THE BLOG
08/31/2010 01:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Burning Man Economy?

Last year, liberal filmmaker Michael Moore lamented the fact that the bankers were "burning down our economy" while earning obscene bonuses. Recently, some Tea Party conservatives have suggested that President Obama, with his gentle demeanor and misplaced upbeat perspective on the economy, wasn't acknowledging "the auditorium is filling up with smoke." On last night's network news, the anchor suggested that people across the country were "burning mad" about the state of the economy. So, given all the references to fire and the economy, what's to be learned from the annual Burning Man celebration in the "high" Nevada desert?

The world's largest active art exhibition begins this week as it does each year around Labor Day. Nearly 50,000 people come together to create a temporary utopian community based upon radical self-reliance and self-expression. Think Mad Max meets Lawrence of Arabia meets Hair. The mind-altering alchemy of art, spirituality, sex, and dancing under the stars is popular with the bobo (bourgeois bohemian) crowd and gets its share of snarky press, but maybe there's something to be learned from some of the basic tenets of the quarter-decade old festival.

First of all, this isn't Hooverville during the Great Depression. This bedouin-like tent city's participants are there by choice and this temporary tribe has bought into the associated economic principles that define Burning Man and could inspire an under-inspired White House economic team. Here's three lessons that we might learn from the Burning Man economy:

(1) Long Live The "Gift Economy." The only thing you can buy at Burning Man is ice or coffee (with the exception of the entrance tickets). Everything else is gifted. In other words, in this utopian midsize suburb, you can get a haircut, a massage, hang out in your favorite pop-up bar, find an outrageous outfit, or listen to a lecture on global politics all for free. What would it be like if we de-commodified our relationships and truly lived the Biblical scripture that it is better to give than to receive? What if our pecking order of status in the United States was more based upon who gave away the most as opposed to who earned the most?

(2) It Does Take a Village. Just like America was built on barn-raisings in its past, so does Burning Man tap into that communal spirit of civic responsibility. No country in the world is more enamored with its sense of manifest destiny and individual liberty than the United States, but our forefathers - whether they were venturing west through the wilderness or whether they were fighting the British - truly valued the essential nature of communal participation in our democratic society (and Alexis deTocqueville wrote quite a book observing this). Both Burning Man and America pride themselves on radical self-reliance, but neither would exist without a culture of volunteerism (or, in Burning Man's case, "voluntourism"). Social psychologists have proven that those that are unemployed who volunteer their time during their work hiatus build self-esteem and tend to be hired for new for-pay work faster than those who don't volunteer. How can the White House tap into this slumbering giant with nearly 20% of the country under-employed currently?

(3) Leave No Trace. Some might suggest these three words describe the economic impact (or lack of one) of Obama's stimulus package. But, these words also describe that this deserted desert is wiped completely clean of the collective fingerprints of this mass event due to a collection of simple rules that everyone buys into. We've spent a couple of hundred years milking what we can from our natural resources in this country without fully accounting for the cost of what externalities we create whether it may be oil spills, pollution, or human or animal health risks. Ironically, Burning Man exists because the U.S. Bureau of Land Management leases the "Playa" for this event each year, but with extremely strict regulations with respect to how it will be returned to its natural condition and the Burning Man economy absorbs that cost through the ticket price and the community policing. What if our government and businesses took that same "leave no trace" mentality with respect to how we used natural resources throughout our economy?

No, this won't likely play in Peoria, but there's something to be learned from the allure of the Burning Man experience. At a time when Nevada leads the nation in homeowners being thrown out of their homes, Burning Man will break records this year for attendance as people create their temporary home in the desert. The most resonant thing I've heard in past years on the final days of each Burning Man as people go back to their "normal lives" is "Why can't life be like this all the time?" Well, we're adults, so summer camp only lasts so long, but that doesn't mean we can't adopt some of the Burning Man creed when it comes to our moribund economy. Nietzsche wrote that "the measure of a society is how well it transforms pain and suffering into something worthwhile." The idea of burning a wooden effigy started out of the pain of Burning Man founder Larry Harvey trying to get over a failed romance. Maybe it's time the White House took Rahm Emanuel's channeling of Nietzsche more seriously ("never waste a good crisis") before America fully loses its romance with Rahm's boss.