The Occupy camp outside St Paul’s received an eminent visitor last night. The economist Jeffrey Sachs dropped by to meet the London branch of the movement that is ‘changing American
debate’. Sachs sees Occupy as an expression of the frustration at inequality and unfairness that is the subject of his latest book, "http://www.bodleyhead.co.uk/book.asp?ean=9781847920928">The Price of Civilization.
In 260 pages of fluent prose, Sachs describes the cynicism that has overcome what he calls ‘my America’. In a grubby office at the LSE, he tells me: ‘I grew up in the era of John
and Robert Kennedy and they brought a lot of purpose to public life and lot of idealism, and I feel that that has been lost. So this is really a book about civic virtue and that sense of public
The book is quietly patriotic. Sachs says that it began as an analysis of the 2008 crash and went through three drafts to finish as an account of 30 years of ‘disastrous’ Washington
policy, culminating in his ‘growing disappointment with President Obama’s response’ to entrenched economic and social problems.
This American analysis offers much for British readers. Sachs says that many Western countries are struggling under similar problems to which there are common solutions. He has a long association
with the Conservatives in this country: he convinced George Osborne of the economic and ethical importance of international aid, the subject of his book "http://www.amazon.co.uk/End-Poverty-Happen-Lifetime-ebook/dp/B0063GJMPY/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1323184110&sr=1-1">The End of Poverty. And his current
emphasis on ‘civic virtue’ and ‘personal responsibility’ seems related to David Cameron’s ‘moral capitalism’. Is the Tory leadership moved by his current
‘I am a personal friend of the chancellor, I like him,’ he replies somewhat cryptically. He then turns to Osborne’s economic policy and the recent Autumn Statement. Sachs does not
hold with ‘Keynsian perspectives’ and reiterates that Osborne is right to cut the deficit, but that’s where his support ends. ‘As he knows, my way of doing things focusses
on increasing taxes on high incomes and less on cutting public spending.’ He welcomes Osborne’s capital spending initiatives and urges more. ‘Nothing’s easy at the moment,
but I would like to see governments prioritise investment in people: education, infrastructure, science. The future, essentially.’
This is the central theme of The Price of Civilization. Sachs admires the Scandinavian social democracies, with their high levels of taxation and novel public investments. He knows the
‘US is never going to be Sweden and wouldn’t be, can’t be and shouldn’t be, but we — and you — can still learn a lot from those examples.’ These are, Sachs
says, political choices that even supposed left-wingers like President Obama refuse to take for fear of upsetting the ‘big money’ that fund and cavort with ‘big
George Osborne has made two political choices recently: one to limit environmental measures, the other to cap aid spending at the UN target 0.7 per cent of GDP. Sachs says the first is a missed
opportunity to invest for the future, but he is realistic about the second.
‘It’ll be nearly miraculous if they meet it,’ he says. Perhaps the chancellor has told Sachs something he is yet to tell us. I tell Sachs that the government will legislate on
this. ‘I know,’ he replies. ‘If this country really meets it, when it has all these difficulties, then the world will praise the UK for many, many years to come for having seen
through that determination. It would be amazing.’ I left with the impression that he was speaking more in hope than expectation.
The Price of Civilization, by Jeffrey Sachs, is published by The Bodley Head (£20)