The Common Good

WARNING: No Compassion. Proceed with Caution.

In an interview earlier this week with MSNBC's Martin Bashir, economist Jeffrey Sachs laid out some of the issues tackled in his latest book, The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity, which he describes as "an urgent call for Americans to restore the virtues of fairness, honesty, and foresight as the foundations of national prosperity."

As I watched the interview live, I felt something stir in me when Sachs declared, not at all unreasonably, that "our greatest illusion is that a healthy society can be organized around the single-minded pursuit of wealth."

What grabbed me about Sachs' statement was how much it reminded me of Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis' latest book, Rediscovering Values. Both Sachs, author of the seminal work The End of Poverty, and Wallis are talking about going beyond a simple economic understanding of the economy. Both are calling for politicians and the population to go deeper -- to reassess what really matters in our lives and to try and bring together and economy that is based on a moral framework, rather than a single-minded pursuit of wealth that has brought so many us to this point of desperation.

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In both the interview and his new book, Sachs mounts a scathing attack on the American political system and the special interest groups that "drench" politics in money. Sachs traces the U.S. economy's current ills back far beyond the crash of 2007-09, to the Reagan administration and its credo that '"government is not the solution to the problem, it is the problem." The economist bemoans the fact that this is still the chant of the Republican Party today, arguing that a dogmatic commitment to "small government" is never going to overcome the structural problems that have brought our economy to its knees.

However, Sachs' wrath is reserved not merely for those on the right of the political spectrum. Although he openly supports President Obama, he is highly critical of the president's economic strategy, asserting that short-term policies such as one-year tax cuts will similarly fail to deliver the nation from economic meltdown, and that the Democrat party has relied on simplistic economic gimmicks to get themselves through this most difficult of political situations.

Nobody in Washington is actually taking economics seriously, Sachs claims. And the blame for that falls most squarely on shoulders of special interest groups. The electoral cycle, defense policy and many other parts of the political system are, he argues, controlled by special interests. He makes mention of certain politicians who would change their political allegiance in a heartbeat if they thought their campaign funding might be cut and decries the $34,000-a-plate fund-raising dinners where Obama is "only talking to rich people."

So, what, exactly, is missing from our economy, our politics and our society that has led to this "reckless pursuit of money?"

For Sachs, the answer is simple: Compassion.

Compassion, he says "is the thing that holds society together," and what our society is sorely lacking.

Why?

Because it "brings the powerful down to the level of the weak," Sachs says. There is no room for compassion in an economy where "everything is for the top," he says.

This last statement holds profound resonance for me as a follower of Christ. It reflects the Gospel that turns the ways of the world upside down, a gospel that honors the "weak" and demands much from the powerful.

Where is the compassion in our economy and our politics? It says much of the economic system that Sojourners even needs to campaign for a "moral budget." How do we, as Christians, challenge structures that allow billions of dollars to be wasted via tax loopholes while 1 in 6 Americans live in poverty?

Will we, as Sachs hopes, "be vigilant stewards for future generations," or will we allow things to continue as they always have? What are the virtues and values that we want to drive our economy above and beyond the desire for wealth?

Thankfully, while these values may be absent from our current political and economic systems, they are alive and well within the general population.

"Most Americans are compassionate," Sachs finally tells Bashir, who at this point in the interview looked as if he might be close to tears. Sachs is sure that "the values of Americans are intact; they are just not translated into policy."

Which leaves the question: How can we ensure that these values are translated into policy?

The words of Jeffrey Sachs and Jim Wallis cannot bring about change on their own. They are just words on a page. Reading books such as The Price of Civilization and Rediscovering Values can open our eyes to new ways of understanding the structures in which we live. But what is required is a response from us -- here and now. We must actively create new structures that truly reflect our values and virtues, not merely those of the rich and powerful.

I believe that we find the perfect starting point for our response in the Book of Micah: "And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

Jack Palmer is a communications assistant at Sojourners.

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