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Lions Roar : March 2017
You mean social welfare as in social services, or as the wel- fare of society as a whole? It’s interesting that you could define it in those two different ways, because they’re both served by less inequality. In economics, social welfare refers to the well-being of soci- ety as a whole. You make a nice point that social welfare improves when we decrease inequality by both redistributing income and providing social services. We all feel so much better when everybody has a comfort- able life. And people don’t actually suffer from getting rid of status goods. In fact, it makes them happier. They’re not separated from other people, they’re less judgmental, and they’re no longer comparing themselves with others. It’s okay to consume, but not in a way that’s graspy or greedy. We need to make sure that no one is starving while we’re eating fancy food. You cite research that there’s a higher level of happiness in societies with less income inequality. That’s right. In the free market economy, when inequality increases, everybody feels, “Oh my gosh! I’m even further behind now.” But when I’m in the middle in a less unequal society, I feel I have a great life! I want to add that in the U.S. we’re way too focused on our own country. When we talk about shared prosperity in Buddhist economics, we take the U.N. viewpoint of sustain- able development goals for everybody. That takes us from 325 million people to 7.5 billion people, of whom more than five billion can’t even think about leading more meaningful lives because they have to spend so much time just trying to feed themselves. Looking around the world, what economies do you think best reflect the values of Buddhist economics? In the developed world, I think everybody thinks immedi- ately about Northern Europe. Countries like Denmark and Sweden score really high on happiness. They score very high on health and education and very low on inequality. Every- one’s caring for each other and if you ask people if they need more they’ll say, “No, I don’t need more, I have a great life! Actually, if I do want anything else, it’s a little more time with my family and to help my community.” So even in those countries, they’re feeling the stress of too much to do, because work hours are still too long. I think to go from mainstream to Buddhist economics—and to save the earth—we really need to shorten the work week. But we’re not there yet, even in the best performing social democracies. If the social democratic model already achieves many of these goals, what does Buddhist philosophy really have to offer, if it’s already happening in places that aren’t informed by Buddhism? We need to keep coming back to sustainability, because those countries are actually not sustainable yet. A lot of them are producing fossil fuel for export and their lifestyles are still too consumption-oriented. The other thing is that the social democratic countries don’t talk about mindful- ness. They don’t talk enough about reducing suffering or appreciating the present moment. Even in these societies, there is a lot of alienation, which is a sign that although these societies work well, their values are still too material to ultimately be satisfying from a human point of view. To be honest, I think part of the problem is the United States is the leader in defining how an economy should look. We still put ourselves out as the world’s model. Everybody watches American television, and all of a sudden they feel they need to have a closet full of stuff and big gas-guzzling cars. It’s causing problems worldwide. It would help so much if the U.S. would take the lead in saying, let’s become sustainable and take care of everybody. In the end, doesn’t this mean that from a conventional point of view, many of us are going to have to be poorer to make this work? And that people are going to have to be con- vinced to accept that? We all have to live more naturally, yes, which means con- suming less. This is where I think the semantics are impor- tant. You’re using “poorer” in the mainstream, free market sense, which defines wealth as purely material. Whereas in a Buddhist model, we say that we live truly rich lives because we enjoy our families and communities and nature. What you have to argue successfully is that this change in the economic model will not make you poorer, that in a deeper way it will make you richer. Because if you can’t convince people of that, then nothing’s going to change. That’s why we need to rethink the measures of economic performance. What’s prosperity? What’s our quality of life? It’s not consumption. It’s the Buddhist concept of inner and outer wealth, in which even outer wealth includes so much more than what we buy and consume. And inner wealth is, of course, extraordinarily important for our hap- piness and wellbeing. ♦ LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2017 48