A letter for my high school students
We began our economic thinking journey together by paying attention to nature, discussing purpose, considering our values, making agreements, and exploring aspects of monetary design and strategies of the social solidarity economy. We sought alignment with nature and indigenous values, agreements, and designs.
As this phase of our economic exploration ends, I’ve wanted to consolidate and share what I feel are the most important nuggets of economic wisdom for you to consider as you continue to explore the world with curiosity, compassion, creativity, and an open heart and mind. To do this, let’s circle back to the Toltec Four Agreements, adapting them as a framework to consider the possibility of pivoting toward a more salutogenic economic paradigm.
Is the current paradigm salutogenic or pathogenic? How can we know? Salutogenic is a term from the field of medical science, alluding to a shift from focusing on the cause of suffering, toward fostering the requirements for health and resilience. Rather than asking, “How do we fix the problems to make it less bad?”, a salutogenic frame might ask, “How good can it get?”
A similar analogy between medicine and the critical state of our economy was made in the brilliant book, End of Finance:
“It is suggested that, when the patient is seriously ill, it is not the time to worry about the side effects of the drugs administered. The authoritative scholars who have put forward this view… have completely failed, however, to ask themselves whether this metaphor is applicable to drugs that are themselves the cause of the illness.”~ Amato & Fantacci, The End of Finance
Is the drug the cause of the illness? Is the economy the cause of the crisis? If so, what are the important questions to ask to foster regeneration and resilience? What can we know, what do we question, and what can we try? What happens when we go beyond personal development and try to apply The Four Agreements to the broader topic of a complex economy and society?
Perhaps these could be our: “Four Economic Agreements”.
The Four Economic Agreements
I. Always Do Your Best
With economic design, be purpose-driven and accountable to that purpose.
Usually listed as the fourth agreement, let’s begin with the end in mind. We can only be accountable for doing our best if we have some sense of purpose, or direction, to guide us– like a compass. The graphic above represents a purpose-driven compass for salutogenic economic design.
By addressing three core human needs of salutogenesis (the petals) and four spheres of flourishing (radiating from self, to community, to society, to biosphere), this compass helps us chart the course toward an economy that can be held accountable for always doing its best.
Pivoting from a profit-seeking to purpose-driven economy is possible. We must remember that profit is not a purpose. It is time to measure what matters.
II. Be Impeccable With Your Word
Align to design.
This agreement isn’t about policing speech. It is about investigating whether we can align our words with our purpose, and seek to understand the need expressed beneath what we say. When we begin with a clear sense of purpose, it becomes easier to assess whether the words and strategies we employ take us toward or away from our purpose.
When the same word is defined by two concepts that contradict one another, it is called doublespeak. Doublespeak is defined as, “deliberately euphemistic, ambiguous, or obscure language.” In his novel, 1984, George Orwell wrote about doublethink, or the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, also known as cognitive dissonance. Rather than accept what is contradictory, we want to seek what is complimentary. Cognitive coherence is aligning our thinking with our values and sense of purpose. This increases our cognitive capacity for critical thinking, creativity, and compassion.
For example, if the common definition of equity is represented by the quality of fairness, how might a legacy of limited access to owning and profiting off of equity shares invalidate or undermine equity as an outcome?
III. Don’t Make Assumptions
We know that we will always make assumptions. An assumption is a core belief that determines the direction of our thinking. Our brains are wired for them. This is why we begin with noticing nature: to practice making observations before making assumptions. If our goal is to enhance wellbeing, what does wellbeing look like? What are the conditions for thriving and how do we enhance those conditions?
As always, beginning with a purpose-driven compass, it is easier to assess how well our beliefs, statements, or assumptions take us toward or away from our intended goals. We can check the truth of our assumptions by pivoting. For example, if scarcity is real and scarcity drives value, what happens to the trajectory of our economic designs? Rather than thinking of society as having unlimited material wants on a resource-scarce planet, what if we understand humanity as having continuous and often immaterial needs and wants, in harmony with the needs of a regenerative and abundant planet? Rather than seeking to control one another, we might focus on meeting more complex needs and supporting the complexity of life.
IV. Don’t Take Anything Personally
If we go back to always doing our best, and holding our economic actions accountable toward our stated purpose, it becomes easier to align our speech, question our assumptions, and release the attachment to ego-identity. In other words, don’t take anything personally.
Self-interest is at the root of this agreement. Self-interest that perceives the self as separate from Life, will tend toward seeing the one’s well being as in competition with the wellbeing of others. This can lead to behaviors described by anti-social self-interest, such as greed, hoarding, or manipulating others.
However, self-interest that sees the self as part of the whole of Life will see that what is good for the self is also good for the whole community. As we learned from Robin Wall Kimmerer in her essay, The Serviceberry, traditional economies see one’s individual security as based upon the health and wellbeing of the others in the community, including all life forms. As the saying goes, “I store my meat in the belly of my brother.” This is pro-social self-interest. With it comes an awareness that we share core needs.
Ownership is a strategy, it is not a need. The need is for future security, for space, for freedom, for acknowledgement, or for reliability. Does the strategy meet the needs for one, at the expense of another? Insecurity is shown to escalate with inequality. So it is time to question our existing strategies and align to design.
Does private ownership of land increase our personal security, or increase housing insecurity, raise the cost of living, and funnel investments away from supporting productive and prosperous businesses in our communities?
Do intellectual property rights incentivize innovation, or restrict an open market of creative ideas?
If money is a record keeping device that makes trade possible, what incongruence is there in owning it?
Taking things personally on an individual level implies attachment to the structures of one’s identity, or ego. When we take things personally, we risk making conclusions or reinforcing assumptions that confirm our own biases. When we take things personally, we separate ourselves from the interests and outcomes of others. Theories of human motivation, including Non-Violent Communication (NVC), propose that we all share the same core need. Therefore, each action is an expression of one of these. Finding and tending to the universal need is a way to go beyond the limitations of tolerance and compromise that arise from privatizing self-interest, and toward collaboration and synergy.
*This letter was shared with high school students who are taking a class called Design for Peace and Regeneration. This takes a design-thinking approach to teaching Humanities, especially Economics. Comment, share, or reach out for more information on research, curriculum materials, and teacher development. email@example.com