Book Review: Common Wealth – Economics for a Crowded Planet



Common Wealth – Economics for a Crowded Planet By Jeffrey D. Sachs New York, Penguin Press, 2008.

The latest book by Jeffrey Sachs has much to recommend it, but also some glaring holes and blind spots.

Sachs goes fairly deeply into many of the deep-seated problems facing the world, from climate change to dire poverty. He does a good job of linking these problems and arguing that we must tackle them in concert. He also sharply critiques the market fundamentalists, noting the many economic and social issues that the market can’t solve.

Sachs does this from the perspective, mainly, of the United Nations, where he worked closely with former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan. He takes an internationalist perspective on many issues, and blasts the Bush administration for many of its failures and counter-productive actions.

One glaring hole is that Sachs makes no mention of his own role in planning, promoting, and selling the economic shock therapy which caused so much misery, suffering, and death in both Poland and Russia during the early 1990s. If Sachs learned lessons from his mistakes, he doesn’t share them in this book.

The first major blind spot is that his prescriptions for change are almost entirely from the vantage point of policy, and while that is one necessary aspect, it leaves out some crucially necessary understanding. In passing, Sachs mentions that class divisions are one of several causes of conflict, but he otherwise ignores them. According to Sachs, all the problems are caused by short-sightedness on the part of the governments of developed nations, the inadequacy of our current international institutions, and the market fundamentalism of the ultra-right and most economic thought. All these are important aspects of the causes, but they leave out the profit considerations that lead to short-sighted decisions, to short-term profit taking, and to corporations that fund the economic “thought” we are subjected to in most of the media.

The wrong-headed approaches he correctly condemns don’t arise from nowhere; they come from the capitalist system, from the impetus for profit over all other considerations, from the “externalities” that businesses don’t pay for but that corrupt our politics, our foreign policy, our environment, our international understanding, and much more.

A related blind sport is that Sachs addresses policy makers and concerned citizens, but leaves out mass struggle entirely. How will the changes in policy he advocates come about? Apparently, he thinks that politicians, corporate CEOs, and governments, will all start acting differently because the ought to.

But change happens, fundamental change of the kind that Sachs points out that the world needs, only when organized forces struggle to make it happen. Just like bad decisions don’t appear from nowhere, good decisions also don’t drop out of the sky.

We certainly need a much more realistic, scientific basis for policies, we certainly need better international cooperation, we certainly need an understanding of the links between poverty, environmental degradation, climate change, energy, and more, and Sachs does a credible job of arguing for these things.

But the changes we need in our economic and political systems won’t happen just because they ought to. Leaders beholden to corporations won’t suddenly have an epiphany that will result in attacking the profits of those corporations or demanding they engage in expensive changes just because those changes are in the interests of the majority of the people of the world..

The need for organized billions of people struggling to accomplish change is missing from Sach’s book, and from much environmental and climate change literature. Much of the international injustice which Sach’s condemns comes from class injustice, and it will be ended in large part because of class struggle.

If you keep these sins of omission and blind spots in mind, this book can provide useful information, argumentation, and alternatives.