The Situationist

Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part III

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 17, 2008

On September 11, 2008, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs spoke to a packed hall at Harvard Law School in an address entitled “Representing the Voiceless: The Poor, The Excluded, and the Future.” The Situationist is posting a loose, unofficial transcript of his remarks over the next couple weeks.  You can link to Part I here and Part II here. The third part is below.

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So what would it take to solve these problems?  I think fundamentally it would take three things to put it in very simple terms.

First, a scientific understanding of what’s happening.  And by that I mean rigorous evidence based quantified mechanistic approach to understanding the links of bio-physical processes, human economic activity, demographic change.  It’s complicated but one would make an effort honestly to talk about the real dynamics of a Darfur or Yemen or Pakistan, not the unbelievably mean-spirited, nasty, non-empathetic and ignorant ways we do.  So we’d start with the scientific approach.

Second, and related, we would actually work hard at understanding what a suitable global-ethics might be for living together on a crowded planet.  I don’t think values just come out of nowhere unlike what economics teaches, I don’t think that they’re not to be discussed.  That tastes are (something Latin, I think) I don’t believe that, that we just take pace as given.  I am more Aristotelian, that values and ethics come from an examined life and from reflection, and I don’t think we do this almost at all systematically.  So we have a very, very hard time being empathetic.  And I actually think it’s a failing by the way of our community, if I could put it that way.

I’ve been part of the Harvard community since 1972, and I still consider myself part of the Harvard community.  And I don’t think we’re really good at this empathetic approach.  I don’t think we’re really very good at understanding the other side in a deep way.  And one of my erstwhile favorite publications The Economist, demonstrates for me the problem not the solution.  It’s a very clever magazine, very witty, very well-written.  It lacks any sense of empathy, with the people that are being written about.  So it’s elitist in the worse sense.  And that’s our problem, and I think it’s partly why we find ourselves so poor at being able to respond to attack.  Though I don’t think that’s Barack Obama’s problem at all.  But I do think it is our community’s problem, that we’re just maybe by dint of privilege and the way that we talk about these problems, unaware of sometimes how divorced we are from ground realities.

I know that in the economics profession.  And I know it from my own life because I was tenured before I knew anything – not quite.  I knew how to write good journal articles.  And they weren’t all wrong by the way.  Not all wrong, but they absolutely did not contain a central truths that I only came to understand by the real act of engagement.

And so I think this is another problem.  So I think that global ethics is a second challenge.

And the third, and it’s related to both of these, both science and ethics, is a capacity to look forward, or a will to try to understand the future that goes beyond the next year, or even your next three years at law school, or the next election.  But actually tries to comprehend a dynamic process and thinks about our world at time scales that we’re not good at thinking about.  What would the world look like and be like in 30 years or 50 years or 100 years?  Very hard questions, obviously not ones that we’re going to get right.  But ones that I think are important to think about at a time when we have a huge risk of getting things terribly wrong.

So what do we actually have right now in this country?  We have an incredibly unscientific, or anti-scientific ethos.  We elect presidents on the basis of God only knows — in the last election cycles, who you wanted to have a beer with.  On this one, the great charge is elitism.

It’s an absurdity that we are talking in these terms at this moment rather than talking about the challenges and the problems and what could be done to actually address them.  So we have a very anti-scientific approach and a deliberate anti-scientific ethos.  We’ve just gone through 8 years of surely the most aggressively anti-scientific and ignorant administration we’ve ever had.  And I think it’s put us and the world at an enormous risk.  Washington is completely incapable of an honest statement, basic arithmetic, problem definition.  The discussions about the drilling right now, absolutely pathetic.  Because you can’t even get an article which defines the oil, the flows, the timing, what it means, the tradeoffs in the kind of scientific discussion that one would want to have.

Everything is lies manipulated and public debate ala American Idol.  And it’s taken as normal and fun by our punditry who are part of it, and as innocent of the knowledge that they need to have as everybody else.  And the world’s treated as a game at a time when it can’t be treated as a game.  And when you have a vice-presidential nominee who professes beliefs that deny climate science or our creationist or anti-environmental conservation, a long record of denying the basic science on conservation biology for her own state.  And this is not even an issue of concern or discussion.  It shows the frivolity that we are living in right now.  At a time when I think we can’t afford that.

So we are anti-scientific.  We’re absolutely tribalist.  We’re at each other’s throats in narrow communities.  And we are so incredibly short-term and short-sighted that there is no discussion anywhere on any side about fifteen, twenty years from now about what kind of world we’re trying to build.

I don’t think, well I think Barack Obama’s policies are vastly better and would stand a much better chance of keeping us alive, which I actually care about, especially for my children.  I don’t think that he’s discussing the future in any serious way right now.  His campaign centered on the tax cut in the next 4 months– by the way, the wrong policy, because we need those revenues for girding up our strength for serious investments in the future, not just to keep blowing holes in a government that is already incapable of doing anything serious on almost any front.

But it’s more the short-sightedness that grab what we can.  Let’s talk about the housing bubble.  Let’s talk about the immediate foreclosures.  Let’s talk about everything except what really is going to count in 10, or 20, or 30, or 40 years, which are the things that we can actually do something about.  So somehow the future is to take care of itself.  And our time horizon has to be the next 6 months.

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Part IV of this series will pick up there.  To watch the 90-minute video of Professor Sachs’s remarks, click here.

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