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“American politics has become deeply corrupt over decades, and it became so corrupt that normal governance already collapsed many years ago.”: New Yorker: Jeffrey Sachs interview

2020-04-27

rotten apple photo by Bill Kasman courtesy of pixabay.com

The New Yorker published an interview with the economist Jeffrey Sachs on April 21.  The subject was the catastrophic American response to the coronavirus pandemic.  He “was known as a ‘shock therapist,’ for advising the Soviet Union on its controversial transition to a free-market economy.  Since then, Sachs has shifted his focus to poverty alleviation and international development, becoming one of the most visible academics in the world.”  Highlights from the interview include the following:

The only way to have a viable economy and society is to control this epidemic. So it’s not really a trade-off. The question is how to be effective in controlling the epidemic and driving the transmission of the disease to very low levels. Simply letting the virus run through the society would be unacceptably costly, and that’s why essentially no country in the world is doing that. The real issue is to be effective in the response, and unfortunately the United States has not been effective so far.

With this statement, Sachs rejects the notion that there is a trade-off between controlling the virus and ruining the economy.  The point is that people will be so afraid of contracting an infection that they will refuse to come out of their houses and the economy will be ruined anyway if the virus is not controlled.

Sachs is unsparing in his criticism of our political leadership, in particular the man at the top:

[redacted] is the worst political leader I have experienced in all of my professional life, which is forty years of working with governments at a high level. I’ve never seen anything like the narcissism of this man, and here we are, a country so rich in expertise, in resources, in capacities, and yet we’re watching a complete failure of a political response—with a massive loss of life—in real time. It’s quite shocking, because [redacted] not only does not know how to approach this issue but he blocks those who do.

(I apologize for not being able to redact certain names from the hyperlinks.)

Sachs believes that one of the reasons there are bad governments in poor areas is due primarily to poverty, rather than the other way around.  That is, there are poor places with people who are competent and intelligent, who have no influence because they lack the necessary resources.  Poverty is not the result of bad government; poverty is a cause of bad government.

Conversely, in wealthy countries, good government is not a given; well-to-do countries can have incompetent leaders, especially if the political system is corrupt.  Sachs is very specific about the situation in the US:

We don’t lack the means to carry out good responses in the United States; we lack the leadership to do so, and there are reasons for that. Basically, American politics has become deeply corrupt over decades, and it became so corrupt that normal governance already collapsed many years ago. And people with resources and knowledge know it, but they haven’t cared, because things have more or less gone on O.K., and the stock market has been booming, and even though in almost any private conversation [redacted] is viewed as a complete dolt and a complete incompetent, that was more or less laughed off as manageable because he wasn’t doing too much damage, either.

That’s the real situation. Nobody here has viewed government as actually very functional for a long time, and not because it couldn’t be. It has been increasingly designed to fail. Specifically, it’s been designed to respond to powerful lobbies that want deregulation or tax cuts or some special privileges rather than to function in a normal way. And powerful people shrug their shoulders at that, because for the élites that’s been O.K., but it obviously hasn’t really been O.K. for a long time.

I can’t begin to paraphrase the excoriating language that Sachs uses– only to say that “he wasn’t doing too much damage” elides the reactionary judges that [redacted] has had confirmed to important positions in our judiciary branch, prior to the onset of the pandemic.  Sachs does mention rising mortality rates due to “deaths of despair”, backtracking on climate change (supposedly, “the noise from windmills causes cancer”), and widening wealth and income inequality.

Sachs has a damning indictment for the American response to the novel coronavirus:

 The United States is completely failing at the federal level to control this epidemic. It’s a tragedy. We’re losing tens of thousands of lives unnecessarily because of the shambolic failure of Trump and his team to mobilize the vast resources of our country, both human and material. At the same time, there are poor countries that are doing much, much better at controlling the epidemic. Take a country like Vietnam, which is a low-income country in East Asia, and close to China, but for a variety of reasons they acted very quickly to stop the transmission of the virus, to a much greater extent than we did.

There is also the way the US has responded to the need for international help to control the pandemic:

what I am recommending is that the International Monetary Fund [IMF] provide emergency financing at essentially zero conditionality, other than that it be used responsibly. And that the World Health Organization [WHO] work with governments that have the potential to supply additional equipment—that’s China, Korea, Japan, and a few others—and use the emergency financing and the availability of this urgently needed equipment to get it to these countries in need.

Yet the federal government, under the direction of [redacted], has suspended funding to WHO.  We were the largest contributor, by far, to the budget of WHO, yet we are now attempting to undermine their work by going around them and directly funding organizations in other countries– without coordination and without the network of experts WHO has built up over the years.  Not only will the federal government be culpable for thousands of unnecessary deaths in this country– we will also be a tree across the road for international efforts to contain the virus.

Sachs does not leave Barack Obama out of his critical line of sight.  He blames Obama for believing that it was not politically possible to increase funding for international aid to fight malaria, AIDS, tuberculosis, and so on, the killers of many millions a year even in normal times.  He says, “aid from the U.S. to developing countries is 0.16 per cent of G.D.P.”  The cost of controlling malaria worldwide is only three to five billion dollars a year, and the US doesn’t even contribute most of that money.

He credits Bush for beginning the AIDS control program that saved many lives, even though Bush didn’t initially believe it was politically possible.  He blames Obama for not having the political vision to expand these worldwide public health and development programs.  Granted, Obama faced unprecedented opposition from the entire Republican Party, House and Senate, to all of his programs.  That reactionary opposition continues today, with [redacted] trying to eliminate every program that had Obama’s name on it.

The capper comes in the last two paragraphs of the Sachs interview, in which he blames tax cuts for the rich in the destruction of the post- World War II international order:

So this is not fundamentally about resource constraints. It’s about caring, attention, philosophy of life, and politics, a sense of ethics and morality, a question of whether it’s really America First and everyone else be damned or whether it’s a question of trying to make a world that works more effectively. There are other things that are bigger, more expensive issues, like decarbonizing the energy system. But it’s also not a consequential number compared with the stakes of our lives, and it’s also neglected. Why?

Our political system for forty years now, since Ronald Reagan, has basically been dedicated to tax cuts, especially for rich people and corporations, and both parties—of course with the complete obsession of the Republican Party and maybe the semi-reluctance of the Democratic Party—have given tax cuts every two or three years since 1981. So now you’re coming to me and saying, Well, after this crisis, we’re going to have the fiscal crisis. We will, absolutely. We’re going to have a budget deficit this year of ten to twenty per cent of G.D.P., but at some point we’re going to say, What is important for our country? What do we really want to pay for?

(I apologize for the length of this blog post.  I got carried away by the polemical value of Jeffrey Sach’s comments.  I’m sorry that Barack Obama was too cautious but it is true that he was stonewalled by a united group of reactionary, racist conservative Republicans.  It is also true that when Democrats win this November, the Republicans will suddenly pivot back to fiscal conservatism as an excuse to cut all federal programs other than the military.)

 

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