Greenspan’s Anguish

(Toward a More Holistic Economics)

By James Eggert

“We should not be attached to any view; we have to transcend all views” — Buddhist Nipata Sutra

I made a point to save my copy of the Wall Street Journal’s Oct. 24, 2008 issue as an important reminder, a souvenir, if you will, of the tumultuous years of 2008 and 2009. There, on the front page is a photograph of a very unhappy Alan Greenspan. The viewer, is, I believe, witnessing a moment of anguish. Indeed the headline says it all: “Greenspan Admits Errors To Hostile House Panel.”

Here is our former top economist, a man who navigated our nation through numerous financial storms but had now been blindsided by the greatest economic crisis of a generation. It was as if Greenspan’s free-market, anti-regulation house-of-cards had come crashing down on top of him — along with the millions of other victims in the US and around the globe. It was a freefall of not only investments, credit, paper wealth, employment, home ownership, and retirement dreams, but also of an economic orthodoxy where at least one hermetically sealed belief-bubble had burst! It was painful.

I know it hurt because I too have been there. First it was a fascination with Classical Marxism; later with Democratic Socialism, while sandwiched in between, an infatuation with Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” Capitalism. All of them, in their various ways, had turned out to be limited and, in the end, disappointing, while on a larger scale (as the Buddha reminds us), economic fanaticism is capable of causing infinite suffering:

“Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones.”

So now I’m wondering: why not take advantage of this teachable moment? We might begin by jettisoning the standard economic “isms” of the past two centuries as we step out the rigid ideological boxes and then let us distance ourselves from the “true believers” who have promulgated so many economic and social disasters by trying to cram complex reality into simple ideological molds.

Next, let us invite into our thinking — not a new “ism” — but a new economic consciousness, a shape-shifting amalgam of market economics informed by ecological principles, community values, and spiritual insights from the wealth of the worlds’ great religions. This new perspective I call, for want of a better term, “meadowlark economics.”

Markets, of course, do some things very well, including the pricing of relative scarcity or relative abundance of resources, goods and services. Markets also do well at identifying trade-offs while highlighting the importance of incentives and encouraging genuine entrepreneurs. In addition, markets can “bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence” as one economist elegantly phrased it. Inventiveness and the evolution of sustainable, democratic, and durable technologies can also be the fruits of an energized, creative market economy.

But equally important, a “meadowlark economics” will factor in the health of the environment and the maintenance of natural ecological relationships including the integrity of landscapes, the protection of our soils, rivers, lakes, and aquifers, plus the broad spectrum of biodiversity and yes (if we are lucky), the stabilization of Earth’s climate. The BP oil spill is only one extreme example of the many ways where we are, on a daily, cumulative, basis, damaging our planet’s livability and fragile ecological balance.

The health of local communities should also be a touchstone for economic decision-making. We might ask for example: ”How does a new Farm Bill or Energy Bill support local food and transportation systems or encourage livable neighborhoods (vs. the damage done to communities by unregulated “free” trade agreements)?

Finally, the wisdom and insights from the great spiritual traditions should be added to the mix of an ever-evolving economic consciousness. Consider, for example, the movement to promote environmental stewardship (“Care of Creation”) or of redressing the savage disparities of wealth and privilege on the one hand, powerlessness and poverty on the other.

As I glance once more at the photo of Greenspan’s anguished face, again the thought crosses my mind: “Please, no more economic fundamentalism, no more militant orthodoxies. Instead, let us choose a new economic consciousness leading to a sustainable and healthy future for the Earth, for our children and for our grandchildren.”

James Eggert is an economist and emeritus faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. His recent book, Meadowlark Economics: Collected Essays (North Atlantic Books) is a further exploration of the themes discussed above. Connie Schultz is on a special assignment.

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2010

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