Thanong Khanthong writes in The Nation of Thailand about Buddhist economics and the global financial crisis. In particular he cites the work of Thai monk Phra Payutto, whose book Buddhist Economics: A Middle Way for the Market Place can be read online in English translation.
I don't know enough about the economy of Thailand to discuss how "Buddhist" or how successful it is in practice, as opposed to theory. And I haven't read Phra Payutto's book, although it's now on my to-do list. However, Thanong Khanthog's article raises the question, what can Buddhism teach us about 21st century economies?
In recent decades, the economic climate in the U.S. has been dominated by people who believe American business is inherently sustainable. According to this theory, an economy is something like an ecosystem that will sustain itself by natural law as long as government doesn't interfere with it. The theory assumes that most business leaders will make rational decisions based on the long-term interests of their companies. It also assumes that "supply and demand" will ensure most needs of a population will be met by the private sector without intervention of government.
The biggest flaw in this pretty picture is that it leaves out the corrupting influence of greed. As Buddhism teaches us, the passions of greed will short-circuit reason as surely as fish swim and birds fly.
Today Americans are looking at the wreckage of a once-thriving economy and asking, how could this have happened? We're learning now that the heads of big corporations and financial institutions have not been making rational decisions at all. The hyper-competitive Asuras who rise to the top of the business world have been running their corporations in such a bone-headed manner one wonders if they need text messages on their PDAs to tell them to come in out of the rain.
Further, basic needs are not being met. The U.S. economy is very good at turning out shiny new products that people lived happily without before the ad campaign, but our roads and bridges are falling apart and the aging electrical grid grows more fragile by the day. We produce a dizzying variety of teeth-whitening products, yet millions of Americans can't afford basic dental care. We create cutting-edge medical technology, but hospital emergency rooms are decaying for lack of funds.
Remarkably, even when the real world is screaming at us that our current economic mode is not sustainable, too many of our business and political leaders still deny there's a problem that a few tax cuts won't fix. I'm not hopeful that the nation will make the kinds of corrections it needs to make.
Thanong Khanthong writes,
In conventional economics, the value of goods and services is determined by the consumers' perception as to whether it serves the satisfaction or the desire. In Buddhist economics, there are two kinds of desires or two kinds of value: true value and artificial value. "True value is created by chanda (good desire). In other words, a commodity's true value is determined by its ability to meet the need for well-being. Conversely, artificial value is created by tanha (bad desire) -- it is a commodity's capacity to satisfy the desire for pleasure," Payutto says.
Tanha is the "thirst" described in the Second Noble Truth. The glossary of one of my books defines chanda as "will" or "volition." It's not a word I've seen much in use. If anyone can shed more light on the meaning of chanda, please speak up.
The larger point Thanong Khanthong makes, however, is that we have created an economy fueled by tanha. But the teaching of the Four Noble Truths is that tanha is a thirst that can never be satisfied. As soon as we acquire the thing we desired, we fixate on something else we think we must have, and the formerly desired thing eventually is cast aside.
So we have landfills of discarded toys, tape players and toaster ovens, but we can't find the resources to repair bridges or maintain emergency rooms.
The challenge, it seems to me, is to devise a sensible middle way between unfettered greed-driven capitalism and a centrally controlled, Communist-style economy, which the real world has shown to be unworkable also. The problem for Americans is that we seem unable to have rational discussions about the economy, mostly because so many people are unable to let go of their pet unworkable theories. As I said, I'm not hopeful that we won't put ourselves through a lot more suffering in the next few years.