Jeffrey Sachs’ The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity tells its reader that the United States economy has failed. Few people would disagree. What makes this work so effective, is that Sachs, a professor at Columbia University, is able to explain the issues in a clear way, that is easy for the public to understand. He breaks his work down into two halves. The first, entitled “The Great Crash,” describes the mistakes the American government has made. The second, entitled, “The Path to Prosperity,” provides Sachs’ solution to these problems. Overall, The Price of Civilization provides a clear explanation of how the United States economy has come to its current economic downturn, and where it needs to be headed if it is to keep up with the current, more global, market.
The first half of The Price of Civilization sets out to explain the various factors that have caused the United States’ economy to take such a downturn. Sachs believes that at the core of this downturn is a moral crisis. That is, “a decline of civic virtue among America’s political and economic elite” (Sachs 3). Those in positions of power have become too concerned with turning a profit, no matter the cost. Until the nation’s leaders begin behaving responsibly and treating their jobs with respect, Sachs does not believe the economy can begin to heal. The second half of The Price of Civilization contains Sachs’ suggested plan to fix how the government interacts with the market, and in turn, the economy. He fears that the lobbyists in Washington are allowed to push lawmakers around and that this must be stopped. He first calls to the consumers to change their habits. He believes that “as a society, we need to establish the right relationship of markets, politics, and civil society to address the complex challenges of the twenty-first century” (Sachs 161). He is, of course, correct, but to say this is not enough. Sachs’ work exceeds here particularly because he has thought about what needs to be done in order to bring about this change, and he provides the reader with a list of goals and pathways to achieve them. These include very ambitious objectives such as, balancing the federal budget to eliminate a budget deficit, reducing the unemployment rate, and avoiding “environmental catastrophe” (Sachs 186). The author understands that in order to remedy the current state of the economy, many different areas must be addressed. Lastly, Sachs provides a list of what he calls the “seven habits of highly effective government,” which includes advice such as, “set clear goals and benchmarks,” “mobilize expertise,” “be mindful of the far future,” and calls for an end to what Sachs refers to as the “corporatocracy” (Sachs 239). Most of his advice can be applied at the individual level as well and serves as a good reminder that the government does consist of actual human beings and that while human beings are capable of making mistakes, they are also capable of fixing them.
The Price of Civilization is not necessarily full of new ideas. Sachs is not trying to prove that he knows more than anyone else. What makes the work so successful is the author’s ability to break the issues down so that anyone can understand and to offer clear, concise goals that any individual reading can begin to practice. The Price of Civilization offers something many other similar works do not—hope for a realistically attainable future.
Sachs, Jeffrey. The price of civilization: reawakening American virtue and prosperity. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.
1. Sachs provides clear, attainable goals, yet nothing has really changed in the two years since this book’s publication. What accounts for this? Why does the government refuse to address these problems?
2. Many times throughout the book, Sachs seems to be scolding the people in the American government. This tone can detract from an author’s credibility.
3. Sachs writes, unlike many other economists. This book is almost conversational in tone. This makes it very accessible to the reader.
4. Sachs argues that, in order to affect change in the government, Americans need to change the way they consume, but he also understands how powerful the lobbyists are. How does he think that change at the personal level will be able to affect such influential powers in government?
5. Sachs has practiced macroeconomics all over the world. It would be interesting to see his take on how America breaks down compared to nations similar to it and also nations very much unlike it. He does this on a small-scale once or twice, but a bigger, more involved project would be especially informative.
6. The author believes that the current government is “immoral.” Sachs often assign human attributes to the economy and the government. This is an effective way to remind his readers that both are powered by individuals.
7. Sachs argues again and again that government is immoral and that those in need should be able to get help from those in a position to do so. This seems to go against what much of our government and economy stand for. How does he expect to win over a group of people who disagree with the very premise of his argument?
8. Sachs never gives a clear plan as to how his ideas should be implemented if the government is under the control of people who would never allow them, which he himself admits being true. Much of the book comes across as wishful thinking because of this.
9. The book contains many graphs, which are clear, effective ways of conveying information, but because he includes so many, they can distract a little from the text itself.
10. Overall, it seems that Sachs is arguing for a mixed-economy rooted in virtue and morally sound ethics. Because morality is such a relative term, it may well be difficult to build a solid foundation on something that shifts so drastically from situation to situation.
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