Wanting: Teaching Economics as Contemplative Inquiry

Posted on Jan 10, 2013

Daniel BarbezatOn Wednesday, January 30, 2013, Daniel Barbezat (Professor of Economics, Amherst College) presented “Wanting: Teaching Economics with Contemplative Methods.”

Economics is often defined as the study of the allocation of scarce resources. But “scarcity” doesn’t simply exist: it is produced by the interaction of our wanting and what exists or is produced, viz. the interaction of demand and supply. Hence, the fundamental economic problem is the management of the tension between what is produced and our desiring, our wanting. At the core of the study of economics and the systems that arise from it is an inquiry into the nature of our wanting.

At any moment, we have many, many wants. Slowing down and realizing this can be a bit overwhelming. In fact, our wants often arise as thoughts or feelings do; they simply arise. If we embark on the enterprise to achieve well-being by satisfying wants simply as they arise, we are destined to fail. Our many wants contradict one another and often hardly seem our own. In a strict way, we will never fully get what we want. (See? “Dismal science” is not such a bad moniker!) Framed in this light, it is rather easy to see that this is not a situation produced by economic systems; rather, it is a fundamental human problem, best discerned by the combination of direct, personal inquiry and theoretical, analytic thinking.

In this Webinar, Professor Barbezat engages in this inquiry with examples from his Amherst College course “Consumption and the Pursuit of Happiness.” First-person based exercises on this subject are especially poignant for students, as they can directly discover the impact of their own wanting, how it affects their own economic decisions and the markets around them.

After the broadcast, Dan addressed additional questions. Here are his responses:

Questions arose about whether the exercises produced different behavior, different choices.

I answered this a bit [during the webinar] (giving the example with the money allocation) but let me give another example.

Concerning the “Want-Commit-Really Do” exercise, students noted that they had treated the commitment as something abstract and not really about their own behavior. When they were asked to think about what they really would like to do, it was the first time they reported thinking about their other obligations, their past, etc. They noted that this might be important to do prior to making promises.

Would you agree that often what a person wants is different than what they “want to want”? I have argued that given that we have the wants we do, then markets are very good at “meeting those wants.” But markets fall far short in shaping us, that is, in giving us the desires that we want to have. Do you find this in agreement with the directions that your work is taking?

Concerning wanting, how does Buddhism’s understanding of ‘craving’ relate to well-being research on wanting vs. liking (i.e. Kent Berridge)? Does contemplative training provide an opportunity to transform our wanting vs. liking for the betterment of sustainable, economic transformation?

People have conflicting wants and even preferences about their preferences. Markets react to choice, so if we systematically choose certain behaviors, the markets will respond. True, this is complicated by influences like advertising and market power, all of which affect how consumers act in markets. However, I believe it is through our own practices that we need to “shape” ourselves, so that we can act in accordance with what is deeply meaningful to us. This seems to me directly in line with the Buddhist notion of Tanhā (“craving” or literally, “thirst”) and the distinction to chanda (“intention”). It is the transformation and direction of chanda that Buddhists relate the intention and interest into what is most deeply meaningful.

Aren’t there cases where we accept different prices in different conditions? Restaurants quite often charge less at certain times of the day than at other times.

This question arose out of the example about the Coke machine and changing prices. Of course, prices fluctuate all the time in response to demand/supply. However, sometimes this is tolerated, even championed, while at other times, it is considered horrible behavior. I have the students reflect on when we are intolerant to these kinds of changes, and have them think about the ways in which we place certain views of “justice” – often quite uncritical, unexamined views – on markets and when we don’t.

How have you engaged with students/colleagues who resist contemplative pedagogy/inquiry in economics?

Oh yes! The classes that use these practices are electives, so that those students that really don’t want to do them can take other courses. In the courses, though, I start off with very simple practices that have direct application to the material we are learning, so that even those students who are skeptical can start to see that these sorts of practices can be powerful. Colleagues who resist these practices provide an important reality check – I need to consider their concerns and be able to respond to them. I think some friction (some, mind you!) strengthens and supports the use of these practices, providing a challenge that requires examination. Also, I do not attempt to force these practices or even suggest that others should use them; rather, I provide examples and talk about the practices whenever asked. This is a slow process but makes for a more authentic discussion.

One Comment

  1. Speaking of want: at the fountainhead of economic science we find Adam Smith. In keeping with conventions, he is the “father” of “homo economicus.” The “self” we are supposed to find there has a lot of wants, which is deployed among “other” selves all with the same wants, balanced in a sort of propriety of rapaciousness. Equilibrium and equanimity so the conventional story goes. All well and good until you open a page of Smith and read. in the so-called “utility” chapter — Part IV entitled “Of the Effect of Utility upon the Sentiment of Approbation,” which is to say not utility so much as its’ effect on feelings the approve and disapprove — the Scotman’s writes:

    “It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life; which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence, and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth. The earth by these labours of mankind has been obliged to redouble her natural fertility, and to maintain a greater multitude of inhabitants. It is to no purpose, that the proud and unfeeling landlord views his extensive fields, and without a thought for the wants of his brethren, in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest that grows upon them. The homely and vulgar proverb, that the eye is larger than the belly, never was more fully verified than with regard to him. The capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires, and will receive no more than that of the meanest peasant.”

    Ironic too, or so it seems to me, that we are about to get to the sole reference to the invisible hand in the TMS (there aren’t many more else where, so I dare say the invisible hand is invisible throughout most of Smith’s corpus). My observation is this — that Smith teaches the deceptions of want. Greed is fueled more by abundance than by frugality; the more we have the more we imagine we need.

    What are we to do when it turns out Smith was a contemplative inquirer of a non-discursive sympathetic imagination? At the fountainhead of capitalism and modernity … ? Or is this reading of Smith fanciful thinking?

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  1. The fundamental economic problem | Living on Unstable Ground - [...] Daniel. “Wanting: Teaching Economics with Contemplative Methods.” The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Accessed January 12, 2013. [...]

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