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What Would Buddha Do? Berkeley Econ Class Covers Supply, Demand and Enlightenment

August 8, 2014
by Ben Christopher

Let the bull market for college-level economics continue. Despite its daunting math, its abstract models, and its 0-for-1 track record in predicting recent worldwide financial catastrophes, economics remains one of the top 10 college majors across the country, according to the Princeton Review. That trend certainly holds at UC Berkeley where, last fall, econ was the second only to electrical engineering and computer science as most popular major. As the fall semester approaches, expect hundreds more undergrads to flock eagerly to the “dismal science.”

They may be in for a bit of a disappointment, says Berkeley economics professor Clair Brown. While many econ majors—and the incoming freshman aspiring to join their ranks—hope that an undergraduate education in the subject will help them better understand the complexities and problems of the real world, according to Brown, introductory microeconomics tends to leave the real world at the door of the lecture hall.

“The students who would come to office hours had these wonderful questions about inequality, about climate change, about all these things that traditional, mainstream economics doesn’t cover,” says Brown of her time teaching Econ 1 at Cal’s Wheeler Hall. “And that’s just not the way that we teach economics. You almost have to get to the Ph.D. level before you start really getting an understanding of more complicated systems.”

As anyone who has suffered through a first-year lecture on utility maximization surely recalls, the world depicted in preliminary economics textbooks is populated by an alien race of hyper rational consumer-citizens who get their kicks (and their sense of existential purpose) by wringing every last penny out of each transaction. This is not a place that will teach you much about the vagaries of environmental policy or income inequality.

“Economists know all this, but we keep on doing it. We just keep on doing our thing,” says Brown. “But then I started studying Tibetan Buddhism.”


Blending the study of supply and demand with the world religion most closely associated with the renunciation of demand, Brown decided to use Buddhism as an ethical jumping off point. Drawing upon the fields of development economics, ecological economics and moral philosophy along on the way, she has come up with what she considers a more Enlightened approach to the field— “Buddhist Economics.”

Berkeley econ professor Clair Brown

This will be her third year to teach a sophomore seminar by that name. The class only meets seven times over the course of half a semester and its enrollment will number in the teens. But with the breadth of vision one might expect of a student of the Middle Way, Brown has bigger things in mind: “I think we’re going to change the whole way that economics is taught.”

Her  introduction to the Dharma began seven years ago after a young Tibetan monk named Anam Thubten set up a meditation center in an old episcopal church a few block from her house in Point Richmond. There Brown, whose most recent book examined the economics of the semiconductor industry, began studying Mahayana Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan scriptural translation.

“It really got me to think about what a more holistic approach to economics would be,” she says. Or, more to the point: “How would Buddha teach Econ 1?”

Brown isn’t the first to ask that question. The original coinage of the term “Buddhist economics” dates back at least to 1973, when British economist E.F. Schumacher published an essay on it in his book Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered.

First and foremost, wrote Schumacher, a Buddhist approach to economics would take a less reductionist view of human nature. People should be seen as more than repositories of earthly cravings, but as multidimensional, social, and occasionally high-minded creatures who desire to contribute, to improve themselves, and to find purpose in their work.

“The Buddhist sees the essence of civilisation not in a multiplication of wants, but in the purification of human character,” he wrote.

Still, spanning all of eight pages, Schumacher’s vision of what Buddhist economics would actually mean is fairly limited. Brown calls Small is Beautiful “hugely influential” on her generation, but says she didn’t even remember “Buddhist economics” until she stumbled upon it while developing her syllabus. What she did find was compelling enough, but dated. From globalization to climate change to gender politics, a lot has changed in the last forty years.

Trickier still, Buddhism (like economics, for that matter) is no monolith. In a 1991 essay called “A Buddhist Economic System — In Practice,” Swarthmore economist Frederic Pryor wrote that by its sheer span and complexity, the Buddhist canon could house any number of political and economic philosophies. Though an Idiot’s Guide version of Buddhism might lead some to assume that the religion of the Dalai Lama would necessarily favor a more egalitarian, eco-friendly, Kumbaya economics, Pryor cites one 19th century scholar who promotes a kind of Dickensian Dharma, arguing that “the rich and powerful man has a right to govern because in a previous life he was pious and good; the poor man must be content with his lot.”

With so much intellectual wiggle room before her, Brown decided to build the curriculum from scratch.

“If it hadn’t been for Amartya Sen, I don’t know what I would have done,” says Brown. At first glance, using the work of an atheist Hindu as the cornerstone of a Buddhist economics course is an unusual choice. Still, the religious affiliations of the Harvard economist notwithstanding, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s name is almost synonymous with the field of development economics. Brown focused specifically on Sen’s “capabilities approach,” a theory of human welfare based on the idea that wellbeing is about more than just income and consumption. Thus poverty is not defined by a dearth of material resources, but the inability to do work that is fulfilling, to be a citizen within a democratic society and, in more extreme cases, to be safe, well-fed, and healthy.

While non-economists, Buddhists and Beatles fan will hardly be surprised to learn that money can’t buy you everything, such keen insight seems absent from many microeconomics textbooks.

Buddhist Wheel of Life with its six realms

“We teach this very straightforward, neoclassical model that says that you can maximize your ‘utility’—which is basically income, which is basically consumption—and that’s how you make yourself better off and satisfied and happy,” says Brown. Sen redefines this notion of utility as “not how much money you have or how much you consume; it’s what are you able to do with your life.”

To address environmental depredation and climate change, the course also includes a lecture on ecological economics by Energy and Resources Group professor emeritus Richard B. Norgaard. And for a more explicitly Buddhist take, Brown focuses not just on maximizing capabilities, but on minimizing suffering.

Going forward, she wants the class to delve into the practical implications of Buddhist economics. For instance, how would Buddha measure economic performance?

Brown says he certainly wouldn’t use Gross Domestic Product, which measures the total value of all final goods and services sold in a country over the course of a year. Focusing on which metric best measures economic activity may seem a narrow, technocratic debate, but as the preeminent benchmark of economic wellbeing, GDP is the target that policy makers set their sights upon. Change the measure to reflect the concerns of Buddhist economics, in other words, and you’re more likely to get results that a “Buddhist economist” would approve of.

Some economists have long recognized the shortcomings of GDP. One famous parable tells the story of a rich but lonely widower who hires a maid to maintain his estate. Soon, the two fall hopelessly in love and marry. For the vast majority of people, this is a happy story. But for the dismal scientist, it is a tragedy because the new wife, now working without a paycheck, has contributed to the decline of total national income.

Brown updates the tale to reflect 21st century events and gender norms: “Hurricane Katrina comes through and demolishes New Orleans. That’s not recorded in our Gross National Output,” she says. “We go to rebuild New Orleans and that’s all put into GDP. We don’t get back New Orleans to where it was, but from a national output perspective, we’re much better off.”

“When I first brought up this idea, they said, ‘Ah! You’re bring­ing the hu­man spir­it back in­to eco­nom­ics!’ ”

This is the same kind of criticism that inspired the creation of the Human Development Index, one of the most influential and widely used alternatives to GDP today. Developed and deployed by the United National Development Program (with some input from Amartya Sen), HDI combines per capita income (with higher and higher levels accounting for less and less value) with more “capabilities” based measures of public health and education.

Going a few steps further still is the Kingdom of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index, a favorite of Brown’s. Based on a national survey, the measure takes into account 124 variables of “national happiness,” which fall into nine categories including psychological welfare, community vitality, and ecological diversity. GNH, says Brown, is “very representative” of Sen’s capabilities approach—and by extension, of Buddhist economics in practice. Could it be coincidental that the state religion of this landlocked Himalayan kingdom is Buddhism?

Despite its title, Berkeley’s Buddhist Economics class is surprisingly secular.

“The reason I call it Buddhist economics is because that’s what made me think about these issues,” she says. She has considered changing the name, but her students objected that no one would take a class with the snooze-inducing title “Holistic Economics.” And Buddhism does provide a useful frame, says Brown, for pulling these disparate criticisms of traditional economic education into one lecture series.

“We are all one. That is truly the heart of Buddhism philosophy. And the minute you take that as a given, if anybody is suffering, then everyone is suffering,” she says. Thus, a Buddhist economics is an economics in which concerns of inequality become paramount. The ethical scope is broader still if that “we” is assumed to include non-human life.

“Then all of a sudden the idea that you could pollute and not have it count is just crazy,” says Brown.

The explicitly ethical aspect of Brown’s Buddhist economics is at odds with the notion, often promulgated in undergraduate textbooks, that economics is a science that merely describes behaviors. Without doubt the vast majority of introductory econ classes, within the University of California system and at colleges and universities nationwide, adhere to the traditional approach.

Asked about Brown’s critique of how economics is typically taught, Sam Allgood, chairman of the education committee at the American Economic Association, responded, “I do not really think I have anything constructive to offer on this topic.”

But Brown insists that many of her colleagues are starting to see the light. “I think maybe ‘getting religion’ would bother a lot of economists. And I don’t have any problem with keeping religion out,” she says. “But when I first brought up this idea, they said, ‘Ah! You’re bringing the human spirit back into economics!’ ”

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