30 November 2008

Is the Revolution Green or Spiritual?

No serious survey of our economic reality can challenge the fact that the current crisis has laid to rest the myth that our financial institutions are sound. In a recent article, David Korten explains that “The financial meltdown pulled away the curtain to reveal a corrupt system that runs on speculation, the stripping of corporate assets, predatory lending, and asset bubbles like the real estate and dot-com ‘booms.’” When articles of real value are created as by-products of the quest for speculative gain, you know the system is poorly designed.

Two of my favorite proponents of change, Thomas Friedman and David Korten, are leading advocates for a green revolution that will align our economy with human needs and the natural environment. Of course, I agree with this perspective. And although many of the critical problems we currently face will be resolved by setting in motion the changes they suggest, we cannot overlook the fact that their proposal leaves the most entrenched and damaging element of the story told by the gurus of economic witchcraft unquestioned: the framework remains within a world view that can be accurately described as dogmatic materialism. This framework wants us to believe on the one hand that a process of trial and error aimed at social re-engineering will eventually lead humanity to material prosperity and on the other hand that any mention of spirituality (or worse religion) in this process will only deviate the search and postpone the desired outcome.

Rejecting the consumer culture,"today's inheritor by default of materialism's gospel of human betterment", and attracted by the spiritual terminology and principles that tout harmony and unity as fundamental to human prosperity, the green revolution has attracted many of our leading minds to its cause. An increasing number of people turn their efforts towards it and set hopes on it as a panacea that will somehow bring both material and spiritual prosperity.

Far from being a signal of a maturing humanity, this trend rather clearly shows how people have failed to learn the fundamental lesson that the global effort towards social and economic development has taught us: "The fate of what the world has learned to call social and economic development has left no doubt that not even the most idealistic motives can correct materialism's fundamental flaws. ... Fifty years later, while acknowledging the impressive benefits development has brought, the enterprise must be adjudged, by its own standards, a disheartening failure. Far from narrowing the gap between the well-being of the small segment of the human family who enjoy the benefits of modernity and the condition of the vast populations mired in hopeless want, the collective effort that began with such high hopes has seen the gap widen into an abyss."

Harmony and unity are, of course, spiritual principles, and although they are beautifully exemplified in the earth's natural processes, their source lies beyond the earth. Establishing an intimate connection with the source inspires people to exemplify these same principles by transcending their current condition for one which is inherently spiritual in nature. This spiritual condition is found in every human being in a state of potentiality that awaits development as a seed yearns for the nutritious soil, sun and water in just the right proportion.

Material development is a fundamental aspect of true prosperity, and thus should be vigorously pursued. Dogmatic materialism, however, by defining this search in purely material terms and imposing a fear of sounding naive upon any challenger, has succeeded in alienating or at least confusing the great majority of the human population for whom religion is still the main guiding force in their lives.

As many traditional religions ever less clearly reflect the noble truths in their original writings, the frustration for those who want to pattern their lives by these traditions grows daily. On the one hand, little truth can be found in social and economic development as it is currently conceived because it does not allow people to incorporate spiritual truths, while at the same time the social and moral guidance people relentlessly search for in traditional faiths are mired in dogmas and, well, traditions and thus the little guidance offered has become increasingly irrelevant. Growing numbers of the world's people find themselves alone rowing in a sea of religious confusion.

Proponents of the green revolution point to this situation and rightly name it for what it is: a deviation in our search for prosperity, a veil that motivates some to search beyond religion for meaning and others to sink into the dogmas and traditions in hopes of finding some acceptance and tranquility.

Critical to this exploration, as explained in the following paragraph, is the fact that religion when properly conceived can offer and has done so throughout history, what a green revolution can never provide:

Throughout history, the primary agents of spiritual development have been the great religions. For the majority of the earth's people, the scriptures of each of these systems of belief have served, in Bahá’u’lláh's words, as 'the City of God', a source of a knowledge that totally embraces consciousness, one so compelling as to endow the sincere with 'a new eye, a new ear, a new heart, and a new mind'. A vast literature, to which all religious cultures have contributed, records the experience of transcendence reported by generations of seekers. Down the millennia, the lives of those who responded to intimations of the Divine have inspired breathtaking achievements in music, architecture, and the other arts, endlessly replicating the soul's experience for millions of their fellow believers. No other force in existence has been able to elicit from people comparable qualities of heroism, self-sacrifice and self-discipline. At the social level, the resulting moral principles have repeatedly translated themselves into universal codes of law, regulating and elevating human relationships. Viewed in perspective, the major religions emerge as the primary driving forces of the civilizing process. To argue otherwise is surely to ignore the evidence of history.


All quotes taken from "One Common Faith", written by the Baha'i World Centre and published in 2005.

In a future post, I will attempt to explore the question that naturally comes to mind upon reading this last paragraph:

"Why, then, does this immensely rich heritage not serve as the central stage for today's
reawakening of spiritual quest?"

20 November 2008

Financial Meltdown

The current financial crisis is not what it seems. However, because it seems like, well just about any number of things, most of us don't feel that we have much choice but to trust that the people that got us into this mess in the first place will somehow get us out. Even more frustrating is that this is exactly the attitude that those people need for us to have in order for the show to continue as scripted.

These gurus of economic witchcraft feed us a story that goes something like this:

A doctoral degree in economics or any related field, from Yale or Princeton or some similar institution qualifies certain people to understand the intricate and extremely complex inner-workings of the economic and financial instruments that have evolved over approximately 250 years to their nearly perfect current status. The prevailing crisis has occurred because many of our vital institutions have had the poor fortune of being controlled by unscrupulous and selfish individuals. The common citizen should feel assured that our leaders have learned from this crisis and will make the necessary adjustments to the system so that consumer confidence grows, private investments become more financially stable and most importantly the Gross Domestic Product and the Dow Jones Industrial Average begin rising again, so that life can go back to normal.

This sounds so plausible, neutral and reassuring that it almost makes sense. Although it may sound reassuring to some, it is neither plausible nor neutral. In fact, a carefully crafted ideology provides the underlying assumptions that have become so ubiquitous that they gain a status that sets them beyond critical examination for fear of sounding un-American. Bearing such a risk in mind, this crisis provides us with a perfect opportunity to do just that: critically examine such assumptions and look at alternative views so that we can direct our efforts towards supporting initiatives that will truly build prosperity.

With a nearly infinite number of topics at our disposal for exploration, we will look at just two. We will first turn our gaze towards a specific aspect our financial institutions, currency issuance, and subsequently explore the dizzying possibilities of breaking free from the dogmatic materialistic framework in which the above story is set.

I. Debt-Free Money

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are aspects of our financial structure that are portrayed as having survived the ordeal of natural selection not unlike Darwin’s turtles on the Galapagos Islands, rendering them the gospel truth. However, as several elements of the current paradigm have been dethroned lately, we should take the opportunity afforded to dig deep into some others.

An element that we would be wise to pry into is the way we create money. Put in the simplest terms, “One key to Wall Street’s power and to the inherent instability of the financial system is the current practice of private banks creating money with a simple bookkeeping entry each time they make a loan. Because the bookkeeping entry creates only the principal, but not the interest, unless the economy grows fast enough to generate sufficient demand for loans to create the new money required to make the interest payments on the previous loans, debts go into default and the financial system and the economy collapse. The demand for repayment with interest of nearly every dollar in circulation virtually assures the economy will fail unless GDP and inequality are constantly growing.” (David Korten)

This growth imperative puts us in a bind by making us decide to either use natural resources unsustainably or default on our debt. So, the question arises, does money need to be issued as interest-earning debt? Common sense tells us that we can, and indeed must, use our natural resources sustainably, and that this principle seems much more important than servicing man-made debt. As we haven't been inventive or courageous enough to permit this common sense to see reality, we have given the power of issuing money over to private banks, which charge us for this service in the form of interest on every loan.

However, are banks really providing a service worth charging interest for? First, banks don’t really provide society with any notable service because they create money out of nothing while making it appear to be created by government. As Ellen Brown so clearly explains, “This devious scheme was revealed by Sir Josiah Stamp, director of the Bank of England and the second richest man in Britain in the 1920s. Speaking at the University of Texas in 1927, he dropped this bombshell:

The modern banking system manufactures money out of nothing. The process is perhaps the most astounding piece of sleight of hand that was ever invented. Banking was conceived in inequity and born in sin . . . . Bankers own the earth. Take it away from them but leave them the power to create money, and, with a flick of a pen, they will create enough money to buy it back again. . . . Take this great power away from them and all great fortunes like mine will disappear, for then this would be a better and happier world to live in. . . . But, if you want to continue to be the slaves of bankers and pay the cost of your own slavery, then let bankers continue to create money and control credit.

“Professor Henry C. K. Liu is an economist who graduated from Harvard and chaired a graduate department at UCLA before becoming an investment adviser for developing countries. He calls the current monetary scheme a 'cruel hoax.' When we wake up to that fact, he says, our entire economic world view will need to be reordered, "just as physics was subject to reordering when man's world view changed with the realization that the earth is not stationary nor is it the center of the universe." The hoax is that there is virtually no 'real' money in the system, only debts. Except for coins, which are issued by the government and make up only about one one-thousandth of the money supply, the entire U.S. money supply now consists of debt to private banks, for money they created with accounting entries on their books. It is all done by sleight of hand; and like a magician's trick, we have to see it many times before we realize what is going on. But when we do, it changes everything.”

Second, even though interest has come to be regarded as a natural and fair element of a healthy economy, it creates the growth imperative mentioned above. As David Korten puts it, “Privately issued debt-money … bears major responsibility for environmental destruction because it requires infinite growth, extreme inequality because it assures an upward flow of wealth from Main Street to Wall Street, and economic instability because issuing loans to fuel reckless speculation generates handsome short-term bank profits” at the expense of failing small businesses and home foreclosures. For this reason, Mr. Korten suggests that one of the most important elements of an agenda for a new economy is converting to debt-free money.

The story woven by the gurus of economic witchcraft suddenly becomes vulnerable. These are things we can all understand. Surely any product of evolution would not cause environmental destruction and widen the gulf between rich and poor as our current banking institutions do. Self-indulgent individuals at the helm of these institutions are the product and not the cause of a larger crisis in which private institutions are allowed to create money out of nothing by sleight of hand. Has measuring human prosperity and the health of our earth through the GDP and the Dow Jones index set us on a path towards anything resembling prosperity or health?

Lastly, and most importantly, these and similar insights have empowered ordinary people to stand up and have a say in how our money is issued. We now have evidence that our banking institutions are much more vulnerable than we previously imagined.

Further exploring this necessary paradigm shift, as I will do in subsequent posts, is crucial if we want to shake our current boom-bust mentality and if we want to see how material prosperity can match its spiritual counterpart.

06 November 2008

Give W His Due

The utter joy exhibited by such large numbers of Americans with the election of Barak Obama to the office of President was truly inspirational.

Internationally there may have been just as much joy that evening for the possibilities people see in having at least a symbolic representative of themselves in the White House.

"For Obama to overcome what people consider to be synonymous with America -- race -- it's unimaginable,'' said Eric Shepherd, a professor at City University in London. "It's given the world a lot more faith in America. America has become a place that does deliver on its promises. People can achieve anything.''

"Martin Luther King's dream has been realized by Barack Obama.''

Thomas Friedman even called this the end of the Civil War after 147 years.

He goes on to quote Michael Sandel thus, “This is the deepest chord Obama’s campaign evoked. The biggest applause line in his stump speech was the one that said every American will have a chance to go to college provided he or she performs a period of national service — in the military, in the Peace Corps or in the community. Obama’s campaign tapped a dormant civic idealism, a hunger among Americans to serve a cause greater than themselves, a yearning to be citizens again.”

We must, however great the current enthusiasm, recognize the critical role W played in these accomplishments, even if he didn't mean to. The W years can be seen as necessary to provoke such a sea change in American politics.

  • We have learned, for example, that turning our collective backs on a city destroyed by a hurricane tears the whole nation apart and exposes institutionalized racism.
  • We have learned that fabricating tales of nation-building in the Middle East sets several nations up for failure, including our own.
  • We have learned that "making torture and domestic spying legal, fooling Americans by cooking up warped evidence for war and scheming how to further enrich their buddies in the oil and gas industry", as Maureed Dowd so aptly puts it, provides evidence of how such an evolved democracy can be corrupted by misuse.
  • We have learned that completely deregulating and letting "wild law" reign over the market causes financial crises possibly beyond our capacity for reparation.
  • We have learned that pitting a conventional army against a network of underground guerrillas in the vast Middle East is like eliminating malaria one mosquito at a time.
  • We have learned that not building a coalition of nations to fight against rebel states destroys legitimacy of the mission and undermines moral authority.
  • We have learned that responding to a terrorist attack on innocent civilians by asking people to go shopping belies deep ignorance and callousness.
  • We have learned that putting all of our proverbial eggs into economic growth irregardless of the web of life that such growth ultimately depends on, only raises within us a greater yearning to reconnect with this web of life even if this means reconsidering the growth imperative.

Perhaps the greatest lesson we have learned through the W years, at least from my perspective, stems from the fact that America's collective lifestyle choices and the policies designed to uphold that lifestyle have offended large numbers of people because they are largely materialistic, selfish and conflictive. America is not always right, and whether you interpret 9-11 as a manifestation of this sentiment or not, insisting that it is has made America much more the aggressor than the victim. The lesson is that America, as any other nation, has its strengths and weaknesses and will only be able to establish its ideals at home to the extent that it supports other nations in doing the same.

Why was it necessary to endure eight years of selfish mediocrity to arrive at this point? Well, why do many people need to suffer a heart attack in order to realize that their lifestyle is killing them? Why do we need to miss someone in order to realize how much we lover him/her?

On an individual scale these questions don't seem so transcendental, but collectively they take on greater significance because learning is more unwieldy, messy and painfully slow. However, W's legacy is that he sped up our collective learning process to hitherto unknown heights. To see an inversely proportional relationship between W's blunders and greater consciousness gained by the American public about the founding ideals, about the necessity to take care of people and not turn our backs on extreme wealth disparities is testimony to the resilience and vision this nation's people have.

This does not happen here in Ecuador. Even if the depths of suffering are greater in general here, it is translated into learning over what seems like generations, not over a presidential term or two. For this reason among others the world looks to America for leadership, and the time has come for that role to be properly fulfilled.

The wave of global goodwill that poured from all corners of the earth with the news that Barak Obama was elected to the American presidency is extremely encouraging. My hope is that this wave will grow as America applies a leadership style characterized by innovation and example that empowers other nations and peoples as partners, far from the bullying practiced during this past administration.