Tag Archives: Jeffrey Sachs

The Distracted Society

I’m almost done reading The Price of Civilization by Jeffery D. Sachs. I have to say that this book is invaluable to learn a LOT about not only mixed-market economy, but also why America’s economy and politics are crippled. He does not take the usual government is bad, deregulation is bad, capitalism sucks type argument. Instead, he outlines how globalization, society (us, people!), and government share some responsibility as to how we got awry economically, politically, and socially.

Here’s an excerpt which I like and thought about sharing. It argues that the “Age of Information” may/does not necessarily mean we are more educated, prosperous, and have peace of mind.

Chapter 8: The Distracted Society

An epidemic of ignorance

Print media continues its long-term decline. In 1960, print delivered an estimated 26 percent of words transmitted. By 2008, that had declined to 9 percent. While TV absorbed 42 percent of the daily hours the average American spends receiving information, print media accounted for a meager 5 percent. Reading for fun is a disappearing practice among the young, and the purchases of books went into a steep decline a decade ago. As Americans stop reading, ignorance of basic facts, especially scientific facts about such politically charged issues as climate change, has soared. Reading proficiency is also plummeting.

It would be a profound irony if the new “information age” in fact coincides with the collapse of the public’s basic knowledge regarding key issues that we confront both as individuals and as citizens. It’s far too early to tell whether the Internet and other connected devices will end up leaving society dumber or better informed. Will video games and online streaming of entertainment end up crowing out more meaningful reading and gathering of information? These risks seem real, at least according to the flood of recent books such as The Dumbest Generation, Idiot America, The Age of American Unreason, and Just How Stupid Are We?

Recent polling data and academic studies do suggest that American lack basic shared factual knowledge. As one author recently put it, “The insulted mindset of individuals who know precious little history and civics and never read a book or visit a museum is fast becoming a common, shame-free condition.”[1] If American high school test scores continue to rank poorly relative to other countries, so, too, will our economic prosperity, sense of economic security, and place in the world. Even more ominously, our capacity as citizens will collapse if we lack the shared knowledge to take on challenges such as balancing the federal budget and responding to human-induced climate change.

The Pew Research Center occasionally surveys the basic knowledge of the American public in its News IQ Quiz[2]. At the end of 2010, only 15 percent could identify the prime minister of the United Kingdom and only 38 percent could choose the incoming U.S. House Speaker from a list of four names. Slightly under half (46 percent) knew that the Republicans would control the lower house of Congress but not the Senate. And 39 percent correctly picked out defense as the largest budget item in a list that included Social Security, interest on the debt, and Medicare. None of these gaps in knowledge is a cardinal sin. As Pew put it, “the public knows basic facts about politics, economics, but struggles with specifics.” But when the country must grapple with complex choices about taxes, spending, military outlays, and the rest, the lack of basic knowledge becomes dangerous. A poorly informed public is much more easily swayed by propaganda and much less able to resist the dark maneuvers of the special-interest groups that pull the strings in Washington.

This book is heavily supported by facts and evidence. I very much encourage you to buy the book if you’re interested in learning about mixed-economy concept, current political and economical deadlock,  and how we can move forward and recover from such crisis.

[1] Mark Bauerkeubm The Dumbest Generation (New York: Penguin, 2008), p. 16.

[2] Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Public Knows Basic Facts About Politics, Economics, but Struggles with Specifics,” November 2010.