Sunday, December 28, 2008

Resting in economic chaos

This morning I am fascinated by a NYT article by Michael Kimmelman, "Printing Money and its Price." He explores the opinions of various learned people on the wisdom of the Fed doing exactly what got us in trouble:
Spend without limit. Print money today, fret about the consequences tomorrow.
Kimmelman, who is an excellent writer, is enough of a thinker to avoid reaching a conclusion. The article as a whole demonstrates how untidy all this is, and how unpredictable. That made me think of chaos theory.

I understand chaos theory only in its practical application to forecasting the weather, which cows seem to do more reliably than meteorologists. Weather is affected by forces both large and small (those butterfly wings in Peru), and constantly changing; and when just one force moves, it moves everything in the whole net. We can't always forecast it; otherwise there wouldn't be so many deaths from major weather events. And we certainly can't control it.

I suspect the economy is very much like that. Very large forces, Bernie Madoff, Chinese central bank, small forces, you not buying that flat-screen TV, very small forces, someone wrapping a sandwich in an old bread bag, avoiding the purchase of Baggies. Actions happening all the time everywhere.

Like many American Buddhists, one of the first dharma books I read was Pema Chodron's When Things Fall Apart. In this book, with the clarity of a former elementary teacher, Pema encourages us over and over to stay with our uncertainty. Little we know at the start of practice that this is going to be the essence, resting in reality, letting go of our attachment to the outcomes we prefer, realizing that we cannot control what is much larger than us. For my Taoist friend, this is resting in the Tao, the way things are. Suzuki Roshi called it seeing"things as it is."

I think that's where we are as a country and a world now, as the reckless errors of frontier capitalism fly home to roost. We are in chaos.

What do we do with that? As governments, we seem to be trying very hard to fix it. There are learned opinions all over the place on how to do that, and no one can say with authority that this action or that will work. So I'd like to add my voice to this, and recommend something you could think of as a middle way: Let's not try to fix it today. This thing is a giant ship that has exploded, and the planks are still falling through the sky. Let's wait a while.

To carry the metaphor forward, this is not a time to hover over drawings on how to rebuild the ship and argue about what kind of ship it should be. We need to be concerned right now with rescuing the little folks in the water before they get swamped. And perhaps, meditating on the life koan, How did we get into this mess?

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