal gain.

Stormy wrote:

"That period of time had people who stepped forward...and not for personal gain."

Personally I have nothing against the Kennedys, or even the Bushes.
But what change did it bring? And is it really different from today?

"…but already he had given his heart to the highest of causes."

Which one? Running for prez? I'm not being ironical BTW.

I have nothing against RFK. . . Except:

Eugene McCarthy was winning the race for the Democratic nomination in 1968, which was why LBJ dropped out (thank God!). Then RFK smelled opportunity and jumped into the race. He was on track to win the nomination when he was shot. Tragedy. Unfortunately, McCarthy had been so weakened by that time that the door was open for the smoke-filled room deals that resulted in Humphry getting the nomination. Richard Nixon in the White House was the ultimate outcome, an outcome from which we never really recovered.

I can't help but wonder: How different would things have been if RFK had never barged into the race? What would have happened if McCarthy had won the nomination? Would Wallace still have launched his 3rd party bid, and would Wallace have won as many votes in the South if he had been running against a mild-mannered, gentlemanly McCarthy instead of against the abrasive hyper-liberal, hyper-Northern Humphry? Would Nixon's "Southern Strategy" have still worked?

What if McCarthy had actually won the Presidency? How very different history might have unfolded than it did under Nixon.

So, I am not angry at RFK. Still, I can't help but wonder: might it not be that he really did more harm than good by entering the Presidential race in 1968?

"The Kennedy family has been tested time and again...the result has at times been finely tempered steel. Clearly, they all have had their faults...from womanizing to drinking to whatever. Nonetheless, few American families have given quite so much of their own blood...when it could have easily retired to the pampered life. "

You must be from Mass/NE, I know Teddy is a saint up there. Anyplace else he would have been in jail for his driving. In most places the prevailing opinion of the family is that the babies should have been thrown out with the bath water.

JFK did his duty in WWII, just like a few million other Americans. Ask the Marines at Iwo Jima if he sacrificed more than they did. RFK had high ideals and was killed by a moron, happens all the time wordwide. All the others, well accidents happen. You say that the family has given so much of their own blood so I ask you, for what? Yes, they've had some personal tragedy, who hasn't? But to say the family hasn't lived pampered or borderline criminal lives is a downright lie. The only one who sacrificed anything willingly was JFK on PT109, but all the rest have been in pursuit of self-serving causes, including running for president.

All that old money came from old crimes and paid for the new crimes to be covered up.

No royalty on this side of the Atlantic please. Do your idol worship in private and wash your hands afterwards.

As a matter of fact, I lived on Lower Cape, a place where the Kennedy's were not liked...their compound and wealth....Yes, the father was not a stellar citizen, to say the least. I do have a more balanced view than your knee-jerk learned response seems to indicate. To bad you never lived the history.

"... Lower Cape, a place where the Kennedy's were not liked...their compound and wealth....Yes, the father was not a stellar citizen, "

I love the euphemisms we Americans employ to attempt to hide the existence of Fascists ( or Nazis) among us. No, it's worse than that.
To hide our own admiration for them.

IMO it takes massive inputs of Ignorance and Denial keep those balls rolling. Nostalgic nonsense.

And OBTW, what does having-lived-thru-it have to do with anything?

Royalty? What then would you call the Bush clan? I'd call it priviledge personified and the Peter Principle to boot. Self-serving causes? Not a doubt.

I'm a firm believer than anyone named Bush, or Kennedy (&Clinton?)should never be president again. On second thought, maybe anyone who went to Harvard or Yale. Priviledge personified? Kudos, nice way to put it.

Would RFK have won in '68? Considering that his views weren't much different than George McGovern in '72, I doubt it. Nixon won 2X by simply by running against that ideology, Reagan did too.

Knee jerk learned response? Only if you worship the Kennedys.

I hesitated to read this thread because I know how seriously divided we are even after all these years. I thought of Bobby as a brother. I have never gotten over his assassination. It is as painful for me now as it was in '68. Couldn't watch the vids.

As far as the election is concerned, I remember it well. George Wallace would have run in any case. I am from Alabama and am familiar with Wallace's mindset at that time. He believed there was not a dime's worth of difference between the Democratic and Republican Party. He believed he would do well in the North; he knew he would do well in the South; and he believed firmly in state's rights -- a term you don't hear anymore.

There is a vast difference between the America of '68 and '72. George McGovern was a decent man, but the Democratic party killed itself in '68 and there was no coalition left for McGovern to put together. People may disagree, but I believe there was enough left of the Democratic base in the North that would have given Kennedy the edge, and Wallace would have split the Republican vote in the North in any case, as he in fact did. Also, unions were still strong in '68 which would have been a plus for Kennedy. The election would probably have come down to California.

Would Kennedy have been able to govern effectively? Doubtful. The country was very split and would remain so. I think his administration would have had a similar fate as Carter's. America is a nation of consumers. He had a very different vision of what was possible.

So, instead of Bobby we got Nixon and we've never looked back. I think Obama is just too little too late. We're about to hit the wall full speed. Whoever is elected this year will be forced to react to events. The time for being proactive is long since passed.

I agree with most of the things you say Ardalla, BUT I wouldn't say Obama is too little too late. He has an open mind about many of the things that are troubling the country at the moment. I am an optimist. If there is someone that can react, its him. I would have to say he comes at just the right time, we can just hope he will be guided by the most sensible crowd, not the personal interested. Personally, I continue to write to him, even if the mail is read or not.

I'm no great Kennedy clan fan, but to be fair Joe Jr. did lose his life in a warplane, so give them credit for just a little more than you have.

I agree with what Laurent says above. "Hope" associated with Obama is just more of the same. Action is what speaks loudest. In this department the guy looks much less Ideal on many issues, but he is as smooth as they come. Hence the popularity. He is just another Prom King candidate where looks and nice lines pay dividends.

A candidate talking straight talk will get no where and for sure will not get money to get heard. 2008 campaign showed that nicely where some candidates were not "invited" to some debates because the issues they wanted to touch on were to close to the truth we see unfolding today.

What a load of liberal/leftist drivel. The canonizing of the Kennedy clan, particularly JFK and RFK and to a lesser degree Ted is telling the big lie till few people even remember the truth. My friends the enemy isn't at the gates, he's inside the wire..... aka....Obama and his puppeteer.( I smell a rat called George Soros)