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Book review: The Price of Civilization: Economics and Ethics After the Fall, by Jeffrey Sachs

Jeffrey Sachs diagnoses the US’ current social and economic ills, but his proposed treatment plan is far from a guaranteed cure

By Robert Skidelsky  /  The Guardian, London

The Price of Civilization: Economics and Ethics After the Fall, by Jeffrey Sachs / 352 pages / Bodley Head

This is the latest in a spate of books provoked by the world economic crisis and one of the best. Jeffrey Sachs calls himself a “clinical economist.” In The End of Poverty he applied his clinician’s skills to the distempers of Africa; in this book he turns them to the hubristic and wasteful habits of the US. The details of the Fall — if by that he means the collapse of the US banking system in 2008 — do not concern him; it is what the Fall tells us about contemporary capitalism in the US.

In structure, the book is a bit like a medical treatise: the symptoms are identified, their causes diagnosed, the cures prescribed. However, the science is a bit of a veneer. Sachs is a very political doctor. This does not mean he has written a bad book. He is a fine economist and statistician, and if you want to stockpile facts and arguments for radical advocacy, this is the book for you. I had hoped, though, for something more arresting than a millennium manifesto for the Democratic Party.

It is also a very American book. This is not just because it is exclusively about the US — with the existence of a few European countries acknowledged occasionally as reference points; it is suffused with classic American optimism. The “American people” are good, but policy has been captured by the “interests.” Dethrone the interests and the goodness of the people will assert itself. American conservatives and radicals both sing to this hymn sheet, differing only about the source of the evil: for the Tea Party it is “big government,” for Democrats such as Sachs it is big business. Both find difficulty in explaining why the good people are so often duped by one or the other.

Sachs’ list of American diseases is familiar: no jobs or bad jobs for those with poor education; decaying infrastructure; collapse of saving; lagging educational standards; increasing inequality; soaring healthcare costs; rampant corporate dishonesty. The diagnostician traces the source of these evils to the “free market fallacy” leading to “Washington’s retreat from public purpose”; to the “new globalization” which cost jobs, lowered wages, and skewed rewards to the very rich; to social and ethnic fragmentation; and to the domination of politics by “corporate lobbies” and “spin masters of the media,” who have distracted the American people with the “relentless drumbeat

of consumerism.”

Chapter eight, on the techniques of mass persuasion, is full of fascinating details. Did you know that Edward Bernays, the pioneer of public relations and techniques of hidden persuasion, was Freud’s nephew? Or that the average American “consumes” information for 11 hours, 48 minutes a day? Or that the Internet rewires our neural networks, making us less able to concentrate, and monitors our tastes, giving advertisers unrivalled opportunities to target their messages to its users? All of which should, as they say, give grounds for concern.

Having diagnosed the diseases, our clinical economist writes out his prescriptions. These aim to replace the “distracted” society with the “mindful” society. “Mindfulness,” we learn, comes in eight dimensions, and is conveyed along three paths: cognitive, meditative, and practical. These paths lead to eight economic goals for the next 10 years — to “raise employment and quality of work life,” “improve the quality of and access to education,” “reduce poverty,” “avoid environmental catastrophe,” “balance the federal budget,” “improve governance,” “national security,” and “raise America’s happiness and life satisfaction,” The social reform goals can be reconciled with the balanced budget requirement only through a heavy increase in taxes on the rich. Sachs calls for an end to the Bush tax cuts for those with incomes over US$250,000, and an increase in the top rate of income tax to 40 percent, a wealth tax, closing of tax loopholes, tightening tax compliance, and increased

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