Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Post-Materialism (Part One)

It would seem that a baby is the most self-absorbed of creatures. He knows what he wants and lets you know about it. When he's hungry, he screams. But a baby typically has a degree of sanity that is not usually expressed in our individual or collective economic behavior. When he's had enough, he stops. He pushes the breast away or throws the bottle on the floor. He's done. That doesn't mean he won't start yelling about something else in a few seconds, but from the point of view of consuming, he has an instinctive sense of “enough is enough.”

What does this have to do with economics? Everything.

In my last post I brought up the notion of co-centrism, which is a way of pointing out the way things are in reality, as opposed to appearances. Things are related; they co-exist. They inter-are, to use Thich Nhat Hanh's terminology. They interpenetrate. Things exist in systems, but the system itself is hard to pin down aside from being a collection of its parts. Co-centricity points to the coexistence of parts and wholes, of systems and the things that make up those systems.

There is another dimension of economic wisdom, and that is post-materialism. Now, to be rigorous, we would want to fully explore what is meant by materialism, then explain why that view is not adequate, and then point out why the correct view is somehow “after” materialism. Perhaps at some point I (or hopefully someone smarter than me) will do just that in depth. In fact, philosophers have been working on this question rather intently for a very long time. One of the ways of dividing philosophical systems isbroadly speakinginto the substantialist camp and the idealist camp. The substantialists think there's something out there, and it's real. The idealists think that whatever is “out there” has a heck of lot to do with your mind, and it may not even be out there. That is of course a tremendous simplification, but it is a great relief (speaking as someone who takes philosophy seriously) to take a perhaps imprecise but broadly accurate look at a question. Materialism is a branch ofbut not identical withthe broader category of substantialism. Then there's the more recent school of the Positivists and the related scientific materialists who posit the “mind is an epiphenomena of matter.” All this involves very sophisticated reasoning, and it's true that if we were to examine materialism thoroughly, perhaps the first way to do so would be philosophically. But it is by no means the only way, and the fact remains that materialism of the economic sort is getting along quite nicely, thank you, without benefit of philosophy, so to speak.

Therefore in talking about economics, perhaps the notion of materialism would bring to mind a more common sense idea, one that would be closer to the notions of consumerism, greed, acquisitiveness, and possessiveness. All that stuff. And smart people throughout history have said, “well, that is not good.” Exactly, but why? If you examine why materialism in this sense is a problem you will eventually see that it's a psychological issue, one of attachment or fixation. In fact, we could nail it down right here and now and say that materialism is psychological. It's a mental outlook, or even more fundamentally, a mental pattern or set of patterns. Let's call it psychological materialism. The term psychological materialism is a brilliant one, first used (I believe) by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Trungpa Rinpoche was more famous, of course, for the term “spiritual materialism,” and to my knowledge did not develop the concept of psychological materialism very extensively. I use the term psychological materialism in a specific way that is idiosyncratic to my own body of thought, and I don't claim or attempt to use it exactly the same way that Trungpa Rinpoche did. My notion of psychological materialism is derived from Buddhist psychological teachings in general and owes a lot to Trungpa Rinpoche's concept of spiritual materialism. In particular, my understanding of psychological materialism includes both the solidification of external objects, and our solidification of, and attachment to, internal experiences, states of mind, emotions, and concepts. It refers to everything internal and external that we solidify with the mind through confusion.

The interesting thing about this way of looking at materialism from a psychological point of view is that it addresses the philosophical question as well as the more ordinary economic way of viewing it. The solidification of seemingly external objects of mind into things that are supposedly real and truly existent is actually a projection of mind. It is a matter of imputation, of reification. Now there are a lot of pitfalls that can come about if one understands this superficially, but certainly it is good as a start to at least question our assumptions about the world of our experiences. If we do not question the assumptions we make, we fall into the realm of naive realism, which means we are firmly in the grip of psychological materialism. In fact we've been there a very long time, according to Buddhism. We could go one step further and say that psychological materialism is just another way of characterizing what the Buddhists call samsara, because it (i.e. samsara) is a mind-created solidification of what is not inherently solid in reality.

The implications of the psychological nature of materialism are quite interesting. For one thing, if materialism is simply a mental attitude, and a confused one at that, why can't we just drop it right here and now? Well, if we were really decisive, we could drop it as a conceptual view, if we had really repudiated it internally. We could toss it aside as decisively as the baby tosses aside his bottle when he's done. But unfortunately the mind is not as simple as that, and even if the conceptual abandonment of materialism is a good idea, we still have all the habits of mind, the instincts at play, the fundamental entrenchment in samsara to contend with. If psychological materialism is synonymous with samsara, then from a Buddhist point of view, transcending it would be no small endeavor.

However, developing a post-materialist orientation is not as rigorous as all that. If we were to talk about going beyond psychological materialism in general, it would mean simply the intention or commitment to not letting ourselves be ruled by the negative patterns of mind (kleshas in Sanskrit) that keep us in a state of ignorance and suffering in samsara. In more economic terms, it would mean not letting materialism of the economic sort rule our minds and behaviors. At the policy level, it would mean not letting wealth and simple greed for “more, more, more,” rule the day. At the theoretical level of economics, it would involve not getting caught up in the “materialism of symbolic representation,” which basically means diverging into abstract representations of economic matters to the detriment of addressing what really matters in human terms.

Going back to the baby, what he feels at the moment he's full is sufficiency. Enough. One of the practical outcomes of post-materialism is not so much the rejection of material things or even prosperity, but instead just this recognition of sufficiency.

In general, post-materialism is presented as one aspect of economic wisdom with the understanding that we will gradually approach it through practice and experience. Post-materialism helps untangle the confusion around the way things appear to be at various levels, and co-centrism is more focused on pointing out the way things actually are. Ultimately, post-materialism and co-centricity are themselves co-centric. They contain each other and co-exist harmoniously without losing their specific attributes. Together they comprise the wisdom (prajna) aspect of the six-fold economics of compassion.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Co-Centric Principle

Inasmuch as I propose to call the type of economic theory into which my own ideas fall "Co-Centric Economics," I suppose it would be circumspect to begin by discussing, as best I can, the way I am using the term "co-centric." This use of "co-centric" in relation to economics is a genuinely new usage, as best I know. The term is used in geometry to mean something more or less like "concentric," and it pops up occasionally in articles and blogs (sometimes, it would seem, as an erroneous spelling of concentric, sometimes not). So it's not a new term, though I actually coined it myself quite a few years ago. I was looking for a term that means "sharing a mutual center" but in a looser way than my understanding of "concentric."

I have come to use it relation to economics in a very broad way, actually, and thus it somehow gravitated to its present use as a label for the whole body of work.

As will "trickle in" in coming posts, I have organized my general ideas on economics in accordance with the so-called six perfections (paramitas) of mahayana Buddhism. The last and perhaps most important of these is the paramita of prajna , which for the sake of this work will be translated simply as "wisdom." (Other valid translations for prajna are in use, including "knowledge," "superior knowledge," and "discernment.") Although the English term wisdom does not fully express what is meant by prajna in the Buddhist tradition, it probably comes closest in a general sense.

The six perfections in their spiritual context are meant to be guide for someone who has developed the enlightened attitude known as bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is a very special form of compassion. Indeed it could be considered the supreme form of compassion that we can develop as ordinary beings, since it means aspiring to achieve perfect enlightenment such that one can help all beings reach that same enlightenment.

The compassion that one tries to develop in mahayana Buddhism is concerned both with the ultimate enlightenment of beings, and with their wellbeing in worldly life. Therefore the idea of Buddhist economics is entirely relevant, and a mahayana Buddhist economics would be an economics of compassion. That indeed is the title of my upcoming book: The Economics of Compassion.

In the presentation of the six paramitas, wisdom is last, and it's said that for all of the other five to really be paramitas, they need to be imbued with this last paramita, prajna. The implication of this is that if we are to find an economics of compassion that goes beyond mere good intentions or even sentimentality, it helps to have wisdom. A simple way to describe wisdom is that it is correctly seeing "the way things are." And clearly wisdom is necessary for compassion to be truly effective.

The term co-centric is an interesting way to describe "the way things are" in economic terms. It points to a whole array of meanings, from the tangible to the highly abstract. For example, as human beings, we are co-centric with our natural world. Individuals are co-centric with social systems. Social systems themselves display a high degree of co-centricity. The symbolic economy of money and price is co-centric with the tangible economy of "stuff." The term is related in meaning to "interdependent," integral," and "inclusive." It relates to the simultaneous co-existence of parts and wholes, and of systems and their components. In more abstract terms, co-centrism can point to the yin/yang principle of Chinese philosophy, or to the notion that the linguistic meaning we give to things exists within the context of a language system, and with our own cultural experience. It can point to the unity of opposites, or more specifically to the notion that opposites exist in a larger system context.

In terms of the discipline of economics, it has long been pointed out by the pioneers of "alternative economics" (i.e. E. F. Schumacher, Hazel Hendersen, and Herman Daly) that economics as a profession has tended to isolate itself from other disciplines, and even from human values altogether. Hence Schumacher's famous subtitle ". . . economics as if people mattered." Therefore co-centric economics means economics that exists in proper context with other disciplines, and with the needs of humanity.

One way to talk about this inclusiveness that somehow eluded economics as it got more and more specialized and abstract is to think of it in terms of "co-centricity of scope." Though it is more difficult to create abstract theories (especially neat mathematical ones) if you include everything and exclude nothing, the unfortunate fact is that you really DO have to include everything. And the fact that mainstream economics has tended to exclude tiny little factors like social justice, the environment, or other messy qualitative factors makes it at best a crippled discipline capable only of the most incomplete of answers.

This is by no means just a matter of academic interest. We have come to a time in history when economic matters are coming to the forefront and affect the very survival of our species. It is critically important that the discipline of economics rise to the challenge and the urgency of our times. Therefore economics needs a comprehensive or universal scope of attention: it needs to be co-centric. And this is the only way to create a truly successful economics, one that will address the human condition and indeed offer the most helpful answers and solutions. From that point of view, using the term "alternative economics" to describe an economics that is concerned with the environment and human justice is a bit stupid and insulting.

It should be noted here that co-centric economics is not a term I'm using exclusively for my own ideas, but rather for any economics that fits the characteristics of co-centricity. In practical terms, any economics that is sincerely concerned with social justice, environmental balance, and truly useful theory could be considered co-centric. As such it would include most of the "alternative" economic theoretical work done in the last 50 or so years. From that point of view, co-centric economics is the body of work into which I would wish my own to fall, without particularly trying to co-opt anyone else's work, or for that matter branding them with my own label.

It seems that I am working my way backwards through the six perfections, and to conclude this brief introduction to the section on wisdom, I will mention that co-centricity is actually one of two parts included under "economic wisdom." The other part is post-materialism. In some sense, post-materialism is a refutation of the way things seem to be, or what seems to be important, whereas co-centricity is a description of how things actually are, and what IS really important.

I probably should have started with post-materialism, but I'll discuss that in the next post.