*The Price of Civilization*

by on November 2, 2011 at 7:39 am in Books, Philosophy | Permalink

That is the new Jeffrey Sachs book, with the subtitle Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity.  Here is one excerpt:

Though I can’t prove that America’s mass-media culture, ubiquitous advertising, and long hours of daily TV watching are the fundamental causes of its tendency to let markets run rampant over social values, I can show that America represents the unhappy extreme of commercialism among the leading economies.  To do this, I have created a Commercialization Index (CI) that aims to measure the degree to which each national economy is oriented toward private consumption and impatience rather than collective (public) consumption and regard for the future.  My assumption is that the United States and other heavy-TV-watching societies will score high on the CI and that a high CI score will be associated with several of the adverse conditions plaguing American society.

Here is Sachs writing further on TV; here is Steve Johnson on TV.

1 Ted Craig November 2, 2011 at 7:44 am

Man, this barely passes muster for a college newspaper’s op-ed, much less a book written by somebody who is talked about as a candidate for a Nobel.

2 Jonathan November 2, 2011 at 8:14 am

I too can come up with my own index that shows why America sucks/is in decline.

3 Rahul November 2, 2011 at 8:54 am

Exactly. His “Commercialization Index” is hardly an objective measure. The reasoning is circular. Compose an index to suit your reasoning.

4 prior_approval November 2, 2011 at 8:57 am

Hell, you just need to leave the country, live somewhere else which is essentially comparable (Japan, the EU, Australia/New Zealand, etc.) for 10 years, and then come back – no reason to create an index, it is impossible to deny, unless one learns how to deal with their own lying eyes. A skill a broad swath of American society seems bent on be developing, actually.

5 Cliff November 2, 2011 at 9:00 am

So you have lived for 10 years in the EU, Japan, Australia and New Zealand? Do you really think having lived in the EU 40 years ago can tell you much about the U.S. sucking now?

6 Dano November 2, 2011 at 10:01 am

“Do you really think having lived in the EU 40 years ago can tell you much about the U.S. sucking now?

Well, I lived in Europe for almost three years in the 80s, and came back then and noticed what prior_approval wrote. Not hard to grasp at all.



7 Cliff November 2, 2011 at 11:16 am

Really, you came back in the 80s and noticed that the U.S. sucks now compared to Japan, the EU, Australia and New Zealand?

8 IVV November 2, 2011 at 11:12 am

I’ve definitely noticed that America just plain doesn’t enjoy life nearly as much as people in lots of other countries, true. My wife’s from Germany, she talks about it, herself.

But you know what? She lives here, in America. Germany might have a better life quality in general, but she’s been able to get more for herself in ways she’s wanted here. I’ve offered to move back for her, and she doesn’t want to.

It’s my opinion that America can provide la dolce vita more easily than other countries, but you have to actively go out and live it yourself–you can’t expect everyone else around you to live it with you.

That said, I agree, a lot of the commercialization in America is just buy stuff, attempting to salve the irritation that buying stuff causes. That CI business is complete self-aggrandizement, though. He clearly needs retail therapy.

9 flashman November 2, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Mr. anti-population growth and throw a trillion$ at the third-world is at it again!

The old American rabble-backwater argument. Europeans are always sophisticated and nuanced no matter if they are having the same mass killings, consume the same pop culture with their own reality shows, and buy the same crap. But yes, generally, there is lower crime and high social cohesion in many areas (in Western Europe at least). Let’s see that social cohesion in the next 20 years when there will be a lot of Grandpa’s and Grandma’s stuck in retirement homes (though same problem will exist in the US at some extent, not that social cohesion was a US strong point to begin with).

Europeans are more environmentally friendly by govt. fiat since they don’t drive as much due to $10/gal gas – yet it sucks to take kids on the metro or actually haul purchased items (so they don’t consume as much, a “fringe benefit” of mass transport, and further reasons not to have kids!).

I lived in Germany for 4 years around the Bavaria region. Nice place and nice people indeed. But don’t try to believe that being a tourist in Paris or Berlin for a couple of days is the same as actually living there while getting more than half your paycheck taxed.

The classic right-wing response to this is “move there if it’s so great!”

10 The Anti-Gnostic November 2, 2011 at 2:12 pm

“Let’s see that social cohesion in the next 20 years when there will be a lot of Grandpa’s and Grandma’s stuck in retirement homes…”

Grandpa’s and grandma’s? What’s the TFR for native Germans? Oh well. I’m sure all the new ‘Germans’ will be happy to pay the taxes for their nursing home bills.

11 Scott Sumner November 2, 2011 at 8:45 am

TV watching became widespread in America in the 1945-65 period. Beginning in the mid0-1960s the US enacted civil rights laws, Medicare, Medicaid, the War on Poverty, OSHA, the EPA, etc. Does that fit Sachs’ hypothesis? Perhaps TV woke Americans up to problems outside their communities that needed to be addressed.

12 The Anti-Gnostic November 2, 2011 at 8:55 am

Funny. My list starts with the Great Society.

13 The Fresh Prince of Darkness November 2, 2011 at 9:54 am


14 Norman Pfyster November 2, 2011 at 9:24 am

It’s probably what brought down Japan as well. That and stupid game shows.

15 Highgamma November 2, 2011 at 9:28 am

Jeffrey Sachs lost my respect when he screwed up Russia with Andrei Shliefer.

This “impatience” versus “regard for the future” crap just turns my lack of respect into disrespect.

16 The Fresh Prince of Darkness November 2, 2011 at 9:56 am

Agreed, but yet, both men (don’t forget Larry Summers, Shliefer’s former mentor/rabbi) are still highly regarded men in their profession. What does *that* tell you?

17 Carl1350 November 2, 2011 at 9:38 am

“private consumption and impatience” vs. “collective (public) consumption and regard for the future”

I think it would be easy to argue that these associations are backwards. I know many people who are quite prudent with their private consumption and plan rigorously for the future. (I would like to think that I am one of them.) I also see quite a few politicians who take a very impatient, short-term view of public spending.

Perhaps, one should construct a matrix, measuring regard for the future on one axis and public vs. private consumption on the other. Of course, such an approach would make it much more difficult to find and publish associations back a specific worldview…

18 Andrew' November 2, 2011 at 10:21 am

Are transfer payments private consumption or public consumption?

19 Richard November 2, 2011 at 9:40 am

We Americans have far more children than Europeans do. We also are more Christian, a faith that emphasizes present sacrifice for future reward. So which of us is impatient and oriented toward now rather than the future?

20 Cliff November 2, 2011 at 10:02 am

Europe. It won’t even exist in, what, 50 years? 100?

21 Pshrnk November 2, 2011 at 1:23 pm

More Christian? The European Social Democracies do a far better job of caring for “the least of these”. Europeans behave in a more Christain manner than do Americans. Christianity is not about present sacrifice for future reward, but about living as G– would have us live to express our thanks for grace. It is ironic how American exceptionalists conflate Christianity and being American.

22 The Anti-Gnostic November 2, 2011 at 2:15 pm

LOL. Europeans are going broke and extinct.

23 Vik November 2, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Every thing exists on the internet! The first Pro Europe Christian Fundamentalist!!

24 josh November 2, 2011 at 10:38 am

TV is probably a symptom of our atomized culture rather than its cause. The real cause is the intentional destruction of various forms of familial and community authority, which led to the decline of community itself.

25 MSB November 2, 2011 at 10:46 am

Here is Paul Ryan’s critique of Sachs

26 Bill Lambert November 19, 2011 at 9:29 pm

This article is not a book review, it is a rebuttal and a defense. Writing about Corpoate Spin, Sachs accuses the WSJ: “Big Oil and Big Coal are the most notorious abusers, and the _Wall Street Journal_ has been the most consistent enabler of antiscientific propaganda.”

27 Andrew' November 2, 2011 at 10:58 am

Problem right, solution wrong.

28 FYI November 2, 2011 at 11:05 am

One of the greatest casualties of the current economic situation is the economic profession. I mean, is it just me or Sachs (and many, many other economists) sounds like a cheap psychologist? I understand his lefty views are mostly based on ‘feelings’ anyway but this is becoming ridiculous.

No wonder this happened:

29 Franklin Harris November 2, 2011 at 11:12 am

“To do this, I have created a Commercialization Index (CI) that aims to measure the degree to which each national economy is oriented toward private consumption and impatience rather than collective (public) consumption and regard for the future.”

What on Earth makes him think “collective consumption” is in the least bit future oriented?

30 Yancey Ward November 2, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Because he wants it to be true.

31 The Engineer November 2, 2011 at 11:14 am

Who watches television anymore?

32 Noah Yetter November 2, 2011 at 11:21 am

what on earth is “collective (public) consumption”?

33 Franklin Harris November 2, 2011 at 11:35 am

It’s the government spending taxpayers’ money on things deemed important by whoever is speaking.

34 Andrew' November 3, 2011 at 7:12 am

Whatever it is, it’s not actual coordination projects.

35 TallDave November 2, 2011 at 12:49 pm

“…its tendency to let markets run rampant over social values…”

translates as

“Oh no, we’ve become the richest society in history! Quelle horreur!”

I look forward with great amusement to someone ranking the Soviet Union. How’d all that future-oriented collective spending work out for them?

36 Sam November 3, 2011 at 12:16 am

I so frequently here people counter America’s faults (real or perceived) with the “we’re the richest society in history” argument. Actually you are not, not by nominal GDP or PPP measures. A bunch of Arab societies, a couple of asian ones, a couple of European nations and even and oceanic country are ahead or equal, depending on the measure you take.

37 Andrew' November 3, 2011 at 7:15 am

Those measures are probably inappropriate insomuch as they count the prosperity and relatively high cost of our labor and services against us. It may be somewhere in between.

38 wintercow20 November 2, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Will someone please arrange a discussion between Sachs and McCloskey?

39 Pshrnk November 2, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Has congressman Ryan read the book? His WSJ “critique” contains enough red herrings and straw men to feed the entire Wizard of OZ cast.

40 mark November 2, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Note to self: begin working on Pomposity Index. Begin data collection with works by Jeffrey Sachs.

41 k November 2, 2011 at 2:37 pm

TV ah yes, that destroyer of civilization

42 Liberal Roman November 2, 2011 at 4:04 pm

Possibly the worst economist on Earth.

It’s amazing that this is the same guy who recommended “Shock Therapy” of massive privatization for the post-Soviet republics.

Something must have happened to both him and Krugman in the late 90s, early 2000s. If you read Krugman from early 90s, you would never guess that he is hard left-winger like he is now.

43 D November 2, 2011 at 10:09 pm

Watch him on Fareed Zacharia’a weekly show w/ Neil Ferguson from last weekend. Sachs was the most self-righteous jerk imaginable, and Ferguson without a doubt got the better of him. Sachs acts as though he’s never had a calm, intellectual debate in his life.

About a year ago he was on the show w/ Bjorn Lombog and was also a nasty dummy.

44 TGGP November 2, 2011 at 11:39 pm

I wish the anti-Sachs contingent was being represented by people other than Ryan & Ferguson. Like, actual economists.

45 Andrew' November 3, 2011 at 7:13 am

Sure. But while I don’t read any of his academic work, I’ve never heard Sachs say anything that reminds me of economics.

46 Andrew' November 3, 2011 at 7:17 am

Sooo….did his model actual correlate well with a prediction? And what is the explanatory mechanism.

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