What can youth athletics teach us about free markets?

How about a little sportsmanship when it comes to markets?

How about a little sportsmanship when it comes to economic competition?

Sometimes small gestures can prove profoundly spiritually powerful. Spirituality, after all, isn’t just meditating on the top of a mountain or praying by a candlelit bedside. It’s found in real, human gestures that happen around us everyday.

One remarkable illustration of this — and which recently gained national recognition here in the US — happened at a high school wrestling match in St. Paul, Minnesota last month between St. Michael Albertville High School sophomore Mitchell McKee and Blaine High School sophomore Malik Stewart. Other than the stakes, namely the state championship for the 120 lb weight class, this wasn’t an extraordinary match. Except that the following happened: After Stewart was beaten, he immediately walked over and embraced the father of the opposing wrestler, who is terminally ill with cancer. You can read the whole story here (and I strongly recommend you do.)

What was it about this story that made it so emotionally powerful, and vaulted it into the national spotlight a few days later? I think it’s because sports — and particularly youth sports — can occasionally remind us that even in an ultra-competitive atmosphere, the most beautiful human virtues can rise to the surface. Anyone who’s watched high school wrestling in particular recognizes that the sport uniquely balances strategy and discipline with primal aggression and raw effort. That a spontaneous act of humanity can emerge from such gritty violence is testament to the delicate balance between competition and cooperation. At one moment, two athletes struggle to physically dominate each other as if their lives depended on it. At the very next, those two athletes, as well as a tiny community of spectators, are somehow tearfully united by a simple but powerful gesture.

Continue reading

Some thoughts on The Gardener and the modern day case for religion

The_Gardener_Film_PosterI recently went to see the film “The Gardener”, which is a documentary from the famous Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf that takes place in the Baha’i holy places in Israel. I must say… it was weird. A lot of strange camera angles, long pauses, and confusing symbolism that I find common in Iranian movies. But I suppose those are some of the very things that make people fans of Iranian cinema in the first place.

The film is basically a dialogue between Makhmalbaf and his son about the role of religion in modern day society. The two directors visit the peaceful backdrop of the Baha’i gardens in Haifa and Akka, spending time not only walking the beautiful grounds but observing and interviewing Baha’i volunteers (the gardeners).

Amid the physical beauty of the surroundings, the sense of spiritual contentment of the volunteers, and the ethnic and racial diversity of the people interviewed, the film asks the question: How do we reconcile something so seemingly peaceful and pure intentioned with the destruction that religion has caused over the generations? The elder Makhmalbaf makes the case that religion has already proven its power to motivate the human heart towards destruction, and should now be given a chance to use that power for peace and unity. He’s optimistic about its chances, and over the course of the film he himself slowly transforms from filmmaker to gardener, watering the various flowers in the garden as a clear metaphor for religion’s capacity to nurture and develop every human soul. His son is much more skeptical. All religions start with good intentions, he argues, but they all seem to end up catalyzing conflict and misery.

Religion’s role in the history of conflict is often used to argue that the human race is better off dumping the entire institution in its entirety. But this argument’s fallacious assumption is that religion must necessarily be a cause of conflict. Of course any religion that causes misery in the lives of the people it purports to benefit is better off not existing. This is a point made by Baha’u’llah himself, and repeated beautifully by one of the Baha’i volunteers in the film. But it doesn’t have to be this way. It must not be this way.

Continue reading

Share this blog!

Yesterday I took a good look at the statistics for this blog for the first time in a while. It turns out that I’ve got readers from all sorts of places. The majority of you are Americans, unsurprisingly (I’m based here in New England). But to my amazement, apparently over the past year this site’s gotten hits from 66 other countries. A lot of those are from Canada, the UK, and India. But it also looks like there’s someone in Singapore following regularly, for instance, and I’ve gotten a smattering of hits from places like Ivory Coast, Moldova, and Iraq. Pretty awesome.

This site is pointless without its readers, of course, and thus I owe everyone who’s followed it over the past two-and-a-half years a debt of gratitude. The truth, however, is that readership has seemed to hit a bit of a plateau recently. If you’re reading this, consider it a request to invite your friends to check out the site and sign up for email updates on the left-hand side of the page.

This may be obvious, but it’s worth saying again: Although Fruit Tree is labeled a “Baha’i economics blog”, and a lot of what’s discussed revolves around the Baha’i Faith, this site is not for Baha’is per se. The whole point of starting the blog was to attract everyone who feels that spirituality, ethics, and civility need to be play a role in our material lives. So please keep that in mind when you think about whom to invite to join in.

Thanks for reading, and SHARE THIS BLOG!!!

Spiritual humility and the mysterious wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous

A friend of mine from grad school once told me she was a deep admirer of the Baha’i Faith, but there was one aspect of the Faith’s teachings that she took exception to and couldn’t quite get over. Why was it, she asked, that the prayers and other holy writings seemed to attribute everything to God? She herself was a believer in God, she told me, and she understood the concept of God being the originator of all creation and thus the ultimate cause of everything. It wasn’t that that bugged her. Rather, it was the way that Baha’i scripture seemed to see the human being as helpless without God’s assistance. Couldn’t we just give a bit of credit to the power of humanity itself?

For me, a person who grew up in a Baha’i family and who was exposed to Baha’i prayers from an early age, this was an eye opener, because it had never occurred to me that these prayers sounded like this to others. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt I understood where she was coming from.

To give you an idea of what I mean, just take a look at these two passages from the Baha’i “Long Obligatory Prayer”, which is a prayer that many Baha’i recite daily*:

“Thou seest, O my Lord, this stranger hastening to his most exalted home beneath the canopy of Thy majesty and within the precincts of Thy mercy; and this transgressor seeking the ocean of Thy forgiveness; and this lowly one the court of Thy glory; and this poor creature the orient of Thy wealth. Thine is the authority to command whatsoever Thou willest. I bear witness that Thou art to be praised in Thy doings, and to be obeyed in Thy behests, and to remain unconstrained in Thy bidding.”

“I love in this state, O my Lord, to beg of Thee all that is with Thee, that I may demonstrate my poverty, and magnify Thy bounty and Thy riches, and may declare my powerlessness, and manifest Thy power and Thy might.”

Why does this prayer insist on portraying the individual as someone who is powerless and feeble before God? Why does it ask the believer to keep reminding himself of his meagerness?

Continue reading

More on democratic failures

Just as a follow-up to the last post, here’s Mario Monti, the Italian prime minister and one of the key players in European sovereign debt drama, on Fareed Zakaria this past Sunday:

I believe the reason why democracies are very poor these days to handle this is that democracies, like markets, have become much too short-termist. The combination of very important media of frequent elections, of even social networks, which tend to polarize people towards more extreme positions. The combination of these factors has the consequence that, in democracies, politicians — professional politicians tend to reject or only to embark into solutions that imply short-term costs and longer term benefits with great reluctancy only when they are faced with an actual huge crisis. So the problem, to me, is how it’s possible to reconcile classical electoral democracy, which, after all, we love, with a longer term perspective. So I think democracy, in the long-term, in our countries will survive if it comes to be associated with leadership, will not survive if democracy plus media brings to us more and more followship rather than leadership.

Once again, this is more than just about Greek politics. Democratic failures are happening everywhere, with differing levels of severity. Monti gets that the world has changed, and that these changes have made these failures more common and more costly. But the car still needs a driver. For democratic failures to occur, it helps to have a the morally flexible politician to espouse a cause which he/she knows isn’t in the interest of voters, and a morally lazy voter not to demand something more honest.

The overconsumption debate, part I of III: A fear of Chinese motorists

I originally wanted to write a single blog posting on this topic, but it started to get really long. So I broke it up into  three parts. Here’s the first one below. I hope you enjoy.

———————–

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of people – very often Baha’is – assert that our current level of consumption is not sustainable, whether on the level of the country or of the whole world. The phrase “overconsumption is the problem”, or some variance of that, often comes up in our discussions about what’s wrong with the economy. I thought I would write a blog post on what exactly I think this means, and share my thoughts on where this idea has merit and where it doesn’t.

Why am I writing this? It’s for a couple of reasons. First, I have always felt that usually when people make statements like these, they lack specificity and actual scientific thinking, and because of that they’re just not very useful. Second, my sense is that in the current economic environment – our ongoing recovery from a devastating world recession, talk of the need for consumers to start spending again, environmental problems, higher gas prices – the question of consumption is naturally on people’s minds. That the Occupy Wall Street movement has brought certain critiques of capitalism  to the forefront certainly has helped.

First, let me lay out exactly what I think the “overconsumption” idea is actually referring to. I think we’re talking about at least three different commonly-expressed themes here:

Overconsumption theme #1“Eventually, we are going to run out of natural resources if we keep consuming them at this rate.” This is the idea, for instance, that as Chinese people (or any other people) become wealthier over time, they will all drive gas guzzling cars like we do, and this means we’re doomed to a fate of either running out of oil, horrible climate change, or both.

Overconsumption theme #2“Economists’ view of the world encourages selfish, voracious consumption, which is bad for the economy and, more generally, society.” This is the notion that the economists and their discipline are selfish and cynical, and that this has resulted in a corrupt economic system.

Overconsumption theme #3“We’re bombarded by messages urging us to consume, and promoting the notion that happiness comes from the collection of material things. All this leads to is misery.” In other words, this is the notion that the promotion of a “consumerist” style of living is bad for society.

I think there are various degrees of merit in these. Let me tackle #1 only, and I’ll leave the other two for future posts. As always, I would be very intent on reading what this blog’s readers think in the comments section. Continue reading