Just before the microscopic virus Covid-19 caused a macroscopic calamity and made home imprisonment mandatory for everyone, I had gone to meet my dear old friend Amit after several years.
Amit is a brilliant economist and a revered teacher – for hundreds of bright young graduate students. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder recently, and I was worried about him. After exchanging pleasantries and forced chit chat over a sumptuous lunch, we went out for a walk in the nearby park.
It was a cozy spring afternoon. Nature’s showcase of ethereal beauty and vibrant color was on full display in the form of blooming flowers and blossoming plants. Several birds- some local and some exotic and migratory – were enjoying themselves too- some having a feast on the bird feeders hanging on lamp posts, others playing in little puddles on the lush green grass, and yet others being curious spectators to a game of cricket.
We walked in silence, taking in the beautiful sights, when suddenly Amit said –”Look at these sparrows, how much freedom and happiness they have, flying and hopping from puddle to puddle, without a care in the world. If you think about it, The Sparrow Economy is such an efficient system . Being bird-brained should be a real compliment and not an insult, I think”.
“Sparrow Economy ?” I blurted out, with concern, secretly wondering if one of his manic attacks was back and trying to figure out ways to take him home.
He smiled serenely, having worked out some complex equations in his head, and then his professorial manner continued. “The sparrow economy would be based on three pillars – contentment, living in the present moment, and …”
“What are you talking about ?? I interjected with apprehension, now really worried about his flight of fancy. He wasn’t worried at all, however, and continued with the same enthusiasm.
“Look at these birds – dancing and singing and enjoying this warm afternoon. Do you see them sit and brood about how tomorrow will be? Have you seen them hoard anything or worry about hoarding anything? No.
They are perfectly happy and content. Contentment is so efficient. It enables them to maximize their happiness in the present moment. They don’t spend efforts and hours on hoarding – as tomorrow again; they will take another flight and find some food to satiate themselves. They are not enslaved to hoarding. The Creator provides for them everyday …at least on most days.
The Creator provides for us too on most days at least for our basic needs …but we don’t have the faith, as these birds do, in God’s power and keep hoarding, believing that what we are hoarding is to take care of tomorrow and to take care of a rainy day. We trade our present happiness for our future happiness, but does that tomorrow ever come? Is our future happiness maximized? I don’t think so, since instead of enjoying the aroma of contentment, we are always brewing more discontentment. We are always in the race to accumulate more -always postponing that future happiness – Always trying to have a bigger house, a bigger and better phone, and a swankier car -that’s what is supposedly rational human behavior, right?
In this model – neither present nor future joy is maximized, and the human economy isn’t as efficient as the sparrow economy.QED Hence proved .” He chuckled.
I was startled but then irritably challenged him. “Come on, Amit, let’s not forget the basic premise of economics and rational human behavior. Saving today is necessary to take care of an uncertain future. Otherwise, we can blow up everything in consumption today and have nothing left for tomorrow (an adage for the old age when our earnings and productivity go down). Why just look at the spiraling credit card debts in the USA or parts of India, for example. These guys are furiously consuming even their future incomes, today, and how has that helped ?”
Amit was unfazed. “Do you see these birds overstuffing themselves? Do you see- one bird sit there on the feeder forever and finish the feed? No, you don’t. Birds only eat to satiate their hunger -they don’t overstuff themselves. In fact, in the journey of thousands of miles that these migratory birds cover, it’s not like they have stashes of grains piled up for them at regular intervals. Food is uncertain on the journey -but they don’t pile on any excess or carry any bags full of it with them.
Look at us, on the other hand. We are the very models of excess. Look at how much you shop at that end of season sale, how much you binge in the happy hours, and how much excess stuff you have in your house.
The consumption binge on cards you are citing, is the same piling on, the same excess hoarding that’s happening. But pause there and think – is it bringing any peace, and joy, or adding to anyone’s freedom? The spiraling debt only makes people more worried, more frantic, and more frenzied to try and cope. They may work harder and consume even more as they are stuck on the hamster wheel of excess consumption. But are any of the frantic savers or the frenzied consumers free? The real song of freedom is right here. Just look at these sparrows playfully prancing around, and you will know what freedom is .”
I jumped in and added sarcastically, “Are you saying we should all be lazy and should just sprawl out there in the sun ?” Is that the sparrow economy?
Shaking his head, Amit responded .” No. Of course not. Are these birds lazy? Not at all. They fly out every single day to get their food and also to feed their little ones. Being lazy is to risk death for them. They will fall behind their flock; they might not get any food. They are fulfilling their responsibilities but not getting crushed under them. Even for us, how many days can you lounge around and enjoy Netflix? We all are wired to work, to exert to be productive. The meaning of our life (Sarthakta) lies in the efforts we make (Purusharth).
All I am saying is, like these feathery creatures – live in the present moment. Be content. Of course, those two are linked. If you are living in the future and continuously worrying and anticipating the next moment, then how can you ever be content? And if you are not content, then clearly you are thinking of either your past or your future and not relishing the current moment .”
I wondered how to respond. But he didn’t wait for me and went on to summarize his theory.
“The sparrow economy is about everybody striving, not just a few, and everyone enjoying. Everyone is content, and therefore, the same resources, a birdfeed, for example, are sufficient for a large flock as there is no excess or overconsumption by anyone. So, the individual bird is happy, and the welfare of the entire society is maximized. The joy of the present moment is not traded for any distant, unknowable future. The simple pleasures of life are available to all of us, and they are right in front of us, right here in this moment. So, isn’t the sparrow economy efficient? Being bird-brained ain’t so bad after all. And then he broke into a laughter as did I.
At that moment, the beauty and wonder of the sparrow economy engulfed us both.