"We need a new framework and a new vocabulary for talking about economic justice. Too much of the academic debate has been dominated by technical squabbles over data, philosophic hairsplitting and outdated economic ideologies. Too much of the popular debate is framed in terms of greed and envy or what will create the most jobs.
"More satisfying would be a conversation that starts from a set of morally intuitive first principles about what kind of society we want to live in and what kind of social contract should govern our relationships with each other. It is only by judging economic institutions and outcomes against a broader set of criteria that it is possible to free ourselves from the natural tendency to think of things in terms of where things are, and instead begin to think of things in terms of where we want them to be. An economic system is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and if it is not serving those ends, we ought to change it.
"One of my favorite political speeches — and one I play each year in my introductory economics class — was given by Robert Kennedy while he was running for president in that tragic spring of 1968. It was a speech about the gross national product, which measures the economy’s output and is often used as a proxy for a nation’s well-being. Kennedy’s point was that maybe it shouldn’t be.
" 'Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion 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 assassin’s] rifle and [the murderer’s] knife and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.'
"And then he turned to the things it leaves out:
" '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.'
What seems so striking about this speech today is not only its eloquence — when was the last time you heard a politician give a stump speech like that — but also the clarity of its moral vision.
"What we need in our economic conversation today is more in the way of thoughtful moralizing, not less. As Adam Smith understood, the wealth of nations depends on the vigorous pursuit of self-interest by individuals whose natural and productive selfishness is tempered by moral sentiments such as compassion, generosity and a sense of fair play. An economic system that regularly ignores those sentiments forfeits its moral legitimacy. And, in time, it will forfeit its prosperity as well."