Book Review: “The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity” by Jeffrey D. Sachs

This book is all about what have gone wrong for the United States and what needs to be done.

The author cited Ronald Reagan’s presidency as the beginning of the downfall due to his anti-tax stand. Reagan cut domestic spending using an example like “welfare queen” to portray the big government’s waste in spending. The Prop 13 ushered in the anti-taxation era. But the real culprit is not over taxation but globalization, the author argued, which allows corporations to race the taxation to the bottom as countries and states pays or offer tax rebates to be in the game.

The author also pointed out that U.S.’s two parties are two “right-of-center” parties – more or less the same; Republicans are supported by Big Oils and the Democrats are supported by the Wall Street. Ultimately, the lobbyists of the four big industries, military industry, wall-street, big oil, and health cares, pull the strings of the politicians – the “corporatacracy” wins big.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the society is distracted by “conspicuous consumption” or a race to keep up with the Jones, influenced by TV, and hyper-commercialism (mass persuasion). The author established by data the correlation of corruption to TV viewing and negative correlation to social trust to TV viewing.

To remedy the “big crash,” The author argued for Buddha’s “middle path” concept. Be mindful of self, work, knowledge, others (compassion/cooperation), nature, the future, politics, and the world. The author offer a path and 8 goals to achieve from now to 2020 to address the ills of the country. The goals cover unemployment, quality of access to education, reduce poverty, avoid environmental catastrophe, balance the federal budget, improve governance, national security, raise America’s happiness and life satisfaction.

The author outlined the math in paying for civilization (government). Of course, getting higher tax revenue is the critically difficult step. Taxing the rich sufficiently (from top rate of 35% to 39.6%) seems to be the key ingredient. Other tax raising avenues are raising taxes on oil, gas, coal, and curbing tax evasion, and taxing financial transaction and introducing VAT (value-added sales tax).

The author also offers the 7 habits of highly effective government: 1. set clear goals and benchmarks, 2. mobilize expertise, 3. make multiyear plan, 4. be mindful of the far future, 5. end the corporatocracy, 6. restore public management, 7 de-centralize. Sachs counted on the young (aged 18 to 29 now) generation to lead and push for changes. Of course, we all have to pitch in if we intend to continue our “civilization” and the way of our life.

Overall, I think the book was well written. Sachs used his tremendous international economic experience to analyze our current situation and offer some methods to remedy it. I think his attribution of the anti-tax movement to globalization is probably right. Unfortunately, blaming the foreigners doesn’t sell votes and comes away more like victim blaming. Blaming the government is easier. Sachs’s blaming our excessive TV watching and hyper-commercialism for our shirking the duty of watching the government is right on. Raising taxes on the people who pay the lobbyists to influence the politician won’t be easy. Just hope there are more gutsy politicians willing to stand up against the tide of legalized corruption. I found the book well researched and author’s views very insightful. I wish the same outcome of “reawakening American virtue and prosperity.”