Sunday, July 25, 2010

In Search of Wisdom and Simplicity: Life as if People Mattered

[For] too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product . . . if we should judge America by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead . . . and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage . . . it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
--Robert F. Kennedy (presidential campaign speech, University of Kansas, 1968).

It has been nearly four years since I gave up a career as a federal prosecutor to join the private sector. Unlike many of my former colleagues who left the U.S. Attorney’s Office to work for large law firms, I chose to work in a small regional office of a worldwide corporate investigations firm, where I often am asked to assess and investigate corporate malfeasance, fraud, and other forms of business misconduct. My work is interesting and I like my colleagues, many of whom had prior careers in government, academia, law enforcement, and journalism. In making the transition, however, I quickly discovered that the day-to-day operations of the profit-driven world of the private sector are, philosophically and operationally, worlds apart from a life in government. No longer is the primary or only objective of my work to do the best I can on all of my assigned cases. The concerns now are with billable hours, generated revenues, business development, and gross profits. As I work for a subsidiary of a large, multinational financial services and risk management conglomerate that fills the ranks of the Fortune 500, my value to the company and our regional office’s value to the larger operation are measured in strictly quantitative terms – key performance indicators, gross margins, originated revenue and utilization. I understand the need for such systems of measurement, seemingly objective considerations of productivity and output which help direct the company’s strategic investments and resource allocations. The bottom line, however, is profit, and the need to maximize profits is the company’s raison d’ĂȘtre.

The pressures of competition add another, impersonal dimension to the workings of private enterprise. The large corporate law firms of Philadelphia, New York, and Washington are a great example of this. These firms consist of hundreds of extremely bright and talented individuals who make a lot of money, live in nice houses, drive fancy cars, and send their kids to Ivy League colleges. But many of the professionals employed in these firms seem lifeless and unhappy. When I speak with them, I can often sense their underlying distress and impending pressures. My work has provided me a window into their world, in which many of the most highly compensated employees are miserable, overworked and intensely pressured, or on the opposite end, bored and uninspired. And in certain corporate environments, employees often toil in sterile, spiritually-debased, cubicle-filled environments five days a week, 50 weeks a year, simply to make enough money to support their affluent lifestyles.

In the modern day corporation, the spiritual and soulful needs of the human beings that make up the workforce are often ignored. Overlooked is the human toll that impersonal, strictly monetary measurements of success or failure have on those who choose to work in profit driven enterprises. The demands of the marketplace rule, everything has a price and nothing is sacred outside of its market value. For practical reasons, the things that matter to the inner lives of human beings – non-economic values such as beauty, compassion, thoughtfulness, and creativity – are not allowed to surface.

Business success is driven by monetary and financial measurements and little else. It is why the majority of corporate CEO’s have backgrounds in finance – men and women who have produced virtually nothing in their lives, but who understand how to maximize the important statistics that drive the modern economy – short-term profits, stock prices, and earnings-to-assets ratios. On a national scale, we are driven by key economic indicators, measures of gross domestic production, the Dow Jones industrial average, and the consumer price index. The national economic policies of most Western democracies are based on the assumption that unlimited economic growth is possible, and indeed necessary to sustain employment, productivity, and ever expanding wealth. In the United States, it is how we hope to eventually balance the federal budget, re-build our infrastructure, and reduce unemployment as we continue to allow gross inequities in the distribution of wealth; as long as the pie continues to get bigger for all, no one is particularly concerned that the largest pieces are cut for a small few, leaving the crumbs to be divided among the masses.

During my senior year in college I read a book by E.F. Schumacher, a German-born economist who authored the seminal work, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (Harper & Row, 1973), widely considered one of the 100 most influential works published since World War II. I recently took a second look at this admittedly out-dated treatise and found that, surprisingly, its perspective remains fresh and relevant. Schumacher notes that, according to traditional economic theory, unlimited economic growth is “obtainable only if we employ those powerful human drives of selfishness, which religion and traditional wisdom universally call upon us to resist.” Indeed, for most economists, it is essentially greed and envy that drive the modern economy and contribute to its success. Schumacher suggests an alternative view:
If human vices such as greed and envy are systematically cultivated, the inevitable result is nothing less than a collapse of intelligence. A man driven by greed or envy loses the power of seeing things as they really are, of seeing things in their roundness and wholeness, and his very successes become failures. If whole societies become infected by these vices, they may indeed achieve astonishing things but they become increasingly incapable of solving the most elementary problems of everyday existence. The Gross National Product may rise rapidly: as measured by statisticians but not as experienced by actual people, who find themselves oppressed by increasing frustration, alienation, [and] insecurity. . . .
What if the assumptions and preconceptions which form the foundation of modern economics are obsolete, or were never correct? As history professor Theodore Roszak, author of The Making of a Counter-Culture, asked in his introduction to Small Is Beautiful, “What if there stir, in all those expertly quantified millions of living souls beneath the statistical surface, aspirations for creativity, generosity, brotherly and sisterly cooperation, natural harmony, and self-transcendence which conventional economics . . . only works to destroy? . . . And what sort of science is it that must, for the sake of its predictive success, hope and pray that people will never be their better selves, but always be greedy social idiots with nothing finer to do than getting and spending, getting and spending?”

There is an interesting essay in Small Is Beautiful entitled, “Buddhist Economics”, in which Schumacher, a Roman Catholic, explains the purpose of work from the Buddhist point of view: “to give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.” Buddhist economics is thus very different from the economics of modern materialism, which preaches that the most efficient and productive economies are ones that maximize production of material goods at the lowest possible cost in labor and capital, resulting in a high degree of specialization, assembly lines and cubicles, in which employees are given pre-defined tasks with little room for creativity and individual thought. By contrast, for the Buddhist:
To organize work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.
That we could structure our economic systems and businesses in ways that do not rely on the motives of self-interest and greed, that instead embrace the complexity of the human condition, is for most of us who grew up conditioned on Western thought, very difficult to understand. We are used to measuring our standard of living by the amount of money we make and the quantity of goods we consume, always assuming that one who acquires more is “better off” than one who acquires less. As Schumacher notes, “A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.”

Take, for example, our approach to renewable and non-renewable resources. We evaluate the viability of coal, oil, gas, solar, nuclear, and wind power based on its relative cost per equivalent unit, its monetary price. The cheapest form of fuel is automatically to be preferred, for any other conclusion is inefficient and irrational. The effects on the environment, the degradation of our ecological systems, the violence committed to our land, air, water, and wildlife when we extract natural resources for human and technological consumption, are either not considered or are quantified as merely added costs. To the Buddhist, which values simplicity and non-violence, basing one’s economic life on non-renewable resources is justified only by short-term expedient thinking. “As the world’s resources of non-renewable fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – are exceedingly unevenly distributed over the globe and undoubtedly limited in quantity,” Schumacher writes, “it is clear that their exploitation at an ever-increasing rate is an act of violence against nature which must almost inevitably lead to violence between men.” Or as Ghandi said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed.

As Robert Kennedy articulated in a campaign speech (quoted at the beginning of this essay) that is unique to any I have heard from an American politician in my lifetime, while money forms our system of measurement for economic success, it cannot buy the things that matter, such non-material values as justice, harmony, inner peace and love. "[W]hen the available ‘spiritual space’ is not filled by some higher motivations," according to Schumacher, "then it will necessarily be filled by something lower – by the small, mean, calculating attitude to life which is rationalized in the economic calculus.” Although merely food for thought, Small Is Beautiful and the principles of Buddhist economics are helpful reminders that unquestioned assumptions upon which we base our way of life are often but weak alternatives to the less conventional wisdom of humankind.

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