By Chet Yarbrough
By Jeffrey Sachs
Narrated by Richard McGonagle
Jeffrey Sachs skewers modern Presidents and lionizes John Kennedy in “The Price of Civilization”. Though much of his criticism of Obama, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan is deserved, his ivory tower economics is cloying because it ignores political reality and the truth of human nature. Politics is a dark science of give-and-take in both democratic and autocratic societies. Sachs’ economic analysis is spot-on theoretically but ignores political reality. Public policy has always been a matter of “whose ox is getting gored” whether despots or democrats are in control of government.
“The Price of Civilization” is an unsatisfying audiobook. Not because it is irrelevant but because it is saccharinely idealistic and isolated from the real world.
Sachs cleaves to Platonic and Aristotelian platitudes like “all things in moderation” to suggest that a philosophical awakening of the millennial generation (those born between 1977 and 1992) will cure American lassitude and political apathy. Sachs optimistically believes the millennial generation will eschew the luxuries of the American dream, owning hot cars, nice homes, and beautiful clothes, to become voters for change. Obama represents those voter’ beliefs but fails politically for the same reason Sachs’ book is a mess.
All American generations are disgusted with political process in 21st century America. Even the superrich and rich are not satisfied with the status quo. The rising gap between rich and poor embarrasses the rich and kills the poor but changing public policy is not going to occur with a generation that magically believes less is more.
Sachs is right in his assessment of the wrong-headedness of what he calls corporatocracy; i.e. the institutionalization of an election process that is founded on money rather than public representation. The recent defeat of gun control legislation shows how entrenched lobbyist’ organizations can steer the course of public policy, regardless of a population’s majority support of policy change (in this case, gun-buyer background checks).
One can agree with Sachs’ observation about 2010’s judicial decision in“Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission”. The Supreme Court erred in identifying corporations as individuals with the rights of unlimited corporate donation to political campaigns. When one is elected to congress every two years, fund raising becomes the elector’s primary focus of attention. When corporations speak, electors listen. Lobbyists and corporate money are more important than the aggregate input of voters. It is no wonder that individual voters are apathetic.
Human nature gets in the way of doing the right thing. Humankind naturally seeks freedom. When freedom of choice is impinged upon, human beings are reluctant to change. Of course, this is an over simplification but Sachs minimizes mankind’s innate desire for freedom. Human nature is not going to change; i.e. it will always contain good and evil intention. Bernard Madoff comes from the same culture as Warren Buffett. Regulation of human activity impinges on free choice whenever one person thinks they know what is best for another.
Sachs notes Oliver Wendell Holmes dictum about taxes. Holmes wrote that he loved to pay taxes because taxes are the cost of civilization. The weakness of that generalization is in the definition of civilization.
One can appreciate the wisdom of national taxation because of economies of scale and potential for equal treatment of the public. However, using other people’s money (taxes for the benefit of the general public) is burdened by the truth of unequal treatment in real life. Regulation that allows the rich to shelter extraordinary income when the poorest in the nation must pay a disproportionate share of taxes (e.g. income and social security taxes) is a gross injustice.
When an investor turns a portfolio over to a brokerage company, that investor has to “trust but verify” the actions of the brokerage company in regard to overall portfolio performance. If the broker underperforms the market, the investor knows it is time to change brokers. When a government underperforms with public tax dollars, voters cannot change governments because, as Sachs accurately points out, American’ Democrats and Republicans are the same. Both parties talk the talk but no one walks the walk.
Americans are reluctant to pay higher taxes because they see no discernible improvement in their lives. Why invest in a government (pay more taxes) that fails to produce improved results?
Sachs ideas for correcting America’s ills—
- Reduce the deficit by cutting military spending and increasing taxes.
- Reduce wealth disparity by investing in and retraining an obsolescent work force.
- Invest in and improve education with emphasis on primary and secondary graduation.
- Create jobs through infrastructure investment. He argues that dependence on carbon-based energy is to be reduced by conservation with increased investment in alternative energy sources and more scientific research and development.
- He argues that medical insurance should be provided to all Americans with a plan crafted by the medical community.
- He argues for increasing the term length of elected officials.
All of these goals are exemplary but to get there requires a massive (and unlikely) re-invention of human nature. One could argue that many of these policies were promoted by the Obama administration. How has that turned out?
It is counterintuitive for a free society to choose moderate consumption. Add mistrust of American government and the likelihood of turning more money over to a government that does not work seems foolish to any rationale human being. Sachs believes the millennium generation is different; that they are inclined to believe in moderation in all things. He believes a third party will be created to overturn the status quo. Time will tell but human nature and American history suggest otherwise.
Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, “Industry, technology, and commerce can thrive only as long as an idealistic national community offers the necessary preconditions. And these do not lie in material egoism, but in a spirit of sacrifice and joyful renunciation.”
One can easily agree with many of Sachs’ observations of what is wrong with America but his solutions are Pollyannaish. Sachs is too much of an idealist.