Jeffrey Sachs

This evening we attended a lecture by Professor Jeffrey Sachs sponsored by the Seattle World Affairs Council.  Sachs gained fame in the early nineties advising the newly elected governments of Eastern Europe how to transform their economies from communism to capitalism.  These days, his main focus is on sustainable international development.  He is currently director of the Earth Institute and professor at Columbia University.

His talk was based on his latest book Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet

Sachs identifies three great challenges faced by the world today: 

  • The environmental sustainability of economic growth around the world.  Here he’s referring to both the continued growth and prosperity of the developed world as well as the rapid growth of emergent economies like China and India. 
  • World population growth, which is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, most of which will occur in the poorest regions of the world and will place further demands on our resources.
  • The vicious circle of poverty and conflict over scarce resources.

Sachs’ goal is a world characterized by safety, shared prosperity, and environmental sustainability.

He offered ten recommendations to the next US president:

  1. End the war in Iraq immediately
  2. End the Bush tax cuts
  3. Invest in sustainable technologies
  4. Negotiate with other countries on climate change
  5. Stop putting food in our gas tanks, in other words, end the subsidies for growing corn for ethanol production
  6. Sign the international conventions on biodiversity and the Law of the Sea
  7. Start a dry lands initiative on water scarcity
  8. Refinance the UN Population Fund
  9. Put the UN’s Millennium Development Goals at the center of US foreign and international development policies.
  10. Re-open the eyes of the US government to understanding the rest of the world.  In particular, create a cabinet level position for sustainable international development

A few observations of my own:

First, Sachs’ frustration with and bitterness towards the current US Administration came through loud and clear.  He’s very passionate about the work he’s doing, and has been unable to make much headway with the current administration.  And the US government is not alone.  Many other large donor countries make empty promises to increase aid and then fail to deliver the funds. 

As an economist famous for prescribing "shock treatment" to move from communism to capitalism, I was expecting Sachs to be a much more doctrinaire advocate of market mechanisms.  He’s certainly no socialist, but he does advocate aid and strong government action as necessary to addressing the challenges we face. 

Sachs didn’t talk much about the role of terrorism and religious extremism except to note briefly that Islamic extremism is a symptom of the broader challenges outlined above and that war will only exacerbate them.  I agree with this assessment, but I think the role of religion can’t be dismissed so lightly.  Those who believe, as some Islamic extremists do, that they will be rewarded in heaven for causing death and mayhem on Earth, are unlikely to care about building the infrastructure, or providing the education needed to develop their economies.  Likewise, those who believe in an impending Apocalypse, as some fundamentalist Christians do, are unlikely to care about improving the plight of others when the world is about to end.  Believers of either persuasion who hold power or influence can seriously disrupt progress. 

Finally, despite his frustrations, Sachs seems fundamentally to be an optimist.  He believes strongly in our ability to develop new technologies that will enable both the alleviation of poverty and sustainable development.  In addition, he thinks that raising the standard of living of the world’s poor does not necessarily imply reducing the standard of living in rich countries.  The point, he urges, is that both rich and poor countries need to develop in environmentally sustainable ways.

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