April 22, 2014

Let Them Eat Empathy

The Dalai Lama becomes an unwitting spokesman for free market capitalismMax Zahn

I’m no marketing executive, but I’ve watched enough TV to understand the basic syllogism underlying all endorsements: celebrity X is well-liked; celebrity X will appear with a product; therefore the product will be well-liked. Variations arise, of course, depending on what the advertisers are trying to sell. They get Megan Fox to endorse jeans because she’s sexy. They get George Clooney to endorse tequila because he’s classy. And, as it turns out, they get His Holiness the Dalai Lama to endorse market capitalism because he’s virtuous.

Before calling foul at the false equivalence of that final example, take a look at last week’s Times Op-Ed “Capitalism and the Dalai Lama” from Arthur Brooks, the president of a free market think tank called the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Brooks struck up a friendship with the Dalai Lama in April of 2013, and recently welcomed the renowned monk for a series of panels at AEI. (I wrote about these panels in February.) Brooks’s column proudly and extensively recounts the visit, invoking the Dalai Lama’s moral authority for the advancement of a neoconservative mission.

The article is hardly a departure for Brooks. In fact, it’s his job. As the President of AEI, he is responsible for forwarding the organization’s stated goals of “expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity, and strengthening free enterprise.” In other words, he’s a salesman for the very act of sale. If America is an engine of industry, then Brooks is in charge of taking it on a perpetual roadshow—polishing the frame, unclogging the cylinders, and never forgetting to mention the horsepower.

The odd man out in this case is the Dalai Lama. The seeming incongruity of the friendship between him and Brooks—an avuncular Marxist in maroon robes and the beltway’s top market evangelist—may be the precise source of its appeal for His Holiness, since events like the panel offer a perfect opportunity for him to model a “nondual” approach to policy discussion. Leveraging his unique public persona, he can remind us that—no matter our political valence—we are all just people seeking joy. Weirdly enough his approach worked, at least for the day. The Dalai Lama’s unconditional acceptance intoxicated the panelists, eliciting profuse appreciation and drunken hopes that Washington might “finally break out of the rut [it has] been in for so many years.”

The degree of collective delusion was shocking. It was as though a bunch of gladiators had met at the coliseum for a seminar on conflict resolution—and they convinced themselves that, going forward, the stadium owner and customers would be just as happy paying to see a pleasant conversation. The panel—which also included seasoned vets like Mitt Romney’s head economic advisor Glenn Hubbard and mega-rich hedgefund superstar Daniel Loeb—decided to simply ignore the structural factors that dictate the terms of Washington debate: those cumbersome realities like the need of elected officials to raise millions of dollars from special interest groups and wealthy individuals, some of whom were surely in attendance. Instead, in the company of the supremely compassionate Dalai Lama, these experienced politicos convinced themselves that the challenge was a matter of confronting personal shortcomings. They just needed to alter their colleagues’ patterns of thought. This is willful naiveté masquerading as virtue.

In his Op-Ed, Arthur Brooks picks up exactly where the panel’s self-congratulation left off. He opens with a rhetorical question that frames the article: “What can Washington, DC learn from a Buddhist monk?” Again, this premise starkly contrasts the virtue of His Holiness—and, by extension, Brooks—with the negligence of an entire system of federal government. Simplifying this systemic failure as no more than the sum of its maladjusted individuals, Brooks implies that if Washington politicians were to learn compassion from the Dalai Lama, then they could actually get something done.

 What immediately follows is an anecdote from Brooks’s visit to Dharamsala, during which he felt “hunger pangs” while in the midst of meditation:

It seemed to me that such earthly concerns had no place in the superconscious atmosphere of the monastery. Incorrect. Not a minute later, a basket of freshly baked bread made its way down the silent line, followed by a jar of peanut butter with a single knife. We ate breakfast in silence, and resumed our meditation. This, I soon learned, is the Dalai Lama in a nutshell: transcendence and pragmatism together. Higher consciousness and utter practicality rolled into one. 

While tremendously committed to his spiritual regimen, the Dalai Lama’s concern for physical sustenance—according to Brooks—exemplifies his “pragmatism.” Shortly thereafter, Brooks refers to this pragmatic approach when explaining the Dalai Lama’s visit to AEI, which should apparently come as no surprise because His Holiness’s “teaching defies freighted ideological labels.” Therein lies the crux of Brooks’s caricature: a straight line drawn from the Dalai Lama’s aversion to asceticism to his non-attachment to view and finally to his willingness to listen to political opponents; all of which fall under the umbrella of “pragmatism.” It’s the exact kind of pragmatism that DC lacks. With elected officials and their benefactors bent on scoring political points, there is no opportunity for the characteristically Buddhist, selfless compromise that Brooks purports to crave.

 “In other words, Washington needs to be more like the Dalai Lama,” says Brooks. And, in a final flourish of sanctimony:

Without abandoning principles, we need practical policies based on moral empathy. Tackling these issues may offend entrenched interests, but this is immaterial. It must be done. And temporary political discomfort pales in comparison with the suffering that vulnerable people bear every day.

Notice how Brooks underplays the possibility that “tackling these issues might offend entrenched interests,” and describes the likely consequence as little more than “temporary political discomfort” (italics added). Money is the lifeblood of a politician. One cannot mount a viable campaign without it. After years of leadership at a major Washington think tank, Brooks must know this dynamic firsthand. Yet instead of criticizing the influence of wealth on congressional paralysis, he downplays it. In the course of blaming Washington operatives for their cowardice, Brooks himself is unwilling to extend the critique far enough.

It is at this point in the argument that the function of Brooks’s naiveté reveals itself. By reducing Washington politics to a series of petty conflicts between stubborn individuals, Brooks avoids outlining the contours of his own ideology. He disguises free market capitalism as a natural way of being—as the proverbial invisible hand devoid of first principles, which stands in contrast with the fraught ideological morass of Washington. In so doing, he does not have to address the concentration of wealth and influence, which inevitably rise up from an unregulated market to clog national politics. Finding himself in a less-than-robust post-recession era of capitalism that features historic levels of inequality and the steady degradation of the planet, Brooks does what many of his market-beholden counterparts on Wall Street have done: he plays dumb.

This sleight of hand should come as no surprise from an adept salesman like Brooks. The shocking kicker, though, is that Brooks appropriates the Dalai Lama and Buddhism as New Age window dressing. It’s a libertarian politics perfectly crafted for our happiness-obsessed cultural moment. Paraphrasing the Dalai Lama, Brooks celebrates his assertion that “the secret to human flourishing is the development of every individual.” To buttress the point, he quotes a statement from His Holiness at AEI’s panel, during which the monk wondered, “Where does a happy world start? From government? No. From United Nations? No. From individual.” It takes only a short inferential leap to link Buddhism and free market capitalism at the nexus of personal responsibility. Dragging Buddhism across that divide, Brooks presents a Western flavor of the religion that deemphasizes sangha and hallows self-improvement.

This 21st-century conservatism transforms self-reliance from a material question to a metaphysical one. That approach aligns seamlessly with a slim-fitting Buddhism. The ensuing marriage allows Brooks to elude any questions of power and wealth disparity. After all, each bloke can be just as happy as the next. It doesn’t matter if he’s the director of a Washington think tank or the lunch lady at the school cafeteria down the street. Make no mistake, this is the ruling elite denying redistribution on spiritualized terms. It’s paternalism with a wide, loving smile—an easy grin that, when seen from afar, looks a lot like the one we’ve come to expect from the Dalai Lama.

Max Zahn, Editorial Assistant

Further reading: The (Justifiably) Angry Marxist: An interview with the Dalai Lama | Occupy Buddhism: Or Why the Dalai Lama is a Marxist | Talk Isn't Cheap: The Dalai Lama Visits AEI—NeoCons’ high church | The Need of the Hour

Image 1: Flickr/Kris Krüg
Image 2: Flickr/Gage Skidmore
Image 3: Flickr/Kris Krüg

 

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dhruvthukral's picture

Sir I have become a fan of your posts.. keep on writing.will be eagerly waiting to read
by http://lifeofnichiren.com/

melcher's picture

The system that we now have is only marginally related to what can be called "capitalism" and it is certainly divorced from any consideration of he welfare of human beings. Essentially we've built a machine for generating "wealth" from speculation. Most of this speculation, which involves moving numbers around on a global level to take advantage of incremental variations in local economies, is done by machines running fine tuned algorithms at speeds far exceeding the limits of human thought. Those with the fastest and largest machines have an ever increasing advantage in this numbers game, thus the concentration of wealth accelerates. Capitalism depends on healthy markets. The grotesque and growing distortion in the distribution of wealth takes resources from those who work and pay taxes to subsidize the machinations of those "too big to fail." Thus wealth is channelled upward out of the middle classes toward the speculators, thereby weakening the markets (those who can afford to buy) leading to inevitable collapse.

When capitalism is turned over to machines (algorithms, computers, mega corporations), whether this be a conscious or unconscious choice, human beings and human compassion are replaced by the demands of more 'efficient' networks, and the machines, for the most part (and the few who run them) will win. Whether we call the resulting machinery capitalism or communism is more a matter of nostalgia than of reality.

Rob_'s picture

Extreme income inequality has nothing to do with machines. During the gilded age, people were quite capable of creating extreme income disparity with their abacuses.

poetess1966's picture

Abacuses ARE machines. Primitive ones, but machines none the less.

Rob_'s picture

Oh lord, you must be Dominic's sister.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Most wealth during the gilded age was due to family lineage: class rather than labor.

Rob_'s picture

And that has what to do in regards to my comment? As is your habit, thanks so much for your banal comment.

There are many examples of "self-made" people back in the gilded age just as there are today. And even today most wealth is inherited.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Simply agreeing that inequality had little to do with machines during the gilded age. It had more to do with the class you were born in.

Rob_'s picture

Simply fascinating, but you missed the point. The point being that "machines" are not a contributing factor to income disparity. Greed is greed, regardless of time and place.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Sure, but today "machines" enable greed to expand a thousand-fold: http://abcnews.go.com/Business/san-francisco-landlord-tells-tenants-make...

Rob_'s picture

That article does not in any way demonstrate that "machines" enable greed. And there's nothing to indicate enabling greed by a "thousand fold". These are just notions you pull out of your ass. If you want to make a point, I'm all for it. Next time send information that supports what you're trying to convey. But I don't really expect any sense from you.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Our thread originates in Melcher's reponse to the article: "we've built a machine for generating "wealth" from speculation...those with the fastest and largest machines have an ever increasing advantage in this numbers game, thus the concentration of wealth accelerates...when capitalism is turned over to machines (algorithms, computers, mega corporations)...human beings and human compassion are replaced by the demands of more 'efficient' networks". Both landlord and tenants in the news vid are collaterally damaged from the (greed-driven) rush to hi-tech "machinery".

Rob_'s picture

Repeating what is stated in the original post like a mantra does not make it any more true.

That you believe landlords and tenants are collaterally damaged from the rush to hi-tech machinery is certain. It is also certain that you've made no intelligible connection between the two. Saying it is one thing, explaining it is altogether something else.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The damage is to people's humanity, Rob. And that's what the study and practice of Buddhism addresses.

Rob_'s picture

Still repeating, still not explaining. When all else fails, you have your Buddhist slogans.

Dominic Gomez's picture

If you scroll up, Rob, you actually "got it" 3 posts back. :-)

Rob_'s picture

Got what? I don't really care. You're as clear as mud. You have an uncanny inability to communicate.

Dominic Gomez's picture

You remind me of the saying that no matter how much water you pour on lacquerware not a drop is absorbed ;-)

Rob_'s picture

And as is your habit, you avoid answering directly. Sorry Dominic, you're the thick headed one here. You can't even make direct responses to my posts. You've explained nothing. First you post a link and state machines enable greed to expand a thousand fold. I'm assuming the link was posted to show machines enable greed since that was the thread of the conversation. You could of embellished on the purpose of the link, but heaven forbid Dominic explain anything to someone else. The story was simply about someone trying to cajole rent controlled tenants to move out, so he can rent to new people at an increased rate. Essentially, a general story about greed. I challenge this has anything to do with showing that "machines" enable greed, Your response is to avoid that challenge and than go topsy turvy in your thinking and state that the renter and renters are victims of the machine based greed. I further point out that there is no connection, let alone the fact that this whole machine enabled greed is still a dreamy unexplained notion. You're suggesting a cause and effect link between the two, but don't explain this link. Obviously, you have a problem understanding the word "explain". Simply because in Dominic's world you wish to believe in this doesn't mean your great "wisdom" translates to others via simple statements. To communicate with others you explain this cause and effect connection.

poetess1966's picture

Of course machines enable greed a thousand fold. While the abacuses are primitive machines, the computers of today allow you to project your profit-margin years into the future. You can run different scenarios and learn which technique will achieve the greatest profit. If you are driven by greed and profits then the machine, (i.e. computer), becomes the new Nostradamus. Without these algorithms, the greedy individual still leaves much to chance. With them, he removes chance and simply acts according to the profit-margin projection which the computer says will be the highest.

Rob_'s picture

You have a misunderstanding of computers and the predictability of the market place. Although it is a lovely notion if you've read too many science fiction novels. Believe what you want. The great disparity of wealth has been the norm since humans started building cities. For almost all of civilized human history computers weren't necessary. The current disparity of wealth is approaching what existed in previous eras (the gilded age as I previously mentioned is an example). After WWII until around the 80's we had a strong middle class, but this was an anomaly compared to the historical norm. There are many factors for this anomaly, but one major one was the strength of unions during this period. Unions have been whittled down over the decades, and with no collective bargaining power, wages decrease. That has nothing to do with a computer or any machine. That's just plain self-centered greed.

poetess1966's picture

I don't have a misunderstanding of computers and the predictability of the market. Thanks to OUR computer projections, we made 30% more profit in the first quarter of this year than last year. I own a small business. We used that profit to hire two more drivers. I think you have a limited idea of what computers can do when it comes to predictability and profit projections.

Rob_'s picture

I worked for a company where they would make quarterly projections and goals all the time. Pretty standard stuff. The "projection" didn't make them money. It's simply based on their previous trends, current customer base, and their desire to get their sales people to beat the bushes for new business. Sometimes they made them or exceeded, sometimes they didn't. Also, for the industry they were in each quarter could be fairly predictable as to how fast or slow business would be. There's nothing fancy in this, and no "algorithms" where people run "different scenarios". What did you use for your projection, a spreadsheet? That's called business math. It's not rocket science.

Congratulations on having a good quarter. Your projection didn't make you the money. Let me know when you have a slow quarter and than tell me about your projection.

poetess1966's picture

Actually in our industry, it's very unpredictable. We run a recycle/reuse business. It's up to the individual apartment complexes as to whether they will replace a stove or air conditioner. We run multiple scenarios based on the local economy. With each we get a probability rating and then we go with the highest probability. The price of metals in China and India also affect our business. If the price drops then we get paid less. Those factors must be considered as well. So no, we didn't just look at a spreadsheet.

Rob_'s picture

So you initially say that I have a limited idea of what computers can do when it comes to predictability and profit projections. Now you're telling me your particular business is highly unpredictable. A computer will not make it anymore predictable. There is no magic in algorithms.

You also stated computers allow people to project their profits years into the future. In your very unpredictable business how exactly are you going to do this? You're simply not making sense.

Projecting profits, and probability are nothing new. But it's quite a leap to say that "computers enable greed by a thousand fold". This is a fantasy.

Dominic Gomez's picture

You'll have to fight Melcher, Rob: 'we've built a machine for generating "wealth" from speculation.'

Rob_'s picture

You're the one that responded Dominic. And mostly I get evasive, cryptic comments from you. I guess it's a game you like to play. Enjoy your blog game.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"It is no use to blame the looking glass if your face is awry (i.e. you read my responses as evasive, cryptic)

Rob_'s picture

Most of your responses are one whole sentence. In a couple verbose comments you manage two whole sentences. Your skills at explication are unquestioned! Sheesh, you're a clown.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Welcome to the brave, new world of internet communication, Rob!

Dominic Gomez's picture

Excellent critique of today's high-tech oligarchy.

Will.Rowe's picture

Is anti-capitalism really just anti-work? Is a large part of the move against businesses actually motivated because some people simply believe that they should not have to work for a living, and they want the government to take care of them, since it is the entity large enough to take care of them? Is this anti-work ethic due to a lack of maturity; they consider the government a replacement for their parents’ role of providing for their “children?”
Perhaps some education upon what happens when governments have this power over them should be considered. First, socialist governments do require work by their citizens. Just ask survivors of the USSR gulags. Over 18 million were literally made slaves, and many died in inhuman conditions.
Secondly, once the government controls your healthcare, retirement, jobs, where you live, what you are allowed to say, if you are allowed to protect yourself with a weapon, etc; you may not be able to get these rights back. Do you really trust the government this much?
Finally, even in America businesses cannot tax you, fine you, incarcerate you, or even remove your voting rights or right to own a firearm. Government can and does. They are the greater threat. Businesses give you a chance to voluntarily work for a known wage. Strong central governments like communist China and the USSR have made citizens merely property of the state.
George Washington perhaps said it best: “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

Rob_'s picture

Your straw man arguments are most humorous … and actually a bit paranoid. There is no "anti-capitalist" attitude or movement or whatever else you wish to call it that believes in not working for a living.

You also appear to have naive notions about government. It's simply a crack up that you describe it as a "threat". Taxes are not a threat. A fine or incarceration is not a threat, it's called breaking the law. No one is taking away your guns. Government (which includes your participation by the way) does have the right to legislate their use, and it obviously doesn't allow people to purchase bazookas. I suggest you read up on civic responsibility.

Your quote of George Washington is disputed. There's no support that it came from him.

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/George_Washington

But I did find something he said in his farewell address:
"To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a Government for the whole is indispensable."

I did find another link that stated Glenn Beck wrote the mistaken quote attributed to Washington on his nutty chalkboard.

http://www.redstate.com/diary/barrypopik/2009/11/12/dubious-origins-of-a...

Perhaps you're a Glenn Beck fan. It's a pity.

Will.Rowe's picture

You believe one quote but dismiss another based upon a "link."
You do not consider taxes, fines, or incarceration a threat, while believing the examples of 100 million murdered by all powerful government and millions more enslaved is "actually a bit paranoid."
It is quite tempting and easy to be insulting, but I will not. Nor will I ask you your age or education. I will simply ask you to read some history of what occurs when governments have too much powerful, as with the founding of this country, NAZI Germany, or under the horror that was communism.
Peace

Rob_'s picture

If there's something not to believe in that "link" I sent, than show me. But of course you didn't bother. And I showed a quote that was attributed to him that certainly doesn't agree with the quote you presented. Face it, you got caught spewing b.s.

Taxes, fines, and incarceration are not equivalent to "examples of 100 million murdered". And taxes, fines and incarceration are not "gateway drugs" to more horrid crimes. They're basic functions of any government. Sorry, you're simply not speaking rationally.

I'm quite familiar with my share of history. Of course, there have been governments that have enslaved and killed. Than perhaps you could make a more direct argument that relates previous examples to what is happening now. But that would take effort. You'd rather envision taxes, fines and incarceration as the second coming of Hitler. You have no perspective.

melissairenawolf's picture

The Dalai Lama has shown the greatest naiveté in allowing himself to be used by the capitalists whose empathy and compassion are non-existent..He is playing with psychopaths..does he really not know this or has his own ego come to the fore?

njefferis's picture

Since when has the Dalai Lama been willing to listen to his opponents, political or otherwise?

jespersr's picture

What? Since when has he NOT been willing to listen to his opponents?

Dolgyal's picture

Opponents are useful for true practitioners, less so for mere posers. Aggressively purchasing high end real estate in the Hamptons, Hollywood and beyond–presumably to preach to rich WASPs–puts you lot (NKT) firmly in the capitalist camp.

Danny's picture

The very essence of the current social structure is predicated on an idea that for me, in my Mahayana Buddhist understanding, simply does not exist: That of an individual atomistic self. Hence an irreconcilable contradiction between Buddhism and capitalism.

Dominic Gomez's picture

re: contradiction between Buddhism and capitalism: one is a life philosophy, the other an economic system. What's needed is competitive altruism.

Danny's picture

The dominant ideology of capitalism is not natural--it's a dependently arisen social structure, only conventionally true. And it's a greedy and competitive system, based on the illusion of an atomistic, appetitive and acquisitive self. My self (a process self, empty of anything inherent)) is dependently arisen in that very social structure, a product of its social formations. So yes, that "economic system" is pretty important: it's our world. And it can be changed.
Regarding competitive altruism (a possible mechanism for the persistence of cooperative behaviors), the studies showed (outside of the bird world) that individuals may behave altruistically, but for "reputation reasons because selective benefits (associated with status) accrue to the generous." Behaving altruistically for reputation reasons just doesn't sound very Buddhist to me.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Which underscores, Danny, the importance of the human revolution that derives from a viable practice of Buddhism. Changing our deeply-ingrained lower life conditions in order to behave altruistically for the sake of others is the bodhisattva ethic.

Danny's picture

Would you please explain what your competitive altruism or altruistic greed might look like? Somehow I don't think the corporate shareholders are going to like this.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Of course shareholders are going to squirm, Danny. That's the nature of greed gone outta control. The Peace Corps. was prolly the first example of competitive altruism, albeit in the form of national rather than corporate policy.

Danny's picture

I'm not sure how you're using the term, but I would disagree with your citing the APC as an example of competitive altruism. I would call the Peace Corps an example of hegemonic or imperialistic altruism--a propaganda organization to help spread the myth of the American dream. Can one honestly make a distinction between national and corporate policy?
If the shareholders and CEO's (and everyone else) "behaved altruistically for the sake of others", the entire system would absolutely collapse--so, ironically, we're probably not as far apart as you may think.
My initial comment about contradiction between Capitalism and Buddhism was based on my understanding of no-self, as having a self that is only conventionally real, dependently arisen, with nothing transcendent outside of the social structure of which I am a part. You obviously hold a different view--one that to me looks a lot like a Vedantic atman or a transcendent soul.

Dominic Gomez's picture

I practice Nichiren Buddhism, wherein the goal is to activate the greater self, or one's buddhahood. This is the life-condition not constrained by selfishness and greed but concerned about the suffering of our fellow beings.

Danny's picture

Okay, thank you Dominic. I'll have to read up on Nichiren.
So "no-self" means there is a greater self? Then greater self would be an unconditioned state outside of conditioned phenomena---and that to my understanding, is a textbook example of dualism.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The greater self is you AS the universe itself, no duality required.

deanp's picture

Always interesting to see how Buddhism (or people's idea that the DL equates to "Buddhism") is twisted around to suit forms of self-serving interest. Instead of going back to basics and looking at impermanence and the LACK of any individual, it's all about "developing the individual" or being "practical if life". Likewise, the whole fascination with left/right wing ideologies (nothing more than overgrown thoughts) enters into the whole scene as some hugely important thing to be considered. No big deal, but it's always fun to watch these happenings play out as per the conditioning present.