This timely book sets current political, financial, and cultural conflicts and questions in the context of many American's experiences since the 1970s. In part one, The Great Crash, Jeffrey Sachs (Earth Institute at Columbia University) outlines the numerous economic and political fallacies which have governed discussions of public policy since Reagan, and he sees the Clinton presidency as an episode in a long-lasting ideology of free markets, minimal market or financial regulation, maximal entrepreneurial financial returns, and stifled public discussion. In part two, The Path to Prosperity, Sachs outlines what he considers to be more comprehensive, germane, and accurate diagnoses of major issues such as financial trust, global economic development, global climate change, and education. He concludes with what he believes to be practical steps in a realistic timeline to restore prosperity to the broad swath of the American middle class, and to ensure middle-class economic viability with technological skills and global awareness.
Conservatives (especially libertarians and "cultural" conservatives) will not like Sachs' account of American decline since the 1970s, and most centrist liberals will not appreciate his linking them with a political emphasis instituted by Ronald Reagan. The real question is whether Sachs' account of the world and recommendations for change are accurate diagnoses and helpful suggestions for the present discussion. The similarity of Sachs' discourse with President Obama's agenda as advocated in the 2012 election cannot be missed, and Sachs would not (I believe) deny it. Sachs' rejoinders to conservative icons such as Friedrich Hayek, Reagan, Alan Greenspan, Lawrence Summers, and the Tea Party (and whether it has a clear and consistent agenda) are well worth pondering.
Sachs by no means lets ordinary people off the hook, either. His subtitle Reawakening American Virtue takes on the "distracted" society and wide-spread withdrawal from politics, economics, and even practical discussions. Sachs advocates not only political and economic ideas but mindfulness, an individual ability to pay attention, think clearly, act responsibly, and maintain viable plans for the future. He recognizes that American prosperity will not be ensured without change not only to American politics and economic policies, but with changes to individual behavior and turning away from the anti-policy, anti-intellectual posturing of too many "leaders" and media elite.
Do any of Sachs' suggestions stand any chance of discussions, let alone adoption? Sachs rings all the alarm bells, and the problems (global economic shifts; climate change; decay of the American physical infrastructure) are hardly state secrets. The powerful interests who deny these problems will not simply give up and melt away. Sachs seems to come away with continued bewilderment that American political discourses (or what passes for it) fails to respond to the expertise and advice present in America's highly trained workforce. He places his hopes in the Millennial generation which tends, he believes, to be more tolerant, better educated, socially liberal, and more trusting of government. (Those who teach at SHU may not always share that assessment.)
The four issues that Sachs identifies-- education, environment, geopolitics, and diversity-- will indeed be decisive in establishing the character and achievements (or lack of them) of the next decades. A liberal arts university can do much to foster serious discussion of all those issues. But will hearing Sachs' alarms summon a serious American response?