Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Cave

I started writing blogs out of a genuine yearning to challenge both my paradigm and the mainstream paradigms of our day. Well today is no different. I'm reading Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, by E. F. Schumacher (thanks Eric!), a true visionary of his time whose message is even more pertinent today than when he wrote it almost 40 years ago,  and it has sparked countless fires in my mind. 

The light from the flames bounces off my preconceptions, the ways I've learned to view the world, and the shadows betray the alternatives which simmer beneath the surface. Catching the glint of other possibilities I realize we're all lost. We're all gobbling up what we're told without stopping to analyze why we're told it or what will happen if we continue to follow the leader unquestioningly.

Perhaps the most burning question in my mind presently is this: Is our economy serving us (humanity), or are we serving our economy? Which leads to another question: What is the purpose of the economy? 

We hear every day about the Dow Jones Industrial Average, or the S&P 500, or the quarterly statements of massive corporations and the GDPs of nations as if we're all on the same page with what these numbers mean, how they were computed, or why they're even important in the first place. I would argue, along with Schumacher, that we need to collectively stop and size up our situation; namely that we're living in a society shaped by an economic platform which was developed with the best of intentions, but for a far different world than the one in which we currently live. 

This platform admires largess, uniformity, quantitative analysis, and simplicity as it stretches skyward, having convinced all of us that it can reach the goal of unlimited and exponential growth (how to you reach that goal by the way?). Oh, and the wealth created as a by-product will eventually trickle down to those who can't fit onto the platform.

Although this platform made sense as it was sculpted; in an uncrowded world filled with seemingly unlimited and nearly free resources with which to power growth, we can no longer say that any of it actually works. Despite growing GDPs, a new 'study' showing 1/3 of Africa is now in the 'middle class', and trillions of dollars floating around the world, are we (humanity) really better off for it? Has the wealth really trickled down and helped us lead healthier, fuller lives?

Or are we simply serving our economy and forgetting that it is actually supposed to be serving us? With more hungry people today than every before, more pollution in the air, ground and water than our planet can cope with, less topsoil with which to produce our food, and less of every other fuel to which we're addicted, I would say its time to rethink the platform we're standing on. 

As Schumacher puts it: "If [our current] economic thinking cannot grasp this it is useless. If it cannot get beyond its vast abstractions, the national income, the rate of growth, capital/output ratio, input-output analysis, labour mobility, capital accumulation; if it cannot get beyond all this and make contact with the human realities of poverty, frustration, congestion, ugliness, and spiritual death, then let us scrap economics and start afresh. Are there not indeed enough 'signs of the times' to indicate that a new start is needed?"

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Generosity: The New American Dream

Life is a crazy thing. Every day we (global citizens) wake up and are forced to confront, and yet expected to ignore, the paradoxes around us. Some of us ('Westerners', but especially those of us who call the US home) are told to pursue the dream of others. A dream whose exact definition is elusive, but which conjures images of a house/mortgage with an over-sized lawn, 2-3 cars, 2.5 children, and a 'career' which will lead us securely towards the "Golden Years". 

Yet most of us learn from an early age that pursuing what is right, what is good, what is just, are worthy pursuits. Yet, as a rule, the elusive American dream demands selfish pursuits - often times even to the detriment of others - and offers the idea of volunteering or service or generosity as an exception; only to be done in 'spare time,' if we have any. Without more role models portraying lives of service toward a greater good, what chance do we have of living up to the things we were taught as children? 

The citizens of the United States individually give a lot monetarily toward 'charity'. Somewhere in the vicinity of 3% of our incomes we give away. That is a great start. But it is just a start. When the working and middle class families give more of their income than the upper socio-economic classes, and when we have so many societal ills (outrageously expensive healthcare, vast homeless populations, a decrepit public education system, failing ecosystems, etc, etc) with global ills to match, my hope is that we will not give up on giving. 

In an age when the government is slashing budgets to truly amazing programs such as Peace Corps, Americorps, Community Block Grants, community health organizations, and the like, it is our money that is needed the most. Yet it truly isn't our money. Whether you believe that everything you have is a gift or not, it is vital we see the connection between how we try to control our money and the failing systems we live in. 

I was inspired yesterday by a friend who, though he and his wife are struggling to make ends meet, gave Ash and I an unsolicited financial contribution to 'help where you think its needed in Moldova'. This spirit, one of complete generosity and trust that money can go farther when let go instead of clutched tightly, is something I rarely see, even in myself.

I truly believe that this kind of generosity, even if at first it is done more out of discipline than out of desire, is an important stepping stone toward reclaiming the values of our childhood. Values that lay claim to justice and other worthy pursuits.