No, *Let’s* Worry about Social Security: Or, On Language, Privilege, Responsibility, and Dharma Teaching

“A D.C. protester speaks out against cutting Social Security benefits.” Photo by Kevin G. Hall for the McClatchy Tribune.

Tricycle: The Buddhist Review recently posted on its a website a piece adapted from Andrew Holecek’s new book Preparing to Die (Shambhala Publications, 2013). It’s an otherwise serviceable teaching on practicing with the four reminders, but for one unfortunate, cringe-worthy snippet that needs to be called out for its callousness (intentional or not). I might have blown it off, except that Trike used part of that very same snippet (perhaps provocatively) when they posted the piece on their Facebook page. In context, it’s already problematic; as a sound-bite, it’s more troublesome. Here it is:

These teachings exhort us not to spend our lives, which most of us do—literally and figuratively. Reinvest. Take the precious opportunity that has been given to you, and do not waste your life. The four thoughts that turn the mind turn it from reckless spending to wise investing. We spend so much effort investing in our future. We invest in IRAs, 401(k)s, pension plans, and retirement portfolios. Spiritual advisors exhort us to invest in our much more important bardo (post-death) retirement plan. That’s our real future.

Don’t worry so much about social security. Finance your karmic security instead. Invest in your future lives now. Investing so much in this life is like checking into a hotel for a few days and redecorating the room: what’s the point? B. Alan Wallace says, “In light of death, our mundane desires are seen for what they are. If our desires for wealth, luxury, good food, praise, reputation, affection, and acceptance by other people, and so forth are worth nothing in the face of death, then that is precisely their ultimate value.”

So what’s the problem? Specifically the first two sentences of the second paragraph: “Don’t worry so much about social security. Finance your karmic security instead.”

Now, I’m sure that seemed like a clever thing to say at the time of writing, and I’ll bet Mr. Holecek is really a lovely guy who ordinarily chooses his words more carefully, but this is a remarkably glib and thoughtless thing to say when one considers the current threats to Social Security, and the federal program’s critical importance in terms of addressing grinding poverty in the United States — a source of real and terrible suffering for many of our fellow sentient beings.

Here are some quick facts about Social Security:

  • “One out of every six Americans is receiving a Social Security benefit today.” While much of the program takes the form of earned income benefits for retired workers, 36% of Social Security benefits go to “children, the disabled and spouses or survivors of workers.” Without it 25 million more Americans would be living in poverty. At the moment, “one of every three Americans over 65 depends on Social Security income just to stay above the poverty line.”
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) notes that the Social Security Trust Fund has a $2.8 billion surplus which, when combined with its daily revenue, “can pay out every benefit owed to every eligible American for the next 20 years. In 2033, unless Congress acts, Social Security will be able to pay out only 75 percent of benefits owed. Congress must act and make Social Security strong for the next 50 to 75 years.” And yet, as Ben Strubel pithily articulates it, President Obama is proposing, “along with the support of Republicans and many Democrats, to change how annual increases in Social Security benefits are calculated. Obama wants to switch to a different formula, called Chained CPI (Consumer Price Index). This switch would result in a benefit cut of $230 billion dollars over 10 years…Using last year’s data, the change would amount to only $3 less for every $1,000 received. The problem is that the money lost compounds over time. If someone draws benefits at age 62, then by the time they reach age 92 they will be losing a full month of income!”
  • 900 of the richest Americans in the country are not paying into Social Security, despite the fact that “47,535 millionaires received Social Security benefits in 2010, totaling $1.438 billion.” In addition, the Koch brothers have spent millions of dollars on efforts to cut the program.

So, in short, Social Security is hugely consequential for quite a lot of people, and although it’s a very popularly supported idea that we should expand it, our leaders and powerful interests are wanting to take things in the opposite direction. All this in mind, saying “don’t worry so much about social security” suggests (intentionally or not) a cruel indifference towards the suffering of others that dharma teaching and practice should seek to lessen rather than promote.

I’ll give Mr. Holecek the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t really mean to basically scoff at poverty in America or encourage others to do so, but it’s still a very irresponsible use of metaphor. It’s the kind of lapse in good judgment that we as dharma teachers need to be careful about for at least a couple more reasons than simply not wanting to come off as flippant about or ignorant of the suffering of others, actually.

For one thing, the notion implicit in this portion of Mr. Holecek’s teaching — that as practitioners we’re better off focusing on the ultimate at the expense of the relative — is an idea that can and has been used for the purposes of oppression. The great David Loy remarked on historic abuses of the teachings of karma and rebirth in an essential piece written for Tricycle some years ago, saying:

…Karma has long been used to rationalize racism, caste, economic oppression, birth handicaps, and so forth. Taken literally, karma justifies both the authority of political elites, who therefore must deserve their wealth and power, and the subordination of those who have neither. It provides the perfect theodicy: if there is an infallible cause-and-effect relationship between one’s actions and one’s fate, there is no need to work toward social justice, because it’s already built into the moral fabric of the universe. In fact, if there is no undeserved suffering, there is really no evil that we need to struggle against. You were born crippled, or to a poor family? Well, who but you is responsible for that?

To my way of thinking, there’s nothing inherently wrong with saying, “finance your karmic security,” if that’s what you believe…but to essentially say “do that at expense of thinking about relative concerns (like Social Security),” rather than “do that in addition to thinking about relative concerns,” just fuels the kind of odious theology that Loy is talking about. (In addition, on a purely philosophical level, it just doesn’t seem like a proper balance of ultimate and relative truths: in James Zito’s wonderful documentary Compassion and Wisdom: A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Tai Situ Rinpoche memorably and strongly cautions practitioners against “relativizing the ultimate, and ultimatizing the relative.”) As dharma teachers, I think we need to advance visions of Buddhism that are more liberationist than onerous for the most vulnerable among us.

For another thing, who is a teaching that encourages not worrying about Social Security really for? Who can invest in “IRAs, 401(k)s, pension plans, and retirement portfolios?” Who can’t? In addition to the threats to Social Security and other federal programs that many face, about half of all U.S. workers lack retirement benefits. Studies also show that retirement plans like 401(k)s largely fail workers who are not able contribute much to them; “they serve primarily as a tax shelter for high earners,” in the words of economist Monique Morrissey.

So, again, who wouldn’t have to worry much about these things? The more privileged among us, that’s who. Those with more than enough money and easy, reliable access to basic human needs — and that’s not everyone, to be damn sure. Suggesting that retirement benefits and Social Security don’t need to be worried about isn’t going to make those who (yes) really, actually, desperately do need to worry about them feel included, is it? (Imagining a more socio-economically diverse sangha than I am above, this sort of teaching takes on another complication: it might encourage a really dangerous devil-may-care attitude towards personal financial management among the poorer people in a practice community.)

Obviously, it’s up to each dharma teacher to decide who their audience will be, but no doubt each would like their teachings to be universal, openly available to all, in the spirit of great compassion. In this endeavor, language matters, metaphors matter. The Buddha knew that, which is why he likely taught in a vernacular language, using a lot of accessible-to-everyone agrarian metaphors. Assuming your audience doesn’t really need to worry about Social Security or their retirement assumes only an audience of considerable privilege.

If this is going to be the way that we as dharma teachers talk to our sanghas, then, once again, I have to ask: is it any wonder that some find a lot of American Buddhists to be “bourgeois”“absent” from direct service efforts; actively “pushing” the “ultimate liberative goal of the Buddha’s teaching” to the sidelines in favor of a “‘feel good about yourself’ version of Buddhism”; “refashioning” the teachings so that they actually reinforce “the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion”; and developing little more than an “Upper-Middle Way”?

Those of us who teach dharma have got to “check our privilege,” as they say — which is, I suppose, ultimately what this whole post has been about. We preach to only our own privilege bubbles at the risk of making Buddhism’s messages of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity practically meaningless. When we teach this way, we’re effectively telling those who aren’t like us, “This isn’t for you. Better luck next time.” How awful.

My wish for Mr. Holecek, and for all of us who teach dharma (and that includes me), is that going forward, at the very least, we continually undertake the difficult, enriching work of examining our privilege, and let that influence the choices we make in language, metaphor, and other aspects of dharma teaching. Otherwise all of our fancy talk about the happiness, well-being, and peace of all beings will be just that: fancy talk. And what kind of practice would that be? What kind of example?

If we’re brave enough to look at our privilege, then we set an example that might just help change the world in the spirit of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. As Allan G. Johnson reminds us, we set a very important example indeed by simply examining our privilege in earnest, and making changes from there:

…The simplest way to help others make different choices is to make them myself, and to do it openly. As I shift the patterns of my own participation in the systems of privilege, I make it easier for others to do so as well, and harder for them not to. Simply by setting an example  rather than trying to change them — I create the possibility of their participating in change in their own time and in their own way. In this way I widen the circle of change without provoking the kind of defensiveness that perpetuates paths of least resistance and the oppressive systems they serve.

We can do better. Let’s do better.