How Would Buddha Organize Our Cutthroat Modern Economy?

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In this Monday, Jan. 28, 2013 photo, a Buddha statue is silhouetted by the sun on the hill of Phmon Baseth, outskirt of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

In this Monday, Jan. 28, 2013 photo, a Buddha statue is silhouetted by the sun on the hill of Phmon Baseth, outskirt of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

Clair Brown, a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, taught economics for over 30 years. She often found that the students in her sprawling introductory classes had a hard time reconciling the dominant neoclassical model that she taught with the real world that they experienced from day to day.

They wanted to know why there was so much emphasis on economic growth in the abstract, and so little discussion of issues like inequality and environmental degradation. Over the years, Brown herself had put a lot of thought into the same questions.

Brown is also a practicing Buddhist. And this year, she decided to offer a course in “Buddhist economics.” BillMoyers.com asked her to explain how Buddha would organize an economy. Below is a transcript of our discussion that’s been lightly edited for clarity.

Joshua Holland: One of the materials you offer in your course is a book called Buddhist Economics: A Middle Way for the Market Place. It’s by Prayudh Payutto, a Thai practitioner, and he writes:

Economics is one science which most clearly integrates the concrete and the abstract. It is the realm in which abstract human values interact most palpably with the material world. If economists were to stop evading the issues of moral values, they would be in a better position to influence the world in a fundamental way.

What would incorporating moral values into the realm of economics look like in practice?

Clair Brown: I see Buddhist economics as having three legs. One is the capabilities and freedom approach of Amartya Sen, for which he won the Nobel Prize. And he’s a wonderfully deep thinker, in that he explains very carefully what’s wrong with the mainstream neoclassical model. He says that you absolutely have to be able to compare rich people and poor people and their wellbeing, and you absolutely have to care about inequality. He comes from India and his contribution is in development economics, so he says, “What do people get from the economy and from economic growth?” What they want is a better life. He developed an economic model that looks at how well people can live their lives, and that includes very basic things, like their health, their education, their integration into society. We care a lot about the distribution of income within a society. So he developed a model, for which he won the Nobel Prize, which has had an enormous impact.

I see it as the cornerstone of how Buddha would teach economics to undergraduates, but we need to add two things. One is that Amartya Sen didn’t really spend a whole lot of time on sustainability, and there’s been a lot more work done on how we can incorporate sustainability into economics, and that’s called ecological economics. And that’s very important. Then we add one more thing — which is really important to Buddhists — that you relieve suffering. We make that the third leg.

Holland: A big part of Sen’s philosophy of welfare economics was coming up with different ways to measure economic well-being. What measures would Buddhist economics employ?

Brown: There have been a couple of approaches that have taken off from Sen’s work. Bhutan used one of them — it is a Buddhist country — creating the Bhutan Gross National Happiness Index. So they focused on how happy their people were.

They went out and surveyed every single person in Bhutan and figured out what capabilities they had, what they didn’t have, and how good they felt about their lives. And then they came back and they said, “Okay, we now know that actually we have a lot of people who are suffering and need better lives.” Those were especially people in rural areas who were very, very poor. And they said, “So we’re going to now focus all of our economic growth on helping the people who are suffering the most and have the roughest lives. They need more education, they need more healthcare.”

And in the cities, they found that people actually were getting education and healthcare. Some needed more, but the people in the cities that were unhappy were unhappy because they didn’t think their communities had enough infrastructure and support to function well. They wanted more balance in their lives between work and family and community. And so Bhutan said, “Okay, then we’re going to use our economic growth to work on that. We don’t think of economic growth as valuable, except to the extent that it can make people happier and relieve suffering.”

And one of their criteria also was sustainability, and they said, “Actually, we need to work more on the sustainability part. We haven’t incorporated that part enough in our model.”

Another way of thinking about measuring economic growth is ecological economics, which looks at the entire output of the economy in terms of its impact on the environment. But not just in one time period. This approach brings the potential negative impact on the environment for future generations back into your growth rate today, so that you have a total growth rate that incorporates what’s happening today — the positive and negative— and what’s happening over time. And that really does help us understand how much we are really benefiting right now from our economy’s growth.

Holland: If, for example, I overfish my fisheries, ecological economics factors in how that’s going to damage my children’s economic outcomes. Is that right?

Brown: That’s right. And if you increase global warming because of your carbon emissions, you put that into the equation.

Holland: I can imagine readers thinking, “This sounds like central planning.” Is that misunderstanding the kind of organization that Buddha would recommend?

Brown: Well, Bhutan certainly has a very strong government. But they actually need to be. They really need to help the rural poor. What would Buddha say about that? He would start out by saying, you know, we’re all one. So anything that happens to one of us happens to all of us. That’s really central.

Then the next thing Buddha would say is that everything is impermanent. No matter what’s going on at any given time, it’s not permanent, so basically we should think about everyone’s well-being. And in the Payutto book you mentioned, he’s very strong on government. He comes back time and time again—a little bit too much for my liking—to talk about the role of government in his vision of Buddhist economics. So I think Buddhist economics definitely has a role for government, but it also challenges the individual to understand how they can live their life in a more meaningful way and a way that creates value for them and the people around them.

Holland: Social democracy differs from socialism in that it sees the market as the most efficient means of distribution, but then it also embraces a strong social safety net and publicly financed ladders of upward mobility.  What about the efficiency part of that equation? Is that missing in the Buddhist economic philosophy?

Brown: Well, I think if you take Amartya Sen as your basic model, he would agree with everything you said about the role of government and the role of markets. Sen has a wonderful chapter in his book, Development as Freedom, that talks about why we need markets and what markets do. And then he quickly adds, but of course, you have to have the government take care of those externalities that are causing environmental problems. You need governments to absolutely ensure a really strong safety net. Not to mention, you need governments to provide healthcare, education and all the things that we need to provide jointly.

Holland: But does it fit into a modern, industrialized economy like ours? What would Buddha say about workplace conditions and labor relations? Would a Buddhist economy require a corporate model that’s different from the hierarchical one in which most of us in the United States work?

Brown: I think that the main thing that you need to embrace is “right livelihood,” which is one of the cornerstones of Buddhist economics. That’s basically how you make a living and how you produce goods and services. And the number one rule there is that you harm no one. Now, that’s a pretty big order. That means that you have really strong enforcement of labor standards, not only at home, but abroad because of imports, and you would not allow companies or workers to harm each other or to be harmed. And so right livelihood is a very powerful mandate in Buddhist economics. And as some of my students said, “Wow, it sounds like it’d be impossible to do this. We just do so much harm all the time in our economy.” And it is a challenge. It’s a really big challenge, but that’s one of the things we need to think about: When am I harming others, and what can I do differently?

Holland: Americans earn more, on average, than people in most European countries, but we also work about 30 percent more hours per year than they do. And we deal with more stress. What would Buddhist economists say about the balance between work and the rest of life?

Brown: One of the reasons I got interested in Buddhist economics and wanted to teach this course — and I also wrote a book, called American Standards of Living — is that I was just appalled by the materialism in our culture, and how, with economic growth and people getting better and better off, we didn’t cut back on work, as people had predicted. We didn’t make life more balanced, we didn’t take time to be creative and spend time with our friends and build our communities. Instead, we just kept working harder and harder. And today, the materialistic culture, which is reinforced by the mainstream economic model, says, “Hey, you want to feel better?

Make more money and go shopping”— it’s like you can never be satiated with this model. And it seems like that reflects American life. We want more and more, we consume more and more, and the other things in life that should be important to us—our families, our communities—are suffering from that. And of course, I think we’re suffering too from all the stress.

So Buddhist economics would definitely say, “Hey, let’s step back, let’s focus on our wellbeing, and how we care for the environment and each other.”

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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