Sunday, August 5, 2007

Chapter 4: Buddhist Economics

I enjoy my computer, t.v., cell phone, and car. Enjoy being in Bowling Green one moment and Cincinnati the next. Without a thought modern technology has allowed convenient pleasures in my life. Blindly enjoying these trinkets, which create happiness in my life, without realizing the effects these trinkets have on the world.

By comparing the two economic models Schumacher is able to show the effects of a modern economic system. Schumacher compares the effects of the two models on the idea that "...a fundamental source of wealth is human labour." A modern economic view perceives the value of human labor in the wealth of trinkets workers can produce. If possible employers would work to have output without employees, but since it isn't possible the value must be seen in human labor. By applying the pin factory example laid out by Adam Smith's book Wealth of Nations, Schumacher shows that by dumbing down workers and removing their skills employers are not only able to produce products more efficiently but at the same time condition employees who are dependent on them. Hence solving the problem of labor and creating wealth out of it. This dependence on the employer leads to the overall unhappiness of the employee. Buddhist economics even goes as far as saying it is almost criminal to "organize work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking"

Buddhist economics views work as threefold: "to give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence." If only everyone was able to find this in a job. Unfortunately someone has to sacrifice their happiness to produce the products we enjoy. Maybe their not not sacrificing their happiness because possibly from the beginning they were conditioned to think they would never have any other skill than to work a meaningless , boring job. Taking their wages and reinvesting it in materialistic happiness, temporary happiness keeps them enslaved.

Schumacher states "Modern materialistic way of life has brought forth modern economics." I would disagree however stating modern economics has brought forth a modern materialistic way of life. For thousands of years humans lived applying Buddhist economics to their lives. Small communities worked together providing meaningful labor opportunities that ensured the existence of the tribe. It was only with the birth of the industrial revolution that small communities began to fade. Importance was lost in the meaning of community and instead put in the importance of wealth. Buddhist economics was never about wealth but about the attainment of oneself. To discover ones true potential through compassionate meaningful work.

My take from chapter four is that globalization is unsustainable and it is this unsustainable nature which creates tension throughout the world. Can we except there to be peace when a modern economic system demands workers throughout the world to work meaningless jobs? Sadly I'm part of the reason there are meaningless jobs in the world because of my need for materialistic trinkets. Just now I'm realizing I have spent most of my life blindly enjoying trinkets which i knew nothing about how their creation negatively impacted the world. Buddhist economics has shown me to be more conscious about my spending and to realize happiness is not in the material but in the moment.

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"The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism."
-Albert Einstien


Chris said...

For anyone interested in this chapter but without a copy of the book, you can actually read "Buddhist Economics" free online in over 15 different languages (most of them are downloadable files in PDF format).

Chris said...

Also, some of the commentaries in chapter four of my book give interesting historical background on the origins of this famous essay:

When Schumacher was an economist working for the British government, he was sent to Burma to advise the people and their government on how to develop economically using technologic, scientific, advanced techniques of "progress." After a few months he realized that the Burmese did not need this Western style of development and technological agriculture. They had their own perfectly good economic system, which he called "Buddhist economics."

When he returned to Great Britain, he wrote the essay, "Buddhist Economics," and gave it to his fellow economists in government. They said: "Mr. Schumacher, economics is all very well, but what does Buddhism have to do with it?" Schumacher replied: "Economics without Buddhism, i.e. without spiritual, human, and ecological values, is like sex without love."

-- Satish Kumar (p. 38)

Fritz spent all his free time in Burma studying Buddhism. He spent his weekends in a monastery and studied under Buddhist scholars. "I then began to ask myself," he said, "What would a Buddhist economics look like? And I concluded that it would be the exact opposite of our Western economics."

-- George McRobie (p. 37)

Schumacher's monastic experiences in Burma occurred in 1955. Thirteen years later they came into focus in a 1968 issue of Resurgence. It took another six years for Small is Beautiful to be published with that core essay...

-- Tom Bender (p. 45)

[The 3 citations all come from the 25th anniversary edition: E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, 25 years later . . . with commentaries (Point Roberts, WA: Hartley & Marks, 1999).]

Actually, Bender was a little off. According to The E.F. Schumacher Society, “Buddhist Economics” was first published in Asia: A Handbook, edited by Guy Wint (London: Anthony Blond Ltd., 1966), then reprinted in Resurgence (Vol. I, No 11, 1968).

Chris said...

Ben, thanks for the many points to consider.

(1) I'm glad you too were struck by the thoughts about the meaningless jobs that our ultra-specialized system has produced. I think Schumacher said it well, that nowadays "it is not a matter of ordinary specialisation, which mankind has practised from time immemorial, but of dividing up every complete process of production into minute parts, so that the final product can be produced at great speed without anyone having had to contribute more than a totally insignificant and, in most cases, unskilled movement of his limbs" (p. 38).

One big question I have: how necessary is this alienation that results from such specialized meaningless and menial labor? What are some steps that could be taken to resolve this problem? Schumacher seems to think this extreme specialization itself is part of the problem, but are there ways to reform these structures without totally abandoning them?

For example, what if workers actually had more invested in their companies, that is, instead of being mere wage slaves, they actually owned a part of the company -- a co-operative? CEOs might have to get a pay cut, so that they're only making 10 times the lowest paid worker, rather than 100-1,000 times that lowest wage, but I don't know, one would think they could survive on that.

Additionally, what if workers also occasionally rotated jobs with other workers, so that they understand the total operation they are contributing to, thereby giving greater meaning to their work? Plus, to give "profit" a little bone, while a company might lose money in the short run by training everybody in multiple tasks, in the long run they would have a vaster pool of informed suggestions/criticisms from workers concerning improvement since they would understand the process as a whole and not simply their own little part.

These aren't new ideas of mine either. They've been around, here and there, for quite a while...

(2) Moving on, in many ways this chapter also seems to get at what very well might be the heart of the book, particularly in connection with the title itself, Small is Beautiful.

I've wondered for sometime now about the strangeness of many ascetic practices (often associated with religious monks and hermits). Certainly there are cases when such actions are driven by an unhealthy disdain for pleasure and the natural, but I'm convinced more than ever that this is far from always the case. Instead, many are able to live on so little precisely because they value so much what little they do possess. Greater appreciation results in less consumption. Schumacher describes this well in the following contrast:

"[The modern economist] is used to measuring the "standard of living" by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is "better off" than a man who consumes less. A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption." (p. 41)

Honestly, have any of us even begun to cherish the most basic necessities to the extent that we should? And what do the values of our present day economic system encourage? Millionaires in silicon valley who don't feel "rich" (see New York Times, 8/5/07)?

Still, we are left with a difficult challenge. How do we reasonably persuade our entire society that we need to drastically reconsider our value priorities? We seem so entrenched in this way of life that such ideas of change seem near impossible. Is there any hope?

(3) I've been assuming all along (as has Schumacher) that there are not "iron laws" of economics, as well as that economics are not amoral or neutral but rather always presume certain values. This is why Schumacher thinks he can propose a different form of economics, "Buddhist economics." Steve, did you have any thoughts on the questions I asked you about this issue in the previous com-box, especially in light of this chapter?