Economist Jeffrey Sachs

The noted economist, director of Columbia’s Earth Institute and co-founder of Millennium Promise explains how we can end poverty globally.

Jeffrey Sachs is a leading voice for combining economic development with environmental sustainability. The best-selling author is director of Columbia's Earth Institute and co-founder of Millennium Promise Alliance, a nonprofit aimed at ending extreme global poverty. The Detroit native 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 latest text, The Price of Civilization, Sachs offers an incisive diagnosis of America's economic ills.


Tavis: Our gratitude and thanks once again to the good people at the Media Mobilizing Project for their terrific work on these poverty tour highlights. Their mission of training and empowering people who are poor and working class is one of the primary reasons we chose to partner with them on this project in the first place, and as you can see every night this week the quality of their work speaks for itself.

For more tonight, I am honored, honored, to be joined by Jeffrey Sachs. He is a noted economist, best-selling author and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia, whose latest book is called, “The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity.” Jeffrey Sachs, always good to have you, sir, on this program.

Jeffrey Sachs: Thank you so much. I’m the one that’s honored. What you’re doing is unique in this country and so essential right now, and it’s just incredible. It’s great, this series.

Tavis: Well, thank you.

Sachs: These are people that are not being heard. This is what’s wrong with our political system, and you’re helping people to raise their voice and be heard in this country.

Tavis: I appreciate that. I want to get to “The Price of Civilization” in a moment, but I want to start, Professor Sachs, with what I think is the seminal text on poverty, on ending poverty, that is – your book, “The End of Poverty.”

Sachs: Thank you.

Tavis: 2005. Read it two or three times. I want to start by asking what you make of where we are now vis-à-vis poverty in America, given the plan that you laid out for ending poverty back in 2005.

Sachs: Well, I said in 2005 that in our generation we could end poverty worldwide. We can end it certainly in America, the richest large country in history, with all the technology, all the means. If we weren’t so selfish in our politics, this wouldn’t even be a challenge, actually.

But we can also end poverty worldwide in the very poorest places, in the villages of Africa or in the hills of Central America, and we see powerful progress in some places, but not in the United States right now. In the U.S., it’s backsliding. In the U.S., we are not going forward, whereas in other parts of the world there’s a lot of progress in reducing poverty.

Tavis: You’ve said two things now I want to go back and get right quick and have you unpack for me. Number one, when you say if we weren’t so selfish in our politics, what do you mean by that?

Sachs: I mean that our politics really for the last 30 years has been to give everything to the top and to keep taking away from the middle class and the poor, and we’re still on that route right now. We’re just gutting the government services that people need to make sure their kids can get a decent education, can be healthy, can avoid asthma, can avoid other debilities of nutrition or an unsafe environment.

We’re still taking away from the poor, and the rich have never been richer. The 400 richest people in this country, the billionaires on the new Forbes list, have more than $1 trillion of wealth. They’re averaging more than $3.5 billion each of them in their net worth, and then we’re told by Washington politicians, oh, there’s nothing we can do, we have a budget crisis.

Well, sure. If you let the richest of the richest of the rich just walk Scot-free, bear no responsibility in our society, then there won’t be for the poorest of the poor.

Tavis: Over the last 50 years, though, to your point now of being selfish in our politics, we’ve had both Democrat presidents, Republican presidents, Democrat-controlled Congress, Republican-controlled Congress. So how is it that whether Democrat or Republican control Congress or control the White House, that we have still been, to your term, so selfish in our politics?

Sachs: The last time we made big progress against poverty was in the 1960s, and the war on poverty, despite everything that was said and said by the right wing until today, made huge and sustained progress in reducing poverty. Big breakthroughs.

But then came Reagan and the backlash, and what’s amazing is that our politics since 1981, when Ronald Reagan came into office, and he came into office on a platform that said government is not the solution, it’s the problem, and I say if that’s what your view is, don’t be president, because we need a president that believes in government, not believes in dismantling government.

But he started to dismantle. He gave tax cuts to the rich, started to cut the base out of our education spending, social safety net, stopped investing in infrastructure – the things that make America productive.

But then what’s amazing is this continued, unfortunately, through the Clinton administration, this continued through definitely the Bush era with more tax cuts, and tragically, it’s continued through the first years of the Obama administration.

What you see are two political parties that are both so eager to get big campaign contributions from rich people that they don’t even hear the poor people anymore in this country.

Tavis: There are a lot of poor people, though, who voted for then-Senator Obama who thought that this would be the end of the Reagan revolution; that Reagan era would finally, finally come to an end and that things would be different. So the message of hope and change resonated, obviously, with so many Americans, that Mr. Obama doesn’t just win, he wins in a landslide.

Yet I hear you suggest now that this has continued three years into his presidency. What do you mean by that?

Sachs: Well, I supported the president, I support the president, I’m going to vote for the president for reelection, but it hasn’t been change, it’s been continuity. The sad part is that even when Senator Obama was campaigning to become President Obama in the summer of 2008, his campaign advisers wrote a column in “The Wall Street Journal” that said, “We will keep the tax collection as a shared national income no higher than during the Reagan administration.”

I was shocked. I sent a note to them, “What are you doing?” They told me a few months later that I was the only person that wrote to them that way. I know as an economist if we don’t tax the rich so that we can rebuild schools, so that we can rebuild neighborhoods, so that we can focus on real infrastructure projects, not shovel-ready, which don’t exist, but real infrastructure over a decade, we’re not going to be able to rebuild, we’re not going to have the skills, we’re not going to create good jobs.

So I was asking, “What are you saying, to keep the tax rates?” but this is how politics plays in America – both parties cater to the rich. That’s why, honestly, when push came to shove in December 2010 and the Bush era tax cuts were about to expire, 60 percent of Americans were saying in the opinion surveys, let them expire at the top.

But that’s not what happened. All of a sudden there’s a deal between the White House and the Congress to extend them for two more years. That wasn’t because the president’s back was to the wall; sadly not, because 60 percent of Americans wanted the top tax rates to go up. They know what the story is.

But that’s not what the political advisers were saying. “No, no, you can’t do that, you’re running for reelection. You’re going to need the campaign contributions.”

This is really the story of America, how the market system, especially in the global era, took away a lot of jobs in America that used to provide a middle class income, especially in the manufacturing sector.

But instead of the government helping to create new skills, new industries and so on, the government teamed up with the most powerful and richest interests in this country because that’s how campaigns are made, and since those 30 years have continued to side with the top 1 percent and to ignore totally the bottom, the poorest people, and once in a while say something about the middle, but really only pay attention to the top.

Tavis: Which takes me directly into the new text, “The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity.” Let me try to get into it this way, so you can tell me more about the new book.

To your point now, though, when Occupy Wall Street, now in 800 cities and growing, starts to raise its voice, when Jeffrey Sachs writes a book called “The Price of Civilization,” when Tavis Smiley or Cornel West go on a poverty tour or anybody else in this country – there are many people beyond us who have been talking for years about eradicating poverty –

Sachs: Absolutely.

Tavis: When you do that in this moment, we get accused of playing a game of class war. What do you say about that?

Sachs: The war has been on the poor. The rich have been waging a war on the poor for 30 years, and now people are finding their voices and saying, “Stop it.” What’s amazing is that in 2008, when Wall Street created a worldwide disaster, these CEOs, these titans of finance that nearly wrecked the world, said, “What? Me? No, we want government bailouts, give us a trillion.” Then with that money they paid themselves more billions of bonuses the next year.

I called the White House and I said, “What are you doing? You’re letting them take taxpayer money for their mega-bonuses,” and Larry Summers, the economic adviser from Wall Street, said, “Well, Jeff, where would you draw the line?”

I said, “Larry, what are you talking about? It’s taxpayer money going out in big bonuses.” But Wall Street and politics are so tightly infused they couldn’t even draw the line at that moment, and that’s why we’ve reached a point where Wall Street abused the public, it abused the trust, it violated the laws, because every one of our big firms, whether it’s Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch or JP Morgan, they’re paying fines right now for what they did against the securities laws, and yet they’ve remained in charge.

They remain invited to the White House for the state dinners, and that’s why people are out in the streets across this country right now. The key slogan, the key motto, “We are the 99 percent,” is rigorously accurate, because the top 1 percent has walked away with the prize.

People who are staggering, people who we have seen, you have seen on the tour and whose voice you’re bringing to America, they’re suddenly realizing, “Wait a minute – this isn’t a market economy just good luck and bad luck. These guys broke the rules, they broke the law. They took the money, they sided with politics and they’re still there. What kind of market system is that?” That’s a rigged system, and that’s what people are starting to wake up to.

Tavis: I’ve got 90 seconds. I could do this for hours with you, but in 90 seconds, I want to give you all of that time to give me the last word. What, then, is the price of civilization?

Sachs: The price of civilization is the investments we need to make in education, in healthcare, in our neighborhoods, in the physical environment for safety and for good health. We need to pay for that, and especially those who have taken all of this money at the top need to start paying.

That’s the virtue that we need. They cannot be lawless. They can’t absent themselves from our society. They need to participate. I have in this book a specific set of recommendations; how we can collect several percent of our national income from the top of the top and use that money to help people regain the skills or finish college, have the wherewithal to be productive members of society.

Not receiving handouts, but having the productivity to get out of poverty and to have decent jobs in the future. We need to invest in those people to help them, and the money has to come from the top.

Tavis: As I said earlier, Jeffrey Sachs, back in 2005, wrote, to my mind, the seminal text on ending poverty in America, go get that. It’s called, “End of Poverty.” The new one from Professor Sachs is called “The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity.” Jeffrey Sachs, an honor, sir, to have you on this program.

Sachs: Thank you so much. Good to be with you.

Tavis: Delighted to have you here. Tomorrow night we’ll wrap up our poverty week with a look at new grassroots movements working to combat poverty and a conversation with Sojourner CEO, Jim Wallis.

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  • Irene Kubitsky

    Mr. Sach’s comments were the most significant so far on the OWS. The occupiers of Wall Street are on the front lines of Wall Street’s War on the poor and the middle class. Wall Street’s behavior was the most efficient & effective weapon of mass destruction on our country’s economy. Please continue to have Professor Sachs return to the show as you continue on the poverty issue that is spreading through the middle class in this country. Please include Elizabeth Warren and have them debate the politician who are running for office. It would be very useful for the electorate to address questions to these candidates that really matter. Warren and Sachs could refute the fairy tales they are promising and will never deliver to the public. The millions of dollars that are needed by legislators to be in office and buy their committee seats are a major obstacle to having any change happen through Congress or the Senate. Thank you Mr. Smiley for your honest work and extraordinary interviewing with public figures who need to be heard and introduced to the public that does not want to watch corporate right wing media.

  • thomas r bittner

    does does mr zachs have any intention of running for office or becoming a presidential advisor…….I hope

  • William Zaffer

    I said when Reagen came into office and Nafta that this country was going down but people wanted to buy everything cheap from Wal Mart. Gullible and still be lied with Republicans but Obama lost my support with free trade bill just signed and probably will allow the pipeline from Canada. All they care about is being in power not our democracy.

  • Craig Schwanke

    Thank you for this series and thank you Dr Sach’s for having the moral courage to stand up to the Obama administration for turning their backs on the poor, the work and middle classes and for naming names. I wish President Obama and the members of Congress had that kind of moral courage to stand up to the greed of the rich, the corporate welfare system and the military industrial complex!

  • Charles Reyner

    Hi, Tavis! Your interview with Prof. Sachs was lights out! Thanks to both of you!!! One thing Prof. Sachs confirmed for me was that AMERICAN capitalists in Wall Street, through their manipulations, in 2008, almost did to the world economy what they (other AMERICAN capitalists) did to cause The Great Depression in the 1920s (The great & wise Will Rogers is my trusted source for this accusation.). Now since the Great Depression, which AMERICAN capitalists caused, was the cause of the even greater depressions in Germany & Japan at the time, and since these horrendous depressions were the proximate cause of Hitler & the Nazis being able to take over in Germany, & the Japanese military in Japan, we can logically conclude that AMERICAN capitalists caused World War II & the Holocaust, because without Hitler & the Nazis there would have been no World War II or Holocaust, & likewise, without the Japanese military in charge there would have been no Pearl Harbor, nor World War II in the Pacific.
    Now since WE won World War II, the culpability of AMERICAN capitalists in causing this great disaster has gone unmentioned. I fear that since they are accruing more & more power, & as Prof. Sachs points out, are kowtowed to by both Democrats & Republicans, well, who will stop them? They were too big to fail & now they are even bigger. They have the Supreme Court solidly in their pockets, all the GOP, & almost all the Dems.
    If we could establish that THEY (their equals, of course!) were responsible for the deaths of over 30,000,000 people back then, maybe they wouldn’t be quite so arrogant, no?
    Can AMERICAN capitalists actually be humble? I very much doubt it!

  • Rob Nitch

    Prof. Sachs has become a sort of hero of mine lately. It so refreshing to see someone as intellegent and articulate as Dr. Sachs simply tell it like it is. In this excellent, yet brief, interview he lays out the exact reason for the OWS movement. Also, my favorite quote from him came at the beginning: ‘If you don’t believe in government, please don’t run for President.’ You almost laugh saying it because its an absurd notion, yet the GOP candidates suffer from this precise problem. They want to take the government we so deperately need to tackle poverty, education, infrastructure, energy etc., and abandon it.

    As always, thanks to Tavis Smiley for another great, informative interview!

  • Christopher Impens

    While I appreciate Prof Sachs rebuke of the Obama administration, especially, Larry Summers, I am extremely frustrated by his explanation of the financial crisis being caused by Wall Street. Without question, large financial institutions were complicit in the financial melt down, however, the underlying problem was the over-leveraging of the of the american consumer and the ensuing housing bubble. This financial state was precipitated by federal policy enacted under Clinton and perpetuated by Bush. If the ridiculously easy and unchecked access to capitol did not occur, many of the transactions created on Wall Street would have been impossible. As for “Government is the problem”, a more correct statement from conservatives such as my self is “Too large of centralized government dominated by two political parties is the problem. The influence of lobbyists representing special interests on the allocation of tax payer dollars too great, leaving most of us out in the cold.

Last modified: January 30, 2012 at 1:26 pm