Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Price of Civilization:Reawakening America's Virtue and Prosperity (2011)

Genre: Nonfiction
Author:Jeffrey Sachs
Jeffrey Sachs, a macro-economist from Columbia University, has written a book that makes a compelling case that one of the things that ails the United States is a loss of civic policy, the notion that there is a role for the national government in a democratic society for creating a better life for Americans. This loss of confidence in government--which grew out of the stalemate of the Vietnam War in the 1960's and the cultural "youth quake" and civil rights movements--gradually moved by 1980 into a pincher strategy for Reagan Republicans and conservative Democrats, an opportunity to reignite a one-sided attack on the "mixed economy" were tax rates on the rich were historically high and the gaps between the rich and the middle class were, to them, far too narrow.

After thirty years of intense corporate lobbying, we have seen the country go in a direction that has seen more jobs outsourced off-shore, a greater tax burden placed on the poor and the middle class and a dramatic shift in power away from the American worker/consumer and toward what Sachs calls a "Corporatocracy".

External forces like the rise of former third world nations (China, India) have also played their part, but America itself has seen a greater gap between rich and poor in health care access, the quality of public education and the capturing of our elected officials by special interest groups, particularly financial and military-industrial groups, that has left the public sphere looking more and more like Central and South America and less like our peer nations in northern Europe (especially Germany and the Scandinavian nations) and Japan.

There are a lot of distressing graphs in this book showing just how far we have slipped in terms of income inequality and life expectancy and plain happiness-in-life ratings as compared to a a lot of the developed world.

Sachs' case boils down to this: given that no level of government is perfect (nor any corporate entity, either, as the Crash of 2008 on Wall Street and the Housing Bubble bear mute testimony) are we as a nation willing to invest in America again and restore the public-private "mixed economy" that made us one of the most prosperous nations in the world?

We need to invest again in public spheres, Sachs argues, especially in higher education but also in reformed health care system, put limits on money in political campaigns, and an end to ex-Congressmen coming right back to work for the very industries they once oversaw.

Or are we content to be the world's biggest three-tier banana republic? (With a small but powerful elite, a shrinking middle-class, and more people falling through the cracks into a tattered net of diminished social programs.

The fact is our very political system--with its two-year election cycles for most federal government offices--puts all of our lower House of Congress in perpetual state of running for re-election and seeking short-term fixes to long term problems like budgeting and investment. We have far more elections on a national level than any other developed democracy and, paradoxically, it is making us less a nation of public power and more a nation where office holders are in hock to those who can bundle money for television ads to perpetuate their incumbency. And, with another election always just around the corner, no-one is doing anything long-term on our econoic and budget messes that might make them unpopular by reaching across the aisle to the other party leaders.

Sachs make clear both Republicans and Democrats party hacks and elected officials are complicit in this, but only we as citizens can get us out of it.

Some of Sachs findings are all too familiar:

"The United States" now has the most income disparities of any advanced developed nation."

"Three million U.S. manufacturing jobs were lost between 1998 and 2004."

"Google uses a tax dodge called the “Double Irish” to avoid taxes on billions of dollars of revenue." (By declaring themselves an Irish company and putting their profits in Bahamian banks, saving themselves billions in taxes on profits earned in the USA.)

"Since 1980, the average compensation of the top 100 U.S. CEOs increased from 50 times the average worker’s salary to more than 700 times."

How long can this go on?


  1. A recent interview with the author on the PBS "Charlie Rose Show". This is part one of a three-part segment.

  2. Sadly it's not just the US I'm afraid Doug. Much of what you report here is happening in the UK as well, and no real attempt to put things right from either side of the political divide.

  3. I'm afraid you're right, Jim. I've seen the sense of loss of faith in both governments reaching out to actually deal fairly with long-term problems. It's very frustrating.

    The "Occupy" movement in America and recent polling data shows me a lot of politicos over here are out of touch. Concern for the will of the majority of voters and citizens seems a thing of the past thanks to the power of greed and power-seeking.

  4. A massively complex problem as well. It's in no ones interest to let the US go belly up, yet if the gross inequalities are not addressed that is likely where it will end. And the end will be a catastrophic event for the whole world I believe.

  5. His thesis is absolutely spot-on, Doug.

    I look forward to reading this.

  6. All the more reason to stop toying about with short-term fixes, Jim.

  7. Agreed.

    I think it's well worth a read, Will.

  8. You and I know that, problem is no one is listening to us.

  9. Thanks for adding so much to this blog, AA, and backing it up with WHO statistics.

    I can't say I am an admirer of the Gaffahi style of "family" governing--I'd rather have an electoral system , however imperfect, although I can't say that gives anyone in the USA the right to change another government. His regime did create a more functional health and education system than he was generally given credit for in the western media, as you point out.

    I also know this style of governance in Tripoli went on in,say, Managua, Nicaragua during the Somoza dynasty and in Zaire under Mubuto for decades. Both were fully supported by US governments.

    The only reason for intervention in another country for me is to prevent mass murder and genocide, and only with broad international support.

    I always hope that activism (through direct and Internet) and voting can change matters. It's clear to me that Obama has been a disappointment in not being the transitional leader many wanted. Part of this problem is in the leader himself and part of it comes from the "low-information" voter who swallows corporate propaganda whole because of an inadequate knowledge of the history and economics of other eras.

    As long as people are willing to be spoon-fed their information from state or corporate sources, and not seek it out for themselves, then there is little cause for optimism. Part of the problem in any representative society is balancing tolerance for opinion with a check on the powerful who control a lot of the sources of said opinion.

    Right now corporations can divide and conquer our government because, as Sachs points out, we have too bi-annual federal elections--which seems democratic but really is to the advantage of the big money oligarchs--and the elected and the challengers are all dependent on bundles of money.

    Until big money is out of the campaign picture in the race for the White House and Congress, and we have the lower house of Congress elected at the same time as the President comes to office--which could be done by amendment and still maintain the Constitution--not much will change here.

    It is more likely that more mature societies like England will evolve a less corrupt political system before we see it in America.

  10. And that's the biggest problem, and only public financing of elections can help I think, Jim, letting all candidates rise and fall on their ideas.

  11. Don't let Queen Elizabeth II hear you say that Doug, you'll be bound for the Tower.

    When we remove certain families like the Bush's, the Kennedy's, the Clinton's and now the Paul's even from US governance and political influence there is not a lot left really.

    Would you oppose the continuance of the British monarchy on the same gounds, should we see Prince Charles's corpse on YouTube full of bullet holes and stored in a supermarket freezer like Gaddafi was?


    Just in case you feel that the exercise of political power in the UK is vastly different to the way the Gaddafi regime exercised its control in Libya have a look at this link.

    Charlie and Muammar were just a couple of peas in a pod Doug, except Muammer was less of an autocratic despot than Charlie is, or the Clinton's or Obama or the Bush family. He certainly did a lot more for his people than this bunch of gangsters ever achieved or wanted to achieve.

    Gaddaffi achieved what Obama failed so miserably to do and that is the only reason I believe why Muammar is dead and Barack is still alive.

  12. I am neither for nor against the British monarchy--that is a decision best left to a vote of the British people. I think Americans have had too much of an effect on British politcs already without every blogger in some tattered part of the Anglosphere getting his two cents into that! We have enough problems over here, not least of which are part of some of the unoffical "royal families" you mentioned.

    Hummm...Prince Charles in a commercial freezer after death....sounds very untidy and not at all English...would his body lie in state at Harrod's or a Marks and Spenser?

    I certainly do not support the murder of a man asking for mercy but I do not know if the Libyan rebels who were after him were directed by the Americans/NATO or had some tribal grudge.

    In either case I don't condoone killing leaders--even Pol Pot would find a prison cell in my perfect world. Or Idi Amin fro that matter, who was given a plane and granted temporary ssylum by Gaddafi after the latter had to flee Uganda after killing thousands of his own people.

  13. O,K., that "private estate" stuff tears it for me. If I were a citizen of Britain I would support the end of all royal powers over a spot of land other than a regular domicile with small acreage. The Royal Family's only excuse is to draw in the tourists and preserve tradition, not confiscate land or monies of free people.

  14. But that is precisely what can never happen Doug

  15. And that's a damn shame. Aren't there any Tony Benn types around who want an end to the monarchy?

  16. Compared with the US relationship with Pinochet or the Shah of Iran for example Doug, where is the difference here?

  17. I can't (and never have) condone the removal of an elected government--that would be the specialty of John Foster Dulles (in Iran in 1953, in kahoots with MI5) and Dr. Kissinger's and Mr. Nixon's dirty doings in support of overthrowing Allende.

    Are you saying that Gaddafi was removed ONLY because of the NATO airstrikes? Weren't there ground forces involved?

    And besides 42 years is a good run for a leader.

  18. This is true Doug, but the similarities between the regimes of North Africa and the ones we inhabit tend to melt into insignificance when we consider the recent history.

    Or Pat Finucane

    Or if you like this

    More here

    There is nothing to chose only the way the news is 'spun' creates any notion of a moral divide where 'our' crimes against humanity are always for 'our' good, whereas 'their' crimes against humanity is always driven by some deep hats and white hats......but I really doubt it is really like that myself, it just serves a commercial and political purpose for the power elite, there is nothing 'true' about it in my opinion.

  19. All good examples, AA, the last of which (the shootings of three IRA members, apparently unarmed ) at Gibraltar I had not heard of before. All travesties of justice from the details in those articles.

    There is this inevitable "whitewash" that follows up all attacks like this. Years later the truth comes out and the apologies surface. One of the saddest cases to me is the lack of action that the US and NATO took over Rwanda in1994. Hundreds of thousands of people could have been saved, at little to any loss of life given that most of the mass murdering Hutu groups were armed only with knives and machetes and a few grenades. One good force of trained soldiers from any major NATO nation would have turned the tide. It never happened. Clinton apologized about it later. Too bad there wasn't any oil in central Africa.

    The elite in any nation protects its own, that much I know and its not limited to national governments. I don't subscribe to any sort of Manichean philosophy.

    I suppose the major difference between the former regimes in Cairo, Tunisia and Libya for me is simply that they went too far in suppression whereas governments we live under suppress more cautiously (or employ stealth techniques) lest they be removed from office. A greater respect for general public or world reputation by leaders in the US or the UK would seem to be the difference.

    Gandhi's success in India in the 1920'a and 30's, or Dr. King's and the Civil Rights activists success in the Deep South of the 50's and 60's both depended on the idea that governments in London and Washington could be made too embarrassed by global opinion. Thus rendered morally bankrupt and unable to criticize other nations (like the USSR) if they didn't take steps to protect basic human rights for disenfranchised people, they made the reforms albeit in a slow fashion. Such pressure is not so promoted in a autocratic country like Egypt, but it still exists as the departure and arrest of Mubarek proves.

    So, morally, yes, regimes in power are more alike than they are comfortably different.

  20. I wonder if vested interest will let that one fly?

  21. My unstated thoughts exactly Jim.

  22. Not sure if it will Doug. I hope that there is some solidarity amongst so many. Yet again I hope that within due order that there shall be that change of what from afar I have watched as well as respected. There is this saying called the time is now. I do hope that there is one which does bring it about. Hope is still the word of the day and generosity even within the rich might just be something that does give way.