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Lions Roar : March 2017
This is an interesting place where free market economics and Buddhism agree—that our desires can never be fulfilled. But one looks at this as a source of profit, the other as a source of suffering. People never get to satiation; they always want more. That’s an important assumption of the free market model. But as Buddhists, we know that not only does chasing after goods not make us happy, it actually causes us sorrow. It causes us all that pain and suffering. Ultimately, this must come down to different views of human nature. The question of human nature is key to the difference between free market and Buddhist economics. As the Dalai Lama says, the Buddhist view is that human nature is good and that humans want to be altruistic. They are altruistic— that’s their basic goodness. Free market economics starts from the opposite assumption: that humans are not altruis- tic, caring only about themselves. There’s a chicken-and-egg question here. We assume that if people become more altruistic and recognize their interde- pendence, then the economic system will evolve accordingly. But might it also work the other way—can a different eco- nomic system actually encourage change on a personal and even spiritual level? Can we use the economic system to help bring out the best in ourselves? If we put people in the right social framework, their altru- ism and compassion will come out. But when we place people in this market economy, where everybody’s grabbing and grasping and comparing incomes, it’s much harder to think about anything other than yourself. In the 1950s and 1960s, we moved toward a more inclusive economic system, one with lots of public services. Then, boom, in the 1980s Ronald Reagan lowered taxes and cut back gov- ernment services. Even here at Berkeley, I noticed that all of a sudden students were much more selfish and competitive and judgmental. But I think if we went back to a system with more child care, health care, and education, it would encourage us to become more centered on what creates a meaningful life. Does this start at the bottom with people’s own values and practice, or at the top with a different economic system? I think you need both. We need the people who are spiri- tual leaders in our communities to help people be more mindful. But the government also needs to restructure how the economy works, to provide the services and incentives that will help people be more compassion- ate and live more capable and meaningful lives. I think climate change and global warming might help push us in that direction, because we can’t keep consuming. The U.S. is already consuming way more than our planet can withstand. In your book, you describe three principles of Buddhist eco- nomics. They are quality of life, sustainability, and shared prosperity. Let’s look at these one at a time. You define the first goal as “enhanced quality of life for both self and others,” and say, “The economic system should encourage us or help us to lead a meaningful life.” How would an economic system do that? Everyone needs to have a certain amount of consumption to have a comfortable life. They need food, water, shelter, health care, education. But once you’ve reached this basic standard, then you can think about creating a meaningful life through your interconnections—through helping others and enjoying and protecting nature. So first the system provides basic consumption for everyone to have a comfortable life, as they already do in Northern Europe. Once that is achieved, you can begin to address the things that create a meaningful life: What do we need to provide so that communities and families func- tion well? So people don’t have to overwork and can bal- ance their work and family and community lives? So they can start doing the things that allow them to appreciate the moment? So they can help others and bring everybody along? Enhanced quality of life means allowing us to live holis- tically once our basic needs are met. It’s not based upon personal consumption. It’s based on creating a system that works for everybody. That takes a lot of public services, and it is expensive. It means making sure that everyone is well- educated, has the help they need, and that the infrastructure works with a renewable energy. This is a definition of quality of life that goes far beyond the standard economic measures. As Buddhists, we know that happiness doesn’t come from filling up your closet. So we move from a closet-full economics to a mind-full economics. LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2017 46