Jeff Sachs: the economy doctor is worried… about us

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Jeff Sachs (32 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

What Jeffrey Sachs didn’t much want to talk about was the double biography I want to read someday… of the semi-science and fumbling art of economics in our times, in the lives of two powerful players born 25 days apart in November 1954. One the son of a Detroit labor lawyer, the other with the blood of two Nobel Prize economists in his veins. Both Harvard Ph.D.s, both tenured on the Harvard faculty in their twenties. Lawrence Summers went on to play Wall Street’s brain inside the Clinton White House, masterminding the deregulation of the US economy; and then he got to bounce the wreckage around in the Obama White House. Jeffrey Sachs became a world-traveling “clinical economist.” I always picture this earnest listener and charmer in a white coat, carrying black bag and stethoscope, confronting hyper-inflation in Bolivia in the mid-80s (when I first started interviewing him), attempting shock-therapy on Poland and Russia on the way out of Communism, checking the fever pulse of growth in China, controversially advocating The End of Poverty (2005) in Africa through direct aid that wasn’t very available, or fashionable, by then. Oh, yes, along the way Larry Summers became president of Harvard, which was Jeff Sachs’ cue to leave for Columbia and build the Earth Institute.

What Jeffrey Sachs is venting — with more passion and dismay, I think, than he’s written in The Price of Civilization — is how “unnerved” he feels at the shrinking of the “commons” over his professional lifetime, at the scary decline of American confidence and what used to seem the standard civic virtues in a great republic. The defining promise of Sachs’ boyhood in Oak Park, Michigan was JFK’s goal, “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” He is doubting in our conversation that we could find our way back to space today, unless the project was “shovel-ready” and we could get there with a quick-stimulus “surge to the moon.” It was a turning point this past summer when he realized he’d made 22 major conference stops and policy summits abroad without once seeing an American official. The clinical economist has come home to find out where his country went.

I decided, it was a conscious decision of course, that I would work in poorer countries. I would work on the challenges abroad where I thought the needs were greatest. I felt so confident, happy and secure that this wonderful home base of mine was on its way; democracy was secure, and our economy and prosperity were secure, and our fairness as a society would grow over time. We were an adventure, it seemed, in ever-increasing inclusiveness, more expansive definitions of equality. In other words, I believed that America was just a wonderful place to live, to teach, to raise a family and that in terms of my skills as an economist, I could apply them elsewhere.

I watched the decline first of international US leadership, probably with more of a front row seat than perhaps almost anyone else in this country. I’ve seen a lot. But what I’ve seen over time is this gradual retreat of American will, leadership, morals, guidance in the world. Watching what was happening abroad, where it was war all the time, but where, when it came to issues like hunger or poverty or climate or environment, the US was increasingly scarce and finally nowhere to be seen. Then, in the last ten years the economics became even more of a sense of worry. So for me this grew, first watching the international retreat from leadership, and bemoaning that, because I believe we can solve problems. That’s my basic view of life, which is that good thinking, good spirit, good ethics, good institutions can solve real problems. And we stopped doing that abroad, and then increasingly it became clear we stopped doing that at home…

Jeffrey Sachs with Chris Lydon, in Boston, October 21, 2011.

There’s no question whom I’m rooting for in that double biography. I’m reminded that Mary McGrath, who produced our show The Connection, used to say after every Jeff Sachs appearance, “for my money, he can run the world!” Jeff Sachs takes his hits especially in the arguments about aid and trade as remedies for a starving world. But I’ve always taken him straight as a man of passion and the best of American good sense, ever a work in progress, comprehensively observant, fundamentally enthusiastic. And I take it seriously that he’s so worried about us.

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  • orangescissor

    i totally agree that we have to hedge our bets on reviving government in the 21st century. Dodd/Frank – effective regulation of buisness, a new stimulus to build infrastructure in the U.S., investment in new energy technology, a new civil rights movt. and diplomacy for the 21st century (dealing productively with a world where there is no empire, more self determination etc) could really help in the future.

    Obama should really tap in to this again in 2012 – this is why he won the 2008 election with a campaign premised on restoring hope in government and in the U.S. adapting to a more integrated, complex world.

  • nother

    Mr. Sachs talks of our “loss of Civic Virtue”…“which is really a sense of responsibility for the well being of a whole country.”

    Turns out “whole” is relative term in the minds of many and that illuminates for me the elephant in our room: the exponentially evolving “American” demographics. White skinned people (a prospective minority) are not interested in the well being of darker skinned people. The individualistic streak that we are witnessing is a buyout – as the resources dwindle the white people will just assume buyout of the whole kit and caboodle. Although they’ll still fine with paying taxes for Defense mind you because that’s who is employing many of their kids.

    This economic crisis is being framed as class issue but I believe it’s much more a race issue. I spoke to a Harvard trained Brazilian journalist at my bar the other day about the damaging remnants of colonialism in her country and she told me that what has surprised her from her time living in the U.S. is the overriding influence of old Colonial powers in the U.S.

    I believe we need a reckoning as to what is the American dream? For our parents it was a much simpler prospect, but that was before the glorification of the $. By not holding Wall Street to account we have given credence to the religiosity of money. Our own Elliot Ness is what we need, and he or she needs to make a public spectacle of knocking on Wall Street doors and slapping on cuffs. That will be one step in bringing our country together because Glen Greenwald may be a hothead but he has it right when he says we have become a “Two-tiered justice system.”

    The Occupiers want justice. The elite fu*ked up royally, we all knew it wasn’t a level playing field but then they went and rubbed our noses in it. Now The People want hides. And I agree with Mr. Sacks about the NYT and the Occupy movement, just like with the Iraq war that paper is a day late and a dollar short.

    P.S. I will push back against Mr. Sachs assertion that the U.S. has not had “global leadership” in “horrendous humanitarian crisis” or “major geopolitical challenges.” With Libya and Egypt we “lead from behind” and it worked. I think so far President Obama has shown more courage globally than he has domestically.

  • I agree with all Sach’s major points but perhaps he could be taken to task for not waking to the situation a lot earlier, especially as an economist. That could be because Sachs was at the time in favor of an unfettered open market and didn’t see what Reagan was doing as the undoing of the country until more recently.

    He’s certainly on point now and does a great job of laying out the problem simply. A more complex look at the situation would place economists front and center as the cause of the problem, people like Milton Friedman. It’s not like Reagan came up with the vision he executed. He had to be converted to it by the neocons. They are still around in force and we better continue waking up with the OWS crowd to send them packing, or to jail where some of them belong.

  • Potter

    There is not much more to say, Chris, than that last paragraph about Jeff Sachs. He is a charmer too. But for me most astonishing and sadly unusual is that he is steadfast in his morality, holding the line through the years watching patiently for what he is now predicting ot hoping is a turn-around starting with the Wall Street protests.

    I always go back to Reagan in my mind for this wrong turn- though you can convince me about Nixon’s hyper-partisanship. But it was Reagan, in his so called hands-off leadership style, who said “It’s your money” (i.e. you should have it, not the government). This mantra, this leadership, that government should not have your tax money is the Republicanism we are stuck with today. Selfishness and Greed. NO caring or concern about the less fortunate or the general good of the country as a whole… how we are all in this ( globally) together. And so all those areas that are about the common good – he ticked them off – (education, roads, rail and mass transportation system- infrastructure, basic human needs, the environment, health coverage for all– even support for the arts!!) that are in the last small per cent of our budget have been cut and cut, hollowing us out to be a country that works for the rich maybe. Maybe.

    I even hear disappointment with Obama…a lost hope that was perhaps too great to invest in this one man but because of the need.

    This interview should be heard in the far corners.

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