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Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity

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Synopsis

For more than three decades, Jeffrey D. Sachs has been at the forefront of international economic problem solving.  But Sachs turns his attention back home in The Price of Civilization, a book that is essential reading for every American. In a forceful, impassioned, and personal voice, he offers not only a searing and incisive diagnosis of our country’s economic ills but also an urgent call for Americans to restore the virtues of fairness, honesty, and foresight as the foundations of national prosperity.

As he has done in dozens of countries around the world in the midst of economic crises, Sachs turns his unique diagnostic skills to what ails the American economy. He finds that both political parties—and many leading economists—have missed the big picture, offering shortsighted solutions such as stimulus spending or tax cuts to address complex economic problems that require deeper solutions. Sachs argues that we have profoundly underestimated globalization’s long-term effects on our country, which create deep and largely unmet challenges with regard to jobs, incomes, poverty, and the environment. America’s single biggest economic failure, Sachs argues, is its inability to come to grips with the new global economic realities.

Yet Sachs goes deeper than an economic diagnosis. By taking a broad, holistic approach—looking at domestic politics, geopolitics, social psychology, and the natural environment as well—Sachs reveals the larger fissures underlying our country’s current crisis. He shows how Washington has consistently failed to address America’s economic needs. He describes a political system that has lost its ethical moorings, in which ever-rising campaign contributions and lobbying outlays overpower the voice of the citizenry. He also looks at the crisis in our culture, in which an overstimulated and consumption-driven populace in a ferocious quest for wealth now suffers shortfalls of social trust, honesty, and compassion.

Finally, Sachs offers a plan to turn the crisis around. He argues persuasively that the problem is not America’s abiding values, which remain generous and pragmatic, but the ease with which political spin and consumerism run circles around those values. He bids the reader to reclaim the virtues of good citizenship and mindfulness toward the economy and one another. Most important, he bids each of us to accept the price of civilization, so that together we can restore America to its great promise.  

The Price of Civilization is a masterly road map for prosperity, founded on America’s deepest values and on a rigorous understanding of the twenty-first-century world economy.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

PART 1

The Great Crash

CHAPTER 1.

Diagnosing America's Economic Crisis

A Crisis of Values

At the root of America's economic crisis lies a moralcrisis: the decline of civic virtue among America's political and economicelite. A society of markets, laws, and elections is not enough if the rich andpowerful fail to behave with respect, honesty, and compassion toward the restof society and toward the world. America has developed the world's mostcompetitive market society but has squandered its civic virtue along the way.Without restoring an ethos of social responsibility, there can be no meaningfuland sustained economic recovery.

I find myself deeply surprised and unnerved to have towrite this book. During most of my forty years in economics I have assumed thatAmerica, with its great wealth, depth of learning, advanced technologies, anddemocratic institutions, would reliably find its way to social betterment. Idecided early on in my career to devote my energies to the economic challengesabroad, where I felt the economic problems were more acute and in need ofattention. Now I am worried about my own country. The economic crisis of recentyears reflects a deep, threatening, and ongoing deterioration of our nationalpolitics and culture of power.

The crisis, I will argue, developed gradually over thecourse of several decades. We are not facing a short-term business cycledownturn, but the working out of long-term social, political, and economictrends. The crisis, in many ways, is the culmination of an era-the baby boomerera-rather than of particular policies or presidents. It is also a bipartisanaffair: both Democrats and Republicans have played their part in deepening thecrisis. On many days it seems that the only difference between the Republicans andDemocrats is that Big Oil owns the Republicans while Wall Street owns theDemocrats. By understanding the deep roots of the crisis, we can move beyondillusory solutions such as the "stimulus" spending of 2009-2010, thebudget cuts of 2011, and the unaffordable tax cuts that are implemented yearafter year. These are gimmicks that distract us from the deeper reforms neededin our society.

The first two years of the Obama presidency show that oureconomic and political failings are deeper than that of a particular president.Like many Americans, I looked to Barack Obama as the hope for a breakthrough.Change was on the way, or so we hoped; yet there has been far more continuitythan change. Obama has continued down the well-trodden path of open-ended war inAfghanistan, massive military budgets, kowtowing to lobbyists, stingy foreignaid, unaffordable tax cuts, unprecedented budget deficits, and a disquietingunwillingness to address the deeper causes of America's problems. Theadministration is packed with individuals passing through the revolving doorthat connects Wall Street and the White House. In order to find deep solutionsto America's economic crisis, we'll need to understand why the Americanpolitical system has proven to be so resistant to change.

The American economy increasingly serves only a narrowpart of society, and America's national politics has failed to put the countryback on track through honest, open, and transparent problem solving. Too manyof America's elites-among the super-rich, the CEOs, and many of my colleaguesin academia-have abandoned a commitment to social responsibility. They chasewealth and power, the rest of society be damned.

We need to reconceive the idea of a good society in theearly twenty-first century and to find a creative path toward it. Mostimportant, we need to be ready to pay the price of civilization throughmultiple acts of good citizenship: bearing our fair share of taxes, educatingourselves deeply about society's needs, acting as vigilant stewards for futuregenerations, and remembering that compassion is the glue that holds societytogether. I would suggest that a majority of the public understands thischallenge and accepts it. During my research for this book, I becamereacquainted with my fellow Americans, not only through countless discussionsbut also through hundreds of opinion surveys on, and studies of, Americanvalues. I was delighted with what I found. Americans are very different fromthe ways the elites and the media pundits want us to see ourselves. TheAmerican people are generally broad-minded, moderate, and generous. These arenot the images of Americans we see on television or the adjectives that come tomind when we think of America's rich and powerful elite. But America'spolitical institutions have broken down, so that the broad public no longerholds these elites to account. And alas, the breakdown of politics alsoimplicates the broad public. American society is too deeply distracted by ourmedia-drenched consumerism to maintain the habits of effective citizenship.

Clinical Economics

I am a macroeconomist, meaning that I study the overallfunctioning of a national economy rather than the workings of one particularsector. My operating principle is that the economy is intimately interconnectedwith a much broader drama that includes politics, social psychology, and thenatural environment. Economic issues can rarely be understood in isolation,though most economists fall into that trap. An effective macroeconomist mustlook at the big canvas, in which culture, domestic politics, geopolitics,public opinion, and environmental and natural resource constraints all playimportant roles in economic life.

My job as a macroeconomic adviser during the past quartercentury has been to help national economies function properly by diagnosingeconomic crises and then correcting breakdowns in key sectors of the economy.To do that job well, I must strive to understand in detail how the differentparts of the economy and society both fit together and interact with the worldeconomy through trade, finance, and geopolitics. Beyond that, I must alsostrive to understand the public's beliefs, the country's social history, andthe society's underlying values. All of this requires a broad and eclectic set oftools. Like other economists, I pore over charts and data. In addition, I readstacks of opinion surveys as well as cultural and political histories. Icompare notes with political and business leaders and visit factories,financial firms, high-tech service centers, and local community organizations.Sound ideas about economic reform must pass a "truth test" at manylevels, making sense at the community level as well as the national politicallevel.

A macroeconomist faces the challenge of a clinical doctorwho must help a patient with serious symptoms and an unknown underlyingdisease. An effective response involves making a correct diagnosis about theunderlying problem and then designing a treatment regimen to correct it. In mybook The End of Poverty I called this process "clinical economics."My inspiration has been my wife, Sonia, a gifted medical doctor who showed methe wonders of science-based clinical medicine.

I didn't train to be a clinical economist, thoughfortunately my theoretical training, combined with my wife's inspiration andsome very good professional luck, enabled me to forge an unusual personal pathto clinical economics. I was blessed with a first-rate education as anundergraduate and graduate student at Harvard, where I later joined the facultyin 1980. With life-changing good fortune, I became involved in practicaleconomic problem solving in Bolivia in 1985, and from then on I have built acareer at the intersection of theory and practice. I spent much of the 1980sworking in debt-ridden Latin America to help support that region's return todemocracy and macroeconomic stability after two decades of incompetent andviolent military rule. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I was invited to helpEastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in their transitions from communismand dictatorship to democracy and market economy. That work, in turn, broughtme invitations to the world's two great behemoths, China and India, where Icould watch, debate, and share ideas about the world-changing market reforms ofthose two great societies. Since the mid-1990s, I have turned much of myattention to the poorest regions of the world, and especially to sub-SaharanAfrica, to try to assist them in their ongoing fight against poverty, hunger,disease, and climate change.

Having worked in and diagnosed dozens of economies overmy career, I've come to have a good feel for the interplay of politics,economics, and a society's values. Lasting economic solutions are found whenall of these components of social life are brought into a proper balance.

In this book I will bring clinical economics to bear onAmerica's economic crisis. By taking a holistic view of America's economicproblems, I hope to diagnose some of the deeper maladies afflicting our societytoday and to correct the basic misdiagnosis that was made thirty years ago andthat still sticks today. When the U.S. economy hit the skids in the 1970s, thepolitical Right, represented by Ronald Reagan, claimed that government was toblame for its growing ills. This diagnosis, although incorrect, had a plausiblering to it to enough Americans to enable the Reagan coalition to begin aprocess of dismantling effective government programs and undermining thegovernment's capacity to help steer the economy. We are still living with thedisastrous consequences of that failed diagnosis, and we continue to ignore thereal challenges, involving globalization, technological change, andenvironmental threats.

America Is Ready for Reform

After a thorough diagnosis in the first half of the book,I'll get specific on what I think we should do. Those specific recommendationswill raise several big issues. First, can we really afford more governmentactivism in an era of huge budget deficits? I'll show that we both can andmust. Second, can a program of thoroughgoing reform really be manageable? Here,too, the answer is yes, even by a government that currently exhibits chronicincompetence. Third, is a reform program politically achievable in an era whenpolitics is as divisive as it is today? Successful reforms are almost alwaysinitially greeted with a broad chorus of skepticism. "That is politicallyimpossible." "The public will never agree." "Consensus isbeyond reach." These are the jeremiads we hear today whenever deep andreal reforms are proposed. During my quarter century of work around the world,I've heard them time and again, only to find that deep reforms were not onlypossible but eventually came to be viewed as inevitable.

Much of this book is about the social responsibility ofthe rich, roughly the top 1 percent of American households, who have never hadit so good. They sit at the top of the heap at the same time that around 100million Americans live in poverty or in its shadow.

I have no quarrel with wealth per se. Many wealthyindividuals are highly creative, talented, generous, and philanthropic. Myquarrel is with poverty. As long as there is both widespread poverty andbooming wealth at the top, and many public investments (in education, childcare, training, infrastructure, and other areas) that could reduce or end thepoverty, then tax cuts for the rich are immoral and counterproductive.

This book is also about planning ahead. I'm a firmbeliever in the market economy, yet American prosperity in the twenty-firstcentury also requires government planning, government investments, and clearlong-term policy objectives that are based on the society's shared values.Government planning runs deeply against the grain in Washington today. Mytwenty-five years of work in Asia have convinced me of the value of long-termgovernment planning-not, of course, the kind of dead-end central planning thatwas used in the defunct Soviet Union, but long-term planning of publicinvestments for quality education, modern infrastructure, secure and low-carbonenergy sources, and environmental sustainability.

The Mindful Society

"The unexamined life is not worth living," saidSocrates. We might equally say that the unexamined economy is not capable ofsecuring our well-being. Our greatest national illusion is that a healthysociety can be organized around the single-minded pursuit of wealth. Theferocity of the quest for wealth throughout society has left Americansexhausted and deprived of the benefits of social trust, honesty, andcompassion. Our society has turned harsh, with the elites on Wall Street, inBig Oil, and in Washington among the most irresponsible and selfish of all.When we understand this reality, we can begin to refashion our economy.

Two of humanity's greatest sages, Buddha in the Easterntradition and Aristotle in the Western tradition, counseled us wisely abouthumanity's innate tendency to chase transient illusions rather than to keep ourminds and lives focused on deeper, longer-term sources of well-being. Bothurged us to keep to a middle path, to cultivate moderation and virtue in ourpersonal behavior and attitudes despite the allures of extremes. Both urged usto look after our personal needs without forgetting our compassion towardothers in society. Both cautioned that the single-minded pursuit of wealth andconsumption leads to addictions and compulsions rather than to happiness andthe virtues of a life well lived. Throughout the ages, other great sages, fromConfucius to Adam Smith to Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, have joined thecall for moderation and compassion as the pillars of a good society.

To resist the excesses of consumerism and the obsessivepursuit of wealth is hard work, a lifetime challenge. To do so in our mediaage, filled with noise, distraction, and temptation, is a special challenge. Wecan escape our current economic illusions by creating a mindful society, onethat promotes the personal virtues of self-awareness and moderation, and thecivic virtues of compassion for others and the ability to cooperate across thedivides of class, race, religion, and geography. Through a return to personaland civic virtue, our lost prosperity can be regained.

CHAPTER 2.

Prosperity Lost

There can be no doubt that something has gone terriblywrong in the U.S. economy, politics, and society in general. Americans are onedge: wary, pessimistic, and cynical.

There is widespread frustration with the course of eventsin America. Two-thirds or more of Americans describe themselves as"dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States," upfrom around one-third in the late 1990s.1 A similar proportion of Americansdescribe the country as "off track."2

This is coupled with a pervasive cynicism about thenature and role of government. Americans are deeply estranged from Washington.A large majority, 71 percent to 15 percent, describes the federal government as"a special interest group that looks out primarily for its owninterests," a startling commentary on the miserable state of Americandemocracy. A similarly overwhelming majority, 70 percent to 12 percent, agreesthat "government and big business typically work together in ways thathurt consumers and investors." The U.S. government haslost the confidence of the American people in a way that has not previouslyoccurred in modern American history or probably elsewhere in the high-incomeworld. Americans harbor fundamental doubts about the motivations, ethics, and competencyof their federal government.

This lack of confidence extends to most of America'smajor institutions. As we see in the data from a recent opinion survey (seeTable 2.1), the public deeply distrusts banks, large corporations, news media,the entertainment industry, and unions, in addition to their distrust of thefederal government and its agencies. Americans are especially skeptical of theoverarching institutions at the national and global level-Congress, banks, thefederal government, and big business-and more comfortable with the institutionscloser to home, including small churches, colleges, and universities.


From the Hardcover edition.
Jeffrey D. Sachs

About Jeffrey D. Sachs

Jeffrey D. Sachs - The Price of Civilization

Photo © Wade Martzall

Jeffrey D. Sachs is a world-renowned professor of economics, leader in sustainable development, senior UN advisor, bestselling author, and syndicated columnist whose monthly newspaper columns appear in more than one hundred countries. He is the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and Special Advisor to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals, which are designed to reduce extreme poverty, disease, and hunger, a position he also held under former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. Sachs directs the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network on behalf of the secretary-general. He has received many honors around the world, including the Sargent Shriver Award for Equal Justice, India’s Padma Bhushan award, Poland’s Commanders Cross of the Order of Merit, and many honorary degrees. He has twice been named among the hundred most influential leaders in the world by Time magazine.
Praise

Praise

Praise for THE PRICE OF CIVILIZATION

"An important assessment of what ails America, and a must-read for policymakers."--Kirkus Reviews

"Best known for advising postcommunist and impoverished countries on development strategies, economist Sachs (Common Wealth) takes on the cesspool of debt, backwardness, and corruption that is the United States in this hard-hitting brief for a humane economy... a must-read for every concerned citizen."--Publishers Weekly, starred review

“There is no shortage of books on why laissez-faire is bad theory and dangerous practice. For a succinct, humane, and politically astute tour of the horizon, it’s hard to improve on Sachs’s The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity.”--The American Prospect

"Jeffrey Sachs’s new book is a landmark in this great and essentially American tradition, setting out with luminous clarity the narrative and the analysis of how the US and the wider world has been traduced and seduced by debased ideology, racist reflexes and huge vested interests from its liberal and enlightened roots. Indeed, Sachs by his life and his writing goes far to restore one’s wavering faith in the informing inspiration of the post-1945 new dawn, faith in economics, faith in America and faith in humanity."--The Spectator




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