Buddha, Balance, and Budgets

November 18th, 2012 at 1:44 am

The President is in Thailand where he continues to work on resolving our budget issues, in this case by invoking the prayers of Buddhist monks.  Hey, it couldn’t hoirt!

This reminded me of something that I really want to spend more time with: while I firmly believe in the separation of church and state, I’m convinced that there is much in the philosophy of Buddhism that could advance our politics to extremely useful places.

For example, the notion of balance is central to Buddhist practice is balancing all of life’s different forces; the seeking of the middle way, avoiding extreme positions; balancing revenue increases with spending cuts—these were all tenets of which Buddha spoke (well, maybe not so much the last one).

There’s much, much more in Buddhist thinking that could be usefully linked to our policy debates.  The recognition of reality absent magical thinking that denies challenges like climate change is part of the mindset.  But so is the concept of impermanence: the recognition the reality is elusive and changing, the eschewing of absolutes (so, e.g., no fixed budget rules re outlays as a share of GDP–way too inflexible given ever changing realities).

At any rate, a treatise on economic policy from a Buddhist perspective would provide a very helpful road map of the path toward policy enlightenment.  I would really like to go hangout on a mountaintop and work on that for a few months (assuming good wifi access, of course).

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11 comments in reply to "Buddha, Balance, and Budgets"

  1. Sandwichman says:

    `a treatise on economic policy from a Buddhist perspective would provide a very helpful road map of the path toward policy enlightenment.`

    Then you would no doubt be interested in E. F. Schumacher`s essay on Buddhist Economics, reprinted in his Small is Beautiful. Schumacher was a protege of another economist you have no doubt heard of — John Maynard Keynes.


  2. Bob Lucore says:

    Jared, I will be one of the first to line up to read such a treatise. May I suggest a very interesting book An End To Suffering: The Buddha in the Modern World by Pankaj Mishra. Mishra is not an economist, but his book ranges over a huge amount of both Buddhist and Western philosophy. I think there are some nuggets, particularly in his discussion of Adam Smith, of some ideas that could be developed into a much more interesting discussion. I see some close parallels between Keynes’ Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren and Buddhist thought. Also parallels with Galbraith’s Affluent Society.

    Somehow I doubt you will be heading to a monastery soon to start work on this.


  3. Nhon Tran says:

    Thank you.
    The Buddhist perspective is also about YOYO “you’re on your own”, you have to find your own salvation through the teachings of the Buddha. It’s also about disengagement from the worldly things. Is it compatible with Democratic Action? Regards.

    • Jared Bernstein says:

      It’s also about WITT–’we’re in this together’–as anyone’s suffering is my suffering. Re disengagement from things, that’s a tricky one for an economy that’s 70% consumer spending (Europe’s 55%; so is Thailand (heavily Buddhist)). So not sure America with its consumption/go-to-the-mall culture is ready for serious material disengagement. I myself would be unhappy were I to have less access to a certain amount of electronic gadgetry. But there are still many other precepts on the path that we could aspire to in the near term.

  4. Tyler Healey says:

    “For example, the notion of balance is central to Buddhist practice … balancing [tax] increases with spending cuts …”

    Buddha preached austerity? Kidding!

  5. Lee A. Arnold says:

    How about a clearminded view of deficits and the debt? Here is a serious cartoon animation that gives some useful information:

  6. Procopius says:

    Since I live in Thailand, I thought it would be interesting to pass on remarks from our central banker about the ultra-secret Trans Pacific Partnership which the administration has been selling for the last couple of years http://www.bangkokpost.com/business/economics/321699/bot-inflow-control-in-danger-of-ebbing-under-tpp
    He points out that we don’t really know what’s in the TPP proposal, but he’s scared of neoliberal policies like those of the IMF. The IMF is still loathed by the Thai people due to their policies in 1997.

    I don’t have a link for it, but a good book on a Buddhist approach to economics would by the King’s own “Sufficiency Economics.”

    I think the best Buddhist approach for economists comes from the forest monk Buddhadhassa, “We must learn to see things as they really are.” Aside from that you can find almost anything in Buddhist literature, which is vaster than most Americans imagine. As someone who has been trying off and on to learn about Buddhism for sixty years, I find that much of it is mindlessly devotional and consists of empty ritual. A lot of it is dropping coins or small bank notes into offering boxes.

  7. Robb of Warren says:

    How many Buddhists does it take to change a light bulb?

    Tree falls in forest.

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