Re-Imagining GDP – Do We Measure the Wrong Things or Need to Expand Our Thinking?

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Moonlight on the Stonehouse

Wayne D. King

Moonlight on the Stonehouse

The View From Rattlesnake Ridge: Ruminations from an Unabashed Optimist, an Environmental Patriot and a Radical Centrist
By Wayne D. King

The first substantial snow has fallen on Rattlesnake Ridge and it was followed by a cold snap that has kept the snow light and fluffy. That makes the job for our plow guy Micky a little easier. Every time that Micky shows up we have to make sure our Siberian Husky “Boof” is inside because otherwise he might be curled up in a pile of snow – where he loves to be this time of year – and Micky might end up taking him for the ride of his life. Boof was named by our son, a kayaking term – unless you are Portuguese – in which case it’s a fart.

On days when the snow is falling and Micky shows up, invariably I trudge out through the snow to his truck to hand him a payment for his work. He rolls down his window and gratefully accepts the money but we always take a moment to catch up a bit. Micky probably knows more about what’s going on in the shadow of Rattlesnake Ridge than almost anyone else – except maybe Brian and Dianna at the Common Cafe, where many of the men in the area gather for a Wednesday breakfast together, followed by the women on Fridays.

So much of life here, and in most of America, is a series of encounters which, taken in their totality, help to give us a sense of place and community . . . a feeling of belonging. Whether those encounters are at the bottom of the drive, at the library, the farmer’s market, on the football field or at the field hockey game, they are a part of the rhythm of life for most of us . . . The contra-dance of community.

Most of what makes life truly meaningful is in this dance – measured in meaningful moments . . .    moments that can never be converted to dollars and cents.

Then there are the American moments. Moments that speak to our broader sense of community: The lump that forms in our throats when the American Flag is unfurled at some pinnacle moment in time; the pride we feel when justice is done whether it is in the courtroom, the congress or on the streets; The joy we feel when Liberty prevails. These too are a part of that dance. They form the glue that unites us as Americans and holds the promise of moving beyond the divisions that divide us.

These too cannot be measured financially.

Why then do we measure the strength and health of our country and our states with the purely economic indicator of GDP? Furthermore, why the hell does it matter, anyway, that we do so?

It matters because the world in which we are living – and especially the world that is just beyond the curve in the road ahead – demands a new way of thinking about what a meaningful life looks like.

Yesterday, Alice came back from a hair appointment and said that her friend and hairdresser Terry had told her, as she cut Alice’s hair, that in Japan haircuts were being done by robotic hair dressers. She figured, according to her estimates, that she had ten years before her career would meet an untimely (at least to her) end. A quick search of the Web indicates she might be right, though the technology is very much in its infancy.

The world is shifting beneath our feet. The rate of acceleration of change quickening, challenging the dogmas of the past, making them irrelevant to our real lives.

Whether GDP ever truly served well as a measure of the success of American life is a matter for philosophical debate. Even back in 1968 Bobby Kennedy recognized that it failed to capture our essence. (see speech below)

Today, it surely falls short.

Masked in those numbers is a dramatically growing disparity of wealth, shrinking the middle class and increasing the precariat;

Pushing those numbers ever skyward are the advances in technology that remove the hands of human labor and the pride of work;

Measured in that GDP are the automatic weapons that rained death and sadness on Las Vegas and New Town and Sutherland Springs;

Measured in that GDP are the political ads, sponsored by nameless and faceless Political Action Committees, even individuals, that continue to divide our nation – shouting for us to pay attention to what alienates us, one from another, rather than reminding us of our common dreams and our shared commitment to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness;

In the tiny nation of Bhuton they have developed a Gross National Happiness index as a measure of the success of their national efforts – based on indicators such as sustainability, resilience, health, education, cultural diversity, good governance, community vitality and living standards.

I am not suggesting that we cease to measure GDP but we find ways in which we can augment it that help us to measure those things that really matter most to us. In doing this, perhaps it will help us to find common ground with one another.

Big changes are on the horizon. We are going to need all the common ground we can find.

In this holiday season, perhaps we can start by agreeing not to fight over how we greet one another.  Let us remember the lessons of those moments, principles and people we celebrate and take to heart the teachings that deserve our attention all year long: that we must love one another; that we must light one candle when the darkness threatens to overwhelm us; that we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors but borrow it from our children and our grandchildren; that we must seek the middle way that provides the most happiness for all the Great Spirit’s children.

Robert F. Kennedy, March 18, 1968

“And this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year.  But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seem 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 (the mass shooter’s) rifle and (the serial killer’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.”

About Wayne D. King: Wayne King is an author, artist, activist and recovering politician. A three term State Senator, he was the 1994 Democratic nominee for Governor and most recently the CEO of MOP Environmental Solutions Inc., a public company in the environmental cleanup space.  His art is exhibited nationally in galleries and he has published three books of his images. His most recent novel “Sacred Trust”  a vicarious, high voltage adventure to stop a private powerline is available on He lives with his wife Alice in Rumney at the base of Rattlesnake Ridge where he flies both the American and Iroquois flags proudly. His website is:

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