THE NEW ECONOMICS OF BEING
- Jacelyn Eckman
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Jacelyn Eckman, former diplomat, US Department of State, author, student and teacher of comparative religions, USA
"Sharing the Wisdom, Shaping the Dream:
Reclaiming the Moral and Spiritual Roots of Economics and Capitalism"
Waterperry House, September 2-5, 2012
The economics of being concerns all of us as we struggle to survive and thrive, whatever our socioeconomic status, race or nationality. Though I have had considerable economics coursework in the past (the long past), my interest in economics and material culture is through the lens of relationships. Without the human half of the equation, it seems to me a soulless science.
I hope to show that by looking at economics in relational terms we will be better able to resolve many of the great challenges facing humanity, whether economic, sociological, psychological or environmental. All of these disciplines together are parts of a single coordinated organism. Effect a change in one, and all are impacted, even if the connection isn’t always apparent or easy to trace. It is analogous to a physician treating the whole person rather than a collection of independent, unrelated systems.
So the economics of being is about paradoxes and our efforts to resolve them. It is about the dialectic, of healing the divisions within us as individuals, among us as social units, as well as those between people and nature.
My own thoughts on this subject have been informed and enriched by a handful of people who have gone beyond the conventional wisdom (whether from the left or right) as they seek to define a better future through not just a new system of economics, but a new way of being in the world together.* And while it’s tempting to label their ideas and perhaps my own as utopian, I would argue otherwise. I have no doubt that the depth of change that is being required of us will try us to our core. But to attempt anything less than all-out transformation will be devastating in its consequences, jeopardizing the future well-being of this planet. Simply put, the status quo is not sustainable. Remaking our world in the image of our highest wisdom and our greatest potential obliges us to be bold and resolute, willing to learn to work in concert rather than at odds with each other. Commitment to a vision of global good, and not just that of the people closest to us or even of our own particular nation, will determine whether we succeed or fail.
I am going to offer a very brief overview of our economic history and the current circumstances that bear witness to the need for radical change, and then I will take a look at our relationship with money and how those attitudes impact on every facet of our lives. From there I will explore the spiritual nature of our economic selves and finally, talk about actions we might take to move us forward into a new paradigm of deeper meaning and universal sufficiency.
The Magna Carta of 1215 and the Charter of the Forests of 1217 established forests and fisheries as communal resources, an economic system that was maintained up to the 17th Century when John Locke made the argument for the integration of public and private sectors. At the same time, Thomas Paine in America contended that people should be recompensed for their loss of the commons. But this did not happen and over the next few centuries both in Europe and the U.S. the local gentry, backed by their respective legal authorities, increasingly fenced off village lands and converted them into private holdings. Without access to basic needs the impoverished peasants began moving to the cities to work in the factories that were springing up with the industrial revolution. The new landed rich were investing their profits in these same factories, benefitting twice from the peasants’ loss.
The last four centuries have seen a relentless decline of the commons and the externalizing of the costs of industry to the very people who were displaced and who have borne the burden of privatization. Meanwhile, the expansion of a new middle class increased the demand for industrial products. Through the wars of the last century demand grew faster than supply, but around 1950 this reversed, and a surplus developed as the factories of war converted to the production of consumer goods. Out of this a new industry was born: marketing. Its purpose was to increase demand for goods that people didn’t need, by making them think those goods would improve the quality of their lives. Credit was easy to obtain, and people became habituated to the new consumer society. This effort was enormously successful.
The public sector (governments) have supported legislation to further enable the pattern of enclosures, and even where it has held onto what we think of as public lands, government has for the most part licensed those lands back to corporations to manage pretty much as they see fit. This has extended even to prisons and schools, parks and museums, and the exploitation of forests and public lands for mining and other purposes. As James Quilligan and others have pointed out, where once we had a nation state, we are now effectively living in a market state. And in place of the social contract that protected and cared for us as citizens of our country, there is a market contract that assumes no responsibility for the people who support it. The state is essentially guaranteeing the risk of buying and borrowing by banks and corporations. A hybrid example is the privately managed, financially troubled U.S. Postal Service that continues to survive only by virtue of a government safety net.
We have become citizen consumers and our primary freedom or shall we say obligation is to consume without thought for tomorrow. Interest on money keeps us in bondage to banks and other moneyed interests, pretty much from birth to death. The costs of pollution have been passed on to us, and if any of us point this out we are ridiculed as being idealistic environmentalists, as if that were a dirty word. Our natural resources are being exploited with little concern for its impact on us, or for their long-term sustainability.
In 2005 the UN reported that 60% of the ecosystems that support life are being used unsustainably, resulting in floods, droughts, fishery collapse, dead zones along the coasts, and of course global warming. And it is considerably worse now, seven years later. Bill McKibben wrote a disturbing article titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” for the August issue of Rolling Stone Magazine. And the June 2012 Summit on Climate Change was proof (should anyone need it) that the political will to make this shift does not currently exist. We are deep in ecological debt.
The problems are complex, entrenched and admittedly dire. So what can we do? We can begin by investigating our enormous societal divisions using a dialectical framework. We can examine our unconscious attitudes toward money and the material world. And we can learn about and implement what are now alternative economic models of behavior.
The dialectical process takes place when the tension between two opposing forces or points of view is resolved in their synthesis. In our discussion of the private and public sectors, this would happen with the reintroduction of the commons. In sociological terms, the individual is embedded in and is cared for by the collective, while at the same time taking responsibility for providing support to the collective. This pattern holds true from the nuclear family all the way up to and including the entire human family. Unless both the individual and the collective are participating equally each will suffer, resulting in an imbalance in power and unmet needs. But if both accept their roles of mutual responsibility the tension is resolved as the work of caring for the needs of humanity goes forward, leading to a more equitable world.
Let me offer another example of the dialectical process. When people incline towards the values and capacities of either the right or left hemisphere of the brain, their behavior can become imbalanced. If the right brain dominates we tend to lose ourselves in the abstract, inductive, intuitive, creative, visionary realms, while if it is the left brain that dominates we will veer to the deductive, rational, linear, concrete way of viewing things. Most of us do specialize in the functions or qualities of one or the other. But if we can recognize our tendency toward one in favor of the other, we can make an effort to take the other perspective in cognitive processes and world view, if only to gain a greater understanding of other people and their perceptions. The problem is most people either do not recognize they are polarized or (just as often) simply believe their way of thinking and judgments are superior to those of others. So why would they want to change? This is an enormous problem in a world that is increasingly polarized politically, economically and socially.
Those who favor the right brain values tend (paradoxically, given the language that is commonly used) to the political left or liberal end of the spectrum. And in economic terms, these are the people who are most vested in identifying with and taking care of the collective, seeing themselves as a part of the whole. Those whose values are left-brain dominant tend toward the political right, or conservative end of the spectrum. These are people who identify strongly with the individual. We can easily see that the market state is a product of left-brain thinking. Each of us champions certain political/economic policies that are in alignment with our particular brain bias. Mind you, I am not in any way saying that one or the other is wrong, or right. What I am suggesting is that it’s the imbalance that needs correcting.
Following is a short list of other dichotomies that lead to imbalance in our personal lives, our societies and specifically in our economic systems.
• Left Brain Right Brain
• Worldly Values Spiritual Values
• Western Culture Eastern Culture
• Competition Cooperation
• Market or Private Sector State or Public Sector
• Money/Resources Relationships
Over-identifying with one side to the exclusion of the other will result in a rupture or tear in our societal fabric. Integrating their complementary qualities leads to synthesis and a pathway for forward movement both in evolutionary terms (for the individual and the human species altogether), and for solving the current impasse in global problems of any nature. In finding a means to resolve the polarization in all areas of human living, we can heal our divisions and find our way to wholeness. In this will be discovered a common humanity with shared interests among us, and finally a shared vision with some agreed-upon definition of the common good. It is in our relationships with each other and the world in which we live that we can redefine who we are, and what our intentions are for our shared future.
I would like to talk now about a different kind of relationship, our relationship with money and the material world. We need to remember that ultimately money is concretized (or at least digitalized) energy, and like all energy it is meant to flow through its designated systems for optimal health of everything in its pathway. Hoarding blocks the flow. Individuals hoard, banks hoard. The underlying motivation for hoarding is fear. We created money to serve us, though in most respects we have made ourselves its slaves.
Almost everyone, no matter how rich or poor, has a story of woundedness around money -- related to their upbringing, to divorce or bad business, bull markets or bursting stock market bubbles ... something. This story gives rise to fear. As a result we are either grasping for what we don’t have, or if we have money, we are trying desperately to protect and hang onto it. Both attitudes arise from a belief in scarcity.
The extension of this deeply ingrained unconscious attitude of scarcity is that not only is there insufficient money to go around, but there is not enough of all the other things that we have come to hold dear: not enough time, sleep, love, sex, and so forth. Lynn Twist, a fundraiser for The Hunger Project, tells us that our obsession with lack translates as proof that we ourselves are not enough – we’re not smart enough, rich enough, beautiful enough. Of course, the economic sector that arose in the 50s to convince us that we need an endless supply of consumer goods is all too willing to reinforce this “not enough” consciousness. We’ve been immersed in this kind of brainwashing from the first time we sat in front of a television set.
This is devastating enough in its own right, as it undermines our very humanity, our self worth and identity as spiritual beings. But this belief that we do not have enough and cannot BE enough unless we have more things has created a gulf between us and the other people in our lives. We begin to operate in an I and You manner, because after all, if you have enough, there might not be anything left over for me. So in the spirit of competition I have to drive an even bigger wedge between us and position myself better to get the money and the goods before you do. Eventually I and You becomes Us and Them because we cannot bear to be wholly alone in our quest for more, so we align with family or friends or partners of one kind or another, against the Others. Of course we’re never really sure if we can trust these partners of ours, but they do help us deal with the sense of isolation that comes from our insecurity.
Extrapolating this scenario into the global arena, it’s easy to see how competition drives pretty much everything in our market-based, left-brain world that lifts the individual up over the collective. It drives our economy, our politics, and events like wars.
The next step of this belief in scarcity is that more is better. In a way, we must believe this because the life of separation that we have unconsciously created leaves us feeling a great hunger for … something. We don’t know what it is because we we’ve been told that having these things will fulfill us. Furthermore, if we give things to others it will validate our worth, ensuring their love in return. So if that isn’t happening, and the emptiness is still there … then more things must be the answer. It’s what we’re told at every turn.
And the last lie that we have bought into, beyond that of scarcity and the belief that more is better, is that there’s nothing you and I can do about it … nothing we can do to change this consumer society, this market state that we live in. Because we believe we can’t make a difference, we give up. Giving up, we feel helpless, apathetic, depressed.
The truth is, there will never be enough stuff to fill the holes in our lives, to end the hunger of the human heart. But the greater truth is, we can and must awaken and take action.
We can begin by looking at the world through new eyes, and peeling away the layers of lies that we have bought into pretty much from the day of our birth -- the lies of scarcity, of ‘not enough’ -- and look into the boundlessness of life. I’m not speaking about some New Age idea of thinking or wishing your abundance into being, because frankly, at its core it perpetuates what I’ve been talking about -- trying to get your share without care for the rest of humanity. But I am talking about finding a way to reallocate the material resources of this planet in a saner, more rational way, from the viewpoint of providing each person their true needs, if not necessarily their endless wants. If we do justice to the things we already have, especially in collaborative efforts in the service of others, what we have will begin to expand in ways that are appropriate to our needs in further service. This is real prosperity, prosperity ultimately for all.
The split between you and me, between us and them, has penetrated everything. It’s broadcast to us from our television sets and our computer screens; it’s at the heart of our educational system (no matter where we live in the world), our systems of governance, even or maybe especially our religions. And of course it is at the heart of our economic systems. This fractured vision of our world is based on the lies that I’ve just named and the resulting uncertainty that eats at us. And so we arm ourselves with more things, more money and more armaments to protect our things and our money. But deep inside we know that security, real security, has nothing to do with any of that. Security comes from community, from communion with our own self (the essential core within, by whatever name we give it), with each other and with our physical environment.
So what can we do? Once we’ve become aware of the lies that have run our lives and begun disentangling from them, once we begin to awaken to the truth that economics and all social institutions are essentially about relationships … how can we translate our new awareness into demonstrable change?
I have listed a few of our most innovative thinkers on this subject below. There are many others, some with us here at the GCGI conference. We need to find each other and network to bring our ideas and resources into the mainstream. As current systems continue to break down we will be faced with the greatest opportunity in many decades to bring to light new systems that will speak to humanity’s greatest needs: the closing of the horrific gap between rich and poor, including access to basic human needs for all; the restoration of the commons as a means to this and the protection and renewal of the physical environment that supports us. The key is to remember there is no Us and Them, but only WE. Unless we take this to heart and act upon it, no one, no nation will long flourish.
I will say a few words about the commons here, though there are others more capable of speaking about this topic than I. But it cannot be left out of this thesis; as it stands as our best hope. The following is a definition of the commons from an amalgam of sources. (Quilligan et al, listed below.) The commons is our shared wealth, comprised of goods which we have inherited or created, which we are entitled to use and obliged to restore and pass on to our children. It is the common goods we share apart from the enclosed spaces of public and private property. The commons movement seeks to take back some of those enclosed spaces that rightfully belong to us and put them into trusts where depletable resources will be preserved and replenished, and protected for future generations. After we are assured of their protection, a portion of these resources can be rented out to either the private or public sector for extraction and production. A percentage of the rent is then taxed by the state and redistributed to its citizens as dividends or subsistence income. And the remainder of the rent is reinvested in the rehabilitation of depleted resources and the enhancement of replenishable resources. Social Charters are the legal means whereby this system is set up and administered.
What are these resources? They go far beyond the fisheries and forests of the 1500s. Generally speaking they include the gifts of nature, our civic infrastructure, cultural works and traditions, and knowledge. These commons are everywhere, but because of the inexorable enclosure and appropriation over time we have stopped noticing them. Examples include water (including aquifers), food, forests, parks, community gardens and other public spaces, plants, seeds, algae, topsoil, energy (solar, wind, tidal or wind power), health services, schools, culture, means of communication, ecosystems, wetlands, rocks and minerals, hydrocarbons, genetic resources, fisheries, the atmosphere and its ozone layer and stratosphere -- almost all of which have been transformed into public and/or private goods.
There are also traditional and emerging social, cultural, intellectual commons, such as indigenous culture, neighborhoods, social connectedness, voluntary associations, labor relations, the rights of women, children and others, family life, health, education, religions, creative works, languages, words, symbols and holidays. More obviously, perhaps, are airwaves, games, playgrounds, roads, streets and sidewalks, national parks and historical sites, museums and libraries. And finally there’s the internet, which even today is at risk of either private or government appropriation and control. Skype is a brilliant example of the digital commons, as is open source code on the internet which encourages the free flow of information.
Those who champion the return and expansion of the commons for the common good are not calling for the end of private enterprise or a communist-style confiscation of privately-owned property, but rather a hybrid system that will ultimately benefit everyone. Consider the Alaska Permanent Fund that has paid each of its citizens an annual dividend for the last 36 years for money earned on the extraction of oil on its lands. While that fund is managed by a corporation rather than a trust, it does show the potential for money earned from a commons.
In a commons the producers and consumers are closely linked, so the feedback loop between supply and demand is tighter and more rational than it is with the private sector. This is because value is not created through a mindset of money and profit, but through an emphasis on individual and collective well-being rather than competition. People often describe the private sector as one of self-interest, but I would argue that the commons trusts will provide for both self and community interest far better than the private sector ever has. We will surely discover that in taking care of the needs of others, our own needs will be provided.
If we do not make the shift from the old way of separation and endless consumption, we – meaning the whole human race and not simply the greediest societies – run the risk of going the way of Rome. The material forces that once led the Roman Empire into ruin are now leading the market state in its short-sighted abuse of the natural environment and oppression and economic subjugation of the majority of people on this planet. The dualism that dominates our current thinking and actions must be resolved in the dialectic of oneness wherein the whole is supported by the individual, and the individual is cared for by the whole. A system of complementarity holds the greatest potential for providing both greater material security and the fulfillment of our highest potential as human beings.
* My thanks to James Quilligan, Peter Barnes, Joan Subiratis, Lynne Twist, Charles Eisenstein, and others who have expanded my understanding of the economics of being.