When I go to poor countries I see people doing physical labor and they can’t take a break or the crops won’t get weeded or harvested. But my own job is part work and part consumption. It’s not physically arduous. It means spending lots of time talking to lots of interesting people, and the time happens to be remunerated. That’s what a wealthy society should do.
Thompson: In an economy with mass automation, you would have tremendous national wealth with tremendous inequality. In that scenario, the federal government’s moral need to transfer money from the rich to the rest would make it an even more important force in the economy.
Sachs: The automation of the economy could be, on the whole, very beneficial but with significant redistribution consequences that need to be addressed. It might require more income transferred from the wealthy and old to the young and poor. I think a kind of “reverse social security" might have to be on the agenda.
Thompson: Finally, I have to ask you about global poverty, a cause which seems rather hopeless at a time when so many Americans seem uninterested in any human life that didn’t happen to start in America. I know no moral order which tells us that a baby born one mile north of the Texas-Mexico border is worth an order of magnitude more than a baby born one mile south of it. And yet that two-mile distance defines our politics and economics.
For example, NAFTA really, really helped Mexico and had mixed effects for American consumers and workers. But what politician dares to say “NAFTA helped mankind, and it falls to the U.S. government to sort out the distributional effects among our workers?” Without that sentiment coming from Washington, solving global poverty seems utterly hopeless.
Sachs: Yes it's important to state that NAFTA benefited aggregate U.S. productivity, yet was net-net negative for workers in states like Indiana. There are so many policies that can expand the pie but change the income distribution. Trump’s basic argument was that if you’re hurting we have somebody outside our borders to blame. That has been the big lie of too many rich Americans: 'We’re not going to talk about redistribution, so we’ll find somebody else to blame.'
Thompson: More generally, the question for Americans is: Should we help people in distress, even if they live abroad?
Sachs: There are three components to the question “should we help people who live abroad?”
First, a nation has its own selfish reasons. We say you shouldn’t thumb your nose at people who are suffering because you might need them later. We say it is absurd to let dangers grow in a dangerous world far away, because they could soon become our dangers. We can say we should treat diseases abroad so they don’t end up as ebola on our shores.
Second, there are things we can do with small costs and huge returns. People can’t imagine this to be true, but it is: A tiny amount of help from us, a few bucks a year per American, could save vast numbers of lives in Africa and reduce suffering vastly. And we wouldn’t even notice the cost to us. For a few bucks from each of us, we could bring malaria deaths to zero and we could save hundreds of thousands of lives.
Third is our morality. We are at a time in our vast wealth, especially those of us who enjoy affluent lives in the richest time in history, that says the end of our purpose cannot be to accumulate more and more while neglecting people in need. My view is the answer to your question is yes, we can and will find a way. And I have generally been of the Churchill view of America. We do the right thing after exhausting all other possibilities.