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