Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hoarding, Desire, and Money

My previous blog entry touched on the issue of how financial systems relate to our current crisis and its associated suffering. In the Comments section, Steven Sashen pointed to the work of Bernard Lietaer. Like the article I'd quoted (Money and the Crisis of Civilization), Lietaer says that the very way that we've designed and defined "money" is at the root of the problem.

As I said in my own Comment under Steven's... Lietaer isn't some ayahuasca-soaked fringe visionary. He has experience that makes his authority far far greater than my own. But still, since following authorities isn't always a great idea, I'd like to explore and question Lietaer's assertions.

As quoted by Steven, Laietaer writes, "most current money ... engenders hoarding and short-term thinking since you can collect interest by having more money now (with the hope that it will hold you over in the future)."

I can agree with this quote, in that money engenders the "hoarding" of value, just as a refrigerator engenders hoarding of food. But is using a refrigerator a negative thing? Is the negative word "hoarding" really necessary here, rather than say "saving"?

We human beings seem to be wired to desire satisfaction in the moment, moreso than saving for the future. When someone wants money to spend now, our current system allows him to borrow from someone who's been saving it, inducing the deal by agreeing to pay a fee for its temporary use. The effect of this "interest payment" is to counter-balance our desire to spend in the present, increasing the attractiveness of saving (vs immediate spending).

This type of marketplace (borrowing money at interest) is condemned by Islam. Maybe Jesus was criticizing this system also, in saying things like, "... do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you." Again, Mohammed and Jesus are just authorities, and it's up to us the living to think it through for ourselves.

This very fact that "money" allows us to store value for the future may be a benefit of the current system. For instance, say I meet a stranger who could use my help with a computer problem. Since I don't know him, I'm hesitant to "gift" my time and effort to him. And maybe he's got no skills or goods that I want or need at the moment, so bartering isn't possible. But because of "money," he can pay me for my help, and I can "hoard" the payback till some later, more favorable situation. Thus, the money system has made it more likely for me to help this stranger.

I don't think that hoarding vs non-hoarding is the issue. Rather, it's why I'm hoarding. Maybe someone saves money so that when his parents are too old and weak to support themselves with their own labor, he'll be able to take care of them using the money he'd "hoarded" earlier. Can we really label that a bad thing?

If my saving is only for me, then yes, it brings suffering. The same could be said about anything I do only for me. Whatever conclusions we reach regarding the best money system, we can always pursue the Big Question: looking into I/my/me-thinking.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Responding to Crisis

I just read this article called Money and the Crisis of Civilization. It argues that the cause of our current global financial turmoil isn't merely “unregulated casino-style financial manipulation.” Rather, our problems arise “from the very nature of money and property in the world today, and it will persist and continue to intensify until money itself is transformed.” It calls for an entirely new world system, in which we “do not drive the conversion of all that is good, true, and beautiful into money.” (Whose opinion of goodness and beauty is he talking about? The author leaves that up in the air. The virtue of a free market is that we can make such decisions for ourselves.)

Lots of my neighbors in Berkeley react similarly, in claiming that the lesson of the crisis is that we need a fundamental overhaul of our economic/political system: profoundly more government control, and less freedom in the marketplace. Supporters of any alternative system can always use bad times this way: (1) things suck now, (2) I have an idea for changing things, (3) therefore, we should follow my idea.

There’s some merit to this “logic.” When we’re born into this world, blank of experience, our brains need to follow very simple algorithms in order to survive. I can see why DNA, in Her wisdom, would program us with, “Whenever you’re in pain, change what you’re doing. Try an alternative – any alternative – and see if it makes the pain go away.”

That’s not bad for a simplistic strategy. But like many of our inborn simplistic strategies, it’s sub-optimal for intelligent adults.

Some say that since a free-market system results in periods of suffering, and is ultimately unsustainable, we should therefore adopt a more Socialist path. This conclusion might be correct. Maybe more Socialist laws would reduce suffering and lengthen humanity’s survival. No one can predict future effects for certain, and such speculation is beyond my pay grade.

My point is that in deciding whether to make changes, we’ve got to put aside preconceptions, and examine both the benefits and dangers of each option. It’s not sufficient to say, “We need to ditch capitalism because it’s painful and unsustainable.” Buddha said that everything is transitory, and wanting anything results in suffering. If this is indeed the nature of reality and human life, then it’s a mistake to reject a system merely because it’s painful and impermanent.

If Buddha is correct, then utopia isn’t an option. Those advocating an alternate system need to go further than pointing to the pain in the current system. They must demonstrate that their particular alternative is likely to produce less suffering.

(“Man’s desires are infinite, but the means necessary for satisfying these desires are limited.” This is the opening sentence of a graduate-level Economics text… but it could just as easily be Buddha explaining the universality of suffering.)

If you put a rat in a cage and shock him randomly, he’ll do all sorts of “superstitious” behavior – running in circles, jumping up and down, doing somersaults. It’s his attempt to improve the situation by doing anything different. And if by pure chance the shocks stop when he does a somersault, he’ll do more and more of them, whether or not there’s a real cause and effect. Human beings can act the same superstitious way.

If I follow you around every day, eventually I may see you make a major mistake. At that point, I can say, “You’re such an idiot! You tried to live your own life, and look at the trouble that caused. If you’d just put me in control of your life, I’d do it much better, and you’d be saved from screw-ups like this.”

But the fact that you made a mistake, and I claim in retrospect that I would have avoided it… doesn’t mean that my way will really work better in practice. It may sometimes be true that you really would have done better with me controlling your life… but is that sufficient justification? Maybe freedom – even the freedom to make stupid choices – has an intrinsic value, and shouldn’t be so quickly abandoned in times of trouble.

We could, after all, reject Democracy because of all the flaws we find in democratic countries. “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Isn’t it possible that the same is true of free markets? I could complain about how terrible it is that my job was outsourced, but it’d be even worse to deny the job to the guy in Indian who now does it… and needs the money more desperately than I.

As usual, this is best understood by a gambling analogy. In blackjack, you sometimes find yourself holding a 16 when the dealer shows a 7. You’ll notice over time that when you hit in this situation, you most often lose (since 8 out of 13 card ranks – 6 through King – bust you). Based on our inborn, simplistic logic, we may implicitly conclude, “Hitting here keeps failing, so I need to switch strategies and stand.”

But standing here is a huge error. The key point is that holding 16 is a bad situation, in which you’ll most often lose whatever you do. The correct move is to hit, since any different choice would make matters even worse. The only way to reach the right decision is through careful analysis. (Tangentially… if the dealer were showing a 10 instead of a 7, then standing is only a tiny error. That’s because for those 5/13ths of the time that you don’t bust, you’ll most often win the hand when the dealer shows a 7. When he holds a 10, you’ll often lose in all cases, so your decision doesn’t matter.)

People (including me) don’t like that fact that we get led astray when we follow the feelings and intuition we automatically gain through experience. It’s so much easier and more satisfying to believe that our intuition is Truth, and we can dispense with reasoned analysis. In some life situations (e.g., deciding which friends you can trust), intuition may indeed be our best guide. But not always.

When I dealt blackjack in Vegas, I’d advise players to follow the computer-generated basic strategy available in many books. “There are so many things in life that you can’t understand rationally,” I’d tell them. “But with blackjack, you can. Forget about what feels right, and follow the book.” Sometimes they’d listen, but more often not.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Atheism, Science, and Zen

In the recent Atheism post, Doug commented, "I don't pay much attention to Dawkins since he took up the provocateur robe... Personally I find arguments against the existence God as frail and unconvincing as those for him." So perhaps it's possible to get muddled on either side of the razor's edge, in belief in God or in no-God. How do we navigate?

In the Zen traditon I practice, the fundamental point, the one pure and clear thing, is what I perceive and what I do in this moment. In a formal kong-an (Jp: "koan") interview, the Master might place a bell in front of you and ask, "Does this bell exist, or is it emptiness?" The "correct" answer is to pick up the bell and ring it.

The key point isn't whether you call it a "bell" or anything else; that's just a name. It isn't whether you think of it as existing or illusory; those are just ideas. As human beings, our job is to connect with the just-now situation right in front of us. What can you do?

Making names for the bell, or holding ideas about the bell, is something extra and unnecessary, like painting legs on a picture of a snake. Likewise, names for God (e.g. Energy, Mind, Buddha, Truth, etc), and holding ideas about God... may be a distraction from our job.

How does this whole issue of God vs Atheism connect with how we actually live our moment-to-moment lives? In many situations, we have a choice between following something external (i.e., believing what we're told by an authority, a scripture, or a group), or looking to our own experience. I believe that when Dawkins speaks of "religion" or "God," he's fundamentally criticizing this tendency to believe in an authority. When he speaks of "science" or "rationality," he's fundamentally encouraging us to instead to look to our own perceptions (and understandings based on these experiences/experiments).

From this perspective, I can appreciate Dawkins and the other "New Atheists." That is, I spent much of my life following the assertions of others (authorities religious or otherwise). At those moments when I can put aside all those words and ideas that come from outside, and return to just-now experience... there's a wonderful sense of clarity.

I do see a connection between scientific method and Zen practice. In both cases, we must completely put down what authorities tell us will happen, what we want to happen, what we expect to happen. All that matters is what does happen, what we directly perceive and experience. In Zen, we speak of a clear mirror, which reflects the moment without adding or subtracting anything with our thinking. Doesn't scientific method take a similar stance?

It seems like a natural maturing process, to move away from following authorities and towards seeing for ourselves. As individuals, we begin life by blindly following our parents, then slowly we grow towards believing in ourselves. As the human race, we've moved from superstition and dogmas, and are slowly moving towards testing things for ourselves ("science"). To whatever extent we've made this leap as individuals, we can be available to help others who are ready to do so. To the extent that Dawkins et al are doing this: wonderful.

I'm not sure, though, that there's the need or possibility of completely putting aside following authorities. On my recent trip to Europe, I often found myself in situations where I had no understanding of the language or rules of the surrounding culture. My default strategy at these times was to follow what everyone else was doing. This seemed like the best option, and indeed, it seems like DNA in her wisdom has hard-wired this default strategy into us when we're born.

Perhaps for many people at many times, believing and following is the best option. Perhaps individuals and societies survive best this way... as long as there's a balance: there must also be some people who are experimenting, exploring, pushing the envelope by questioning the conventional wisdom and thinking independently. This balance between belief and doubt may be the natural order of things. That's why I don't always feel the need to consider religion like a disease that would best be eliminated. I may part company with the New Atheists here (though some of them might share this "live and let live" attitude).

Scientific method has been a huge help to me in putting down superstitious/religious beliefs. In ashrams, you'll often find hundreds of people who share a belief, e.g., that if the guru hands you an object, you can feel his spiritual energy radiating from it. It's very easy to fall into accepting such beliefs as truth. Through rational testing though (and perhaps no other method), we can demonstrate that such felt energy is mind-created. It's something like a casino, in which it really feels like you can predict where the roulette ball will land, and almost all gamblers have strong belief in such feelings. Yet rational testing proves such feelings to be imaginary.

On the other hand, Dawkins and his followers often seem to hold out hope that everything can eventually be explained by science, and I can't believe that. Who am I? Why am I alive? Why is there something rather than nothing? Along with Socrates, I'd say that we must ultimately make peace with Don't Know. My original Zen teacher always said that this Don't Know Mind is better than anything.

To add legs to this snake just a little... in Zen teaching, looking for God is like seeking water in the ocean. "God" is a name for the substance of everything; there's nothing that's not God. This means that whatever situation is in front of me in each moment is, by definition, already "God." It follows that I can forget about "God," and put all my energy and attention towards responding to just-now.