Friday, February 18, 2011

What counts; what doesn't

Robert F. Kennedy:
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.


Robert said...

Hate to be the one to rain all over the idealistic parade (and that of a Kennedy, no less), but that quote is disingenuous and logically inconsistent on its own terms. If he's saying that we only value that we can measure an economic output for, then okay, but he doesn't apply the same rules to his "bad" list of things we value as he does to the "good" things that we don't. To take just one example, he says that "ambulances to clear our highways of carnage" count, but "the health of our children" doesn't. Health care either is or is not part of GNP; it's not one thing for drunk drivers and another for innocent babes.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

The point that there is a disconnect between GDP and standard of living doesn't require inconsistency.

For example, in the area of health care, a very large share of the cost comes from expensive end of life care, and a very large share of the benefit comes from vaccination and inexpensive generic medications like antibiotics. Where the two coincide, it is almost by chance.