Last Tuesday, students and faculty filled Sci 101 for the Department of Economics’s Wilcox lecture. The Wilcox lecture series is named for Professor Clair Wilcox, who taught at Swarthmore in the 1920s through 60s, was the Economics department chair for many decades, and chaired the International Trade Conference. Despite the rain, the room was packed. The lecturer, Jeffrey Sachs, is an economist who has been dubbed by the New York Times as “probably the most important economist in the world.” Professor Sachs is the Director of Sustainable Development at Columbia University and of the United Nations Sustainable Development Network.
Professor Sachs’ talk, entitled “The Case for Social Democracy in the United States,” spelled out the effects of deep inequality on American society and argued that social democracy is the solution. He explained that he believes that social democracy is a better term than democratic socialism, although both essentially have the same definition. Social democratic societies apply the values of socialism to a capitalist framework, allowing for greater safety nets and redistribution of wealth while maintaining competitive markets.
Professor Sachs showed how income inequality in the United States has been rising for decades. This has happened as a result of (among other things) increasingly efficient technology leading to less jobs in certain sectors. Household inequality is higher in the United States than in any comparable country. He argued that this disparity, along with Americans’ “fear of taxes,” has contributed to the United States faring worse than comparable countries on things such as life expectancy and health spending.
The main differences between the United States and social democracies, according to Sachs, is that social democracies have stronger unions, more paid parental leave and vacation time, better pathways for income redistribution, and higher taxes. Professor Sachs showed how the wealthiest Americans pay less taxes than ever before in history. He claimed that ultimately, the path to happiness for Americans is a reduction of inequality. In contrast, many Scandanavian countries such as Sweden have higher tax rates but better government services and lower inequality.
Nancy Awad ’20 said she wondered whether Sachs’ model for social democracy would be affected by changing demographics in Scandinavia, which Sachs presented as a region with successful social democracies. “During his talk, Sachs said that the white voter is less likely to support taxation and social welfare policies if there are significant minority populations. So, with growing minority populations in Sweden, will voters be as inclined to support the same policies? Will Sweden remain to be the global leader for social democracy?” wrote Awad.
During the question-and-answer portion of the talk, a student asked about how to build a social democracy in a racially diverse country. Professor Sachs acknowledged that racism has prevented America from embracing social democratic structures. “Maybe [racism] is the original sin of American societies that prevents the kind of policies we need,” he said. He offered up hope that Donald Trump represents the last populist “white backlash” against social trends towards greater equality.
Theo Grayer ’22 did not find the ideas that Professor Sachs presented to be revolutionary to him, but he enjoyed the talk nonetheless. “…the underlying concepts that he discussed are staples of present-day progressivism. Despite this, I appreciated how he repurposed tools of economics, which are often used to rationalize supply-side economics, to present a case for democratic socialism,” wrote Grayer.
Diverse economic perspectives contextualize many of the top issues facing the 2020 election. By providing the audience with a framework for understanding social democracy, Professor Sachs encouraged listeners to integrate his ideas into their own conceptions of the greatest issues facing our country.