Friday, November 4, 2016

Useless Advice

The Dalai Lama and his longtime friend/follower Arthur Brooks have an op-ed in the Times asking why so many people in rich countries are miserable and angry:
The problem is not a lack of material riches. It is the growing number of people who feel they are no longer useful, no longer needed, no longer one with their societies.

In America today, compared with 50 years ago, three times as many working-age men are completely outside the work force. This pattern is occurring throughout the developed world — and the consequences are not merely economic. Feeling superfluous is a blow to the human spirit. It leads to social isolation and emotional pain, and creates the conditions for negative emotions to take root.
Ok, fair enough. I accept that millions of people cannot find work that both feels useful and pays the bills. And what should we do about it?
Leaders need to recognize that a compassionate society must create a wealth of opportunities for meaningful work, so that everyone who is capable of contributing can do so. A compassionate society must provide children with education and training that enriches their lives, both with greater ethical understanding and with practical skills that can lead to economic security and inner peace. A compassionate society must protect the vulnerable while ensuring that these policies do not trap people in misery and dependence.
I look at this and scratch my head. How are "leaders" supposed to create all these meaningful jobs? Not even a hint.

I suppose we might say that this is a task for economists, not spiritual teachers, but it seems to me like the heart of the matter. Pretty much everyone agrees that we need more good jobs, good in that they both satisfy the desire to be a contributing  member of society and put food on the table. But not only is it completely unclear how we would create them – as Brooks and the Dalai Lama say, this is a worldwide problem – but the recommendations we have are opposite. One school of economists says we need to drastically cut taxes and reduce regulation, while the other says we should raise taxes, increase infrastructure spending, raise the minimum wage, and so on. Neither, so far as I can tell, would have any impact on the sad fact that millions of people have jobs that still leave them feeling useless. That just seems to be the way the economy of late capitalism works.

Morally, compassion is the absolute crux. In economics, it only goes so far.


G. Verloren said...

"I look at this and scratch my head. How are "leaders" supposed to create all these meaningful jobs? Not even a hint.

I suppose we might say that this is a task for economists, not spiritual teachers, but it seems to me like the heart of the matter."

Of course this isn't a task for spiritual teachers. I mean, is it even remotely fair to criticize a cloistered monk born in Tibet in 1935 for not having specific notions on how to best go about creating jobs here in the West in the modern day?

You wouldn't ask the Dalai Lama for plans on how to improve the economy any more than you would ask an expert economist for an analysis and interpretation of esoteric Tantric texts and their moral and philosophical implications.

The Dalai Lama's expertise is in moral and philosophical guidance, not in crafting effective economic or political policy. His job is to tell people what they ought to strive to do from a moral standpoint - not to lay out detailed plans for how they should go about doing it. There are many other people who are far more qualified to perform the latter job, and he quite rightly leaves that work to them, rather than choosing to speak on subjects beyond the scope of his own knowledge and expertise.

Now, maybe having a spiritual leader speak out and say that we need to create good jobs for people sounds like a waste of time to you: a needless statement of what should be obvious to any right minded person. But I would disagree with such a notion, suggesting you're simply overlooking the value of what he's doing.

As you've often observed yourself on this blog, sometimes people care far less about logic and rationality than they do about feelings. You can give people all sorts of good reasons to care about an issue and yet still not motivate them to take proper action. But if you can also manage to reach them spiritually, you can often break through certain barriers that reason alone may struggle to surmount.

It's one thing to tell someone that doing something is good for them, and quite another to tell them that doing it makes them a good person. Having a respected spiritual authority tell you that you should do something because it's the moral thing to do motivates you in an entirely different way than having an economist telling you to do the same thing because it'll be good for the economy.

I believe there's more than enough room for both kinds of contribution to the discussion. I don't think it's the Dalai Lama's place to try to come up with detailed plans on how to fix our problems. But I absolutely do think it's his place to try to appeal to our morality and decency to help compel us to take greater action and devote more resources toward finding people who can figure out all the nitty gritty details for us, and still other people who can then implement such it all efficiently and effectively, with a minimum of unpleasantness on the side.

Unknown said...

Based on my own reaction and that of many of the online comments in the NYT, it seemed to me that the big news here was the (again, to me) rather surprising idea that the Dalai Lama and Arthur Brooks, whose stock-in-trade is a sort of presentably watered-down version of Ayn Randism, would be friends.

John said...

I do think it is weird that Arthur Brooks -- who does a lot of writing and speaking about Buddhist spirituality -- should be in politics such a normal sort of Republican. But then I guess in Asia there were Buddhist military aristocracies.