Keynote talk at the International Buddhist Economics Conference

University of Hong Kong: April 14, 2019

Watch here! (starts at 5:25 in)

“Economists sit around and fight about, are people altruistic or are they selfish? It really matters which kind of model you use. The free market model says they’re selfish and individualistic. The Buddhist Economics model says they’ve got to have some altruism and interdependence. Sociologists and neuroscientists confirm that people have altruism and self-regarding instincts — they do both. This isn’t a surprise, except to economists! Economists hate that answer, if they want to use the free market. People have unconditional caring about others without ulterior motive. Helping people and the environment makes you happy.”

Luxurious Lifestyles Are Killing the Earth

Clair Brown, Professor of Economics, and Jun Pei Wong, economics major who is teaching a course on Ecological Economics, University of California, Berkeley.

This blog is based on a presentation made by Clair at Breakthrough Dialogue “Rising Tides” in Sausalito, CA:

Our two biggest economic challenges—inequality and climate change—go hand in hand. Most of us know that poor countries and poor people in rich countries suffer the most from extreme weather, rising sea levels, and pollution. However you may not be aware that the carbon footprint of the rich is enormous as the rich live luxurious lifestyles with homes around the world, private jets, large yachts, exotic vacations, and closets full of things they don’t use. America’s 1 percenters emit fifteen times more greenhouse gas emissions per person than the average American and fifty times more than the average person worldwide (World Resources Institute). The rich pollute the most and suffer the least.

What do the rich achieve with their extravagant consumption? Not much from a social welfare or happiness viewpoint, as Buddhist economics explains. While a person shows off their self-importance, they are still wanting more because another rich person has an even longer yacht or bigger house. The valuation of consumption rests on comparing ourselves to one another. Thorstein Veblen, the 20thCentury economist who coined the terms “conspicuous consumption” and “invidious comparisons,” pointed out how individuals use luxury goods to show off their status. Veblen observed that people were living on treadmills of wealth accumulation, competing incessantly with others but rarely increasing their own well-being. This means that when inequality increases, we all feel less well-off even if our income has not gone down. When the rich get even richer and the rest of us don’t get more, our stagnant income and lifestyles seem diminished. Over the past four decades, economic growth has mostly gone to the top 5% of households, and this growth begets more inequality, without increasing social welfare as it exacerbates invidious comparisons. Yet inequality continues to increase in the US, with the top 1% grabbing 95% of income growth and the bottom 90% experiencing declining incomes even  as the economy recovered (2009 to 2012) (Atkinson, Piketty, and Saez, JEL, 49 (1), 2011, 3-71).

Per capita emissions by income group for G20.

Source: Oxfam Report, Extreme Carbon Inequality,  2015.

Feelings of social discontent and anxiety rise with growing inequality, and keep people fighting to maintain their social position even as those at the top aren’t feeling more satisfaction with their fancier lifestyles. With rising incomes comes frivolous spending, which itself drives ever more needless consumption, all so we can try to maintain our relative standing. This treadmill of wealth accumulation leads us to spend our incomes on status or luxury goods that tend to pollute the earth. Yet even though America’s top ten percenters emit six times the tCO2e of the bottom 50% of households (50 vs 8.5 tCO2e per person yearly; Oxfam), even the bottom 50% have an average carbon footprint that is four times the Paris Climate Accord goal of 2.1 tCO2e per person per year by 2050. The task to reduce CO2for the United States with 16.4 tCO2 is much greater than for the European Union with 6.7 tCO2. India and Indonesia will increase their carbon emissions as their living standards improve. Their people have very low emissions, below the 2.1 benchmark.  (Girod, Env Research Letter, 2013.)Though there are improvements to be made across income groups and countries, the global rich need to lead the way in reducing their carbon footprint.

Rich countries are not the only ones vulnerable to this destructive story. The developing world faces enormous environmental degradation as the standard of living and the professional class imitates the lifestyle of the Western world based on subsidized fossil fuel energy. Countries such as China and India are already suffering the consequences of a burgeoning middle and upper class that consumes increasingly more. These populations are not only trying to keep up with the rich within their own countries but the global rich as well—this is evident where nearly all Chinese provinces and cities’ per capita carbon footprints increased  from 2007 to 2010 (Shao et al. 2018). In India, poor urban slums (poorer areas) have lower carbon footprints than that of richer non-slum areas (Adnan et al. 2018).

The growing trend of inequality tells a stark story of economic growth without social welfare growth at the expense of a growing carbon footprint. If left unfettered, we can hardly progress in the right direction of reducing our carbon footprint. In order for the world to meet the Paris Climate Accord goal of 2.1 tCO2e, it should be clear that radical lifestyle shifts are critical. No longer would the rich consume mindlessly, and others caught up in the treadmill of wealth accumulation. Values such as those from Buddhist Economics should provide guidance. We derive happiness not from the pursuit of material goods or from “invidious comparisons,” but internally from each actor, rich or poor, to form an equitable and resilient economy and society. Only then will happiness decouple from our lifestyle emissions, and achieve the Paris Accord goals without sacrificing happiness and well-being.

Marching for People and Mother Earth

On Saturday my family joined 60,000 people in Oakland, along with hundreds of thousands across the US, to protest Trumpism, which is harming people, killing the planet, and benefiting only the Rich.

We demand that Trump and his billionaire cronies stop harming immigrants, provide health care along with clean air and water to all Americans. Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Military, and Big Bankers are in charge of our economy and government, and their greed and corruption are hurting us at home and harming people around the world.

Trump put the fossil fuel industry and investment bankers in charge of energy and the environment, and they are rolling back clean energy programs and pushing ahead with more drilling and pipelines for oil, goal, and natural gas on public lands and seas. The carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising rapidly and overheating the earth, but Big Oil puts profits before the health of people and the planet.

We must elect a new Congress in November! This was the main message of the Women’s March. We will continue working to defeat conservative Republicans in California and key spots across the country. We will stand up to Dark Money of the Koch Brothers and big companies, who think they can continue to buy Congress and Governors. We will raise money, and more importantly, we will VOTE!

In Buddhist Economics, people are interdependent with each other and with earth.

Human nature includes both self-regarding (egocentric and taking care of oneself) and other-regarding (altruistic and taking care of others) impulses, and the well-being of humans and nature are intertwined. Even when economists believe that humans are not only selfish, opinions abound as to what degree human nature is egocentric and to what degree altruistic; and economists mostly ignore environmental problems.

Economists begin with the assumption that everyone is egotistical, and then they look to see if perhaps caring for others is possible. Economists have observed in lab games that most people have some altruistic feelings, defined as unconditional caring about others with no ulterior motive. Even in an experiment on what people expected from dictators, the subjects expected the dictators to be fair and not behave selfishly.[i] Generous behavior is not only observed in the lab, but also expected by subjects. These experiments have been important for economists to go beyond assuming that people are selfish and to incorporate other-regarding feelings into their models.[ii] Bowles and Gintis argue that humans developed cooperative instincts with moral sentiments over time to ensure group survival and growth. [iii] Now that the world is united by global warming, we have the opportunity to see how humans behave when existence is threatened in the short term, without time for evolution.

Buddhist economics complements the work of Bowles and Gintis. Yet rather than assuming basic human nature is selfish, and then asking what causes basically selfish people to become other-regarding, Buddhist economics sees human nature as altruistic, because people are interconnected with each other. Self-interest (ego) is developed as we grow up in a greedy materialistic world. We ask:   “What creates materialistic self-interest (ego development), so people’s natural goodness becomes obscured by self-interest?” Certainly advertising creates endless desires; and inequality creates discontent as people compare themselves to the rich with their lavish lifestyles. Economic performance is measured by income growth, and society evaluates how well we are doing by how fast income is growing, while ignoring that the rich are getting most of the gain in income and our carbon emissions are overheating the planet and killing species.

Buddhist economics begins with the belief that our true nature is kind and altruistic, but then our ego obscures our true nature with delusions that lead to suffering from greed, hatred, and ignorance (the three mental poisons). The goal of life is to go beyond these delusions to be in touch with our Buddha nature, using contemplation and meditation along with our teachers and community of friends (sangha). Ignorance of our basic nature is the root cause of many of our personal, societal, and political problems, and failure to realize our own basic goodness or Buddha nature creates suffering.

We don’t have to agree to what extent humans act out of ego or altruism. What matters is that we agree that people have the desire, and responsibility, to take care of both themselves and others. Then the Buddhist economic system that redistributes income from the rich to the poor and caring about reducing suffering increases social welfare. We can make a living, even prosper, but not at the expense of others or the planet.

Audiences ask me about the violence and aggression promulgated by religions throughout history. Yet this observed violence and aggression is the result of confusion about who we are and how to attain eudaimonic happiness and relieve suffering. Violent behavior is never acceptable in Buddhist economics except to defend oneself and others in order to stop violence. Our mandate is to do no harm to sentient beings or to Mother Earth.

Without practicing Buddhism or any spiritual practice, one can adopt a pragmatic approach that accepts the interdependence among people and with nature, especially with global warming. In 1971, a founder of modern ecology, Barry Commoner, expressed this interdependence as one of the four laws of ecology:  “Everything is connected to everything else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all.”[iv]

Then when nature is degraded, and when people are harmed, all life suffers.

As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Caring about the environment is not an obligation, but a matter of personal and collective happiness and survival. We will survive and thrive together with our Mother Earth, or we will not survive at all.”[v]

Image (under creative commons) from

[i] (2017)

[ii] Andreoni et al, “Altruism in Experiments” Prepared for the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 2nd Edition, 2007

[iii] Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[iv] Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology (New York: Random House, 1971).

[v] Thich Nhat Hanh, Love Letter to the Earth (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2013), p 82

Gift-buying guides based on happiness-some of the basic tenets of Buddhist Economics.

To create happiness for our families, and ourselves give gifts that will bring happiness—not hedonic happiness that provide a short-lived burst of personal pleasure (or avoidance of pain).

Give gifts that promote eudemonic happiness, which is based on living a meaningful and worthy life, which includes developing one’s full potential and contributing to others and the community.

How do we do this?

I stopped buying trinkets and gadgets for neighbors a few years ago, and sent them a card saying that we donated to the local food bank to celebrate the holidays in their honor. The neighbors were thrilled, and soon we all started the tradition, even asking each other for suggestions of where to send donations. This allows each of us to pause and ask, “What is important to me? What makes life meaningful and inspiring?”

For family members, I asked if there was something that would help them achieve their spiritual goals, to live a more balanced life, to enjoy life more. For teenagers, we give them money or a gift card to buy school books; for youngsters, we donate to a cause that helped poor people in Africa or Asia and present them with a card that talks about families that need more to eat; for parents, we buy a card at a restaurant for a dinner out. In addition, this is a good time to share things you make. As a ceramic artist, I have ceramic sculptures that my family and friends love to receive. For youngsters who want to open a present, a simple gift that supports their team sport, always brings a smile (and good use). A neighbor who is a master pastry chef delivers holiday cookies for us to enjoy with our grand kids.

You get the idea—the holidays are a wonderful time to give gifts with meaning and love, rather than more stuff to push into the closet (or toss out the door). It is also a time to be grateful for all we have, including food, shelter, family and community. This is also a time to make donations to help people in need, and to help Mother Earth.

Here is what a student submitted to the Berkeleyan Gift Guide for his go-to holiday gift:

I’d like to put in my two cents for your Cal-themed holiday gift guide: Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science, by Cal economics professor Clair Brown. It is a wonderful book because it makes an honest appraisal of issues plaguing our world today, and emerges with hopeful, tangible recommendations for solving those issues. Prof. Brown’s book can provide a template not only for how governments and international bodies should act, but also for how we as individuals can navigate our economic lives to create happier, more fulfilled futures for ourselves.

This book is perfect for our friends and family members who spend the holidays reading by the fire, especially those who are frustrated with our current political and economic conditions and want a fresh perspective. Plus, the book is infused with the combination of sterling scholarship and hopeful idealism that is so unique to our university. I think this book would make a great addition to your guide, and I hope you will include it.

Owning up to Trumpism, Getting Out of the Quagmire

Even though you didn’t vote Trump, and denounce his pro-business, anti-people (unless rich), and anti-earth policies, you still must take responsibility for his ascendance and election.

Why? Because collectively we allowed Trumpism to triumph, and flourish, in our country. We allowed inequality to skyrocket over the past four decades, even as we bemoaned it. We allowed towns across the heartland to become decimated as globalization flooded our homes with cheap goods. We used cheap fossil fuels to drive our cars and heat our homes, as our carbon emissions overheated the planet. We consume four times what our planet can sustainably provide, while billions around the world live in shanty towns without sufficient food, education, or health care.

Even as we protest Trump’s policies that stamp on human rights, transfer money from the poor to the rich, and kill the earth with carbon emissions, we have allowed these policies to unfold until they took over our country.

What could we have done differently? Everything. Here are the simple economic facts of life:  Countries choose their level of inequality. Countries choose their carbon emissions. Rich countries collectively choose global suffering. Economists and scientists have demonstrated the policies that structure markets to reduce inequality, carbon emissions, and global poverty. Yet we continue to push for free market policies that work against these social goals and produce the world we have today of enormous inequality, rising carbon emissions, and global suffering. We over-consume, over-work, and over-complain, as if there is nothing we can do create an economy that supports meaningful, worthy lives in a sustainable world with shared prosperity. Our scapegoats are right-wing politicians supported by big business. Yes the Koch brothers and their ilk have spent billions to push us to binge on the free market as we kill the earth. Our passive indulgence in the “good life” has allowed this to unfold while we were busy building our careers and big houses.

Trump is a master at keeping us confused by daily malicious tweets and disastrous policies, so we cannot focus on how to move forward to create an economy and society that we want. Ask yourself, “What is important to me?” Once we focus on what makes life meaningful, then we can demand the policies that provides social programs with child care, health care, education and a safety net; that allows us to spend time enjoying life with our families and friends; that moves us past fossil fuel to clean energy; that focuses on quality of life rather than consumption.

We know how to create a high quality of life, if we say “STOP  the Free Market and Trumpism”, if we stop over-consuming and begin living mindfully and caring about others.  We can become happier and healthier, and care for the planet. Then our children and grandchildren will have a chance.

Creating the World We Desire

In a time of national turmoil, we can turn to Buddhist economics for guidance.

Trump’s free market economics and narcissistic tweets are causing turmoil, confusion, and suffering. An aggressive, mean-spirited approach to live will cause pain, in spite of the fact that people want an economy that provides a prosperous meaningful life as we care for our planet.

Buddhist economics shows us the path for creating comfortable, worthwhile lives for all people and a healthy planet, and is based on three key ideas:

  • Humans are interdependent with nature, and our health depends on caring for all living creatures and healthy ecosystems. Violence and greed lead to misery.
  • Chasing more and more income does not make us happy. Living in harmony with each other and with nature, as we live with loving kindness to help others, makes us happy. As we transfer income from the wealthy to those in need, both at home and abroad, everyone is better off and our economies perform better.
  • The United States leadership in reducing global warming, in transferring income to relieve poverty and suffering globally, and in stopping wars and conflict, will make the country truly great as we all come together to live with peace and prosperity.

Free market economics is based on three gravely harmful ways of thinking:

  • Humans dominate nature, which is used to increase consumption, and we don’t need to worry about destroying our ecosystems.
  • National well-being is based on average income growth, and increasing the incomes of companies and the very rich with reduced taxes and other perks is how we can make everyone better off.
  • The United States does not have to care about the well-being of people in other countries, and an individual ego-centered free market economy will automatically make the US great again.

Buddhist economics reminds us that people are interconnected with each other and with Earth. Now is the time to connect with our sangha—our family and neighbors, our community—and mobilize to protest policies that can harm people and nature.

One mandate of Buddhist economics is to reduce suffering of all people. Now is the time to honor the basic goodness of all people, and join together in the fight to protect the rights and dignity of immigrants, LGBTs, Latinos, African-Americans, Muslims—everyone, and also to reach out to those who feel isolated and left behind and supported Trump in their confusion.

Buddhist economics looks to the basic goodness in all of us, our Buddha Nature, and reminds us that the suffering of one person causes suffering for everyone. Now is the time to reduce the painful anger of the Trump supporters, along with the pain of people around the world who are suffering from hunger and from climate change.

As we care for each other and for Earth, our love and compassion for one another and for our planet grows. As peace and harmony pervade the world, as hunger and physical deprivation end, as people live comfortable lives with dignity, and as Earth’s ecosystems are protected—then life is good.

The leap to Buddhist economics takes moral courage to act, to speak out, to mobilize with people around the world. Mobilization to stop harmful policies by the Trump Administration and to demand that our governments at the local, state, and national levels do the right thing to stop global warming and to care for all people must be our top priority.

We have no time to lose, and together we can accomplish much!

Needless Pain in Daily Life

Our lives have ups and downs, and daily activities can cause us pain—but we can stop the pain with practice. Being in Bhutan makes me constantly aware of appreciating the moment—the beauty and life around me. Also lots of archery, which is Bhutan’s national sport.

One of my favorite Buddhist teaching, “Two Arrows Sutra”, shows us how to respond to pain in a mindful way that prevents needless suffering.

An arrow hits us and causes us physical or mental pain. The arrow can be a nasty remark, or not buying something on sale, or not getting an outcome we want. When we react by becoming distraught and worry about it, we are hit by a second arrow, one of mental pain. The second arrow has been created by our own negative reaction, which causes us unnecessary pain. If our response to the first arrow is to remain patient and calm, and let the negative thoughts pass along, there will be no second arrow.

The great teacher Shantideva wrote (The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shambala, 2008, p 16):

If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes,
What reason is there for dejection?
And if there is no help for it,
What use is there in being glum?
I’ll not fret about such things,
To do so only aggravates my trouble.

In Buddhist economics we gain nothing directly from suffering or from feeling guilty. Instead we can learn from our experiences and make amends if we have harmed someone, and then let the experience pass. We want to help others and relieve suffering whenever possible. This is the way to be happy.

We can apply the story of the two arrows to our national economy as well as to our daily lives. The first powerful arrow of maximizing profits in free markets is launched, and though it makes a few people rich, it harms many people and the environment. Then the second arrow hits people as they work hard to earn enough money to buy lots of stuff, only to find temporary happiness on a treadmill that won’t stop.

If we look closely at the first arrow, we can question the viability of an economy run by competition for profit without concerns for the environment or people’s well-being. We can stop shooting the second arrow by structuring markets that move us beyond the pursuit of income as our primary goal. Now the “pursuit of happiness” becomes creating meaningful comfortable lives for everyone within a healthy ecosystem. A Buddhist economy can improve the lives of all people, even the archers of the first arrows.

What Makes Us Happy?

I am on the way to Bhutan, the small Buddhist country who gave us “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) instead of Gross Domestic Product (income) to measure economic performance. Chapter 7 in Buddhist Economics: an enlightened approach to the dismal science explores these ideas and provides a path for moving forward on measuring quality of life.

Our human nature and what makes us happy is at the heart of GNH and Buddhist economics, where human nature is believed to be generous and altruistic, even as we also care about ourselves. Buddha taught that all people suffer from their own mental states, with feelings of discontent that come from desiring more and more. The Dalai Lama tells us that the feeling of not having enough and wanting more does not arise from the inherent desirability of the objects we are seeking, but from our own mental illusions. Buddha taught us how to end suffering by changing our states of mind, which translates into finding happiness through living a meaningful life.

In contrast to Buddhist economics, traditional (free market) economics holds that human nature is self-centered and that people care only about themselves as they push ahead to maximize their incomes and fancy lifestyles. According to this approach, buying and consuming—shopping for new shoes or playing a new video game—will make you happy. But soon you grow tired of the shoes, become disappointed with the game, and are off shopping again. In this endless cycle of desire, we are continuously left wanting more without ever finding lasting satisfaction.

Economics based on hedonic happiness, or personal pleasure with the avoidance of pain, focuses on pursuing money and buying things that make you feel good, at least in the moment. This short-lived happiness fits in well with our materialistic, goal-oriented economy. We chase our dreams of large wealth or great power or awesome sex or a major championship in the belief that they will bring us lasting happiness. Our purchase, or promotion, or love affair gives us a high. Yet that high soon wears off, and we are off chasing the next high.

Buddhist economics rests upon Aristotle’s eudaimonic happiness, where happiness comes from self-realization, and living a worthy and moral life in service to others and the community. Aristotle teaches us, “He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.” He also says, “The contemplative life is happiest.”

The Dalai Lama warned that material gain is based on an erroneous assumption that what we buy “can by itself alone, provide us with all the satisfaction we require.” He teaches us that “genuine happiness is characterized by inner peace and arises in the context of our relationships with others.” In Buddhist economics, people strive to act ethically, which includes not harming others, even not ruining others’ experiences or happiness. For example, you cause harm when your words or actions anger others, or make them (and yourself) feel desire or attachment, hatred or aggression, delusion, pride, and envy, or other mental poisons (called kleshas in Buddhism).

Finding inner happiness is one of the goals of Buddhist economics. Buddhism holds that we attain true freedom and peace only when we quit our mental habits of reacting with cravings for external stimuli (“I’ve got to own that!” “Win this game!”) and reacting with aversion to external forces (“I can’t stand that!” “Defeat it!”). Instead, Buddhism says to quiet your mind: notice the beauty as you go for a walk, enjoy your food as you eat, connect more intimately with your friends.

Economists have demonstrated that people care about fairness, and want to be part of an organization or society that they consider just and fair. When psychologists study what makes people happy, they find that being kind to others makes people happier. People only need moments of compassion to build upon, because there is a positive feedback loop: when you do a kind deed (take your mom to lunch), you become happier, which makes it more likely you will do another kind act (help your neighbor carry in groceries). Kindness makes you happier, and happier people engage in more acts of kindness.

Positive psychology demonstrates how well-being comes from experiencing a life that has meaning beyond merely feeling happy, which complements Buddhist economics. For example, positive psychologist Seligman teaches exercises to promote well-being based on engagement, good relationships, accomplishment and purpose.

In Buddhist economics, we discriminate between real happiness built upon a fully developed mindful life, and temporary happiness built around money and never-ending desires. In Buddhist economics, people do not aim to maximize their own income, because we want to ensure the happiness and well-being of all people.

Buddhist economics provides guidance both for restructuring the economy to place concerns about inequality, sustainability, and the human spirit at its center, and for leading meaningful, happy lives. “Practice compassion to be happy” replaces “More is better.” “Maximize your own position” becomes “Everyone’s well-being is connected.”

May you be happy!