Buddhist Economics?

There are times when news outlets and websites are so amazingly desperate for a new angle on a story that they will go to great lengths to find some previously buried lede that everyone else missed that might get some attention. Addictinginfo is rather incredible at this, mostly by their audacity.

Here we have one example about a video that has gone viral recently in which a guy accuses anyone who has signed the Norquist pledge of committing treason. Addictinginfo’s original approach: he’s a Buddhist scholar.

Given the critical mass of this, well, critical mass, it becomes imperative to stir some new voices into the mix, hopefully to add perspective we might not have considered or a fresh viewpoint that bears attention. One such voice is that of Professor Robert Thurman: Buddhist scholar, prolific author, respected academician, and “one of the 25 most influential people” chosen by Time in 1997. Perhaps his most unique feature is his position at Columbia University, where he is the Je Tsongkhapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, “holding the first endowed chair in this field of study in the United States.” [Wikipedia] According to his website, Professor Thurman is also the co-founder  and President of Tibet House US, has been a personal friend of the Dalai Lama for over 40 years, and writes and lectures frequently on the topics of Buddhism, Asian history, and critical philosophy. In other words, a learned and accomplished man whose opinion merits our open minds.

OK…why? No, seriously, it’s not that I think not being a qualified expert in a given field means you can’t opine or even give vital perspective on an issue. This whole damn blog is me opining and trying to give vital perspective on issues of which I am not a certified expert. But I fail to see how Prof. Thurman’s credentials as a scholar of Buddhism, Asian history, or critical philosophy means that his opinion on economics somehow carries more weight. Does his close, personal, and long-standing friendship with the Dalai Lama somehow imbue him with a great knowledge of Constitutional law?

If you listen to the video, clearly the answer is “no.”

95% of the congressmen and Republican senators have sworn a written oath to someone called Grover Norquist and an organization called American For Tax Reform; that they will under no circumstances, and for no reason, raise taxes of any kind on anyone. And therefore they have taken an oath to an outside organization which is not supported by the U.S. Constitution – which gives Congress the right to levy taxes, to do the work of the people through the government –but this is a non governmental organization, not elected by anybody and supported by big money people who are making money by not having to pay taxes.

And…? I hate to break it to Thurman, but people swear seemingly contradictory oaths all the time. My uncle used to annoy Jehovah’s Witnesses who would come to his door and ask to pray with him. He would agree to pray with them…but first everyone must say the Pledge of Allegiance. Since it was a violation of their faith to do so, swearing an oath of allegiance to anything that isn’t god (idolatry), then they were forced to grumble off and my uncle stopped getting Saturday morning door knocks.

You know what? It’s just as silly an argument as what Thurman is making.

Members of the government promise to do all sorts of things, they sign all sorts of pledges, and I’m not feeling cynical enough to believe that at least some of them don’t mean every single one. But governing is a matter of prioritizing and, to a lesser extent, to developing a certain view of the world. Let’s continue and I’ll elaborate.

It’s actually a kind of seditious oath, a treasonous oath. People who take that oath cannot actually serve in the government with good conscience, because their real role is to act as a mole to destroy the government; they are “starving the beast.”

Here we have Thurman confusing rhetoric for reality. Does he also take everybody who misuses the word “literally” at face value (e.g. “I literally peed myself,” “I literally jumped out of my skin,” etc.)? While AFTA and libertarian types are basically anarchists in rhetoric, they want a government just as big as anybody else, but they want that big government to leave them alone and restrict other people. Nobody is trying to “destroy the government,” they’re trying to create fifty smaller tyrannies rather than what they perceive to be one big one (except in matters of marriage or abortion). This has no more validity than every conservative asshole who thinks liberals are Communists and traitors because that’s what they call everything they don’t like.

The people who sign Norquist’s pledge tend to really think that tax cuts create prosperity for all and that the government is overgrown and a hindrance to liberty. They’re wrong, but they have no “mental reservation or purpose of evasion” because they are entirely confident and unintentionally evading. They believe something stupid, which isn’t treasonous by any given definition.

Feel free to watch Thurman’s every terrible argument yourself:

This is not to say I like the Norquist pledge. I think it’s stupid and short-sighted and based on something Norquist came up with when he was 12. There are plenty of great arguments against it. But none of them involve “the people who signed it are traitors!” They’re not. They agreed to a non-binding pledge that happens to line up with their poor ideas of how macro-economics works, or their very good ideas about how to make more money for themselves and their friends.

Back to the original point though, we see that this eminent scholar of Buddhism with so many accolades produces nothing more than red meat for liberals, a WND-style stretch of the meaning of words to create an emotional appeal free from facts. That’s why theologians and the like are not necessarily more worth considering on subjects not related to their field (I’m talking to you, USCCB, with your medical guidelines). Thurman, for all his knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, makes plainly miserable arguments about Constitutional law. And I have no idea why I should take his opinion seriously.


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