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Lions Roar : March 2017
The standard definition for economic performance is aver- age income per capita. It doesn’t include any of the things that really matter to people once their basic needs are met. These are all excluded from the usual measures of standard of living. I spend a whole chapter in the book on economic performance. How should we measure it? Because it’s not easy, even for an economist. The second principle of Buddhist economics you list is sus- tainability. How does Buddhist philosophy specifically help us address this? Through the truth of interdependence. Buddhism teaches that all beings are interconnected with each other and with nature. That’s part of who we are. So the minute you recog- nize your interdependence with nature, and commit to heal and protecting it, your economic system completely changes. Free market economics assumes that nature is there to be dominated. It is a commodity we use to increase our stan- dard of living and consumption. That’s the role of nature— it’s a raw material. We can pollute the air, we can do any- thing we want as long as the benefit is greater than the cost. In free market economics, that’s the only rule. The benefit is individual income and consumption. But until recently, we didn’t very often calculate the cost to the earth and to humanity. Finally, we are becoming more aware of the cost of treating nature as mere resources. In Buddhism, we honor and protect nature and recognize that we’re interdependent with it. To a Buddhist, the idea that we would go beyond earth’s capability to nurture all beings—not just humans, but all beings—is unthinkable. We care enormously about the health of nature and its abil- ity to last for future generations, and also for all species. The difference from the free market view is like night and day. How do we change this view of nature from a resource that exists for our consumption to the environment that we inhabit and are part of? Is it simply fear of impending disas- ter or does it require the kind of deeper understanding of interdependence that Buddhism offers? I’m not sure how we’re going to decide that consumption isn’t the way. I was recently dealing with some technolo- gists who honestly believe that some technology is going to come—bam!—and save us. They’re overly optimistic about how soon that could happen and what it would be. They’re not worried because somehow technology will ride in and save us so that we can continue to dominate the earth. I think the Paris climate change agreement was an enor- mous step forward in changing how we think about what’s possible in our lifetime and what would allow a high stan- dard of living in a sustainable world. In the year leading up to the Paris talks, it became clear that the lifestyle in the advanced countries was not sustainable. Yet the first thing people said was, “Okay, let’s have more renewable energy.” But the climate scientists keep telling us, “Just a second, we need to do a whole lot more.” We have water problems; we have problems with food production. We really are going to have to think globally about what’s happening to the world’s resources. I think it’s an educational process. It’s going to move us along a little too slowly, probably, but as the consequences of global warming become clearer to us, I think people will start—hopefully—changing. The third principle is shared prosperity, which means less income inequality. You could say that this points to the difference between the narrow self-interest of free mar- ket economics and what the Dalai Lama describes as the enlightened self-interest of caring for others. When I suffer, you suffer, because we’re interdependent. But let’s go one step further. In the free market model, you can’t justify redistributing money from Bill Gates to a starving child, because Bill Gates still gets benefit and satisfaction from his last dollar. How can you judge his sat- isfaction against the child’s? The model doesn’t allow these kinds of comparisons. In the Buddhist model, you would never allow any children to starve. There’s actually a long history in eco- nomics of what’s called the relative income hypothesis. This is the idea that people at the top are spending money on positional or status goods that don’t help society at all. So it’s fine to take the money they’re spending on status goods and give it to the people who need it to buy the basics of life. You increase social welfare by taking money from the rich and giving it to people who are not well-off. All beings are interconnected with each other and with nature. The minute you recognize that, your economic system completely changes. LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2017 47