Government Policy

Obviously a train wreck’s coming....Growth at any price is considered by too many people in this country to be highly desirable.
–Senator Dale Bumpers

Overview & Connection to a New Dream

"How much is enough?" and "Is more always better" aren’t just questions for you and I to ask in our personal lives, they’re questions we need to be asking as a nation and a society.

Unfortunately just as many Americans use their credit cards without restraint,(1) our policymakers run the nation‘s resources oblivious to financial and natural limits. This is evidenced by our $5.5 trillion public debt but also by officials’ blind commitment to "grow the economy."

Our economy and economic indicators exist to benefit our quality of life, right? Then why does every news report announce stock market fluctuations and GDP gains but not whether Americans are safe, secure, and happy. Maybe its because economic growth has ceased to be a means to an end and has become the end in and of itself. Remember, "it’s the economy stupid."

Think we’re guilty of hyperbole? Check out the Bureau of Economic Analysis’s GDP site and see that seven of the eight GDP charts show only percentage changes, not actual numbers.(2) No total GDP, no per capita GDP, only growth relative to previous years. Who cares if we have "enough" as long as the GDP is 5% bigger than last quarter! Bigger is better, excess is best!

Perhaps Alan AtKisson sums up GDP’s flaws best: "The Gross Domestic Product -- which counts every dollar that changes hands in the market economy, adding everything together and never subtracting anything, leading to the absurd situation that car wrecks and oil spills and robberies and divorces and devastating hurricanes and all manner of very dubious activities are all tallied up and cheered as contributing to the unquestioned, quasi-religious goal of never-ending, ever-increasing economic growth -- is a poor measure of our well-being, and what will ultimately happen to us as a civilization if we continue to make the horrible mistake of relying solely upon this antiquated and inadequate measure of human progress"(3)

Fortunately leading environmental economists and sustainability experts have developed indicators that account for previously ignored human and environmental variables. The Genuine Progress Indicator, for instance, shows that American quality of life has not quadrupled in lockstep with the Dow or GDP but rather has slowly declined for the last 30 years. These indicators face a hefty challenge in unseating GDP as our statistic-of-worship, but they are steadily earning respect and are beginning to influence some decision-makers.(4)

Officials should reevaluate measurements of progress but must address other issues too. Tax breaks for advertising encourages the commercialization of our public spaces, schools, and entire culture.(5) Subsidies for mining, ranching, and logging skew the true-cost free market and promote unsustainable consumption of resources. Taxing such "goods" as work rather than "bads" like pollution create a disincentive for things we’d like to see more of in our society.

Government, business, and individuals all share responsibility for shifting society to sustainability. Government must act decisively to shift taxes and eliminate polluter subsidies. Such action will assure true-cost accounting and enable the market to send appropriate price signals. Without such action, polluting businesses will undercut competitors trying to "do the right thing" and consumers will be unable to find affordable green goods and services.(6)

Finally governments must "walk the talk," meaning they must establish their offices as role models for energy efficiency and green procurement. They have a ways to go - the Alliance to Save Energy reports that the federal government wastes $1 billion annually by not complying with executive orders to reduce energy use– but the potential is inspiring.(7) By virtue of being one of the biggest consumers of paper and other resources, the federal government instantly stimulates a viable market share for green products and services simply by adjusting its own purchasing guidelines..


This piece focuses mainly on the federal government and the macroeconomy, but local governments, neighborhoods, and civic organizations also have a role to play in building a new American dream. See how by continuing on to the puzzle tour’s Community puzzle piece.


  1. For personal finance issues, see the Money and Personal Finance puzzle piece.
  2. The Bureau of Economic Analysis GDP website can be found at
  3. Listen to, or read the lyrics to, Alan AtKisson's "The GDP Song" at
  4. Many local governments and civic organizations also use sustainability indicators to measure their region's well-being. For more information on these community indicators, check out the Community puzzle piece.
  5. See the Commercial Culture puzzle piece.
  6. See the Business and Production and Home and Family puzzle pieces.
  7. Alliance to Save Energy statistic is from "Leading By Example: Improving Energy Productivity in Federal Government Facilities" (1999) and can be found at For a glimpse of the potential for improved energy efficiency, check out the Technology and Efficiency puzzle piece.

Copyright (c) 1999 CNAD
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