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By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations | March 13, 2014
UC Berkeley economist Clair Brown acknowledges that “Buddhist economics” may seem like an oxymoron.
Nevertheless, she’s teaching a sophomore seminar on the topic this semester — the campus’s second such offering over the past year.
Student notes based on classroom discussion. (Public Affairs photo)
Nicholas Austin, an economics major from Laguna Beach, Calif., and a student this spring in Brown’s Buddhist Economics class, said he was hungry for some fresh ideas about economics after seeing so many students in the field pursue finance careers and “moving money rather than creating a product that will help the world.”
Economics as if people mattered’
With that in mind, Brown assembled a more holistic undergraduate economics seminar that compares the basic neoclassical economics model to Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s view of an ideal economy as one that promotes individual freedoms and capabilities.
The term Buddhist economics first appeared in E.F. Schumacher’s 1966 essay, “Buddhist Economics,” which is required reading in Brown’s class and is a chapter in Schumacher’s 1973 book Small is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered. His writings are required reading in other UC Berkeley courses dealing with technology and poverty, and political economy.
The British economist said that applying Buddhist principles to the way an economy operates would produce an economy designed primarily to meet the needs of people. In accord with the Buddhist concept of “right livelihood,” Schumacher called for jobs that are valued for their psychological and spiritual values, as well as for what they produce. He wrote that Buddhist economics also would bring sustainability into economics, while helping the neediest and encouraging citizens to be happy with enough, instead of more.
Don’t spend, be happy
“In the traditional economic model, it makes sense to go shopping if you are feeling pain, because buying things makes you feel better,” Brown wrote in her class syllabus. “Yet, we know from experience that consuming more does not relieve pain. What if we lived in a society that did not put consumption at its center? What if we follow instead the Buddhist mandate to minimize suffering, and are driven by compassion rather than desire?”
Her students are also learning about the Bhutan Gross National Happiness index that measures human wellbeing, and the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, which was influenced by Sen. And they’re being introduced to ecological economics by UC Berkeley agricultural economics professor – and Buddhist – Richard Norgaard.