Economics Should Be About People, Not About Wall Street
By John Lawrence
In Buddhist economics there is the concept of “right livelihood.” Work is considered an essential component of human life just as play and leisure. Work of a craftsmanlike nature, work which is satisfying–not work that is stultifying, of an assembly-line nature. Work that nourishes the soul; this kind of work results in right livelihood.
By the same token, there is “right consumption.” This is as contrasted with the unlimited consumption advanced Western societies and pushed on their citizens through advertising and other means in order to have economic “growth” and to increase GDP.
The Federal Reserve Wants You To Go Into Debt
U.S. GDP is 70% consumption. The Federal Reserve’s policy of low and even negative interest rates deliberately wants to make it attractive for consumers to go into debt. That way, people will buy more stuff. In western societies, work is considered a necessary evil. Labor is another input to the productive process. Producers and consumers would consider it ideal if automation could eliminate the need for labor altogether. Then unfettered consumption could proceed without hindrance.
However, since automation eliminates well paying jobs, the only way to consume more is to go into debt. If consumers don’t continually stuff themselves to the gills with more stuff, the US economy will collapse. The purpose of low interest rates is to prevent that collapse by encouraging more people to go into more debt by borrowing more money to pay for more stuff.
E.F. Schumacher’s Book: Small Is Beautiful
E.F. Schumacher has written a book, Small Is Beautiful, in which he explains the theory of Buddhist economics. In Western societies, Schumacher says, “…the ideal from the point of view 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.”
Not so in Buddhist economics. Instead of labor considered a necessary evil, human labor, when undertaken as right livelihood, adds to the dignity and enjoyment of life.
Schumacher goes on:
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.
Again, the consequences that flow from this view are endless. To organize work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying or nerve-wracking for the worker would be little short of criminal. It would indicate a greater concern with goods than people, an evil lack of compassion, and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence.
Equally, 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.
Farmers Are an Example of Buddhist Economics
Buddhist economics would approve of the smallholder: the self-subsistent farmer of intermediate means rather than high technology. Industrial agriculture undersells and replaces small scale stakeholders. It also destroys jobs, except for a few low level menial ones, such as meat cutters and gutters in poultry factories. These places are where humans are subjected to grueling and demeaning labor. Contrast this with an organic farm, where farmers treat animals with respect and have the enjoyment of a natural life.
All over the world small farmers are being forced off their land. They move into cities, swelling the ranks of favelas and urban slums.
Most of those in Poverty are Small Scale Farmers
In an interesting Ted talk, anti-hunger activist Andrew Youn states that half the world’s most impoverished people are small farmers. His talk was entitled, 3 Reasons Why We Can Win the Fight Against Poverty. It’s not about high tech farming, GPS tractors or Monsanto’s glyphosate.
His group One Acre Fund is delivering intermediate technology to the roughly half a billion small farmers who represent the most impoverished people on the planet. Hunger and extreme poverty curb human potential in every possible way, especially for children.
Andrew Youn has lived in rural Africa for the last ten years, learning from the largest group of poor people in the world: smallholder farmers. When he first visited Kenya in 2006, he was an MBA student who knew very little about farming. During that first trip, Andrew met two farm families. One family was harvesting two tons of food on a single acre of land and thriving; the other was going hungry. He began asking questions.
Ten years later, the organization he founded, One Acre Fund, serves more than 400,000 farm families, providing them with the financing and agricultural training they need to increase their yields and climb out of poverty. Youn is also the co-founder of D-Prize, an organization that funds early-stage startups that are innovating better ways to distribute proven life-enhancing technologies.
Youn graduated from Yale magna cum laude, is a former management consultant at Oliver Wyman, and received his MBA from Kellogg School of Management.
Farmers Need Knowledge and Basic Tools
According to Andrew, small holder farmers don’t need high tech. They don’t need automation. They don’t need robots. Small holder farmers don’t need mega US corporations to come in and solve their problems for them. And for sure they don’t need “Free Trade” which allows large scale American corporations to come in and undersell small scale farmers forcing them off their land and into urban slums.
Most of the farmers in Africa are women. They just have one problem: African women lack basic tools and knowledge. Their tools date to the bronze age. These farmers need hybrid seeds, conventional fertilizer, and practices which triple agricultural productivity. Humanity solved agricultural poverty a century ago. Ending poverty is a matter of delivering simple tools and services to farmers who lack them. The humble delivery guy is the key to ending poverty for at least half the world’s most impoverished people. A simple solar panel, enough to power one light, makes doing homework at night possible for children who want to learn. Simple smokeless stoves eliminate unhealthful pollution which causes respiratory problems.
Lifting Families Out of Poverty
When delivery networks are set up, poverty is eliminated. Increasing productivity on small scale farms lifts families out of poverty and increases the food supply while not driving them off the land and their livelihood. Children are no longer stunted from lack of food. They can go to school instead of working in the fields. The delivery of simple items to make small scale farming more productive along with training helps these families to thrive.
E.F. Schumacher would be proud of the work Andrew and others are doing to bring small farmers out of poverty by allowing them to become more productive, not by removing them from their farms so large scale agriculture and corporate farming can intervene. Not by “Free Trade” that allows American corporations to undersell small scale farmers.
Buddhist Economics: Purification of Human Character
Buddhist economics is different from capitalist consumerism in that the essence of civilization is not a multiplication of wants to be pandered to but in the purification of human character. Work properly conducted under the right conditions of human dignity and freedom is inherently character building and satisfying.
The self employed cabinet maker who is concerned with creating a thing of beauty is adding not only to the enjoyment of his customer, but is adding to his own self worth at the same time. Buddhist economics would not consider maximization of output or sales to be a worthy goal. Neither would it be acceptable to have even a small percentage of unemployed people since the unemployed are wasting time when they could be employed in ennobling work.
Idleness makes a mockery of leisure time and makes leisure itself unfulfilling.
Craftsmanship Was Once A Noble Calling
People considered craftsmanship and artistry noble callings during the Middle Ages. Many individuals created wonderful and meticulous works of art. Think of the work of Machiavelli or Raphael. Talented stone masons built the great cathedrals, which are unsurpassed for their beauty and grandeur.
All that has disappeared. Craftsmanship is unnecessary when factories can churn out limitless numbers of consumer products with little labor involved. Robots work 24 hours a day and don’t require sick leave or vacation time. However, the products involved, while having utilitarian value, lack soul, lack something essential that only human labor can impart.
While factories churn out a multiplicity of products, it becomes necessary by means of advertising to force them down the throats of the American public. The assumption is that a person who consumes more is better off than a person who consumes less and is of higher status to boot.
Stay tuned for next week: Part 2
bob dorn says
There’s this Sicilian proverb: One who lives within his means can be said to be rich. My wife and I lived off the grid for 7 years just outside a village of 1200 people in Spain. With very little cash income our friends found it possible to maintain seaside getaway homes, a pig in the outbuilding where they also stored their almonds, melons and vegetables, tractors small and large… There were three blacksmiths whose main function were to produce iron rails and repair tractors. There were four carpenters who could cut beams and make cabinets. We were almost instantly adopted by the family whose patriarch was a shepherd who’d bring his sheep over to graze on our unused land. He had two separate fields of wheat which, when harvested, could be stored in small silos at the village cooperativa waiting to be brought to market and sold. One day on the way into the village with him I had to ask him why he’d stopped to pick up a piece of string perhaps a foot long lying alongside the road.
“I might need it to tie something together on the way home.”
This was not utopia. People had to work 10 to 12 hours a day to keep it all together, but they sent their kids to college. Our shepherd’s two children — one was an oncologist and the other a pilot for Iberia.
They still “go home” to live in their village houses.
I can only wish a corner of our economy could be friendly to small scale agriculture and yeomanry, so that labor could be viewed not only as necessary but fulfilling.
Why did you leave, Bob?
I experienced something similar during a three year sojourn in Italy. It’s possible, but for some reason we embrace Walmart & Starbucks out here. Those comapnies didn’t survive in Southern Italy….
bob dorn says
An alzheimered mother needed us back here. No regrets. I was no more likely to turn into a Spanish peasant than a tek billionaire here. And I just got a nice note this morning from one of my pals back in the village who’s married to the pal who taught me how to build a stone wall.
bob dorn says
Y, tante auguri, bella.
Barbara Zaragoza says
Ah, the good ole days. :)
Bryan Atkins says
Nice work. Especially like this: “Buddhist economics is different from capitalist consumerism in that the essence of civilization is not a multiplication of wants to be pandered to but in the purification of human character.”
And yes re advertising, 19% of the 2014 GDP was advertising. Pathetic.
The list of lethal crap is endless.
I’m coming at econ, and human culture’s manner of relationship interface, from a perspective that considers code, including monetary code, in a physics / evolution / complexity context.
More here, shorter: Culture, Complexity & Code; An Abstract of Sorts: http://ow.ly/Zny2a
Fuller treatment: http://ow.ly/4mJQ2r
Best . . .
Stephen Yearwood says
A model exists that would institutionalize ‘rightness’ in the economy. It was developed using the ethical structure of political democracy as a template for creating a more just economy. It can, however, be considered in strictly economic terms, with no reference to justice or any morality.
The key is a revolutionary monetary system. It would provide money for the economy without debt, public or private. It would fund government without debt or taxes. There would be no (involuntary) unemployment or poverty–at no cost to anyone, without having to redistribute anything. At least one parent (or a legal guardian) could be paid for the work involved in that.
I said it is revolutionary.
The model is available for consideration at http://www.ajustsolution.com.
Grace Rich says
Buddhism is all about the perfecting of one’s spiritual nature in all ways and the ultimate total liberation of the individual. What can we do about the degenerate nature of the modern world and all the greed, power over others, and control humans want? As the Dalai Lama said recently we are supposed to use things and love people just the opposite of what we are doing now LOVING things and USING people!
Paul Keleher says
It’s all about the money, isn’t it?
Paul Keleher says
Thank you John.