Economics as if People Mattered

By Grace Lee Boggs

Michigan Citizen, September 19-25, 2010

As I've been following President Obama's desperate efforts to devise a popular Jobs programs in order to avoid his party's defeat in the November election, I've also been re-reading (and urging others to read) "Buddhist Economics" by E.F. Schumacher.

I first read this amazingly timely article in 1969 when my friend, Henry Geiger, featured it in Manas, his little 8-page weekly with only 2500 subscribers. Robert M. Hutchins, the internationally renowned University of Chicago President, called them "the 2,500 most interesting people in the world."

Schumacher (1911-1977) was a British economist who served as Chief Economic Advisor to the UK National Coal Board. In 1973 he explained Buddhist Economics and advocated small, appropriate technologies in a little book titled Small Is Beautiful,: Economics as if People Mattered. The Times Literary Supplement ranked it among the "100 most influential books published since World War II. "

I only met Schumacher once (in Ann Arbor in 1976), but I have long believed that one day his profoundly human approach to economics would be recognized as the alternative to our dehumanizing and increasingly unsustainable economic system.

That day has come!

In "Buddhist Economics" Schumacher explains why mass joblessness is inevitable as long as Work is viewed as Labor, because both employers and employees, each for their own reasons, are constantly seeking to reduce or eliminate it.

"The modern economist," he writes, 'has been brought up to consider 'labour' or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a 'disutility'; to work is to make a sacrifice of one's leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice.

"Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment. The consequences of these attitudes both in theory and in practice are, of course, extremely far-reaching. If the ideal with regard to work is to get rid of it, every method that "reduces the work load" is a good thing. The most potent method, short of automation, is the so-called "division of labour" and the classical example is the pin factory eulogized in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations….dividing up every complete process of production into minute parts, so that the final product can be produced at great speed without anyone having had to contribute more than a totally insignificant and, in most cases, unskilled movement of his limbs."

By contrast, Buddhist economics is based on recognizing the role that Work plays in human development: "to give man (sic) a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence."

Therefore, "to organize work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely, that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure."

You can find "Buddhist Economics" on the web. Reading it will open up both your heart and your mind. See also my June 20-26 column, "Maybe Jobs aren't what we need" by Frank Joyce. It's on the Boggs Center website ______

My USSF Conversation with Immanuel Wallerstein can be read at

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