What are you Measuring?

In March of 1968, Robert Kennedy gave a speech at the University of Kansas in which he included a powerful illumination regarding GNP that succinctly advances a line of thinking that we all should still be considering 50 years later.

Links to: Full speech transcript, Excerpt in Audio Form

“….Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, 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, 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.”

The specific problems and concerns of today may not exactly mirror those spoken of in 1960, but the themes and parallels are no doubt present.  Our modern landscape has ushered in new challenges like life-threatening climate change, vast income inequality, hostile cultural divisiveness, and a grim public health picture.  At the national level, the common gauges of success and prosperity today are tied to measurements like GDP, crime rates and unemployment levels. It is great to see positive “scores” in those areas, but just as Robert Kennedy points out – they don’t tell the whole story.  

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