During his 1968 presidential campaign, Robert Kennedy delivered a speech to an audience at the University of Kansas on — among other topics — the limits of the Gross National Product (GNP). Economists have long used the GNP, defined as the total value of goods produced and services provided by the residents of a nation during a certain period of time, as a handy metric for measuring the economic health of a country. But as Kennedy noted in his remarks, this metric is inherently flawed.
“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 it 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.”
Because the GNP measures everything the country produces, it also includes so many of the things that make American life shorter, and more violent, and less just, including weapons of war, prisons, and the degradation of our natural spaces. Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife are references the 1968 audience would have understood viscerally. Richard Speck notoriously raped and murdered 8 student nurses in one violent night in 1966. That same year, Charles Whitman carried a rifle to the top of the University of Texas clock tower and systematically shot and killed 16 people, while injuring another 31. The GNP for that year included those instruments that took the lives of 24 Americans and negatively impacted countless others. Is that an accurate measure for a healthy nation?
As Kennedy also noted, the GNP is perhaps more remarkable for what it does not include:
“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…”
Here, Kennedy is saying that simple economic measures do nothing to account for the intangible parts of life that make people, and communities, and nations truly remarkable. He caps this section with a final observation, “it [GNP] 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.”
It’s worth noting that Kennedy’s remarks came amidst a period of incredible political and social upheaval in the United States. Widespread rioting, racial recrimination, foreign war, and political violence had many Americans wondering if the fabric of society was beginning to come undone. Kennedy himself would fall victim to the violence he bemoaned in this speech less than 3 months later, when he was assassinated at the Ambassador hotel in Las Angeles. But during his brief life, Kennedy articulated a vision for America that asked us all to look beyond simple measure of economic health and instead to consider the health and wellbeing of our neighbors and fellow citizens. He understood that success and prosperity was not a zero-sum game. Kennedy knew it was possible to lift up those who were struggling without tearing others down. He saw what might be possible if all Americans worked together towards a common goal, instead of fighting for the scraps others left behind.
Now — fifty years later — we again face social and political strife that seems insurmountable, and Kennedy’s comments about the limitations of the GNP ring truer than ever. The 2018 GNP will include the rifle that killed 17 students in Parkland, Florida. It will count the firefighters who battled the Camp fire that decimated the community of Paradise, California. It will count the facilities and workers who took migrant children from their parents on the southern border. But does that measure who we really are, or more importantly, who we want to be? Hopefully we’ll figure that out before another fifty years goes by.