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Clair Brown: How Would Buddha Teach Economics?
Kozo: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening. My name is Kozo Hattori, and I'll be your host for our weekly Global Awakin Call. Welcome, and thank you for joining us. The purpose of these calls is to share stories that help plant seeds for a more compassionate society, while fostering our own inner transformation. We do this by holding collective conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life, who inspire us to live in a more service-oriented way. And behind each of these calls is an entire team of ServiceSpace volunteers whose invisible work allows us to hold the space. Today our special guest is Clair Brown. Thank you again for joining today's call. Let's start with a moment of silence to anchor ourselves into the space.
[Moment of silence]
Thank you. Welcome again to our weekly Awakin Call, today in conversation with Clair Brown. Here's how the call works: in a few minutes, our moderator Preeta Bansal will engage in a dialogue with our speaker Clair Brown and by the top of the hour we'll roll into Q&A and a circle of sharing, where we'll invite all of your reflections and questions....
Our moderator today is Preeta Bansal, and I find that this is such a beautiful combination of moderator and guest because, you know, Clair is going to talk about Buddhist Economics, and Preeta just actually in this last year, stepped down from many of the important and lucrative, I'd say, and famous roles that she acquired through her lifetime of achievement, and devoted her time and energy to service and inner transformation, and I find it a very inspiring and unique -- like it doesn't happen in our daily life as we see it -- so I'm so excited to hear not only the reflections of Clair Brown, but also how that reflects on Preeta. So Preeta, thank you so much for your journey and your inspiration, but also for moderating today's call.
Preeta: Thank you so much, Kozo. Thanks for that introduction. I'm really, really excited to be in conversation with Clair. Clair Brown is a pioneering economist who was one of the earliest tenured women professors in the economics department at UC Berkeley. Influenced greatly by exposure to racism and social norms surrounding gender while she was growing up in the American South in the 1960s - the 50s and 60s -- she recognized that structural and social factors skewed the notion of choice and of well-functioning markets. She used an institutional approach to economic analysis. Her early research focused on employment disparities by gender and race, the role of unemployment insurance, and women in the workplace. Her later research focused on the global labor market for high-tech workers, the global competitive advantage of China, India and the U.S. in the semiconductor industry, and the impact of education and immigration policies on engineers' employment and earnings.
But we're here really today to talk about her latest contribution, which is a book she recently wrote called Buddhist Economics which arose out of a seminar she's been teaching to undergraduates. Clair graduated from Wellesley College with a math major in 1968, which is kind of remarkable for a woman to be majoring in math back in the 60s, in terms of our traditional gender norms. She went on to receive a Ph.D. in Economics and, as I mentioned, has been a very pioneering economist at U.C. Berkeley. So welcome, Clair!
Clair: Oh, Preeta, it's so nice to be able to talk you today. I really admire all that you've done and I really appreciate the whole idea of talking about awakening because I think it's just so critical to all of us to figure out how to live meaningful lives and also to give back to -- just as you're doing -- it's time ... at some point you say, "Hey it's time to really give back", where we're so lucky to be able to do what we've done and then to help others.
Preeta: Yeah, it's beautiful. So I want to start a little bit about talking about your journey. You've had -- I mean -- you've been such a pioneer as a woman, as an economist. How did you get -- I was struck in your introduction about the fact that you were a math major in 1968. I guess, first, how did you get interested in economics back in that day when there weren't many women going into that field?
Clair: It's true but, you know, I was so lucky to come of age at a time when the woman's movement was really getting off the ground, when civil rights were really important and the country was making great changes and striving ahead. And coming out of the deep South, I already knew that there was a serious problem with racism and discrimination. And I also saw all of our mothers who were well-educated and bright, talented women all sitting at home trying to find things to do with volunteer work and so forth to give their lives more meaning and it just -- nothing was making sense to me, except that it was so wonderful in the late 60s when everybody at that point in time, everyone in college really wanted to find a way to help make the world better -- which was a wonderful time to be in college. The only downside was the Vietnam War. So we also learned about international relationships and what terrible things war could do to people. It was a great time to come of age and to try to understand what can we do in the world to make a difference.
Preeta: Wow, that's great. So how did you get interested in economics -- I mean economics is the study of the material world, of wealth. How did that move you?
Clair: Well, when I went to college I knew how to do math. Math was so easy for me; it took no time. And while taking English courses, I could barely survive. I really was terrible at English and writing papers. So I majored in math, because it was fun and I could do it, and then that would give me more time to work on other things like English, or History courses, which were also very hard for me. But I loved them, so I said OK I'm going to do math -- all I have to do is go home and do all these proofs every day; no problem I can do that. And then that gave me time to explore and to learn things that I really needed to learn about and so I actually... I did it because it was easy. I got to tell you that I never thought of anything I did as trail-breaking; I did things because I enjoyed them, because they were easy to do, because life just unfolded that way. All I knew was that racism and sexism were really major problems and I cared about that deeply.
Preeta: So tell us a little bit about your earliest encounters with racism -- you were a white woman growing up in the South. How did that infuse your consciousness?
Clair: Well I was so lucky because I had a black maid named Nazarene who took care of me, and she was just the most wonderful, loving woman. And I was very close to her, so everyday I would run down a half a block to the bus stop -- she would take the bus because of course she couldn't afford a car -- and we would walk back home together. And one day, I noticed that she had on some sandals that were broken and they looked really uncomfortable and I said, "Nazarene, why don't you buy some new sandals; those look like they're worn out." I was about five or six. And she said, "Clair, I'm saving up my money. I can't afford them yet." And I looked at her and said, "Nazarene, I'm so sorry because you need new sandals." And she said, "Yes." And she taught me about racism early on. She said, "You know, black folks -- we don't, we don't have much money. We need more money." And I said nothing, but I thought about that and that really stuck with me.
And then other things that we did together really stuck with me. For example I went to see a Disney movie -- Snow White or who knows what -- probably Snow White, it's like so racist -- but I said to her, "Nazarene, I just saw the best movie, you got to go see it." And she said, "Clair, I can't go see that movie." And I said, "Why not?" And she said, "Black folks -- we've got our own theater and we don't ever get the good movies. We only get the movies that are really old and no one else wants." And once again I was so shocked -- it's like "Oh, my gosh." So Nazarene just through her experiences, very gently and lovingly, taught me about racism, and I was really grateful that she did that because then I understood what was wrong with where I was living.
Preeta: Wow, and so how did that influence you on your journey educationally and professionally?
Clair: Well one thing was I couldn't wait to leave the South, so I went, as soon as I could, I went north to college. But also at the same time, I could understand that women were really held down by not being able to work -- white women, not to mention that black women could only be maids -- but white women were pitied if they had to be a secretary or a school teacher or a nurse. Those were sort of the three jobs that I could see for white women. I'm thinking, "This is awful; I'm just going to vow to never, ever have to be beholden to someone else for my livelihood" -- which meant a man. And so I'm thinking ... and the women's movement is just starting ... and I'm thinking this is really important that women have the right to work and make enough money, so that they are a partner in the family and not just a stay-at-home person who depends upon the man to bring home money. So that was also a really important part of my journey.
So when I went off to college, I said I really want to learn how to deal with racism and sexism -- and that was the movements that were going on at the time in the country -- and the reason I majored in math is I think it was easy for me. But I realized by talking to my friends in the dorm and so forth, that math was really quite boring and that those friends I had who were in Economics had great discussions. And so I'm thinking, "Well that is so much more interesting than talking about math." No one wants to talk about math, how boring, and so I started taking Economics courses and then I realized I want to be an economist. Economics can really help us solve a lot of our social problems -- or so I thought at the time!
Preeta: And so tell me a little bit about that -- back then, in your mind, how was Economics helping solve social problems?
Clair: Well at that time economists were very directly saying, "Oh, what can we do in Economics to -- how's discrimination happening, how does it occur, what's going on in the labor market that keeps women in certain jobs at much lower pay and what's happening to blacks -- what jobs are they in, or are allowed in, and how do those dynamics work?" And so when I went to graduate school my thesis was focused on discrimination in the labor markets for women and by race -- by gender and race -- and it became real clear that these markets weren't working at all in terms of equal opportunity, and other economists were also working in this area. And so it became clear that we could argue, "You know, these markets are not so-called functioning well. The markets are set up and they're structured to keep women in certain jobs and to keep blacks in certain jobs and both are inferior and pay a lot less, and there's no such thing as equal opportunity." And that's when they started passing national laws -- with the E.E.O.C. -- to demand that women and blacks had to have access in the labor market that was much more equal. Look, as you know, it's taken a very long time to even make those changes but slowly they were made to some extent.
Preeta: So I find this fascinating, I mean your whole approach to Economics has been looking at what's called an institutional approach, where you look at how social rules and customs or norms impact on so-called individual choice which, of course, is the hallmark of free market Economics. You mentioned that "back then", which is what you're talking about your college years, you thought that Economics was kind of the way to solve social issues -- or the discussions were about solving issues -- and you said "at least back then." Have your views changed since then about the role of Economics?
Clair: Oh, enormously! Preeta, today I probably would never go into Economics and I even laugh with my students about that, and my undergraduates especially will say, "Should we become economists?" and I say, "Well, let's talk about what you want to do, what do you care about, how would you do it?" And if they start talking about social problems and dealing with say, racism, sexism in rich countries or talking about how to deal with massive poverty in emerging countries, I say, "I don't really think you want to be an economist; I think you want to be more interdisciplinary..I think you want to consider even political science, sociology or public policy -- that those are all places where they're much more integrated, and can do much more in looking at these problems that you care about." And many of them then have come back and said, "Oh my gosh, you're so right. I couldn't do what you're doing in economics today -- it's all like statistics." I said, "That's right; it's basically become a field of applied statistics, which is not institutional economics."
Preeta: Interesting. So tell us a little bit about -- you know you've been pioneering, as a woman, as an economist, in your academic research -- tell us a little bit about your turn from economics, especially neoclassical economics. What do you think, I guess, intellectually as well as inside you, what started leading to that shift in your view about neoclassical economics?
Clair: So I actually never believed in neoclassical economics. Institutional economics is the alternative approach, which was always what I've done. But what really happened in economics was when the Chicago school, which has really, really pushed neoclassical economics -- they became the mainstream in the 70s, exactly when I was beginning my career. And so that actually is not a very good time to be an institutional economist. We were able to get some work done and so forth but we were really a very minor part of economics at that point, and all the Nobel Prizes were going to neoclassical economists. So what has happened is that there was a large enough group of us that cared about inequality and racism and sexism -- and we actually were at MIT and Berkeley especially, and some at Harvard. But we had certain places where we were doing quite well, and then finally I think the country got a little sick of neoclassical economists or maybe it was just time to hand out Nobel Prizes to some other place besides Chicago and their bailiwick, and so I would say that economics has done much better in being broader -- in caring more, especially about inequality -- that with their over-reliance on data and statistics, we haven't done very well at coming up and having countries adopt policies that reduce inequality, because, as you know Preeta, inequality has only been growing since the 80s.
And so what are economists doing? We have all these studies ... we know how to reduce inequality; we know what works; countries pick their inequality. Why is the US becoming more and more unequal? You have to ask that right?
Preeta: Yes, absolutely.
Clair: And so as an economist, I have felt in one sense that we've really failed -- look at our legacy.... more inequality, and I hate to say it but we're repeating that now... I feel the same way now it's equally affected by climate change and global warming and I went around to a lot of my colleagues over the last few years and I would say to them, "Are you putting global warming into your work because it's affecting everything that you're looking at and studying?" And they'd look at me like, "What are you talking about, Clair?" And I'd say, "Well you know, just like how can you work on, say, education, or how can you work on a distribution of income, how can you work on anything, without thinking about the impact of global warming, because it is affecting what you're looking at." And many of them would say that "I haven't even thought about it" and "Clair, that's not like you to come up and tell me I need to think about this, like, come on!" I'd say, "Well, let me know", and almost always they've been coming back to me, saying, "My God, you're so right. I'm not sure how to do that, though." And it's almost like economists are just so focused on a little bit of a problem without looking at the whole picture, that once again we're sort of not getting, moving us along like we should. And I'm feeling really distraught by that, because it's like, as economists we should make a difference.
Preeta: So tell us a little bit about Buddhist Economics and how that differs, first, from certainly neoclassical, but even from institutional economics?
Clair: Right...well it’s a type of institutional economics, Preeta, but it’s much broader in terms of...let’s not just think of social rules and customs of the labor market, let’s not just think of social rules and customs of the developing world, let’s just not think of social rules and customs of income distribution, but let’s pull it all together because they are all interconnected...and then, once you do that, and then once you also -- and this might be the most important difference -- once you ask what’s human nature, then all of a sudden you’re turning economics on its head...and one thing for me, in terms of my own awakening, was when I started practicing Tibetan Buddhism about 10 years or so ago, I have really thought a lot about, “Oh...what’s human nature”, and in Economics, we assume people are selfish and egotistical and that is a really solid foundation for Economics, no matter who you are, institutional or neoclassical. If you start off with people, you know, if they really care mostly about themselves, then anything they do for other people, they expect a quid pro quo. Even in institutional economics, they think cooperation is...oh so it will help you over time, but in Buddhist Economics, you can say, “Oh...people are kind and altruistic”...what does that do to the model...and it totally changes it.
Preeta: And how then does it change it?
Clair: Oh, ok...I didn’t want to go too long. I love your feedback and comments (laughter)...and so they basically...what happens is if you move from people being selfish to people being kind and altruistic, then all of a sudden you can redistribute income to make everyone better off. In the model where people are selfish and egotistical, you can’t give money from Bill Gates to poor people without making Bill Gates worse off and worrying about that but - which is somewhat crazy right - but that’s actually what economists will tell you whereas if you believe that people are kind and altruistic, of course you want to distribute income from the rich people, who are buying stupid status items which aren’t really helping anyone including themselves, and you give more to people really in need -- food, clothing, shelter, housing, education -- and then all of society is better off. So finally you have a model for when people realize they are interconnected and caring for each other, they understand that creating meaningful lives really trumps more income.
Preeta: Yeah...that’s interesting...I guess in the traditional economics model, a dollar more of income is a dollar more of income and it doesn’t matter if that goes to Bill Gates or to the poorest person, there’s no qualitative differentiation in terms of the way the economist would view that extra dollar...is that fair?
Clair: That’s exactly right. It’s like -- more is better, and more is better to anyone, no matter how much they have already and whether they are starving in a developing country or whether they have no medical care in the US or whatever the problem is, we ignore those problems. And in fact, in classical economics, it’s the victim’s fault, it’s not society’s fault.
But at least in institutional economics, and certainly in Buddhist Economics, it’s society’s fault that we didn’t set up systems where people are cared for, as well as given the opportunity to do their very best, to fulfill their potential, to give back to the community, as it all goes together, and so the Buddhist Economy is really one that combines sharing prosperity as well as caring for others in a sustainable environment and then relieving suffering and helping others, that are really the poorest and the worst off.
Preeta: Isn’t this in part a problem of measurement of economists, so...short of embracing a completely new view of human nature, which some people, especially in the mainstream might be reluctant to do...even if you believe people are self-maximizing people/creatures, wouldn’t some of the problems or some of the big problems of economics be solved even without embracing a radical new view that human nature is interconnected? So, I’m thinking, that problem we talked about, the dollar to Bill Gates is the same as the dollar to the poorest person, that seems to me to be a bit of a measurement issue...where, shouldn’t we be looking at what the dollar is used to consume, whether it’s basic food and housing vs. whether it’s a luxury yacht?
Clair: Well now you're going directly to Amartya Sen's work which is an important part of Buddhist Economics where he won his Nobel Prize for saying, "Look, it's not income that tells us how well people are living or their well being and how well society is doing. It's how people are living", and so Amartya Sen, based upon his growing up in India said, "You know, let's look at people's capability, let's look at how well it's functioning, and let's measure that as our sense of how well the economy is performing." And of course, that's exactly the approach that you were talking about. Let's look and see how well people are living, and so in Buddhist Economics we devote a whole chapter to saying, hey let's measure economic performance as well-being and not as income. And by the way, every economist alive will tell you income doesn't tell you how to measure wellbeing, even though that's all we do...we measure income or gross national product for well-being...we all agree we shouldn't do it that way, and yet, nothing has been changing, we're still doing it that way.
Preeta: So let's take just the basic question like what makes people happy...how would traditional economics answer that question, and how would Buddhist Economics answer that same question?
Clair: That's such a wonderful question to ask as it really shows the difference. So neoclassical or mainstream economics thinks happiness is hedonic, meaning you seek pleasure and you avoid pain, but it's all short term, you just, every minute you can you're seeking more and more and more, even though it's short lived, and all the studies show that in fact we rush out and buy something - a game, some shoes, a new car -- whatever you buy, it gives you a blip of happiness -- that hedonic pleasure -- but then you revert right back to your old level...and so that means you're going to be rushing out and buying more...and it's an endless cycle.
So what Buddhist Economics says is, "Hey, let's take a step back and go back to Aristotle", where Aristotle said happiness actually comes from knowing yourself, and leading a worthy life, and a life that's meaningful, and a life where you give back to your community...and he says of course - and I like this a lot - Aristotle says but of course you have to have basic consumption, everybody needs all the basics so that they are surviving well, so that then they can go on and ask, what's meaningful, how can I live a worthy life...and to me that's like sort of at the heart of Buddhist Economics...how can we live meaningful lives where we give back and we find happiness in the way that we're living.
Preeta: So of course Aristotle was, you know, one of the fathers of the Western philosophical tradition, and I guess I wonder if you have any thoughts or insight as to why Western economics went so off-track for that basic broader view of happiness.
Kozo: Hello Clair, you are back.
Clair: Hello...I'm so sorry I don't know what disconnected me and I am clueless...but you know that's sort of life, isn't it...everything is so impermanent...we get connected and re-connected and disconnected (laughter).
Kozo: So we are all interconnected, we're always interconnected, even if we're disconnected (laughter).
Preeta: I'm not sure if you heard my question, Clair. I was asking about Aristotle and the fact that he was ...it's interesting -- your approach of holistic economics, which seems to me to be, oh so sensible, I mean how can we talk about happiness without a sense of the environment, without a sense of how the least of us are faring, or even most of us are faring? I mean, I think that recent statistics say that eight people, eight individuals have as much wealth as one half of the world's population...so eight people compared to three billion in terms of just wealth, it's extraordinary that kind of income inequality, so what you're saying to me feels so intuitive, makes so much sense...and I guess the question is why is this not more part of the Western tradition, given that Aristotle in some ways outlined the broader view of happiness?
Clair: Right, you know, I even think...Preeta, I love the way you stated that. I think also we have to understand the Western world is not homogeneous. It's like the Northern European countries are much more aware of the need for everyone to participate and share prosperity. So to me, I think why is the US lagging so far behind like the U.K? I think economists are clueless. We go back to Hicks, we love making our model super rigorous. From the minute you try and make your model mathematical, which we've done, then you really can't bring in social values. Otherwise the model doesn't have a solution.
So to answer your question, you really have to go to the political scientists who've done quite a bit of work on this and also sociologists. But economists... you know, actually, I hate to say it; economists in general don't read outside their field. We just keep going along our merry way without being able to do a whole lot. I think that's why Thomas Piketty’s work had such a big bang. He was really willing as a French academic to talk about all kinds of things, and to bring them into his own work, even though five hundred pages was really too long.
I don't really have any answer to your question.
Preeta: I call Thomas Piketty’s book to be the book that everybody owns but very few people have actually read.
Clair: Or at least not past the first fifty pages...
Preeta: I want to go back a little bit here. You talked about being influenced by Buddhism, in terms of your personal shift. And in your book I think you say that, I love the way you phrase it: “I've been an economist for a lifetime and a Buddhist for a decade.” Tell us a little bit about your spiritual shift. How were you raised spiritually? What do you think led to, or opened you to shifting to Buddhism, and having what you call your awakening?
Clair: Well, I was raised an Episcopalian and went to church every day. Actually I loved church. I had Sunday school, I had friends, I sang in the choir. But when I went off to college. I really had enough. So I was like, "OK! Finally, I don't have to go to church anymore." Even though my roommate also happened to be an Episcopalian, she agreed, "No more church. Enough of that."
And then I left college and I was becoming an adult. I really cared about my spiritual life. I never gave up that. I realized how important spiritual life was to material life and one's wellbeing. But I never found a place that really resonated for me. I tried actually a lot of Zen Buddhism and other kinds of spiritual practices. But none of them stuck for me. I sort of didn't make it part of my life.
But one of my graduate students who practiced Tibetan Buddhism down in L.A. He's on the faculty at U.C.L.A. He knew I was trying to find a place to practice some kind of spiritual life. He said, "Clair I don't think your path is Zen. They too strict. You're Tibetan. You love to chant. You like something that's much easier and in tune with what's going on around. Try Tibetan Buddhism. So I started trying it, but I still hadn't found the right, exact teacher. Until one day, you won't believe this, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation hall opened up right in my neighborhood in an old Episcopal church. It was like, "Oh my gosh!"
Preeta: The universe provides!
Clair: Yes! Me and my husband walked in, we sat down and we practiced. We loved the teacher! He was really wonderful. Also we could walk and he laughed! He grew up Jewish, he said. Oh finally, I can walk to shore! You know, the Jews are supposed to walk and not drive. So we started practicing with them and then later on when I became much more interested in integrating climate change and global warming into my practice, I also reached out to other teachers who spent a lot of time working on that.
Preeta: Wow! That’s amazing! So in terms of your own personal journey and your professional journey, I guess in terms of the big questions that we talked about, like, what makes people happy and how much is enough, Have your personal answers changed to the questions at all as you started shifting from kind of mainstream spirituality to let's say Buddhism?
Clair: Well, I'm not sure if I fully comprehended what you are asking. So we might want to pursue it a little bit more. But personally... I think things evolve over your career and lifetime. So that early on, I was really busy trying to get tenure but also then raising my family and so at one point in my life, I really cared about finding balance in my life; where work and family went together in some way, or at least didn't disrupt each other. But then once my kids left home and were off to college, I really stopped and thought, "Oh my gosh! I now have a lot more time, without having to care for kids. What could I do?" I really felt that it is give-back time. I have felt so fortunate to have a wonderful job, have been really well educated, to live in a beautiful place like San Francisco/Bay Area, I have just felt so enormously fortunate and grateful. So I said, "OK! I want to figure out how can I give back and use my education and energy and experience to help the world and help other people." So that became my focus; how can I do that? And that of course is a journey in and of itself, right?
Preeta: Interesting. I think for a lot of people that sometimes, a pattern or a trajectory emerges where we first focus on making our way in the world, getting enough material comforts, achievement, family and all of that kind of thing. And then later in our life, we shift to the broader questions of meaning... at least, for some people, that’s the dominant trajectory. I noticed that early in your career, you focused on, I think what you call the relative income approach, where people often look at what other people are making in terms of assessing how much is enough?
I guess this moves us more towards the social change type question that I have. Given that we often measure ourselves according to our environment, how do we start creating change in those environments? How do we change the notion of what's enough, when we're judging what's enough based on what everyone else around us has? And when can we start giving back?
Clair: Right, that is such a wonderful question! I think that of course, all of this starts with ourselves, in some way. I was really lucky in that I never understood how to shop for clothes. My sisters knew how. I just never got it. I couldn't figure it out. And to be honest, I hated shopping. I couldn't stand shopping. So once again, that actually turned out to be a blessing, because if you don't like to shop, you don't end up collecting a lot of crap in your house or it doesn't take a lot of your time, right? So in some ways, I was really lucky, although to be honest, I still don't fully understand how much pleasure people get from shopping, and that might help me to understand that better.
And, so for me, the relative income approach is so obvious. Especially, I can see that with raising kids. Oh my gosh, when they go visit those friends, those friends that have this, my kids don't have that... But I'd still hear them saying -- I guess we better chase after that. I'd sit down and say to my kids, "You know, I see this and this and this... but like the kind of shoes or certain video game or whatever, you know, I actually, I'm not sure that it's worth the money." We would talk about it. And often they would disagree and say, "No, no, no. You don't understand." Other times they say, "Oh you know you're right. Who cares about that?" But at least we would talk about it. And I would try to understand what was driving them, and they would try and understand, and let me know, Why? And we would often come to an agreement.
You know economists love the concept of opportunity cost, as well as relative income. So relative income, you're judging people ahead of you, and opportunity cost, everybody's saying, "Oh, with this thirty dollars instead of spending it on that extra fancy shoes, if I got plainer shoes, what would I do with that thirty dollars?" And then you say, "Oh I'm giving that up? Oh no way!" I'd much rather go out and have a nice lunch or whatever it is that you want.
And so my kids immediately caught on to the idea of relative income and opportunity cost. I'd say, "If you had this much money for a game or this much money for whatever, what would you pick?" They knew right away. And I said, "OK. That's what we're going to buy." And they'd say, "Oh Ok! We get that. We understand that." Because we all know you can't buy everything. That's a basic rule of economics.
Preeta: We will come back to the issue of social change. I want to ask you a little bit about your students. You've been teaching for more than thirty years. What do you think of the next generation of kids and what they're interested in, and what their concerns are? Do you see a shift to a more holistic economics? The seminar that you teach, is it viewed as well within the mainstream of the Economics Department or is viewed as kind of an alternative offering. Just want to hear a little bit about that.
Clair: OK. And definitely we can come back to social change. I wish I had better answers on all of these. But you know, I love exploring and discussing. So we'll just keep pushing in that direction.
For the students as well as social change, we go through sort of cycles. In the seventy's, students were really into giving back and finding how they could use your talents to help others in the world. Then Ronald Reagan came in and the world really changed. All of a sudden, our students started showing up, dressed up fancy. Forget, you know, coming in T-shirts and jeans. They started doing designer labels. I mean everything was almost appearance and showing off who you are and what you can do or get. It was a difficult time and the faculty talk about it. One of them, a colleague from the business school came in my office one day, slammed the door and said, "I don't think I can teach anymore. All my students ask me is what is the bottom-line? That's not the only thing worth caring about." I said, "Yeah I know. I'm really so tired of my students in my labor classes asking, "How can I make more money? What job should I get?" And it's like, "Oh no!"
And then finally Bill Clinton came along and things definitely got better. Oh! I forgot Jimmy Carter, but that was during the gas, oil crisis.
But things, in the ninety's, did get better. We definitely made tax code a little better but we didn't go nearly far enough. And we're still sort of in that place where the students come and go and they definitely reflect what's happening in the broader country.
So when I was starting Buddhist economics, the students came in and they really cared about distribution in any quality. They were starting to learn about climate change and global warming and they really did care about the emerging world. But now that Trump is in, I almost see a backsliding where the students are thinking, "Oh! Are we supposed to put America first?" It's like, "Oh what do we get from helping Nigeria or Kenya or whatever country or whatever they're thinking about?" They actually now ask that question: what do we get from that? Instead of saying -- how can we help?
So I don't see it as a linear progression. I see it as coming and going and cycling around. And now I'm feeling like, "OK. I've been here before. I know how we have to respond, to get them to think about other people and compare themselves to them." Which, for me is one of the best things. I say, "Oh well, let's compare your life to their life." And that's always an eye opener!
Preeta: What's an eye opener to me is how much the students reflect how quickly they seem to reflect what is going on in the national conversation. It looks like given the current political climate, you already seeing that reflected in your students.
Clair: Yes. It's almost frightening, Preeta. So one of the good things about Berkeley is that we have some diversity of income and background, not nearly enough, but we have some. So it really helps our small class of Buddhist economics. I don't allow more than twenty students because it needs to be a seminar. And once the students get to know and trust each other, they share their stories. So that this student who's struggled a lot in their childhood explains what it feels like to be hungry. And that has a huge impact upon the other students who have never experienced hunger.
If you instead talk about, "Oh, my mom goes to the store and I can't figure out what to choose. There are so many choices. So I will choose several things and I get to see which one I like better." That is so far from ever being hungry you know; it's the other side of the coin. But they'll share those things, and everybody then gets a much better sense of when they're really fortunate, and when other people aren't. Which might be the first step for them in thinking about how to help other people, and not think about themselves.
Preeta: I read that you start your course, your seminar on Buddhist economics with a little bit of silence and personal practice, meditation. Is that right? Can you tell us a little bit about how you structure that?
Clair: They love it! They absolutely love it! We start with just five minutes. For some of them it's an unbearable five minutes. You know, if you've never sat quiet, five minutes is a very long time, right? I'll ask them though. If you sit, the more you do it, and you can practice it in a boring classroom even, just sit there and focus on your breathing and think about it. They would start doing that and then as a class went on, I'd say, "OK. Last class we sat for seven minutes how long would you like today?" And they almost always increase it. "Let's go to 8." and I'd say, "OK we're never going to sit longer than ten in class because our class doesn't last long enough." But they also started saying they found moments to sit outside of class. I think even three minutes of quiet time really will help you. They come back and say that you're right. It's astonishing how quiet time, internal reflection has really helped me. So for many of them, that's their favorite part of class.
Preeta: That's amazing! That helps your personal practice also?
Clair: Well once again, Preeta, I am so lucky. I decided that I really wanted a little meditation hut. And we had a place in our garden, where you could build a hobby room or shed. And so that's what I did. I had a friend who was a contractor but also an architect, who for free, made sure that it was all the right code. It was 10x8 feet. It's got a great big glass window that looks out over the San Francisco Bay. And so my hut is so special to me, it's so peaceful and quiet.
And once it was finished, once it was built, it's all just made out of wood and natural materials and Anam Thubten, my Rinpoche came by with a Lama. They just happened to walk by. They walked up and said, “Oh! This looks like a new hut." And my husband said, "Yes. I was just cleaning up all the debris. We just finished it." And I came down and I said, "Oh! Would you please come in and sit with me?" There was nothing to sit on yet. So we just grabbed some pillows from the house and we sat down. I said, "I was hoping to have my hut blessed."
And Anam Thubten said well we're so fortunate because this Lama here is famous for his blessing." And he said, if you could just find some rice... and so my husband ran and got some rice. And they started chanting. It was so beautiful. They chanted for like ten or fifteen minutes. And the whole feeling of the hut changed. They spread around the rice and then they got up and they bowed and they left. And later I asked him, can I do something that will wreck that?" I said," The energy in my hut is so beautiful! If there's anything I can do to wreck it, can you tell me what it is, so I make sure I don't do it?" He smiled and said, “It’s OK. You can't wreck the energy that is there. Whatever you do, the energy is there, just like your Buddha nature. It's all OK.You won't wreck it." And that is a fantastic feeling -- you know, so every day I go to my hut. I think I'll spend ten minutes but I end up spending thirty...
Preeta: I want to go back to how do we bring about this shift? How do we plant the seeds towards this more holistic view of happiness? I was so struck by a line in your book where you said -- "Most likely this book won't have enough rigor for some economists and not enough dharma for some Buddhists. I am not writing the book for them." So I am curious, not only with respect to the book, but for your work at this current stage in your career, who is your audience? Who do you think needs to be open to receiving these ideas in order to bring about this shift?
Clair: That's a beautiful question. I wrote the book to generate discussions. Just like the one we are having. And I appreciate everyone who is joining in with us. You know it's interesting - the economists, most of the economists I talked to and I know, really liked this book and many people, like economic professors say, "Thank you for making your ideas for economist really clear - so hard to get some of these ideas and make them clear". The non-economist find this a little bit tougher on the economics but, they find the spiritual part easier to relate to that. But the Buddhists have been wonderful. I haven't had one Buddhist complain that it wasn't deeply Buddhist enough. They were like: "Oh, thank you for helping people figure out how to take the whole idea of interconnectedness, with each other and with earth, and bring it into their daily life." So the economists and the Buddhists have all been really supportive. And people in general have. I get the nicest emails and messages from people: "Thank you. Thank you for your book.". So it made writing my book really worthwhile. Just to reach out and touch people that way, and to have them touch me.
I guess the only people who I am finding to be difficult, to be honest, are journalists from print media. They just ignore my book or they say, "We don't do religion". I think that they are really scared about the idea of economic performance not being income growth because they know how to report that. "Oh economic performance should be well-being for everyone and not average income? Hmm.. What does that mean? I am not sure we are willing to go there." That's been the tough hoe.
I don't think that's how we create social change. I think we create social change by first looking inwards. And I mean -- what makes us happy, what makes our lives meaningful, and then reaching out to the world. And then right now, all of us getting off the sofa and demanding that (at the local level at least), that we do certain things to both help everyone but also to help nature. And to heal nature. Because climate change in the US at least right now depends upon the local level. While the national level is ignoring caring for earth. But I think that social change is happening, but it is happening first with people, and then reaching out to our communities and our state.
Preeta : If you have any questions, before we get into my final question, we want to open up the phone lines and audience for questions. So if you have any questions, please submit your questions.
Clair: I love questions! Questions are my very favorite things to have.
Preeta: So we have a few coming in. But before we allow a few more people to add their questions, what I wanted to ask is that; you were talking about change coming from within. First and foremost. And kind of locally. It is interesting. And you are more aware than anyone else, given your background as an institutional economist. It is this interesting dance between the inner and the outer world.
On the one hand, yes we can make a lot change through our own inner shift. And our inner journeys and the ways in which we operate in the world. On the other hand, our environment affects us a lot. Our institutions. Our social norms. The world. So many ways we can approach this question. You mentioned earlier that when students come to you and say -- they want to work on inequality, they want to work on the environment, they want to help shift the world, ever so slightly. What would you tell them? What would you tell your younger self? In terms of educationally or professionally
Clair: In Buddhist economics, we have inner wealth and outer wealth. And you care about both. They don't not go together. But the Dalai Lama always teaches us: "Make sure you don't only focus on outer wealth. Because your true wealth is your jewels; your inner wealth." So know yourself and then you can reach out and know and help the world. And outer wealth isn't bad. So one of the things we talk about is "What do you care about most? What would you most like to do, to help?" And once you put it that way, they all of a sudden can focus. And it is no longer such a mish-mash.
And they will say, "Oh! I really care about prisoners rights" or " I really care about women's reproductive rights." or " I really care about children who don't get enough to eat." And once they put it that way, then I start to understand what dimensions of the problem might be important to them. Because one of the things that I always say to my students is "Education is learning to think well and clearly. But education is really a tool-kit. When you leave here, you want to say, "What tools do I need to tackle this specific problem?" And then you are like "Do I need to go to law school? Do I need to go to public health school? What do I need to learn? And what do I need to do next?"
So all of those start to come together for them once they can ask the question about " What do I really care about? What is really important to me?" And somebody will say " I really don't care about how much money I make as long I have a decent life style. But I really care about what I do with my life" And others will say, "Oh no no. I want to make a lot of money and then I can use it to help other people." But then they start dialogs with each other. And pushing each other on "What does that mean on what you are actually doing". And I love listening to them because young people really know how to talk to each other. And to push each other on "Whats important? How are you gonna do it? And how are you going to live?". And all of that is part of social change.
Caller: In the seventies, I ran across the work of V.F. Schumacher, and his essay on Buddhist economics, and his book Small Is Beautiful. There were a lot of us in the Bay Area in those days who were starting small businesses. And we were modeling our practices on Schumacher's ideas about Buddhist Economics...I'm wondering if you know what kind of influence, if any, his early thinking about this had on you.
Clair: Oh, I loved his essay and I also read it in the 70's, and to be honest, when I read Small is Beautiful, Buddhist Economics wasn't the essay that grabbed me, but his overall arch of how to live meaningfully, and that more is not better. And I also at that point studied worker co-ops in small businesses, maybe even some of the same ones you were involved with, and much to my chagrin, they didn't seem to be able to scale very well, or even many of them weren't sustainable, and that was in economics, my first, really big disappointment...that the cooperative movement met the same end -- and a lot of the things I cared about -- with Ronald Reagan in the 80's...but Small is Beautiful had a huge impact on me, and as I say in my book, "Thank you, Schumacher for even giving us the term Buddhist Economics" and he had a big focus, especially on right livelihood or work.
Caller: Yeah, thank you, if I may, I'd like to ask a follow-up question that you sort of led me into regarding right livelihood...back then a lot of us were contemplating the question -- how can I do my right livelihood given my background, my degree or lack of degree, or whatever it is, what is right livelihood for me? And my question to you would be -- outside of your economics students, do you have any thoughts about say somebody who's been thinking about a career in, you know, in computer science or business or medicine or whatever it might be - how can...what could be a guidelines for a young person to choose, make choices in their career that's aligned with Buddhist Economics?
Clair: Oh, I love that question, and in fact, I talk to a lot of young people at Berkeley who are in computer science, in different types of engineering, in social sciences, who are exactly asking that question. So, of course I guess the most important thing is first of all, they're asking the question, right? Thank goodness they're asking the question but then the second thing is, these are really talented, smart people, and the minute you turn the question on them and say, "Well think about it, in your work, how can you do such..."
So, for example, a young lawyer who was working at a major law firm to pay back his law school debt, went and started working on a pro bono case to get rid of isolation for prisoners, so that they wouldn't be kept...because so many of our prisoners are being kept in isolation, it was causing them severe mental health problems...and he worked on that, got it to his firm, his firm really got behind it and he said, "Now it's okay, I can deal with my law work, because I have this pro bono case, it's really important and we're making progress" and they fought...they really made a huge change - and this was in New York state - of getting rid of isolating prisoners, there were so many of them, to really get rid of that as a standard practice.
And I see that I have engineering students who go out in the third world or the emerging world working on technology and I say, "Okay, what we're training you to do is not to take your technology to the field but go to the field and ask the users - what can you do, what's the most important thing right now to make an improvement in your life, in the way you live, the way you raise your kids"...and that completely changes the way the engineers approach their technology or their problem, just switching from thinking, "Oh, what's the best solution" to asking, "Oh, what does the user want?" And so I see in these ways that these young people are finding ways to take traditional careers and making them much more meaningful, not just for them, but for the people they're serving.
Caller: It sounds like you're saying to, sort of, offer opportunities for people to engage with that question of "How can whatever it is I'm doing be more meaningful to really make a difference for the people I'm working with or for."
Clair: Oh, you put it really nicely. Thank you!
Kozo: Clair, I am going to try to ask you questions from the web. If you have trouble hearing me, Preeta said she will jump in and ask the question. So, this is related to Aryae's question and Hannah says, "Thank you Professor Brown. I was wondering if you can shed light on money and the monetary system in our economy. I am starting a design business but I'm having trouble accepting money from people. When I accept money, I can't help but to think that more for me means less for you. I really don't like that. I'm having trouble maintaining clients. Thank you."
Clair: I had a hard time understanding the question...Preeta, did you get this question?
Preeta: I'll read it for you. It says, "Thank you Professor Brown. I was wondering if you can shed light on money and the monetary system in our economy. I'm starting a design business but I'm having trouble accepting money from people. When I accept money, I can't help but think that more for me means less for you and I really don't like that, to the point that, I'm having trouble maintaining clients.
Clair: Wow...what a beautifully sensitive person...that's astonishingly sensitive. I can see how that could cause you a problem in our society...you know, I think probably though, a lot of people that you accept money from, they have more money than you do. So, I think money in a lot of situations is pretty impersonal but you're obviously talking about when it's a very personal interaction, and I'm not sure I have the answer to that. Preeta, what do you think?
Preeta: I mean this is a big alive question for us...it's a lot of people that offer deeply, as you say, personal services but whether it's like yoga or even teaching the dharma, how do you intersect with that kind of attempt to spread new ways of dealing with accepting money, and also to live in the world. So, I would love to get your thoughts on the gift economy, how one goes about offering one's services and trust that the universe will provide for you.
Clair: Right, you know one of the things that I like about Buddhism is that it's okay to accept money, and of course, giving gifts...and when one is doing personal services such as yoga or food prep or whatever it is that's helping people out, it's really important, I think to understand that we don't just want to give gifts, but it's really, really important to accept gifts.
And that people really do want to give back, and that realize, oh, this is their way of thanking me and it's giving back. And it's not a matter of who has more, as long as everybody has adequate enough, but it's really a question of the interconnectedness...oh, I give you this, I teach you this, oh, you give me this back, to help me, it's like, thank you for the inter-connection. So, to me the most important question to always ask is, did I do any harm, is there anything I'm doing to cause harm because we don't ever want to harm, and so, I don't think accepting gifts is causing harm, unless you think somehow it keeps a person from maybe eating or feeding their children. But then in general, it's really nice to accept gifts.
Preeta: So is it a gift, if it has a price tag on it? So, I guess one question for me is, is it different, is it more transactional, if I say this is the price of my services as opposed to -- I will give you my service and I will accept whatever you choose to give me?
Clair: Well many yoga teachers, for example, I know do that...they have a sliding scale or even classes and so forth will have a sliding scale so that people can adjust it to what they think they can afford, which I think is fine. That's certainly one way to make it less transactional.
Kozo: We have another caller with a question. I am gonna queue up the next caller.
Caller: Hello, can you hear me?
Caller: I'm calling from London, England at the moment. I was at a festival, a couple of weeks ago. We were doing the workshop around actually conscious law. It was around how to make law more conscious and one thing that came up with this idea of transactional economics -- somebody mentioned the situation where there were teachers with school kids.
The parents were coming late to pick the kids up, about five or ten minutes, and somebody had a bright idea let's make it….if they come in late, you penalize them by the financial amount. The thinking was that they'd all start coming on time, but I think what happened is all the parents are coming even later, because it suddenly became one kind of economy -- a moral duty to pick up your kid, to economic transactions like if I come half an hour late, then I pay five pounds more.
The interesting thing about how you have these different economies, I guess, a sense when you're talking about these different kind of economies, and whether there are different ways of looking at how we can think of the economy -- one as a transaction economy and there's something around a moral economy or moral capital or social capital. You talked about computer programmers etc...I'm just wondering if we could think of ways in which, to be able to somehow get a sense of what this is, where, why we are behaving in the other different ways and why we confuse these different types of transactions?
Clair: Right, right and that story you just told, I know from reading Sam Bowles book called “Moral Economics” where he makes a big deal out of that story, just as you did, which is that they were able to pay for it, but OK.
It wasn't, it was still very difficult and Sam Bowles doesn't even like to (voice cuts out) economies but he talks about it. Within any economy, we have different transactions...
Of course, we have market transactions but we want everybody to be able to put their kid in school and we want everyone to respect, be polite to the teachers and respect the students and their needs and you can't put that the respect and politeness through the marketplace -- that has to be part of the culture of the school and the parents behaving appropriately. We shouldn’t be able to buy off being rude. Never.
Preeta: Did you want to follow up?
Caller: Yeah. I think the line is getting slightly good and kept dropping in and out. But it seems in England at least, there is -- everything seems to be shifting, trying to be shoved down into the market economy, like with hospitals and everything else. It's like this even though we know that we have to keep respect so on outside of it somehow you touched on that in the very beginning, that you say that economists know that sticking to G.D.P. isn't a good measure and yet everyone seems to be doing it and why does that happen? Why isn’t there in the policy that we can’t stick everything in there. There is care and care can’t be made into an economic market transaction.
Clair: That's right. There are shifts going on. There are actually communities and states that are majoring economic performance differently. The OECD (The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) has the Better Life index and the U.N. has the Human Development Index. A lot of states in the US are using the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and seventeen countries have used that, at least some. So it's not like there's not a movement there, but I agree with you it's not strong enough, and I think once again the cycles go. And I think with global warming, we're going to care much more about looking at wellbeing, not just the people, but people and the environment so that future generations might have a chance to live on the planet. So global warming to me is one of the really big crisis event. It's going to push us along to hopefully both behave better and with more respect and love for each other but also for the earth.
Caller: Yeah, and just to follow up on the undivided environment. I'm trying to set up, a kind of...I've got a sort of a legal background, so looking at ecological law, so the idea of the Schumacher college, and E.F. Schumacher has mentioned it -- ecological design thinking.
The idea was that the ecology -- when you look at the environment, it comes from, the environment is part of the economy. But when you look at the ecology, economy is part of the ecology: ecology of self and earth and everything you know and it kind of really shifts my worldview.
And I see that the ecology is nesting everything else and and kind of includes myself, and I look at my own ecology, my own self through my own sort of meditative practice and seeing how when I approach everything through ecology and systems, it kind of really changes a lot of things for me, particularly around shadow as well.
Like one of the things, one of the questions was with students when they say, "I want to be, etc etc." I remembered something I wanted to be able to do with things, I deserve this or that, I felt very angry about myself and so it's always coming from this place of I want to save this or I want justice! To that, as I looked at my anger and found where they came from and integrated that, the questions of what I wanted to do came from a different place and that to me also feels like a very important shift to have, to be able to bring self and work into the circularity, a circular way of working.
Clair: That was really nice. I loved what you said. But I think it's really important that you mentioned Ecology because Ecological Economics is the cornerstone of Buddhist Economics, and a lot of people understand that environmental economic is not what we are doing. Environmental economics is a basic trade off -- they think, oh nature, we dominate nature. We use nature for consumption which is the opposite of what you said around Ecology and so one thing about Buddhist economics is we have to solidify the idea that nature exists pre-human, and we realize oh we're all interconnected with nature as you said and that completely shifts the way that the economy works by automatically caring about the what we're doing to nature now and in the future. And as you mentioned that completely shifts our world view of how we're living.
Preeta: Right, thank you, Clair. We have one other question I think we have time for and that came in on the web. And I’ll just read that because I think it really goes in some ways to the premise of economics, questioning the premise of economics.
The person says, “I'm wondering if income isn't just inadequate to measure well-being, but also inhibits well-being because it causes disconnection. I'm thinking about Dacher Keltner's study of how wealthier individuals have less compassion. Also, gated communities and isolation in higher income communities. It is hard to get to know your neighbor if they are a mile away on a 9 acre lot”. So I guess this listener is, kind of, in some ways questioning the premises of even using income in any measure of well being and I wonder... to me that goes to kind of -- Clair, we talked a little bit about gift and accepting gifts. What do you think is the relationship between wealth and wellbeing?
Clair: Well, I have read Keltner’s work. I love Dacher Keltner and he wrote a very nice thing about my book, so thank you. But this is a great question because it does go to the heart of Buddhist economics. So we think that everyone needs the basic necessities for comfortable life and we also know that when you get too much income, you become grasping and attached to it and we know that that will actually make you unhappy, and isolating yourself is the worst thing you can do to become happy, in Buddhist economics because you're separating yourself.
You're using your money to show that you're superior and and pushing everyone away and that leads to unhappiness. You just put your finger right on it, but I don't see it as income is necessarily bad in that the distribution, the use of income is what we really care about. We want to give everybody comfortable lives and a chance to fulfill who they are and what they can do and we don't want to give all this money to rich people to separate themselves and grasp after more income and to keep chasing who they are, and to show they’re superior, and that's definitely making society worse off, as well as making them more worse off. And and I think that goes to the heart of Buddhist economics -- that we're all in this together, we all want to be happy, we all want to enjoy life and we in fact, can but we have to do it together, and we have to really care for Earth as we're doing it.
Kozo: That just reminds me of all the suffering and disconnection that's going on in the White House right now.
Clair: So yes, I absolutely agree. I don't think the White House is a place of happy people and and it's mean-spirited -- that what's happening to cause us to be more mean-spirited and it is really upsetting me because this is causing a lot of unhappiness and suffering. And I think though that as individuals we can come together and continue our journey and not let ourselves be driven apart by what's happening at the national level especially at the White House. We can do it together, we can still keep moving forward together.
Preeta: Fabulous. Well Clair, we always like to end with one question to the guests which is -- how can we as a community, the ServiceSpace community, which is a global ecosystem in many countries, how can we support your work further?
Clair: Well I would hope everybody will read Buddhist Economics and send me your thinking and your thoughts -- that would be wonderful, and then to remember that the entire earth is all interconnected, and that we don't just care about what's happening in our own country but we care about every single person around the world and I constantly say this Buddhist prayer through the day: “May we heal the Earth as we heal ourselves for the benefit of all." And together we can, make life meaningful for everyone.
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