A couple of years ago, I heard an interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama where he discussed global economics from a Buddhist perspective. Aside from topics of interconnectedness and compassion for the poor, he made a remarkably simple point that has stuck with me ever since: in a world of clearly finite resources, it is unrealistic that each nation in the developed world can continue to have year-over-year gains in GDP, especially with the BRIC and smaller members of the developing world coming right up behind us with mind-bending economic growth. We are quickly running out of resources on the planet, so the expectation that global markets must continue to grow each year is a fallacy.
There is also an inequality in wealth between the rich and poor that, at least in the United States, hasn’t been seen since the days leading up to the Great Depression. In today’s America, the richest 1 percent earn more income than the bottom 50 percent, while that same 1 percent holds more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. It is completely commonplace for chief executives to make 250 times more than the workers who are running their organizations.
As I watched the stock markets get pummeled over the last two weeks, I know that my meager retirement savings, which have already been completely wiped out once by one of the largest accounting scandals and bankruptices in history, hang in the balance. The economic situation our county has created, based upon the greed of a few whose actions have jeopardized the future of billions of people around the globe, will result in unimaginable financial pain. Even so, I simply can’t cheer that the S&P 500 Index posted its largest point gain last week because I feel like we are delaying the inevitable.
At some point in the future, be it now or in another 20 years when our climate crisis and failing supply of fossil fuels combine to bring us to our proverbial economic knees, it seems that we are going to have to withstand a painful philosophical correction whereby we acknowledge both that infinite growth in key financial metrics is unrealistic, and that efforts to keep us moving in that upward direction are detrimental to the vast majority of people on the planet, not to mention the very planet itself.
I don’t have a problem with people accumulating money, and in a modern democratic society driven by free markets, wealth is a primary personal motivator and the main reason we enjoy a higher across-the-board standard of living. It is, however, the selfishness, lack of compassion and narrow world view held by some of the wealthy — especially those “in charge” — that causes me concern.
Reference what has happened with Wall Street executives, earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year engaging in what has proven to be toxic business practices, reaping additional rewards as they either cashed out or were removed from the companies. Reference AIG, where top executives spent nearly a half-million dollars on a week-long spa retreat after I and 200 million other taxpayers propped up the company with $85 billion. The same company’s executives went on an AIG-paid partridge hunt in the English countryside at the same time my fellow taxpayers gave the insurance giant another $37.5 billion.
I personally am blessed to have a well-paying job, a comfortable home and all of the other trappings of the American Life. While I give about 7.5 percent of my take-home pay to charity, I recognize that I could do much more, and I am thankful for those who came before me to build an America where I can work hard and benefit from it. It is, I think, a travesty that our nation, our markets and our world seem to be on a short road to nowhere, the journey fueled by greed and a lack of concern for those whose backs our prosperity is built upon.
I have to wonder if those guys from AIG who relaxed at the St. Regis Resort in Monarch Beach, California for a week on my dime have ever once in their careers thought about the words that for many people – to this day – form the foundation of what America and a prosperous world should stand for:
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Emma Lazarus, 1883