Compassion during the crisis

Compassion for all - including bankers and politicians - will help society weather the economic cris

The Buddha was an ordinary human being who lived a remarkable life. An Indian prince, he gave up everything in search of the truth. The truths he discovered speak to us across all cultures and ages. He discovered and taught that human dissatisfaction is caused by three “root poisons” of the mind: greed, ignorance and anger. The Buddha also taught that we can move beyond these poisons and wake up to reality. In fact the word Buddha means “one who is awake”.

We can see how greed and ignorance have contributed to current economic conditions. Recent events in the financial markets and economy have undoubtedly been a “wake up call”. People are suffering from financial losses and from uncertainty and fear. A new reality is dawning and it has been a shock. The Regan-Thatcher years are dead due to the widespread acceptance that unchecked markets do not best serve us.

During those years people were encouraged towards selfish greed. Bankers became greedy for profits and became more creative about making money from nothing - inventing new financial schemes, mortgage products and ways of “offsetting” risk. The result of these developments? A full blown asset price bubble followed by the inevitable bust: collapsing asset prices, mortgage foreclosure, unemployment and business bankruptcy. It is clear no risks were offset, merely swept under the carpet until the world economy tripped over it.

Wisdom cuts through ignorance. The last three hundred years or so has seen mankind develop a wealth of knowledge and skills to manipulate our environment. Knowledge and skills are not wisdom though - indeed they can be applied in unwise ways. From today's economic situation it is clear that financial skills and knowledge have been applied in unwise ways.

It is not only a short term lack of wisdom that troubles us. This world has finite resources and for a long time lone voices have been pointing out the impossibility of permanent compound economic growth. The ecology movement has grown up during the last forty five years or so and has cohered to become politically influential. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of international institutions, the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer - and the environment continues to degrade.

These issues need to be addressed and slowly the economic paradigm is shifting. We need now to develop the wisdom to use our knowledge and skills properly. We must learn to live in a peaceful and sustainable way. This will demand the development of a new economics based on “simplicity, need and sufficiency” and not on “complexity, greed and power”. It will involve massive social, economic and financial change. It will take time.

For these reasons we need to develop compassion not just for the starving, but for the super-rich, bankers and politicians too, because if we are to solve the underlying ecological and economic issues – which can not be separated - these people will be experiencing more change than any of us.

Matthew Jee is a former stockbroker, merchant banker and financial publisher. In 1997 he left the world of finance and worked on a Kibbutz in Israel. Two years later he became a Buddhist under his Tibetan Master, The Venerable Khandro Rinpoche. Matthew now writes under the pseudonym “The Irreverent Buddhist” and is the owner of a non-sectarian internet discussion forum for meditators.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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