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The Price of Civilization – Excerpt

The Price of Civilization – Excerpt
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Editor’s note: This post is an excerpt from The Price of Civilization by Dr. Jeffrey D. Sachs. It is published with permission from Random House.

Chapter 1: Diagnosing America’s Economic Crisis

A Crisis of Values

At the root of America’s economic crisis lies a moral crisis: the decline of civic virtue among America’s political and economic elite. A society of markets, laws, and elections is not enough if the rich and powerful fail to behave with respect, honesty, and compassion toward the rest of society and toward the world. America has developed the world’s most competitive market society but has squandered its civic virtue along the way.  Without restoring an ethos of social responsibility, there can be no meaningful and sustained economic recovery.

I find myself deeply surprised and unnerved to have to write this book. During most of my forty years in economics I have assumed that America, with its great wealth, depth of learning, advanced technologies, and democratic institutions, would reliably find its way to social betterment. I decided early on in my career to devote my energies to the economic challenges abroad, where I felt the economic problems were more acute and in need of attention. Now I am worried about my own country. The economic crisis of recent years reflects a deep, threatening, and ongoing deterioration of our national politics and culture of power.

The crisis, I will argue, developed gradually over the course of several decades. We are not facing a short-term business cycle downturn, but the working out of long-term social, political, and economic trends. The crisis, in many ways, is the culmination of an era-the baby boomer era-rather than of particular policies or presidents. It is also a bipartisan affair: both Democrats and Republicans have played their part in deepening the crisis. On many days it seems that the only difference between the Republicans and Democrats is that Big Oil owns the Republicans while Wall Street owns the Democrats. By understanding the deep roots of the crisis, we can move beyond illusory solutions such as the “stimulus” spending of 2009-2010, the budget cuts of 2011, and the unaffordable tax cuts that are implemented year after year. These are gimmicks that distract us from the deeper reforms needed in our society.

The first two years of the Obama presidency show that our economic 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 continuity than change. Obama has continued down the well-trodden path of open-ended war in Afghanistan, massive military budgets, kowtowing to lobbyists, stingy foreign aid, unaffordable tax cuts, unprecedented budget deficits, and a disquieting unwillingness to address the deeper causes of America’s problems. The administration is packed with individuals passing through the revolving door that connects Wall Street and the White House. In order to find deep solutions to America’s economic crisis, we’ll need to understand why the American political system has proven to be so resistant to change.

The American economy increasingly serves only a narrow part of society, and America’s national politics has failed to put the country back on track through honest, open, and transparent problem solving. Too many of America’s elites-among the super-rich, the CEOs, and many of my colleagues in academia-have abandoned a commitment to social responsibility. They chase wealth and power, the rest of society be damned.

We need to reconceive the idea of a good society in the early twenty-first century and to find a creative path toward it. Most important, we need to be ready to pay the price of civilization through multiple acts of good citizenship: bearing our fair share of taxes, educating ourselves deeply about society’s needs, acting as vigilant stewards for future generations, and remembering that compassion is the glue that holds society together. I would suggest that a majority of the public understands this challenge and accepts it. During my research for this book, I became reacquainted with my fellow Americans, not only through countless discussions but also through hundreds of opinion surveys on, and studies of, American values. I was delighted with what I found. Americans are very different from the ways the elites and the media pundits want us to see ourselves. The American people are generally broad-minded, moderate, and generous. These are not the images of Americans we see on television or the adjectives that come to mind when we think of America’s rich and powerful elite. But America’s political institutions have broken down, so that the broad public no longer holds these elites to account. And alas, the breakdown of politics also implicates the broad public. American society is too deeply distracted by our media-drenched consumerism to maintain the habits of effective citizenship.

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9 comments

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9:29PM PDT on Oct 26, 2011

For most of my adult life, I've watched from the sidelines as American culture devolved from a paradigm of economic justice (T. Roosevelt's "Fair Deal" and F.D. Roosevelt's "New Deal") and balanced lives into the present miasma of greed, consumerism, single-minded pursuit of personal wealth, and a "99%" who are too stressed out to invest much time and energy into any of the other pursuits that bring balance. This trend first became visible to me midway through the first term of Reagan's presidency. By the middle of Reagan's second term, seeing all our government's "robo-signing-off" on corporate mergers and acquisitions, I was already anticipating another Great Depression.

And yes, we Baby Boomers stand in the middle of this trend. I find very ironic that the first half of the Baby Boomers put so much energy trying to steer America into becoming that "kinder and gentler" society, exploring alternative ways to live, and "questioning authority in general", and then apparently "turned on a dime" in the mid-70s towards pursuing the same types of lives their parents had lived, and doing so with "super-sized" ambitions.

To the still avaricious and clutching 1%, I'd like to say that the human spirit is quite capable of embracing other kinds of interest, activities, pursuits, besides limitless wealth acquisition and "shopping 'til we drop", that can bring just as strong, if not stronger, sense of well-being, self-actualization, self-expression, personal accomplishment, pleas

11:08PM PDT on Oct 12, 2011

The comments so far are not indicative of deep thought and civic mindedness..do his points are proven.

8:51PM PDT on Oct 12, 2011

It's the Newtonian Era.

8:43PM PDT on Oct 12, 2011

in 1980 i knew the ideologues in the republican party got an enormous foothold in washington, d. c. so, i been watching the rise of the rightwing ideologues; they took control of the nat'l republican party and now control most of the state's republican parties. they have tremendous control over the media (mostly tv and print). in 1990 i went to visit my uncle Paddy (Padraic Pearse Frucht) after he retired - brown, harvard, phd in economics. worked in washington for many years. he was also alarmed at the strength the right-wing had already garnered. he felt a third major political party was necessary (thinking what was left of the liberals and big labor could unite). i agree that a third party is probably essential. however, with sachs i add that integrity must become a cornerstone of our society. if not, the right-wing will gain more and more power over the gov't, the economy and our individual lives. without integrity no debate can move forward, no discussion will remain civl and it would be impossible to dislodge ideologues from positions of power. one main problem is you cannot be a politician and an ideologue; these are incompatible to one another. it's one or the other. ps: a digression: the loss of our cultural committment to integrity may be argued started in our educational institutions. theories such as gradualism, the long chronology, darwinian evolution (& to a lesser degree creationism) have little to do with science or reality yet, these so-called theories ha

6:12PM PDT on Oct 12, 2011

Well the comments are dismal to say the least. Ofcourse there are those one can point the finger at.those that are destroying the US.and the world. The Elite Cabal are in possession of most of the world wealth which they have fraudulently acquired by usury.over the last 200 years. The Rothschild are worth a cool
140,000 trillion dollars which divided among the world population amounts to everyone being a millionair. That's not even counting the abundance of oil, diamonds and what have you. Don't be foooled into believing the world is either overpopulated or running out of energy or anything else. Yes it's all hidden and controlled by the Crims in high places. All we need to do is take it of them and distribute it among the have nots, the poor and the destitute. Not return to the banks, because the Greed control and slavery will start all over again.

1:44PM PDT on Oct 12, 2011

It is very worrisome, but I don't think the blame lies with any one group, including the right or the left.

10:57AM PDT on Oct 11, 2011

No shock here that you would see not one element of truth in it LOLOL

10:55AM PDT on Oct 11, 2011

Pretty good rant, thanks.

10:47AM PDT on Oct 11, 2011

Oh my! Somebody rehashed Carter's old malaise speech. Too funny!

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