A gross national product

The political obsession with economic expansion is harming education, creating narrow-minded citizens.

By Luke Brinker

If there’s one overarching concept that unites President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, it’s the notion of restoration.

Stumping in the closely contested state of Iowa this summer, Obama framed his reelection campaign as a bid to restore the American dream of widespread middle class prosperity. In making his case to voters, the President often ties his policies to those of Bill Clinton, the last Democrat to preside over a booming national economy. Meanwhile, the Super PAC supporting Romney is called, somewhat awkwardly, Restore Our Future. Precisely how one goes about “restoring” the future remains a mystery, but you get the idea: Romney and the Republicans pitch themselves as the party best equipped to return the American economy to the halcyon days of the late 20th century.

Neither candidate seems to have given much thought to whether a return to the pre-crash economy is a truly desirable prospect. There is a reason, after all, that the economy collapsed in 2008. Bipartisan orthodoxy at the turn of the century held that financial deregulation was vital to a thriving and competitive economy. In concert with congressional Republicans, President Clinton significantly weakened the financial regulatory regime. While financial industry profits accounted for under a quarter of U.S. business profits at the end of the Reagan administration, finance’s share skyrocketed to over 40 percent by the early 2000s.

As Big Finance flourished, Wall Street compensation ascended ever upward, making industry jobs especially attractive for the best and brightest college graduates. In 2008, 28 percent of Harvard graduating seniors entered financial services, compared to a paltry 5 percent who opted for jobs in communications, the media, and the arts, and 9 percent who embarked on careers in education. According to the U of C’s Office of Career Advancement, 17 percent of the class of 2011 gained employment in financial services, down slightly from a high of 22 percent in 2007.

To be sure, many of these students found the idea of working in the financial industry exciting—largely thanks to the recent emergence of a Wall Street culture based on complex debt instruments, sky-high bonuses, and a light regulatory touch—but it’s hard to believe that a quarter of the entering class at a leading university dreams of 90-hour workweeks consumed by conference calls, high-risk margin trades, and the pooling of mortgage securities. Increased tuition has left many students laden with high levels of debt, so the six-figure bonuses offered by elite firms look particularly alluring. But it’s doubtful that, if the nation’s top schools charged only $20,000 annually in tuition, legions of students wouldn’t still be lining up at the Goldman Sachs booth at career fairs. Isn’t something more fundamental at work? Doesn’t the growth-obsessed rhetoric of Obama and Romney reveal that we live in a society in which the accumulation of wealth has become an end in itself?

Attention to the perils of growth-mindedness is hardly a recent phenomenon. Speaking at the University of Kansas shortly after the launch of his 1968 presidential campaign, Robert F. Kennedy decried the economistic rhetoric that characterized the national discourse: “Our gross national product . . . if we should judge America by that—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 those who break them… It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead…” What GNP failed to account for, Kennedy reminded his audience, included “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.”

Kennedy did not intend to disparage economic growth per se, but he saw the foolhardiness in pursuing growth as an end in itself. Absent a concern for sustainability and for public welfare, growth becomes destructive to the nation’s social fabric. Moreover, a single-minded focus on growth cheapens the quality of education, as U of C philosopher Martha Nussbaum perceptively noted in her 2010 book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Analyzing the Obama administration’s approach to education, Nussbaum writes that the president “has so far focused in individual income and national economic progress, arguing that the sort of education we need is the sort that serves these two goals.” Obama declared in a 2009 speech that “economic progress and educational achievement have always gone hand-in-hand in America.” Though the President’s words are undeniably true, he went on to deliver a speech heavy on praise for ostensibly useful “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, with little to say for the humanities—less instrumental disciplines, but ones which have the vital capacity to inculcate creative thinking, cultural literacy, and a keen appreciation for the diversity of world perspectives.

Rather than prompting leaders to reconsider what kind of society we ought to live in—one that prizes money-making or one that emphasizes allowing each of its citizens to thrive as complete human beings—the economic crisis has only exacerbated the worrying trends brought on by a single-minded focus on growth. The elite clamor for “austerity” (read: sharp cuts to social, educational, and health programs) threatens the basic standard of living essential to allowing individuals to function as free and curious citizens. Meanwhile, educational institutions less advantaged than U of C have curtailed humanities education. When the State University of New York at Albany abolished its programs in French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theater in 2010, NPR reported that officials put those departments on the chopping block “because of a fear that these disciplines are less career-oriented than business and technology, less valued in a world dominated by the bottom line.”

Democracy depends on a culturally literate, civically engaged, and environmentally conscious populace. This, in turn, demands that a society’s brightest minds enter fields like the arts, media, and education. That’s what makes the two campaigns’ relentless emphasis on growth above all else so unfortunate.

Luke Brinker is a graduate student in the MAPSS program.