Fifteen Questions with Jeffrey D. Sachs '76

Jeffrey D. Sachs ’76 is the Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia, an advisor to the United Nations, and one of the youngest Economics professors in Harvard’s history. He talks to FM about virtue, occupation, and intellectual struggle.

1. Fifteen Minutes: Your new book, which came out earlier this month, is called “The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity.” Let’s start with that title, an allusion to Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr. who said, “Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.” What do you believe is the price of civilization? Is it just taxes?

Jeffrey Sachs: I believe a commitment to civic virtue includes a regard for one’s community, one’s country, and the world. Paying taxes is part of that, but so are obeying the laws and promoting laws that are good for the community. And I think we have lost those civic virtues at the top of American society—or at least diminished them in recent decades. We are suffering badly as a result of that. We are in a society that is increasingly lawbreaking and corrupt in key institutions.

2. FM: That sounds pretty daunting. Which are the corrupt institutions to look out for?

JS: We’ve seen many scandals around stock options in compensations. We’ve seen many scandals around accounting. Recently, on Wall Street, we saw fraudulent financial behavior that contributed to the financial bubble and ultimately to a disastrous collapse. In recent months, major Wall Street companies have paid large fines to the SEC for having fraudulently packaged and sold bundles of securities that they knew were going to fail ... But even though fines have been paid, I’m not sure how much accountability has been achieved. The fines were generally small fractions of the profits that were earned in this bubble. I worry that the moral hazard of having behaved this way—having been bailed out, having incurred modest fines—may actually be encouragement to more recklessness.

3. FM: Virtues are another part of your book’s title. What kinds of virtues need to be reawakened in these corrupt institutions?

JS: Well, I talk about virtues at many different levels. Aristotle and Buddha are two of the sages I refer to in the book in order to emphasize that, at an individual level, virtue involves a middle path between asceticism and hyper-consumerism. And I discuss in the book my feelings about American society becoming hyper-commercial. At the individual level it becomes dangerous, as we have all become vulnerable to the weight of advertising and the remarkable amount of TV watching ...

4. FM: You mentioned Buddha as a model for individual virtue. Buddha created his Eight-Fold Path, and in your book the solution you prescribe to American economic upheaval is a set of eight goals: a sort of Jeffrey Sachs Eight-Fold Path. Is that all a coincidence?

JS: Well, both Buddha’s Eight-Fold path and the eight goals I recommend in the book share a similar purpose in bringing the long-term to attention. Right now in the U.S. we are so relentlessly short-term in our debates, discussions, and policy-making that we have lost sight of the longer-term purposes.

5. FM: You have always played a large role in promoting the Millennium Development Goals. There were also eight of those, right?

JS: Yes, and you know with the Millennium Development Goals, those have been enormously helpful in organizing action—in helping countries to focus on important things. Even if countries don’t get there on time, and many will not, the greater intention to inspire crucial efforts like fighting poverty, hunger, and disease has kept up enormously.

6 FM: So you think that setting goals makes a significant difference in how countries ultimately act?

JS: Yes, definitely.

7. FM: For example?

JS: It’s a commonplace observation, but it has not been corrected [that] we have substituted the measure of GNP for many things that are more important in our lives and in our economy.