Jeffrey D. Sachs, one of America’s best known economists, has spent much of his career helping repair the effects of World War II in countries from Poland to Brazil. He now directs the Earth Institute at New York’s Columbia University and is a special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He perceives the United States to be in decline, which he writes about in his new book, “The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity” (Random House).
It’s likely to attract strong criticism from both the right and the left. In the first half of the book, Sachs writes that on many days, it seems the only difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Big Oil owns the Republicans while Wall Street owns the Democrats. He blames President Ronald Reagan for a new antipathy to government, adding: “There is little doubt that a lot of pent-up greed was released, greed that infected the political system and that still haunts America today.” Sachs says Obama has continued down the path of open-ended war in Afghanistan and 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.”
He also accuses mass media and business interests that own them as fomenting many of the country’s ills. Sachs writes that within one generation, “Americans have displayed a shocking array of addictive behaviors,” including smoking, overeating, TV watching, gambling, shopping, borrowing and loss of self-control, and are addicted to a “miserable diet that has led to a staggering 33 percent obesity rate.” Readers who share his views will enjoy his vigorous criticism of people at the top of the heap; people he sees as misusing wealth to control government. Some readers may find it hard to follow the statistics and extensive graphs that he uses to support his stands.
The second half of the book takes a more cheerful stand on America’s destiny. Sachs sees American “Millennials” — people ages 19 to 30 — as shaping the future of the country more than any other group over the next 25 years. He quotes the Pew Research Center as finding 67 percent of them supporting a “bigger government providing more services,” while only 31 percent of those over 65 take that view. He sees education, adapted to the times, as the first decisive area, and writes that each Tuesday at Columbia he has the joy of participating in a global classroom with 20 campuses around the world linked by an Internet-based videoconferencing into a discussion of sustainable development. He concludes that America will not again dominate the world economy or geopolitics as it did in the immediate aftermath of World War II. But he adds: “If we again invest in ourselves — for good health, safe environment, knowledge and cutting-edge skills — renewed American prosperity can still be secured.”