One thing that made the 60s exciting—and great—was the vivid personal animosity between many of its best protagonists. Gore Vidal and William Buckley, Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson ripped into one another in public and openly feared what the other’s ideas would do to America, and the world.
Now rising above the incoherence of statistics and pup-tents in parks, we finally have a duel of egos worthy of that earlier era of danger and change.
A week ago, on America’s blue-ribbon public affairs show GPS, Fareed Zakaria asked world economist Jeffrey Sachs and world historian Niall Ferguson what they thought of the OWS movement. Almost instantly, they went for each other's throats. A week later, Sachs made it clear in an interview in The Toronto Star that he at least has no desire to patch things up:
Star: You described the top 1 per cent as lazy. They’ve stopped trying, you said. That’s quite an indictment.
Sachs: Well, I was saying that many behaved to game the system. And I was specifically talking about Wall Street. The CEOs. The people who wanted the easy way to phenomenal wealth, even if that way was not through their economic prowess but through financial fraud or through corporate lobbying.
Star: On Fareed Zakaria’s show, GPS, historian Niall Ferguson accused you of overstepping the mark, moving from academic to demagogue. What is your response?
Sachs: Well, I thought he overstepped the mark moving to a blatantly inappropriate ad hominem attack.
Star: You seemed upset that he was calling you names.
Sachs: I thought he was obnoxious.
Star: What does Ferguson not get?
Sachs: He has long represented powerful interests. He works with financial companies... I don’t know. Those are his choices. They’re not my choices.
Click on: www.thestar.com/news/article/1086149
Jeffrey Sachs doesn’t need to exaggerate to get attention. Furthermore, he’s not a trivial outsider with nothing to lose. He enjoyed tremendous influence during the glorious early days of neo-liberalism and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Government of Russia and other post-totalitarian states turned to him for ready advice on how to create markets and appropriate regulatory infrastructure.
Desperate places and big problems don’t intimidate him. Before writing his latest book, The Price of Civilization: Economics and Ethics after the Fall, he wrote The End of Poverty. He has twice been identified by Time Magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.
Sachs perspective on today’s problems is surprisingly radical. He doesn’t say that simply revving up the recently collapsed capitalist culture will be enough. Here’s his American agenda in today’s New York Times:
“Following our recent financial calamity, a third progressive era is likely to be in the making. This one should aim for three things. The first is a revival of crucial public services, especially education, training, public investment and environmental protection. The second is the end of a climate of impunity that encouraged nearly every Wall Street firm to commit financial fraud. The third is to re-establish the supremacy of people votes over dollar votes in Washington.”
The prospect of thinkers like Ferguson and Sachs publicly fighting over what are the obligations as well as the competences of entrepreneurs, taxpayers, and politicians only makes it more likely that the next year of US national politics will be forward-looking as well as bitter.
Bring it on.