Economist Sachs tackles America's unhappiness

NEW YORK Fri Oct 7, 2011 4:55pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - World renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs, best known for advocating for the elimination of poverty in the world's poorest countries, has turned his attention to America's jobs crisis with his new book.

In "The Price of Civilization" he contends that as Democrats and Republicans bicker over how to reignite the faltering U.S. jobs market, both sides have it wrong and that what is needed is greater investment in education, better health care, more civility and fewer Gulfstream jets.

"There is a tremendous amount of pent-up unhappiness in America," Sachs told Reuters. "People are disgusted."

His latest book lands at a time when protests against the U.S. financial system -- under the banner Occupy Wall Street -- have gained nationwide attention and expanded from New York to more than a dozen other cities.

Sachs, twice named one of the 100 most influential leaders in the world by Time magazine, said the protests draw on intense frustration over the bleak jobs picture and the power wielded by the big banks. The U.S. unemployment rate is stuck at 9.1 percent.

"They are tapping into an economic truth and widespread sentiment reflecting a society that has become remarkably divided by income and wealth," said Sachs, a special adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

In "The Price of Civilization," Sachs rails against that divide, pointing out that by 2000 the average pay for the top 100 U.S. chief executives was about 1,000 times that of the average worker. Compare that, he says, to the early 1970s when they made about 40 times more than average workers.

"The wealthy have basically had a free run for the past 30 years," Sachs said in an interview. That could soon change, he said, as the country enters "a new progressive era," where the "super-rich can't walk off with the prize."

OBAMA GETS A "C"

A self-described supporter of Barack Obama, Sachs nonetheless said the U.S. president has come up short in tackling the financial crisis and its aftermath, choosing to use short-term stimulus spending rather than formulating a fuller, multi-year strategy. As for a grade, he said Obama would receive an average grade of "around a C."

"I thought he was going to make much deeper changes."

Sachs is even less impressed with Republicans, criticizing their tax cutting policies which he said would threaten investments in education, technology and infrastructure that are key to sustained economic health.

A third party could fill the void, capitalizing on grass-roots fund-raising, building support through social networks and playing to the anxiety and dissatisfaction driving the protests against Wall Street, he said. Asked if anyone has emerged that could lead such a party, Sachs said "not yet."

A professor at Columbia University, Sachs has spent much of his career focusing on extreme poverty, advising countries on tackling issues of health, education, debt and disease. In the United States -- the world's wealthiest nation -- he has taken aim at the overriding focus on Gross Domestic Product, economic activity, as a measure of how the country is faring.

Instead of GDP, Sachs said the United States should employ measurements that reflect things such as satisfaction, well-being and life expectancy.

A longtime globe-trotter, Sachs' work has brought him into contact with many celebrities -- some more serious about his anti-poverty work than others -- including John Legend, Madonna and Angelina Jolie.

The best of the bunch, he said, was U2 lead singer Bono, who he called a "remarkable person who works really hard at it." Bono wrote the introduction to Sachs' earlier book, "The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities in Our Time."

"He's pretty good at his other job, too," Sachs joked.

(Reporting by Paul Thomasch, editing by Mark Egan and Jackie Frank)

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