Why you should care

Because Buddhism can help reduce human suffering and save the earth, which is good for the economy. 

Economies of the Future: What's next for capitalism and currencies, poverty and the planet?What's next for capitalism and currencies, poverty and the planet? Find out with this OZY original series: Economies of the Future.

The Chevron oil refinery in Clair Brown’s hometown of Richmond, California, frequently pumps thick, black smoke into the air, testing the limits of acceptability under Environmental Protection Agency regulation. Asthma and other breathing problems persist, as low-income residents statewide are four times as likely to develop chronic lung disease than their wealthier neighbors. The answer to those alarming environmental concerns, Brown contends, is her innovative mix of Eastern religion and Western economic theory.

A longtime labor economist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Brown has focused her research on wage determination, poverty and high-tech industries, but her book last year hit on a fresh concept. In Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science, Brown, 72, explores how economic performance can be measured based on the quality of life, and she applies her theory to the state of California. “We have a terrible record with both diversity and our ecological footprint,” says Brown, a 30-year California resident. She believes the tenets of Buddhism can guide the nation toward sustainable development goals, achieving economic growth with a twist of kindness.

Though [Brown is] a serious academic and economic thought leader, she’s also a quintessential Berkeley hippie.

Her radar for injustice was honed growing up in the segregated Tampa, Florida, of the 1960s. At Wellesley College, Brown studied math, but was drawn to the interesting conversations among economics majors and became convinced that the discipline would change the world. “This is the answer to racial and gender inequality,” was her thought at the time.

After earning her Ph.D. in economics from the University of Maryland, Brown became the first female assistant economics professor at Berkeley, in 1973. She was discouraged by unequal treatment within the faculty ranks, but a group of female Berkeley students and staff saw a leader in Brown and formed a support group. They wrote letters encouraging the university to grant her tenure, which it did the following year.

Brown’s early research focused on women in the workplace and employment disparities by race and gender. Her current work revolves around the global labor market for tech workers, specifically within the semiconductor industry. But when a Buddhist monk opened a meditation center on Brown’s street in Berkeley a few years ago, she was inspired. “I was immediately drawn to the way he emanated loving and kindness,” she says. Then she started to connect climate change and inequality with Buddhist teachings: “You achieve happiness by helping others,” she says, and with greater happiness comes a reduction in human suffering and increased productivity, leading to economic gains.

Buddhism and economics seem at odds: One is spiritual, the other conceptual. Brown’s theory focuses on three elements of the core Buddhist teaching of interdependence — the idea that we are all one, with one another and with nature. Buddhism teaches that we should use resources to enhance the quality of life for ourselves and others, we should care for the environment in everything we do and we should practice compassion to reduce human suffering. Therein lies happiness.

Companies that care for their employees, treat them with respect and pay them fairly show the economic benefit of happiness, Brown argues, as they tend to perform better. In Buddhist Economics, she cites a study by researchers at the University of Utah, Purdue University and the University of Cambridge that connected excess CEO pay with poor corporate performance. And yet, free-market economists don’t advocate for lower executive pay.

In her book, Brown also writes that free-market economies accept environmental damage if the benefit to humans is at least as large as the cost, and that they don’t consider future generations. Sustainable ecosystems, in Buddhist economics thinking, will have long-term economic benefits.

Brown admits her theories have been criticized for being too “pie in the sky,” and though she’s a serious academic and economic thought leader, she’s also a quintessential Berkeley hippie. Her book struggled to garner the attention of major media outlets, who according to Brown deemed it “too religious” for mainstream economic theory. “It’s not religious,” Brown argues. “It’s spiritual.”

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In his review of Buddhist Economics, far-left economic activist Bernard Marszalek wrote that “Brown’s Buddhism fails to apply the devastating implications of its ethic and essentially falls back on Christian redemptionism.” Marszalek says he’s also skeptical that humans can be agents of change in the way Buddhist economics requires — everyone working together and treating one another kindly sounds a bit far-fetched these days.

Brown has learned to shrug off not being taken seriously in her male-dominated field. She relies on her “sisterhood of female economists” for support. “Male economists take things too personally,” she says. “Women come together and just laugh about it.” Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at the New School for Social Research and a former grad student of Brown’s who has known her for 41 years, calls Brown “compulsive and focused,” which makes her a good leader. “People follow people who are focused,” Ghilarducci says.

Brown has two adult sons — one with her current husband, Richard Katz, a biochemist who discovered a natural cure for bladder infections, and one from a previous marriage. She says motherhood, in many ways, led her on the path to her economic theory because it showed her how to balance her life and made her cognizant of future generations.

It all seems a little crunchy, but Brown is serious about injecting environmentalism into economic policy, and that alone should be worth some meditation.

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