Handelsblatt Interview

Lessons in Decency

Key Speakers At The Barclays Asia Forum
Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at New York’s Columbia University. Source: Jerome Favre/Bloomberg

For many decades, Jeffrey Sachs thought his own country was getting along just fine. It’s part of the reason he’s devoted most of his life’s work as an economist to problems in the developed world.

How times have changed, says Mr. Sachs, head of the Center for Sustainable Development at New York’s Columbia University and a one-time supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. It’s not that the United States has become a poor country; just that the world’s largest economy has lost its way.

“It’s not the problem of managing poverty as much as the problem of managing affluence,” Mr. Sachs said in an interview with Handelsblatt and Spain’s El Pais, in conjunction with Project Syndicate. “The United States has everything it needs, but it cannot manage decency right now.”



Nor can the United States manage long-term problems. Mr. Sachs calls it a problem with “delayed gratification.” He likens it to the psychological “marshmallow test” given to four-year-olds, offering them a choice between one marshmallow now or two in a few minutes. The United States, these days, tends to pick the former.

Mr. Sachs isn’t giving up hope. He remains convinced that a “progressive turn” in policy in the United States is possible, even if it will take a change in U.S. leadership in four or eight years for that to happen. The U.S. is not actually that far off, he insists, arguing Bernie Sanders probably would have won the presidency instead of Donald Trump, if he had beaten Hillary Clinton in the runoff election.

With the United States in “crisis,” as he puts it, Mr. Sachs is calling for wholesale changes to American politics. That includes a controversial suggestion to bring the entire U.S. Constitution up to date.



Mr. Sachs goes as far as to say the U.S. should ditch the presidency altogether, or at least make it ceremonial, and adopt a European-style parliamentary system. That would strip someone like Donald Trump of the power to make decisions on his own, he argues.

Should populists like Gert Wilders in the Netherlands win parliamentary elections in Europe this year, Mr. Sachs may consider revising his position.

View the full interview here.

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