economics

He who knows when enough is enough will always have enough. Like Dr. Puey I have spent my life working in the so-called “development business”, and like Dr. Puey I have tried to give this development a human face. In my forty years in this endeavor, I have taught at schools and walked around Africa with no money; launched Uganda’s first five-year plan (and shared offices with Idi Amin); helped pilot the education reform in Thailand, whilst at the same time working for human rights, and training in non-violent action; and spent six years in a remote corner of Nepal designing and implementing a Gandhian development program through action oriented education. I have joined Jerry Rawlings’ revolutionary spirit in Ghana only to see it captured by middle class respectability; fought corruption in Cameroon; and cried as the Ethiopian Government saw the destruction of its neighbor as more important than the feeding of its starving people.

The nine years that I spent in Thailand in the 1970s have had a profound influence on my work and life. It was a period when a thousand different flowers were blooming throughout the world, some laying the promise of a brighter future, and some [riddled] with the temptations of insatiable desires: the cultural revolution, the defeat of the US in Vietnam, the overthrow of the Shah, and most important for my thesis the first mass-based nonviolent movement in Thailand, which succeeded in replacing the military dictatorship of Thanom and Prapas.

The 1970s was a period when there was a flood of new ideas: Schumacher with his extraordinary lucid article “Small is Beautiful: economics as if people mattered”; the Club of Rome with its “Limits to Growth”; and Illich with his “Retooling Society”. All these profoundly challenged conventional economic wisdom. It was also the decade when the first realization of the fragility of the environment began to surface, along with the consciousness that any endless economic growth hypothesis always resulted in impossibilities.

Of course the 1970s was not merely a decade of promise, but also one of horrors and emerging difficulties. New ways of killing and maiming of human beings were developed in the Vietnam war, which destroyed millions of lives. The black B-52s would take offfrom Utapao and other bases in Thailand like the angels of doom that they were, and their crews would return to drown their guilt in alcohol, drugs, and the arms of prostitutes. The non- violent students killed by the Thai military in 1973, and again killed and arrested in 1976, demonstrated the fragility of human life. The fact that military juntas governed over 70% of countries worldwide created new human rights problems. The first appearance of the floating multinational corporations and the role of business in government challenged the very roots of the democratic process. The increasing power of television in the numbing of the world weakened popular participation in government. Despite the turbulence of that period we were filled with hope that rational people would soon realize that the endless economic growth model that was current at that time, and still is current today is untenable and that there are more appropriate alternatives, perhaps based on Buddhist thought.

It was in this turbulent period that I met Dr. Puey, first in Thailand, and then during his exile in England. It was in this period when I became impressed with the power of his mind, the warmth of his personality, and the hope (even during the early days of his exile) that he kept for the development of a better and more humane Thailand. Like many who crossed his path he has left a mark on me.

But for me his ideas on “Santi Pracha Dhamma” (peace, participatory democracy, and social justice) were not enough, because the economic model that was being pursued by Thailand (and now by almost every country in the world) was one based on values diametrically opposed to the Buddhist values he espoused. Morality is inconsistent with greed; western economic practice is based on greed. Compassion is inconsistent with capital accumulation; western economic theory is based on the need for capital accumulation. Mindfulness is inconsistent with advertising; western economics is based on the endless creation of new desires through advertising and other means. A new economic model was needed in the 1970s, and is even more needed now, a model that is both consistent with the evolving wisdom of Buddhism, and an awareness that there are limits to growth.

In our current economic model we become worried if the USA, or any of the large economic powers has a slow rate of growth, even though they may already have per capita levels of consumption ten times greater than those which exist in Thailand, or a hundred times than those which exist in Ethiopia. Even these existing consumption levels are producing unsustainable levels of global warming, which are likely to cause flood havoc in most of the coastal areas of Thailand. Imagine what the situation would be like if Ethiopia and all the countries in its position were to grow rapidly and reach the levels.of consumption currently existing in the USA! If at the same time consumption in the USA continued to grow, the global warming floods might reach Sukhothai! If we do not develop limits to growth nature will do it for us. Examples of this premise surround us wherever we look, both in the western world as much as in the east. Angkor Wat is a prime example where increasing population combined with increasing consumption destroyed the productivity of the land within easy reach of Angkor, and thus the temple died with its supporting population.

A good example of the alternative development strategies that exist in more traditional societies is the following story:

A Thai fisherman was sleeping on the beach in the shade of his boat and a development expert came to speak to him.
“Why are you resting?” he asked.
“I have already been out fishing and have caught enough fish to feed my family,” the fisherman replied.
“But if you went out fishing again you could catch more fish.”
“And what would I do with those fish?”
“You could sell them and with the cash you may buy a bigger net.” “What would I do with this net?”
“Catch more fish”
“And what would I do with those fish?” “Sell them and buy a motor for your boat.” “And why should I buy a motor?”
“To catch even more fish.”
“And what would I do with those fish?” “Sell them and buy another boat.” “And why would I want another boat?”
“So you can employ other people to catch fish for you, which would enable you to have leisure and rest. “
“But I am already resting!” the fisherman replied.

In simplistic terms, an individual’s satisfaction is a function of the achievement of his desires divided by his desires. His satisfaction can be maximized either by maximizing the achievement of desires or by minimizing desires. Western economics aims to increase overall levels of satisfaction by increasing the achievement of desires, whilst Buddhist economics should aim to increase overall levels of satisfaction by minimizing desires. Unfortunately, the satisfaction of one desire often leads to the creation of another, and thus we all tend to become hungry ghosts in a perpetual state of desire. As I have already mentioned above, the western economic model is based on the idea that economic growth can continue forever. It is thus necessary within this model to constantly create new desires that previously did not exist. Without this we might all be happy, like the fisherman, resting in the shade of his boat. Neither television sets, nor sofas emanate from our inherent desires, and thus a “need” for these has to be created through advertising and other means.

Certainly our planet can only have a future ifthe unbridled consumerism that is gradually spreading throughout the world can be replaced with an alternative that can also ultimately lead to human satisfaction. AB uddhist strategy oflimiting desires has to be one element of this alternative. We cannot however expect that the ordinary man or woman will be able to reach a state of Buddhahood. Even most ofthe better known Buddhist teachers are far from this state and remain attached to their followers, or their authority, or their temples. Perhaps the greatest teacher of our time, Mahatma Gandhi remained attached to his vision of India, to his Khadi cloth and his staff, and was unsure of his Bramacharya even in his old age.

His most important economic principle was self-reliance, and as an example he believed that all should be able to weave the cloth that they would use to clothe themselves. Such self?reliance prevented the concentration of economic power, which is increasingly becoming one of the main impediments to a more sustainable economy. Certainly it is necessary to find ways to reduce this concentration, because if this cannot be done those without such power will al ways look at the consumption patterns of those with power as their heroes to be emulated. It is difficult to prevent further concentration, let alone to reduce that which exists, as we are led to believe the myth that we all have the chance to be “millionaires”.

Of course, self-reliance and self-sufficiency are not “efficient”. I may be good in carpentry, and poor in weaving. It is not “efficient” for me to be involved in weaving. By trading my wooden products for someone else’s woven cloth both of us could either have a greater level of consumption with the same labor input or the same level of consumption with a lower effort.

This concept of “efficiency” is very pernicious and is the main factor that justifies globalization. “Efficiency” can result in many people being put out of work whilst at the same time the total quantity of goods and services consumed throughout the world is increased. Who consumes the larger share of this increase in consumption of goods and services is a question that is rarely answered satisfactorily in the various international gatherings on globalization. It is clear that it is more important that there is full employment in the richer countries and that they consume more and more, than that there is full employment amongst the poor. Rarely are the real voices of the poor ever heard. Even rarer are the needs of the poor taken into account. For example in Ethiopia, most of the shoes that ordinary people wear are made by villagers from animal skins or old car tires. The local shoemakers earnjust enough to feed their families, and their fellow villagers have the wherewithal to protect their feet. Now with the globalization of markets, colorful plastic shoes are imported and are gradually replacing the locally made ones, increasing consumer satisfaction no doubt, but moving yet more families (those of the shoemakers) into abject poverty. Obviously this localized self-reliance and mutual self support is extremely important in any strategy that might lead to the “Economics of Enough”.

How big is an ideal “self-reliant group”? Large enough to have most of the essential specialists represented, but not so large to enable there to be concentrations of economic power. In ancient Greece it was thought to be a unit of 5,000 free men (slaves and women not included!). With such a population, all the main skills needed to satisfy minimum basic needs could be represented.

Is there any consensus as to what might be the minimum basic needs of a person? The existing literature is not at all clear on this. Certainly we need a minimum food intake, which is often quantified as 2,000 – 2,200 calories per day, but then probably more than a quarter of the world’s population somehow survive and reproduce on less than this. Shelter from the rain, the sun, and the wind is a second minimum need-but then does the cardboard and plastic lean-to, that tens of millions of street dwellers use, satisfy this minimum. Clothing, again to protect from the elements is a third minimum need-but then to what extent are the hundreds of tribes who do not use clothes suffering deprivation according to their own values. A fourth need that is often quoted is the need for a basic education or literacy, but then how much more valid is a school system that is external to a person’s culture than the indigenous learning one finds in all cultures. A final oft-quoted need is basic medical care, which is even more difficult to define as it can stretch from leaves to cure malaria to heart transplants.

Perhaps, more important than what should be the minimum basic needs in any society is who should be involved in determining these needs. Certainly not the development bureaucrat such as I, with my large permanent house in a sea of shacks; my flashy car driving through the barefoot masses; clothes to change as do the seasons and my moods; three meals a day; and a doctor to come at my beck and call. It is again necessary to give a voice to the poor to determine their own minimum needs ..

The larger the basic economic unit within which we live, the more that our minimum needs will proliferate. In the village society that exists today in rural Ethiopia, apart from fertilizer, kerosene, matches, and some secondhand clothes, everything else that is consumed is produced locally. The basic minimum needs of the villager have developed over many generations within the village community itself. In the city, with a multitude of different shiny imports, competing with thousands of different skilled workers producing different goods and services, it is very difficult to implement a basic needs strategy, and even harder to put into practice the Economics of Enough. In Thailand, the largely self-contained village society is long since dead. It is not, therefore, a question of protecting what exists, but fragmenting the large city units and markets, so that the pressures to “want” can be reduced, and the real basic needs again develop. This is not as Utopian as it sounds, as the first seeds of such a fragmentation are already beginning to appear in several western societies. For example, in some areas of England alternative types of money are being created which can only be used in small parts of some cities.

Given the power of consumerism, the influence of advertising, the excessive consumption patterns of the heroes of our societies how can we begin to reduce what is “needed”? Reduce our desires and learn to know when enough is enough? It is not that those who have the most things and receive the most services are more satisfied than others are. The more “developed” an economy, the greater the number of alcoholics, drug addicts, and depressives existing.

It is here that Buddhism has a role to play, not so much the organized hierarchical religion that one finds in Thailand, with its 300,000 monks in temples in every corner of the country, largely designed to control rather than enlighten, but what we might call secular Buddhism. No form, no robes, no ceremonies, no sexist stereotypes, no escape into rituals, but merely the wisdom of the Buddha’s message.

The message of the Buddha with his noble fourfold path to reducing suffering is far more valid than any ritual, robe, hierarchy, or organization. The message now is as valid as it was 2,500 years ago, and the rituals and hierarchy as irrelevant now as they were 2,500 years ago. If we were all aware, really aware, of the impermanence of everything, we could not possible crave after things in the same way as we currently do. The real difficulty is that this message somehow has to be internalized, and once internalized to grow and overcome all the other competing messages that we are currently bombarded with. It is thus the development of appropriate practices in any eventual internalization of a basically simple message which is the key to any Economics of Enough.

The colonial powers in Asia facIlitated their control over their conquered people with opium. The spread in the use of opium was not only designed as a revenue source, but also as a way of reducing the desires of the population for a reasonable wage and for participation in governing their own societies. Even in our modem world those who are addicted to narcotic drugs have very few basic needs apart from their “fix”. Few amongst us would consider the drugging of the world as an appropriate strategy for reducing basic minimum needs. Organized religions were referred by Karl Marx as “the opium of the masses”, as a way of conning or numbing us to accept the status quo. Equally few amongst us are those who would consider the “opium” of organized religions to be an appropriate strategy for reducing our basic minimum needs.

Organized Buddhism is no different from any other organized religions. Rituals allow the rich to justify their wealth and the poor to accept their poverty. Perversion of the Buddha’s messages encourages the poor to accept their poverty as a result of their karma in past lives and women to accept their inferior sexual position. Almost always organized religions, Buddhism included, are allied to the secular powers and are a key pillar in the exploitation and control of these societies. The extent to which the large Tibetan monasteries impoverished the local populations is well documented-as are the holy amulets and the blessing given to “our soldiers” as they go out to slaughter and maim the enemy. Even in our modern world, organized Buddhism in Sri Lanka encourages and justifies a continuation ofthe war against the Tamils. It is clear to me that organized Buddhism is no better or worse than any other organized religion.

Even if we still believed that organized Buddhism should play a role in the reduction of the basic minimum needs of the masses, it no longer has the potential to do so, as the competing forces of television and advertising are too strong.

This is why the Buddhism that can play a role in reducing our desires and our needs must be one without robes, ceremonies, and rituals. Rather it must be one that is based on the wisdom of the Buddha’s message and some simple practices that the lay person in our modern world can follow.

The difficulty for the individual is to determine which practices he or she should follow, for just as there are a range of goods that manufacturers try to sell to us, there are a range of spiritual practices that so-called “holy men” try to encourage us to take up. “Spiritual materialism” can be as pervasive as ordinary materialism. Rather than trying to ground ourselves on one practice, we move from one to another in the same way as we might move from one set of clothes to another. Instead of spending time in our own practice, we read more and more books, look at more and more videos, and listen to more and more spiritual leaders.

The Buddhist teacher must give up his robes in much the same way as the Catholic worker?priests have done in Latin America and show by his example a path that the lay person might follow. The American meditation teacher, Jack Kornfield, is a good example. He spent more than a decade as a monk studying with various Buddhist masters in Southeast Asia, and on return to the US soon realized that people saw him as “weird” with his robes and alms bowl. He decided to disrobe and teach meditation as a lay man to lay people. He has helped many hundreds, if not thousands, into the power of meditation.

It is this process whereby more and more lay men and women learn to look inside themselves and spend increasing time each day both internalizing the fourfold path and finding the beauty that is inside, and thus have less and less desire and need to possess and consume external goods and services. It is this process of incorporating daily meditation practice within an ordinary lay existence that is one of the most important steps in any process of reducing our desires, and consequently limiting economic growth to levels that can be supported by the environment.

According to the Maharishi Foundation, when more than 5 % of the population in a town meditate regularly there is a significant reduction in social ills such as alcoholism, drug addiction, and divorce. How much more the change if the same 5 % could, in addition to their dail y meditation practice, internalize the basic message of the Buddha on the impermanence of everything and the cause and solution to suffering. Perhaps with 10% or even 20% following such practices, the limits to growth might be in sight.
Growth will be slowed, stopped, and reversed. This will either happen through global warming and other environmental pressures or through our own decisions and actions. Only when we fully understand when enough is enough through our own practice and understanding, will we ever have enough. The Economics of Enough, of zero or negative growth is an entirely new discipline, one that should increasingly challenge economic thinkers in the years to come. It is only unfortunate that Dr. Puey is no longer amongst us and able to help grapple with this challenge, as he did with so many others in his long and fruitful career.

From
Santi Pracha dhamma
Essays in honour of the late Puey ungphakorn
Page 8-14

Seeds of Peace

Seeds of Peace : A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society.

The international magazine, Seeds of peace is published thrice annually in January, May and September, in order to promote the aims and objectives of the Thai Inter-Religious Commission for Development (TICD) and the Spirit in Education Movement (SEM) as well as the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). In order to subscribe a $50/year donation is suggested. Personal checks from the UK, US, and Euro are accepted.


Title :
 Vol.33 No.2 May-August. 2560 (2017)
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