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The New Economics: Virtues of the Old Economy

Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Country Wisdom News

This might be a bit of a surprising topic, especially if you read last month’s column in which I talked about the “old economics, in which money is king, competition can be brutal, human values are ignored, and the environment is not even on the radar.” Clearly I was pointing out the evils of the old economy by contrasting them with the more positive goals of the New Economics. But I think we need to take a pause and think about traditional economic virtues. We are not going to build a new economy without them, no matter how good our ideas may be. 

Here I’m mainly talking about economics in practice, as opposed to theory. Of course, there is a great deal to be learned from the masters of the past such as Adam Smith and J.M. Keynes, as well as icons of the New Economics like Henderson, Daly, and Schumacher. But how do we actually behave, both individually and collectively? How do we influence our personal circumstances, and with that, the course of history?

If you think about traditional economic virtues, you’ll probably come up with qualities like hard work, common sense, honesty, and responsibility. Every one of these is a rich starting point for contemplation. I was born in 1954, which puts me—to my surprise—in some sort of older generation at this point. Even my generation, the “baby boomers,” had it pretty easy in terms of how hard we had to work, compared to our parents and the generations before them. We had the luxury of education and a sense of sufficiency, but that may have led to a lot of laziness and misdirection. 

At the same time, my generation grappled with the deeper issues of creativity, philosophy, and spirituality. We became “cultural creatives.” For us, hard work has always carried a lot of ironies. Hard work for what? To make a lot of money? To be respected in the community? To be famous? For those of us who didn’t necessarily go for all that, and who chose the path of creativity or activism, hard work can sometimes feel like a thankless struggle against the entrenched conventionality of society. But speaking as someone who has, as the saying goes, “been there” with all this, I still have to say there is no substitute for hard work. That quote by the Dalai Lama, “Never give up,” is making more and more sense these days.

Common sense is another interesting one. I spent summers on my Grandparents’ farm when I was a kid, and common sense was a notion that was in the air. It wasn’t discussed all that much, but it was taught by example. If you’ve been around farmers, you know what I’m talking about. The understanding I came away with was that common sense meant you paid attention to what you were doing and used your intelligence on the spot. There were a lot of ways to have fun on the farm, but also a lot of ways to mess up or get hurt. It was expected of us that we would handle ourselves carefully, and do a job safely and correctly. 

What’s interesting about all this is that what I learned about common sense closely parallels a teaching about prajna by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a famous Tibetan Buddhist teacher. Prajna is a profound Sanskrit term that can be translated as wisdom or discernment. It is a basic quality of our minds that, if nurtured, can blossom into the transcendent wisdom of enlightenment. Rinpoche said that prajna is about bringing together intelligence and presence. When you are really there with your intelligence, that is prajna. And that’s pretty damn much what Grandpa meant by common sense.

As for honesty and responsibility, they seem to part and parcel of the bigger notion of integrity. A key part of this is making commitments and keeping them. I don’t pretend to speak authoritatively on all this, since in the past I’ve tended to make promises I could not keep. I guess admitting that is one step toward honesty. What I’m finding now is that I have to focus on a very detailed level of commitments, such as what I do about stuff I write down in a meeting as an action step. This level of attention adds up and gradually affects outcomes and progress. I’m a work in progress in this area, but I hope that I’m at least getting better at it, not worse!

Well, most of this has been about personal qualities—what we individually bring to the table. It’s true that the macroscopic forces at play in the economy would seem to be beyond the power of any of us personally. If we are to make an impact, it’s largely going to be about how we work together for change. It’s also true that the basic, timeless virtues of economic behavior have had different expressions in different eras of history. Still, if we don’t learn how to update, as it were, and embody those timeless virtues in the present, then all our attempts to work together and to work for society—our activism, our aspirations, and our plans—will be just so much talk. That’s why taking inspiration from the virtues of the old economy is so important.