Compassionate economics

What kind of economics could facilitate the liberation of all human beings? A new middle path can transform our relationship to individual and collective suffering. The second in our series of articles on empathy and transformation.

Max Zahn
3 September 2013

Max Zahn outside Goldman Sachs in New York. Credit: Max Zahn. All rights reserved.

Dwelling in our collective imagination, the economist sits hunched over reams of data that appear to the uninitiated like hieroglyphics. Luckily he or she (and it’s usually a “he”) can quickly discern underlying patterns in the sheets that fly from the printer, as would a meteorologist when staring at a multi-colored map. That’s how the myth goes anyway: economists are smarter than the rest of us. You know those college classes that you tried to avoid like the dining hall’s weird-smelling seafood? The economists sought out those classes, and they excelled. 

So when things like the Great Recession of 2008 happen and societies desperately need a collective conversation about the economy, it’s no wonder that many people defer to the experts who’ve been thinking long and hard about this stuff. They are called “economists” after all. The problem is they also get things wrong.

In their recent New York Times Op-Ed “What is Economics Good For,” Alex Rosenberg and Tyler Curtain argue that no one has any business referring to economics as a science. “The fact that the discipline of economics hasn’t helped us improve our predictive abilities,” they say, “suggests it is still far from being a science, and may never be.” Basically, economists make too many mistakes. Scientists hypothesize gravity, drop a bunch of household objects, and then confidently advise that you shouldn’t let go of your mug unless you want the kitchen floor littered with shards of the Paris skyline. Economists, on the other hand, guarantee the upward trajectory of the housing market and then stare at their shoelaces as the mortgage bubble bursts.

Back in 2009, Paul Krugman took his indictment of economics one step further. “Few economists saw our current crisis coming, but this predictive failure was the least of the field’s problems,” he wrote. “More important was the profession’s blindness to the very possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy.” Not only do economists get things wrong, but they also nurse a glaring ideological blind spot. In this case, Krugman was referring to the market fundamentalism that suffused the outlook of economists like former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. It was Greenspan that helped to orchestrate the financial deregulation and low interest rates that directly precipitated the crash of 2008.

Despite our hangover from the Great Recession, we should be wary of disregarding economic perspectives. The most important takeaway from the recent crisis is not that economics is unimportant, but that mathematical projection models in economics should be treated with great skepticism, especially those that make ideal market assumptions that are characteristic of the classical school. Professors Rosenberg and Curtain end their piece with a fittingly cautious prescription for any post-recession economic policy: “at this point, [the economy] is a craft, to be executed with wisdom, not algorithms, in the design and management of institutions.”

The call for “wisdom, not algorithms” is an invitation to citizens as well as to economists.  At root, the most profound economic questions of the day do not demand more sophisticated numerical calculations but more expansive imaginations and priorities. The task is to bring public advocacy into the formerly-sacred realm of economics, thereby helping to ensure a healthy society for ourselves and our neighbors. The recession should not instill a wholesale disavowal of economics; it should strengthen a popular commitment to reinvent the subject in a different image that we can co-create. Our current and future wellbeing depends on it.

With that task in mind, the first step is to take an inventory of core values. By sorting out first principles, we enter the economic thicket with a machete that can chop through jargon and obfuscation. As a practicing Buddhist, I’ve chosen compassion as a cornerstone of my economic understanding. Literally meaning “to suffer with,” compassion – in the words of revered Vietnamese Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh – entails a commitment to “remove the suffering that is present in another.” This value reappears in the more extreme Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattva vow to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings. Notice that the language here is not one of optimizing pleasure but of minimizing pain. In this sense, it flips American rags-to-riches exceptionalism on its head.

To understand what Buddhists mean by compassion, we need to revisit their conception of suffering. The Sanskrit term for suffering is “Samsara,” which refers to a persistent and deep sense of dissatisfaction - the sense that things aren’t the way that we want them to be. Buddhists believe that all sentient beings remain trapped in a cyclic feeling of this dissatisfaction, from which we constantly seek escape. The only way to liberate ourselves from Samsara is to transform the way we relate to the place in which this suffering arises: our own minds. Through practices like meditation, we gradually erode the urge to attach ourselves to pleasurable feelings or run away from painful ones. From that point on, we slowly attain a grounded sense of equilibrium and contentment which allow us to adapt fluidly to the ever-shifting circumstances of our lives.

What kind of economic approaches could facilitate the liberation of all sentient beings from this kind of suffering? One of the Buddha’s primary teachings – that of the Middle Path – helps to clarify this point. The Buddha taught that both extreme asceticism and extreme excess are hindrances to the path of liberation. Self-denial clouds the mind with the vestiges of fatigue and malnutrition, while indulgence indefinitely postpones the necessary depth of engagement with internal experience.

Therefore, a Buddhist economics should ensure that each and every sentient being has sufficient material and educational support to liberate themselves from suffering. For animals, this means that human consumption patterns should not cause avoidable harm. And for humans themselves, this approach calls for progressive taxation, redistributive social services, and accessible pre-college and college education.

The conservative critique of this philosophy is easy to anticipate, and not to be dismissed. Conservatives argue that government intrusion in the marketplace will hinder the individual’s entrepreneurial and expressive freedoms. Frankly I’m much more concerned about civil liberties than I am about the right to turn a good idea into lots of money, though I concede that the two overlap. I think Buddhism has a novel response to this concern, and one that isn’t often aired in the mainstream public debate.

For Buddhists, the individual presents a tricky paradox. On the one hand, the Buddha famously preached a belief in “no-self:” the concept that one cannot trace any inherent existence to his or herself due to the dual truths of interdependence and impermanence. That said, the Buddha also taught a challenging personal practice that counts on each individual to fully realize this truth of no-self, and thus attain enlightenment. So ironically, each individual Buddhist makes a personal commitment to a path that will eventually undo our most basic assumptions about individuated existence.

In this regard, Buddhists should bring a circumspect attitude toward an entirely centralized economy that would impede freedom of thought or expression. It is this freedom to radically engage with our consciousness that allows each of us to liberate ourselves from suffering. At the same time, Buddhists should acknowledge that unregulated market capitalism inevitably causes extreme inequalities of wealth that inflict unnecessary harm on billions of people worldwide. Hence the need for a new middle path but not one that resembles bipartisanship, Washington consensus, or the thinly-veiled politics of economic technocrats. This middle path demands a radical and sustained commitment to a new kind of empowerment for all: the power to transform our relationship with suffering.  

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