The Price of Civilisation – Jeffrey Sachs

This is an excellent book by someone with the pedigree to be taken seriously. He is currently the Director of the Earth Institute and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He has been named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential leaders in the world.

The book provides a critique of the  economic crisis facing the USA at the moment. He sees this crisis having a moral root in “the  decline of civic virtue amongst America’s political and economic elite.”  Sachs documents the declining prosperity of middle America and the scale of growing inequality with a wealth of statistics. At a time when one in eight Americans depends on food stamps the wealthiest one percent of American households enjoy a higher total net worth than the bottom 90 percent. In relation to incomes the top one percent of earners receive more than the bottom fifty percent.

Sachs provides a critique of the demonisation of taxation and big government by successive administrations. This radical liberal position meant that other key issues were neglected specifically the rise of the internet; of a new economically dynamic Asia and an evolving ecological crisis. The book charts the shift in US policy over the course of the 20th Century away from a belief in the potential for positive intervention by the state as evidenced by the New Deal in the 1930’s and the War on Poverty in the 1960’s to a situation where Washington was seen as the enemy. Cutting back regulation, privatising public services, cutting taxes. These were the new orthodoxy pursued by governments of both Democratic and Republican persuasion.

Sachs refutes some some of the key assertions of the extreme liberal consensus about, for example, the negative effect of high taxation. He points out that in the period 1955-1970, the top marginal tax rate in the US was 82% and GDP growth was 3.6% whilst in the period 1981-2010 the top marginal tax rate was 39% and the growth in GDP was  2.8%. He claims that the causes of the relative decline in the position of the US has been more to do with the process of globalisation than the processes of allegedy big government.

The book describes the growing polarisation of opinion in the states between the Sunbelt and Snowbelt. Sachs points to the irony of the fact that the states most opposed to big government are, in fact, net recipients of Federal spending.

Sachs, identifies a number of forces which have undermined the effectiveness of the political system. Weak national parties, the corporate financing of the political process, a process of globalisation which has undermined the power of labour groups. All these have led to the rise in power of what Sachs calls the corporatocracy unchallenged by either of the two main parties. Challenge by the citizenry is undermined by the advent of the media saturated society where people spend their working days tied to a computer screen and then come home to spend their leisure time glued to a range of leisure screens creating  a “…technology-rich, advertising-fed, knowledge poor society.”

Having analysed in some details of the problems of contemporary America Sachs goes on to provide a programme of change to renew American democracy and and redistribute wealth to pay for civilisation. It is not a revolutionary programme of confiscation, rather he proposes that overall tax rates in the states be raised so that they are comparable with overall tax rates in Europe. This increase in taxation should be accompanied by a shift of resource away from the federal government towards the individual states to support increase investment in education, early childhood development, infrastructure and a range of other headings to improve productivity.

In parallel with the fiscal reforms he proposes a series of reforms of government to overcome the problem of “corporatocracy” which he sees as the capture of the state by big business. His proposals here would make some blanch, things like, public funding for political parties; free media time allocated according to criteria other than who can pay for most; statutes to prevent Federal employees from taking lucrative jobs in the private sector for a minimum of three years after they leave office and banning campaign contributions from lobbying firms. The aim being to transform America from being the best democracy that money can buy to a political system with its roots in a thriving and diverse civil society.

Sachs might be seen, in some quarters, as a hopeless idealist however it is clear that the US has a number of long term issues which at some point are likely to force radical change. Its political system is paralysed by a polarity, the vehemence of which is incredible given the substantive areas of agreement. Its inequitable distribution of wealth which is getting worse and worse. The state of its public infrastructure. As critique and proposal Sachs’ book is well worth a read.

The Price of Civilisation – Economics and Ethics After the Fall. J Sachs. Published by Bodley Head 2011.


If you don’t know the answer don’t ask the question

What on earth is the West’s strategy in relation to Syria. Following the defeat of the executive in Britain, President Obama is setting things up for a rerun in the US. Congress cannot agree the time of day at the moment. The idea that they will vote for a strike to degrade Assad’s chemical weapon capacity is at best optimistic.

Congress might be persuaded that the credibility of US foreign policy is at stake and that it will undermine their authority globally, far beyond the issue of Syria, if they vote against the President on this key issue. If they do vote for it however, it will be on a motion so restrictive that Obama will have no room to respond to whatever the consequences are.

If they vote against it and Obama stands the troops down what will the consequences be? Too awful to contemplate for the opposition forces and civilians in Damascus. Whilst Assad is clearly a man with little regard for world opinion not knowing what the West would do will have stayed his hand, even if only slightly. When the West declares they are going to do nothing then nothing will stay his hand.

David Cameron has displayed a spectacular level of incompetence. He neither developed a compelling rationale for action nor managed his party in the division lobby with ministers allegedly missing the vote. He is now attempting to transform a humiliating defeat into a triumph for democracy. It is not. It has made an awful position a whole lot worse. Even having seen the mess in the UK President Obama is set to compound the problem. The decision of the UK to step back from taking action damages the credibility of our foreign policy. If the US steps back it damages the credibility of the West.

It is impossible to imagine circumstances in which Syria is going to end well. What is more it is set to ignite conflicts beyond its borders in the Middle East which looks more dangerous than it has for a long time. Beyond this the superpowers are banging up against each other. With all this it is highly unlikely that the West and the UK will not be forced to engage in the region in the not too distant future. It is a holy mess which it is impossible to see a way out of. I do not know whether now is the right time to intervene and whether intervention would have the desired effect. I am absolutely certain however that threatening to intervene and then withdrawing is the worst of all possible worlds.

Fight, fight and fight again…

The Parliamentary debate on Syria has been an unedifying spectacle of incompetence and the scramble to secure the support of public opinion. Nowhere amongst the leaders of any of the main parties has there been a whiff of integrity. The prime minister has spectacularly misjudged his own party but has also failed to provide a compelling vision. A vision of how a limited strike against Assad, for acts of state sponsored terrorism against his own citizens, will improve matters for ordinary Syrians.

Mr Milliband has dithered to a position, which in the short term seems to be benefiting him. Starting from surprisingly strong support for the Government to a second position of significant caveats through to whipping his party to vote against an intervention. At best you can say he has read the mood of his backbenchers and tacked accordingly.

Considering the gravity of the issue neither the PM nor the leader of the opposition have adopted a position of principle and stuck with it. In 1960 Hugh Gaitskell lost a vote at the Labour Party conference on unilateral nuclear disarmament. He Did not say that he now “got it”. He did not extol the virtues of debate and the benefits of Party Conference democracy. His response was that he would “fight,fight and fight again…”

At the time it was an incredibly divisive debate and did have implications for Britains defence posture. However it was not about immediately committing the UK to military action in a foreign theatre. If the PM comes to the view that  that there is sufficient reason to contemplate this then he should not accept a defeat in the Commons as the end of the story. He should fight to reverse the decision or resign. Acts of war, which this would be are probably the most significant single decisions a prime minister makes. When they come to that decision, putting British lives in harms way, they need to be certain that what they are proposing is critical to British interests.

Britain is a Parliamentary democracy, not a democracy run by parliament. Parliament is a safety valve, a way of voting down a government which is doing something they deem unacceptable. When voting down a government MP’s minds are focused by the reality of a consequent election. It is said the House was stunned when the vote was announced. Clearly the result was not expected or wanted by David Cameron. We will never know but one suspects it was neither expected nor probably wanted by Ed Milliband.

I do not know whether we should have engaged in the current action to deter Assad in the use of chemical weapons against his own people. However, it is probably only a matter of time before we (the West) has to intervene in the Middle East. Syria is not an isolated problem, it is part of a region which is being torn apart by the religious schism between Shia and Sunni Muslim believers. Behind them are global powers with their own agendas and interests. There are a wide range of economic and security interests the UK has in the region which means almost inevitably we will have to engage.

The poor judgement of a Prime Minister casts a long shadow. The Iraq war was an unmitigated disaster albeit its citizens were subject to the same oppression by an odious tyrant, one who incidentally used nerve gas against his citizens in the Al-Anfal campaign in the 1980’s with impunity. Accepting Mr Blair acted in good faith then he is guilty of making one of the worst judgement calls in British Foreign policy, one which has reverberated through the current debates and one which may have fatally undermined Britain’s ability to develop an effective foreign policy for years to come. Mr Cameron’s judgement call was almost as bad and has compounded the problem. Many would argue that his handling of domestic policy is not right but it is at least arguable. His handling of foreign policy and defence is a disaster.