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Is the Coronavirus an economic corrective?

By Suma Varughese

A friend forwarded a video recently on the financial debacle that has unfolded in the US, where 38 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in the wake of the Coronavirus lockdown. What is more, the queues of cars outside food banks have been a mile long. Some of those cars are high end models including Mercedes Benz. As unbelievable as this may be, what surprised me even more is that people who could have afforded to own a Mercedes Benz or an SUV did not have enough savings to last them for two months of basic living, considering that even if you wanted to splurge there were no opportunities to do so.

This is astonishing!  How could people who are earning well not plan for contingencies?  How could they not have even a basic recognition of the uncertainty of life, particularly in a system like the US, where people are fired at the drop of a hat?

Blame it on the economic concepts promoted by the US after World War II, and exported to the rest of the world in due time. ‘Spend, Don’t Save’ was motto number one. The other was Use and Throw. The first made Americans consumer junkies. Spending was considered the Holy Grail of the populace, and woe betide you if you dropped the baton at any time, because you would have then helped bring about a recession. In The Story of Stuff (a highly recommended animated documentary), Annie Leonard says that after the 9/11 terrorist attack, the traumatized nation looked for solace and guidance from their President, George W. Bush, which he gave, but  he also told them to go shop because economy was badly hit!

To stimulate demand even further came the concept of Equated Monthly Instalments (EMIs), where you bought all the goodies you coveted for a modest monthly outlay, never mind if you paid that outlay for years on end, thanks to the interest factored into it. Thus, the noose tightened over the poor consumer. Not only was expected to spend all that he earned, but he was also expected to tie up his future income through these EMIs. Of course, the consumer was not a hapless victim. The notorious ego loved the idea of being let loose into the wonderland of stuff, and willingly colluded in its own captivity.

Is it any wonder that many among even the middle and upper middle classes do not have enough money to tide them over for just two months of buying groceries, food, medicine, and gas?

A friend shared that a Kryon channeled message she read said that the Coronavirus is not so much about healing the environment as it is an economic corrective. And the countries that will bleed the most are those that have damaged the world economically the most. Could this be true? I don’t know, but it seems possible to me.

Certainly, the lockdown has dealt a body blow to the world’s economy. The world is shape shifting and we have no idea what it is going to solidify into.

But if the economy has to be corrected, what would that look like?

First, what if we were to reverse those two US-created mantras? What if we were to go back to save and then spend? This advice would find resonance with all the scriptures of the world. All religions warn against incurring debt, for that will send us into a pitfall of dependence, loss of self-respect and freedom. In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens offers a succinct formula for happiness. “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

When you save first and then spend, you are imposing rational limits on your desires, instead of allowing them to override you. You may have to defer some of your expenditure which may also help you to see if you really need it. Moreover, your savings will give you security against the uncertainties of life. Eventually, if you save enough you can even leave your job, assuming you don’t much care for it, and do something else to pursue your passion. Saving is the only way to economic freedom. Many believe that money is the way to economic freedom, but if you are spending all that you make, you are no better off.

Moreover, there is a striking contrast between the economic imperative that one must keep spending, and the spiritual wisdom that at the root of all suffering is desire. Both the Buddha and Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita expound eloquently on this. The Bhagavad Gita traces the graph like this: “Contemplation of sensory objects leads to attachment, which foments desire, which gives rise to anger. Anger clouds judgement, which bewilders memory. When memory is challenged, the intellect is destroyed, leading to ruin.”

It is time to recognize that freedom does not lie in making money. It lies in not needing money. The winner is not the one with the mostest. It is the one who needs the leastest.  In his autobiography, Paramahansa Yogananda relates a lovely story about Alexander the Great’s visit to India. Having heard about the yogis and rishis of our land, he sent his emissary to the deep jungles to meet Dandamis, a great sage of Taxila. The emissary told Dandamis that he would be greatly rewarded if he consented to go along with him, but he would be killed if he did not. The sage looked steadily at the emissary and said, “Since I neither covet gold nor fear death, I will not come to Alexander. Tell him to come and meet me instead if he wants to see me.”

Reversing ‘Use and Throw’ would send us back to the sturdy wisdom of our Indian civilization where we used everything until it was too worn and torn to be used, at which point it would be recycled. Moreover, since ours was a pre-industrial civilization, we lived under the protection of Nature and took our cues from Her. Like Her self-sustaining cycles, our organic lifestyle did not damage the earth and whatever came from the earth was returned to it.

Secondly, we must recognize that economics cannot be the center of our lives or our government. There is so much more to life than money. Human beings are not consumers, we are souls, here on Planet Earth to grow. We are here to realize our full potential. We are here to grow in kindness and strength. In love and inner power. In joy and generosity. In arts and crafts. And above all, in voiding our ego and becoming who we truly are: an aspect of God.

Thirdly, it is time to drop our obsession with big. Bigness is a function of the ego. Small is sane. Small is sensible. And as E.F. Schumacher said in his book of that name, “Small is beautiful.” Instead of aspiring to scale up operations, to become multinational monsters, or have a franchise in every city, let us start small and take it one step at a time. Such an approach is organic, for this is how Nature grows and it will prevent the ego from taking over. Similarly, instead of buying gigantic houses that will be an elephant in your later years, go for as modest a house as is practical, and practice the same logic in all that you buy. At the societal level, small would translate into robust village economies which would be the foundation for the Nation’s prosperity.  We might see the end of malls and superstores, and of giant organizations and buildings. They will go the way of the dinosaur.

Finally, the cycle we are presently ascended on, of everyone wanting to make more and more money is not sustainable. It is leading to high inflationary rates, and the worst sufferers are the poor, who simply cannot compete with the cost of living. Moreover, it also leads to many of us being unable to avail of many services because they simply go out of our reach. This is particularly true of the US, where people are forced to fend for themselves when it comes to carpentry, house painting, plumbing, cooking, driving, and housework.

As radical as this may sound, I would suggest that we consider the opposite strategy, which is taking less and less. If enough people were to join this movement, prices would fall across the spectrum, and eventually, assuming that the cycle continues, even the poor could join the economy and manage to have a decent life with whatever they earn. It is greed that compels us to make more and more. Agreed, greed is not going anytime soon, but if society and the economy stopped fueling our greed in the irresponsible way they have been doing, perhaps most of us would be content with little.

The time to start this reverse movement is now. Most companies are cutting salaries across the board. Innumerable companies are facing closure. Millions have lost their jobs. Could all of us voluntarily start charging less and less for our services?

If all of this seems dismayingly as if we are going to have to go back to where we were 200 or 300 years ago, don’t despair. Our senses have been so sated with excess, that we fail to recognize the joy innate in living. In rich relationships. In performing arts. In immersing oneself in nature. What we presently take for happiness will really seem like small potatoes in the bargain.

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