November 6th, 2012: the day we vote on economy… the year of apocalyptic partisanship… the year of promises of new economy…
I usually don’t mess with economics. The last time I spoke on the topic was when I re-phrased the all-too-familiar “It’s economy, stupid!” meme into “It’s psychology, stupid!” in my 2009 Huffington Post blog.
My question is this:
What kind of economy are we trying to build?
The kind of economy where everyone who wants to work can work?
Or the kind of economy that works by itself without the need to work?
Or the kind of economy where work doesn’t feel like work?
These are all very different questions and the answers to these questions range from industrial age pragmatism to utopian fantasies.
But I am looking for something in the middle, for an economy of the Middle Way for the middle class…
Is there such a beast?
Turns out there is and it’s called Buddhist Economics as described (in the 1970s) by E. F. Schumacher in “Small is Beautiful” (a must read!).
A couple of excerpts and a few points.
“There is universal agreement that a fundamental source of wealth is human labor. Now, the modern economists have been brought up to consider “labor” or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, [labor] is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum… say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, [labor/work] is a “disutility;” to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.”
Exactly: that’s what I, as an immigrant to this country, have witnessed over the past 20 years – employers try to get rid of employees and the working public keeps dreaming the American dream of early retirement.
I am a big fan of the television show “Shark Tank” and after the last episode I said to my wife: “the American dream is well alive.” Week after week I am blown away by inventive, hard-working people that seem to be motivated by the fantasy of financial independence (which is fine) and early retirement (arguably problematic).
This gets at one of my initial questions: what kind of economy are we trying to build – an economy that works by itself? That seems to have been the American dream – to work hard, strike it rich, and not have to work anymore.
So, that’s the American way, the American economics. Here’s the Buddhist way, the Buddhist economics, in Schumacher’s words:
“The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.”
Making this kind of living would be “right livelihood” in terms of the Buddhist doctrine of Noble Eightfold Path.
“To strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.”
Schumacher never formally challenges the American economic dream (of striking it rich and becoming financially independent and retiring early) but, indirectly, his theorizing about Buddhist economics is exactly that kind of challenge.
I love what I do (but I am not what I do). I have no plans of retiring. And I am not a workaholic: I work 3 long days, seeing clients back to back, and these 3 days of work are some of my best days on this planet. Not because I am “helping” someone (I resent that view anyway, the view of mental health as a “helping profession” – just about any occupation can be construed as such – plumbers too are in a “helping profession;” this whole “helping profession” business is just a bit too self-congratulatory, too ego-boosting for my taste).
I love what I do exactly because when I do what I do I cease to be my conceptual self, I vanish into the flow of the moment, I disappear into my work not as some escapist workaholic but as a cliff-diver into the oblivion of the water.
I realize I am fortunate that I am able to do what I do. But I also have no false modesty about the matter: I have worked hard, very hard for this privilege to work in a manner that develops my faculties and in a manner that meditatively erases my ego and in a manner that also happens to have social value. And it’s exactly because of this privilege to work that I don’t have the American dream of striking it rich and retiring early.
(All this book-writing that I’ve done – that was me chasing the American dream, wanting to pay off the student loans fast and get a lifestyle upgrade. But I am mostly done with that – I mean with craving and book-writing… Not just because I grew and matured but also because I am finally catching on to the fact that the American dream of striking it rich through book-writing for no-names like me is mostly a pipe-dream).
I am rambling and, perhaps, over-sharing (and that’s okay, that’s what blogging is about). So, I want to end this voting-day blog-post with this summation: in my humble opinion, to build a new economy we have to let go of the old dream, of that American dream that equates work with necessary evil.
And I’ll let Schumacher wrap this up for me:
“While the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist is mainly interested in liberation. But Buddhism is “The Middle Way” and therefore in no way antagonistic to physical well-being. It is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation but the attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them. The keynote of Buddhist economics, therefore, is simplicity and non-violence… amazingly small means leading to extraordinarily satisfactory results.”
Schumacher – writing in the 1970s – was right then and is right now: an economy that is based on craving, an economy based on competing with the joneses is an economy of jonesing, an economy of addiction. We don’t just need more jobs, we also need a rehab of the American dream. We need a pattern break.
1. I get it: right now millions of us are jonesing for the status quo, just to have a job, to make the ends meet and that’s okay, nothing’s wrong with wanting the status quo; but before we got into this mess, status quo wasn’t enough, the 99% were jonesing to live like the 1% and that backfired; that’s what I am talking about; and no, I am not blaming the victim – we did get screwed, by the banks, by the Wall St., but we also screwed ourselves with incessant wanting for more; in Buddhist psychology, this is known as Preta-mind, the ghost of desire.
2. I get it: there is more to the American dream than striking it rich and retiring early. American dream – as a concept – is complex. I am not talking about the freedom piece of it, I am not talking about the freedom of speech, etc. I am talking about the American Economic Dream (that’s the one that needs a rehab).
Ref: E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered
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