Economist Jeffrey Sachs

The world-renowned economist and co-founder of the nonprofit Millennium Promise Alliance explains his work on economic development and the fight against poverty.

Named twice to Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential world leaders, Jeffrey Sachs is a leading voice for combining economic development with environmental sustainability. The best-selling author is director of Columbia University's Earth Institute and co-founder of Millennium Promise Alliance, a nonprofit aimed at ending extreme global poverty. He previously spent more than 20 years at Harvard, where he received three degrees and was one of the youngest economics professors in the school's history. In his text, The Price of Civilization, Sachs offers an incisive diagnosis of America's economic ills.


Jeffrey Sachs: Always great to be with you. Thanks so much.

Tavis: There’s a new preface to this book which I, of course, expected in paperback now. What’s happened in this country since you wrote this book that made you have to put some new stuff in it for the paperback version?

Sachs: Well, this book was about things really going wrong in America and the lack of the kind of civic virtue, especially among the rich and powerful, that we have expected and that we need.

After I’d put the pen down in writing the original book, the Occupy movement brought attention, finally, around this country to the huge inequalities. We have a campaign right now between a Republican Party that has doubled down on greed and on favor for the super-rich versus President Obama, who’s trying to steer a middle course. I’d like to see him steer a little bit more, frankly, even progressive, to the progressive side.

But compared to where Romney is, I think that we have such a clear choice, and it looks like the American people think so as well. But basically, more and more people have come to see how corrupted the American political system is, how dysfunctional Wall Street is, how unequal our society is, and how we’re not getting out of this trap until we address these issues much more fundamentally than we have.

Now, whether we’re going to do that or not I don’t know, but I think the events over the last year show that we really need to do it.

Tavis: You referenced President Obama and Governor Romney already. Tomorrow night, of course, Wednesday, the first of these four debates, three between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney, of course, one against, one between Mr. Biden and Mr. Ryan.

But again, tomorrow’s the first. We will see Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama on the same stage. In advance of that debate tomorrow night, yesterday in “The Wall Street Journal” Mr. Romney had a piece, and I want to quote from this because there are a couple of things I want to get your take on.

The piece was titled “A New Course for the Middle East.” But he raises some domestic issues in the piece – well, let me just read it for you and get your thoughts. I quote now from Mr. Romney’s piece in yesterday’s “Wall Street Journal.”

“In recent years, President Obama has allowed our leadership to atrophy. Our economy is stuck in a ‘recovery’ that barely deserves the name. Our national debt has risen to record levels. Our military, tested by a decade of war, is facing devastating cuts thanks to the budgetary games played by the White House.

“Finally, our values have been misapplied and misunderstood by a president who thinks that weakness will win favor with our adversaries. By failing to maintain the elements of our influence and by stepping away from our allies, President Obama has heightened the prospect of conflict and instability.

“He does not understand that an American policy that lacks resolve can provoke aggression and encourage disorder.”

So two paragraphs, two different thoughts there. Let me take them one at a time. So in the first paragraph he speaks, of course, to the way he sees, at least, the economic condition, the economic malaise in this country. What did Mitt Romney say in that first paragraph that you disagree with, including I’ve heard you critique
“the budgetary games this White House has played.”

So what’d he say in the first paragraph on the domestic front that you disagree with? Anything?

Sachs: (Laughs) I disagreed with everything he wrote. (Laughter) But that’s easy, Tavis. But basically, look, I mean, one thing we might agree with is that the recovery is not what we’d like it to be, and we need more public investment, we need more investment in skills and education.

The irony, of course, is that what Romney proposes – more tax cuts for the rich, slashing government, slashing help for precisely those who need it, slashing government’s role in infrastructure, in science and technology, would take us so far away from what we need, I wish President Obama had the revenues to do more, but it’s the Republican side that’s blocking that.

Because that party just has one idea and one idea only, and that is to cut taxes for the rich. We have this multi-gazillionare running for office, his money is in the Cayman Islands, he pays 13 percent in taxes and he says that the most important thing is to cut the tax rates at the top still further.

It’s mind-boggling that we have this kind of blatant candidacy. Of course, people are hurting, people are upset, and that’s why this weirdness even has a choice. But it would take us exactly in the wrong direction. President Obama could have done more and would have done more if the Republican opposition had not blocked the end of the Bush-era tax cuts for the rich, for example.

So Romney is really in quite a position to be blaming President Obama for that when it’s exactly his side that has made the kind of recovery we need so fleeting and evanescent. Of course we need a stronger recovery, but the policies he’s recommending would be exactly the opposite of what would get us there.

Tavis: So on the domestic front he’s hitting Mr. Obama for not overseeing a more pronounced recovery; on the foreign policy front he’s hitting him on a lack of resolve. I go now to the second paragraph that I read, again, making this Republican argument that this president lacks resolve, and when you do that it invites all kinds of activity around the world that we really don’t want to have to deal with or engage.

Mr. Romney was in New York, where you sit tonight, a few days ago, speaking at the invitation of former President Clinton at his Clinton Global Initiative. He argued then that our foreign aid needs to have more strings attached to it. But what’s your sense of what he might do or might not do vis-à-vis foreign policy? The last of these presidential debates, moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS, will be specifically, as you know, about foreign policy.

But again, this notion that, at least as Mr. Romney sees it, this president lacks resolve and that our foreign policy is lacking under his leadership?

Sachs: I don’t know. To think that our problem is too little military just seems to me again to get it completely wrong. We wasted a great deal of the past 11 years in two wars we never should have had. The Iraq war completely on phony, false pretenses, the Afghanistan war, again, another war, in my view, that we never should have had

We spent trillions of dollars, I think a waste of money and a waste of blood, and it seems what Romney’s saying is we don’t have enough war. We don’t have enough military. Again, to my mind it gets it exactly wrong. I think that President Obama has been judicious in the past year in this Arab Spring, which is a tremendous amount of tumult in the Middle East.

We don’t control events. For Romney to pretend that we do or to pretend that there’s a military approach to all of this just takes us back to the dark days when we were losing so many more lives and fighting so much useless battle just a few years ago. That was the disaster of the George W. Bush Jr. administration. It seems like Romney is absolutely intent on taking us straight back to that.

Tavis: If you were sitting in the moderator’s chair tomorrow night – Jim Lehrer has that distinct honor tomorrow night, but if you were sitting in the moderator’s chair tomorrow night, and I want you to set your political ideology aside for the moment, what do you think the American people need to hear with the issues that matter to you, at least, and the issues that you write about in “The Price of Civilization,” what would you like to see the two of them go at it about?

What do you want to see put front and center tomorrow night in this conversation between Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama? What kind of questions would you be posing to them?

Sachs: Well, of course I think the most important issue for the American people is how we’re going to create sustainable and fair and equitable recovery, a recovery that really embraces all of the people, including people who are very poor and are hurting.

So I’d ask Mitt Romney how, in the midst of all of this, when we don’t begin to have the revenues that we need when we’re collecting the smallest share of our national income in taxes since the 1940s, why, Mr. Romney, do you propose tax cuts for you and your rich friends?

How can this – and at the same time, you propose spending cuts that are going to hit the poorest people in this country. How could you ever think that this is right, fair, or efficient, Mr. Romney? That’s what I would ask him.

Tavis: What would you ask Mr. Obama?

Sachs: Mr. President, in the second term, what are you going to do to get the American people on your side even more so we can break this deadlock? How are you going to face these interest groups that have been blocking so much so that we can finally get to the kinds of long-term investments that we know you want, but haven’t occurred yet?

Addressing our energy crisis, addressing the environmental crisis, addressing the skills and jobs crisis – how are we going to pay for that, how are you going to get it done, Mr. President?

Tavis: Do you think that Senator Obama, when he made this pledge, and of course became president and tried to hold on to the pledge to reform Washington, how naïve was he in thinking that he could overturn a system that is more and more controlled by lobbyists, since you went there a moment ago?

Sachs: Well, I wonder. He had the right message. It galvanized the country. He had, of course, tremendous popularity at the beginning, but he brought a lot of these interest groups right back into government as he came in in 2009. Too much Wall Street, too much of the big private health insurers.

I think that this was a lost opportunity. Maybe he thought, as he said, that a lot of compromise was going to be possible, but we needed actually not exactly compromise, but we needed a president to mobilize the American people, keep them mobilized, so that these special interests would back off.

Unfortunately, we didn’t really get as far as we need to go. At that point, after I think some missteps or lost opportunities at the beginning, the Republican Party has done everything possible to frustrate good, fair policy in this country for years. I still believe that when President Obama wins reelection, I think he’s going to, because I think his message really does resonate a lot more clearly than, and as being more fair and more sensible than Mitt Romney’s, I think he’s going to need a different approach.

He’s going to have to work hard to say here’s what we need, here are plans. Let me lay it out for you. Here’s the direction we have to go. Not be in the back room game as the White House was too much when it was negotiating energy policy, healthcare policy, tax policy and so forth. He has to be out with the people this time because we need progressive change.

Progressive change won’t come in the back rooms; it’ll only come by the American people demanding it.

Tavis: What part of Barack Obama’s background – tell me any part of his background that you’re looking at, in the state house in Illinois, in his time in the United States Senate, in his time in the White House, what are you looking at that gives you any reason to believe that a more progressive Barack Obama actually exists?

If he is to win a second term, he’s going to go about the business that every second-term president does, trying to establish his legacy. You started this conversation by saying you wished that he’d steer the car a bit more toward the progressive lane.

I don’t want you to do as some Americans did four years ago, which is to make a green screen out of him and to put upon him your own hopes and dreams and aspirations that really, quite frankly, fly in the face of any kind of back story in his life that suggests a progressive fights. And I’m not saying that to cast aspersion on him or demonize him, but when people like you come on my show, respectfully, and suggest these things, what are you looking at? Where do you think that’s going to come from, Jeffrey?

Sachs: Well, I’ve really liked the first half of all of the president’s speeches, if I could put it that way, because I think his vision for what America needs is really spot-on. He understands that in the 21st century it’s education, it’s skills, it’s technology, it’s new science, it’s new energy systems, it’s new infrastructure. He calls that right.

I’ve really disliked the second half of almost all of the speeches because there’s rarely a plan that’s attached to the first half. So the vision part I think has been great. Not just great because he can lay out a vision but great because it’s an accurate vision of what a productive, modern America in our complicated global, highly technological world would really mean. I like all of that.

But he hasn’t made the plans to do it, and I ask myself why. Of course, I know all the people around and I find a lot of them too cynical. I find many of those who were in the White House more dealmakers than visionaries themselves. I wish the president had surrounded himself more with people who really understood the importance of more fundamental change for our country going forward.

So I hear the president saying things that I like. I’m not just making it up. I hear the direction and I agree with it, but he’s missed two parts. One is the hard work of the real planning to get it done, because it was like that old expression that he had – shovel-ready projects.

There’s no such thing as “shovel-ready” for the kind of problems we face. You better work very hard to make them specific, detailed, really do the hard thinking. And then you have to do the tough selling, because there are a lot of vested interests that are standing between us and where we need to go.

There are a lot of rich people that don’t want to pay their fair share of taxes, they want their money in the Cayman Islands, tax-free, that are standing between us and where our country needs to go, and President Obama needs to sell the case of his vision, what specifically needs to be done and how he’s going to pay for it.

That really hasn’t been there in the first term, and it’s got to be there in the second term if he wants to win that legacy. But I’m not so concerned about his legacy. I’m more concerned about America.

We need that not because of his legacy, we need that because we need that. Otherwise we really are going to have deepening trouble – not the kind that Mitt Romney would ever solve. He’d make it worse before you could blink your eye.

But we do need a different direction. President Obama paints the vision of it, shows us which way to go. Now let’s get the hard work done and let’s get the political, the public mobilized to support that.

Tavis: So I suspect that tomorrow night the first, again, of these four debates by the candidates, there’s going to be at some level – I don’t know how pronounced this is going to be, Jeffrey, but I suspect there’s going to be a real debate about the proper role of government. What ought to be the role of government in our lives?

I hope we can have a head-on conversation about that. I would love to see just an explicit, direct question put to both of them about what the role of government is as they see it, because that’s really what under-girds this entire debate we’re having right now, is how we see the role of government.

So Romney gets caught on this 47 percent video basically – not basically; he’s saying, in fact, that there are too many Americans, 47 percent, who feel “entitled” to healthcare, to food and to housing – they feel entitled to healthcare, food and housing. I ask you a forthright and direct question: Are Americans entitled to that, those three things?

Sachs: A good society ensures those things for its citizens, and that helps make its citizenry healthy, productive, active and dynamic. The countries that are successful in this world, right now, the countries with the low unemployment rates, with the lack of poverty, with the skills and the ability to compete internationally, countries like Sweden or Germany or the Netherlands or Denmark or Norway, they don’t say we have to slash taxes and get rid of government.

They say we have to make sure that every child in our country has a chance, has a decent education, has the job skills that they need. We have to make sure that our roads, our infrastructure, our power grid, are up to par. We have to make sure that we’re investing in cutting-edge science and technology, and boy, our government can still do it.

Just look at the Mars explorer right now, the beautiful work that NASA is doing. Look at the breakthroughs that are coming from the National Institutes of Health. We still, when we try, can be absolutely cutting edge, opening up new horizons for human wellbeing as well as for the competitiveness of our industries.

But the successful economies say of course you need a government. Because we have a society, we need to act together to make sure that we’re all moving forward together. Romney doesn’t care about that. He doesn’t even know about that. It’s not just the 47 percent.

He’s so far in his wealthy, narrow club, his money in the tax havens around the world, paying very little in taxes, I don’t think he understands, actually, at all the situation in the United States, and I think most Americans don’t relate to him.

Tavis: Let me give you some numbers. You’re an economist, so you understand numbers better than I do. These are things I found surprising, and I want to preface this by saying that I know this is about much more than lip service, but I did find this fascinating.

So “The New York Times” did a word search and the Democrats used the word “poor” or “poverty” three times for every 25,000 words uttered from the podium at their convention this summer – three times for every 25,000 words, they said poor or poverty.

Before you guess, I will tell you how many times the Republicans said the word poor or poverty, and it might surprise you – five times for every 25,000 words. I saw the smirk on your face. It happens every time I say that. Democrats three times for every 25,000 words; Republicans five times for every 25,000 words.

And with regard to Democrats, Bill Clinton used it 11 times. So of course he spoke two hours longer as well, but he used it 11 times in his talk, so that’s where the bulk of it came.

I only raised that to ask this simple question: If the Democrats don’t even have the spine or the backbone to raise the issue publicly, to talk about the issue publicly, what makes us think if they get a second term in the White House or a chance to take back the House or the Senate that the issue of poverty, the issue of raising the minimum wage to a living wage, all the stuff you write about in this book, “The Price of Civilization,” if they can’t even talk about it publicly because they’re afraid to say the “P-word,” how are we going to get anything done about it, Jeffrey?

Sachs: Because we’re going to have to think very hard about a third party in 2016 if the Democrats don’t come around. This is – it is a true situation you’re depicting, Tavis, that both parties I’d call right-of-center parties. Just the Republicans are so far extreme to the right it’s grotesque in their greed and in their lack of any concern at all.

But we’re going to have a, what is it, a $7 billion federal election cycle this time, something like that. That’s a lot of money, in other words, being raised and spent on the campaign. That’s a lot of rich people talking in both parties. The Democrats still have some heart in there, but they wring their hands and they still swing too far to the right, as far as I’m concerned.

But the Republicans, that’s the whole meaning of the party at this point, is the super-rich and those who can be distracted, because the message that they’re propounding would take America in such an awful direction.

But both parties are too beholden to big money, neither party takes on the strong vested interests. You’ve got to hope, but I agree it’s the audacity of hope, if I could coin a phrase, (laughter) that in a second term, President Obama would assess what happened in the first term, how much a true need of America was tripped up by these powerful interests, and he would be prepared to take it on.

Now, we’ve had that in our history at various times. We’ve had some great reformist presidents. Both parties – Theodore Roosevelt on the Republican side, Franklin Roosevelt on the Democratic Party side, Kennedy and Johnson. We’ve had that before to really face the social needs and to face down the powerful interests.

President Obama had the mandate to do it in 2009, as we’ve been discussing. I don’t think he did it the way that he could have done it, and I’m hoping that after the election he will see that America needs so much the leadership to actually move beyond the vested interests right now, that he’ll take that as his personal legacy need as well as our country’s priority.

Tavis: Out in paperback now with a brand-new preface, “The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity,” written by Jeffrey D. Sachs. Jeffrey Sachs, good to have you on this program. Always appreciate your insights. Thanks for your time.

Sachs: Always love to be with you. Thank you so much.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: October 3, 2012 at 1:45 pm