The GNP Clock

U.S. Department of Commerce
February, 1971

In the basement of the Department of Commerce building there is a Population Clock, consisting of a row of digits and columns of little light bulbs on all four sides. The digits show the estimated current U.S. population and the strings of lights show the four major sources of adds and subtracts: (1) Births (the column on top, with the lights coming down from on high; (2) Deaths (the column under the row of digits, with the lights proceeding downward); (3) Immigration (the lights came in from the left side) (4) Emigration (the lights moved outward from the right side). The rates of these four elements are estimates. As the lights move, so the units of the Population Clock respond. Since (1) (number of births) is faster than (2) (number of deaths) and (3) (immigration) is faster than (4) (emigration), the clock moves ahead. The clock is reset once every 10 years, as a result of the actual census. It is an interesting way to present the subject and the Population Clock was one of the only two things that visitors to Washington D.C. find worth seeing in that building (The other was the National Aquarium).

Secretary of Commerce Stans came to the conclusion that this would be an effective way in which to demonstrate the productivity of the American Free Enterprise System, and so we had the development by our economists of the Gross National Product Clock. Just for the record, I argued against it, pointing out that the major source of GNP growth in recent years was inflation rather than productivity and economic growth. In vain. The project moved along and grew in importance daily. It was finally decided that there would be a full-scale dedication with the President in attendance. I had a brief peek at President Nixonís speech, which included the cue to raise his arms in his famous victory sign.

There is a good-sized auditorium in the Department of Commerce building. On the GNP Clock Dedication Day, the room was full. Sitting about two-thirds of the way up, I saw many members of Congress and the Supreme Court, the heads of Federal Departments and other agencies, generals and admirals, and- most impressive of all- the heads of the international diplomatic corps, and, of course, the press. My first reaction was that if any terrorist wanted to cripple the Free World, this was the best opportunity, ever.

The stage was bare, except for a large white panel resting on a very large easel. Across the center of the panel were some thirteen square openings, with numbers looking something like this: 0 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 8 8 0

Picture an odometer, with the right-most numbers rotating rapidly. The next one was moving more slowly and the third from the right was edging around.

A man sat down next to me and said, “Say, fellah, Newsweek sent me to cover the story. What’s it all about?”

I said, “Well, we’re having the dedication of our new GNP clock.”

“What’s GNP?”

(Oh, fine.) “GNP stands for Gross National Product- you know, how much we produce.”

“Whadya mean?”

“If you add up the total of everything sold- products and services- you get the Gross National Product for the year. Those figures up there show the annual rate we’re at right now- Nine hundred ninety-nine billion, nine hundred ninety-nine million, nine hundred eighty-eight thousand plus, dollars.”

“How the hell do we know that?”

“A number of agencies, like the Census Bureau, collect information all the time.”

“What about the numbers changing over on the right?”

(Well, he asked for it, so what the hell.) “That’s new information coming in. Have you seen the Population Clock- you know, it shows the effect of people being born, people dying..?”


“Well, this is the same thing. We start with the latest national information from government reports and then as changes take place in the country, those figures change.”

“How do we know about the changes around the country.”

“It’s like the election predictions. We don’t know what’s going on everywhere, but we use sample areas and as things take place in those places, we know from past experience the general effect on the country. So, let’s say there’s a major strike decision in Detroit- well, that’s going to slow the clock down. But, meanwhile, let’s say a new product has been developed in the San Francisco area- that speeds the clock up. So the combined result is what that last figure shows.”

“That’s really something! Hey, wait a minute, the clock’s slowing down. Something big must of happened!”

And as we watched, the spinning had slowed down so much that you could read the separate numbers as they turned. Then some man in work clothes ran up on the stage and stuck his head around the big panel, whereupon, the numbers began spinning again. In fact, the thing sped up dramatically, with the eights turning into nines. I could picture some guy sitting on a stationary bike, pedaling away madly.

The Newsweek man smacked my arm. “You son-of-a-bitch!”

I didn’t get a chance to reply, because the ceremony began. Harold Passer, Assistant Secretary for Economic Affairs, came out and gave some introductory remarks. Right on schedule, President Nixon appeared. As Harold gave him his cue, he made his famous victory sign and I began to feel as though I were watching a play.

I would guess that the President had completed about three sentences, when he turned to look at the GNP Clock as all the nines turned into zeros, and the left hand opening showed a one:

1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

“One Trillion,” the President shouted, waving his arms and starting to applaud.

Then, the multitude arose and shouted, “Hurray” and began to applaud. The Congress, the Supreme Court, our national and world leaders, all stood there applauding. Applauding a panel that showed a one and twelve zeros. Certainly, I was watching the ultimate in human absurdity.

The only other words I can recall now were those of the President saying that by dividing the one trillion dollars by 200 million Americans, we could see clearly that his proposed Family Assistance Plan would work. And everyone left on that happy note.

I never saw the GNP Clock again. I don’t think it lasted the year.

Published in: on July 12, 2006 at 5:19 pm  Comments Off on The GNP Clock  
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