Saturday, February 07, 2009

Is Spirituality bad for economic growth?

What in the world would spirituality have to do with economic growth? Shouldn’t spirituality be disconnected from money and hence the economy?

Economic growth is studied and analyzed by economists. One of the tools that most of the economists use to track growth is called Gross Domestic Product (GDP.) GDP for a country is defined as the ‘total market value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country in a year.’ This definition shows that existence of a market – a place where people gather, physically or logically, to buy and sell - is a prerequisite to analyzing growth. A country is called a growing economy if its GDP keeps growing. Getting a little mathematical might just be handy here.

The most common approach to measuring and understanding GDP is the expenditure method:

GDP = personal Consumption + private Investment + Government spending + (eXports − iMports),
GDP = C + I + G + (X-M).

All above activities happen at a market-place. The basic tenet of this ‘growth’ perspective is that the more willing customers are to spend (C), the more willing producers will be to produce and sell things for profit. This willingness drives businessmen to take the risk of private investments (I) and governments to spend (G) on providing the required infrastructure. The willingness of international consumers drives exports(X) and that of national consumers drives local industries and imports (M).

How did the US become the largest economy in the world? US society made ‘living off credit’ and ‘spending beyond the means’ a way of life. The spending propensity of US citizens almost single handedly gives a reason to the rest of the world to keep producing. Credit cards were mainly introduced to induce a willingness to spend – to own more than you can immediately afford. The result: the spending power of the world grows, increasing with it the willingness to produce, in turn increasing investments and hence employment, which again increases the spending power, thus completing the circle. So the more we spend, the more we drive the world economy. And the single biggest tool to make us spend is to inculcate a feeling of wanting something which is not yours until you spend to own it. Thus the whole corporate world out there is creating a feeling of a lack of something and hence a wanting within you. True spirituality does the direct opposite to you. It attacks at the root of wanting from the outside world by creating a sense of completeness within. By connecting you to your happiness within, it reduces your needs from the outside world, through the fulfillment of which you seek your happiness. The more spiritual you become, the more you tend to live without most of the things you normally can’t live without. Most of the necessities start to look like luxuries. So you reduce your wasteful spending and that slows down the wheel of development. Hence, spirituality is bad for the economic growth of world.

I once came across an interesting ideology which I would call ‘Five why’s’ concept. It states that if you ask a series of ‘why’ to find the reason for a person’s action, and subsequently to his answers, then latest by the fifth ‘why’, his reply would be ‘He did it to be happy.’ This shows that the root cause for any action of a man is a desire for happiness. Every intermediate answer to a ‘why’ is a different path to the same end. And in these intermediate answers lies the unlimited selling potential for all the companies in the world. And boy! Haven’t they done a good job exploiting this? Think of all that makes you happy and then just imagine how many people are out there to exploit this desire of yours just to sell their product or service.

The problem with this whole cycle is that every source of your happiness is outside you. Eating a decent meal at home was very satisfying until you saw someone doing a candle light dinner in a five star hotel.

However, the real question to ask is not whether spirituality is good or bad for the economic development but whether GDP is the correct method of tracking growth. Does the monetary exchange of currencies mean everything – even more than the happiness, seeking which people exchange money at the markets? GDP was not created to be a measure of societal well being, but it is often used as an indicator for just that because it is the best available measure so far. It has served well for a good number of years, but not any more. GDP is all about money and as it is with money, GDP can keep track of food, but not appetite; medicine, but not health; soft beds, but not sleep; glitter, but not comfort; fun, but not happiness; the shell of all things, but not the kernel. As economics moves away from monetary value towards happiness index, more policy makers realize that GDP cannot be the only basis when deciding and devising an economic policy in today's society.

A person’s intelligence can be gauged from the answers he gives but his wisdom can be gauged from the questions he asks. There comes a stage in evolution where wisdom should win over intelligence. We’ve reached a stage in the evolution where we need to ask ourselves some of the most basic, wise questions that shake the very fundamental premise on which the intelligent human society is built. Is ‘survival of the fittest’ the right ideology? All through our long process of evolution, mankind has either controlled or eliminated anything that threatened its existence. It all began with wild animals, harmful plants and unruly weather. And now that these three are more or less tamed, the word ‘survival’ has added an extra dimension to itself. Survival not only means living and breathing but also means material progress, lifestyle and status to name a few. And in the new avatar of the word ‘survival,’ the above ideology pits man against man. Our basic premise has made our own fellows our enemies.

Hence the right question is not whether spirituality is bad for economic development but whether development, as we see it, is the right path? Probably for the first time in human history, more people worldwide are living in cities than in villages and thousands more are migrating to cities daily. What has this done to our lifestyles? Most of the cities worldwide are crowded, congested, polluted, crime-ridden, badly managed and much more. If, as deduced above, happiness is our final aim, then are our concerted efforts towards the so-called ‘development’ taking us towards that happiness? Where are we going wrong here? Where is the missing link? Aren’t all news on TV or newspaper a result brought about by a mankind that has ‘survival of the fittest’ as its deepest fears? If I don’t trick, cheat, beat or kill my adversary, he will trick, cheat, beat or kill me; unless I’m the best, I’ll be trampled upon by others who would use me as a stepping stone on their way to success.

Where is the solution to this? Slowly, we need to start living a life that rejects the established notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ and we can then gradually change the very definition of development. Let us stop hoarding and start sharing. Let us not celebrate without making somebody’s life better. No good news should cross our lives without doing charity. We need to start living a simpler life so we save more for the needy people. Once these simple ideas become our basis for living, we would see that the tenets of spirituality and the parameters of development are not contradictory but complementary.

Spirituality is the deepest core in all of us. Millions of years of misguided ideologies have taken us away from it. And the human soul, having tried it all, is hankering for the inner essence that has been denied to it for eons. We humans get drawn towards anything that has been denied to us. Is it any surprise then that in 2006, the most googled word in Pakistan was ‘sex’ and that in the US was ‘God?’