Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated 41 years ago last week. He challenged our monomaniacal pursuit of GDP in “one of the most beautiful of his speeches,” as Obama described it an August 2008 NYT profile of his economic thinking.

Obama is one of the few major politicians who constantly challenges our unsustainable economic worldview today (see “Obama gets the Ponzi scheme“). Let’s listen to RFK’s remarkable words and then Obama’s:

Here is the transcript:

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 missiles 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.

Now here’s what Obama has been saying, again and again, on a bigger stage to a bigger audience:

  • “I want us all to think about new and creative ways to … encourage young people to create and build and invent – to be makers of things, not just consumers of things.” (4/27)
  • “The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.” (4/22)
  • “We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand.” (4/14)
  • “We can let the jobs of tomorrow be created abroad, or we can create those jobs right here in America and lay the foundation for our lasting prosperity.” (3/19)

After praising RFK’s speech, Obama goes on to discuss sustainability with the NYT reporter:

The second point Obama wanted to make was about sustainability. The current concerns about the state of the planet, he said, required something of a paradigm shift for economics. If we don’t make serious changes soon, probably in the next 10 or 15 years, we may find that it’s too late.

Precisely.

The NYT profile, “Obamanomics,” ends:

Based on the collective wisdom of scientists, global warming really does seem to be different from any previous environmental crisis. For the first time on record, meanwhile, economic growth has not translated into better living standards for most Americans. These are two enormous challenges that are part of the legacy of the Reagan Age.

Unsustainable pursuit of short-term “wealth” at the expense of sustainable prosperity – growth for the sake of growth – is both the cause of our current economic collapse and the underlying principle of the conservative movement for decades now:

H/t People and Place.