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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Occupy Wall Street protests that has spread across the country and around the world have taken up many different causes, but the protests share some common themes, including the gap between the rich and the poor. Once you adjust for inflation, the median income in this country has stagnated for about 38 years - almost two generations, even as people at the top have grown wealthier. In a book called "The Price of Civilization," the economist Jeffrey Sachs critiques that gap.

JEFFREY SACHS: It means that for the typical young person right now who is a high school graduate - but on average will not get a Bachelor's degree - life is extremely challenging to find a foothold with a stable job, with an opportunity to have a reliable income, health and other benefits, and a chance to have the kind of middle-class life that we once took for granted.

INSKEEP: Jeffrey Sachs argues that tax cuts have mainly helped the wealthy, while cutbacks in government investments have harmed the economy - made the U.S. less competitive. He says he wants to shift money away from defense spending into things like roads and schools. It is liberal critique of U.S. policies, though Sachs also things proposals like President Obama's jobs plan are just short-term fixes.

SACHS: I'm emphasizing a point that was very well-known and well-appreciated in the boom times of America in the 1950s, the 1960s, that an effective society, one that is highly productive, one that is inclusive with a broad middle class, and one that is environmentally sustainable, needs of course a market economy as its engine of development, but it needs an effective government as well.

If we're going to have a society that is fair between rich and poor, we can't leave vast parts of our society to suffer in a poverty trap where young people grow up poor and then don't have the means to make it into the middle class because they can't meet college tuition, for example.

STEVE INSKEEP: I want to ask about a criticism of your book that was printed in the Wall Street Journal. It was a review of the book really by Congressman, Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, and he frames your book as having a completely different view of the role of government than he does. He describes your book - I want you to have an opportunity to respond to it - he describes you as saying that for people to be happy, their government must increasingly shield them from the challenges of life. Is that your view of government?

SACHS: No. It's not my view of government. My view of government is that government helps to empower us as productive individuals, as healthy people, as well-educated people, as businesses that can be competitive internationally, and it helps to do it in a way that's fair and inclusive and environmentally sound. From the early days of our republic, whether it was building the canals or the land grant universities, we've understood that government is part of the process of making us productive, fair, and sustainable.

INSKEEP: And what do you say to the argument, very simple argument, response to books like yours, sorry, can't afford it, we got a deficit here?

SACHS: The precise point is that money and wealth is accumulated so much at the top that it's time for the wealthiest, richest and most powerful people in this country to play their proper role, to have the civic virtues to support America's recovery. And...

INSKEEP: Civic virtues. You want people to have different values than they've had, you think.

SACHS: I want the people at the top to have responsibility once again - first, to follow the law, because this has been an era of corporate recklessness and scandal and illegality, and so part of civic virtue is being lawful once again. But another part of civic virtue is sharing in the responsibility of our society. And I believe that the richest and most powerful people have done very well over the last 30 years, but they have not done right for the American people. And it's time that they do.

INSKEEP: Jeffrey D. Sachs is the author of "The Price of Civilization." Thanks very much.

SACHS: Oh, I'm delighted. Thank you.

INSKEEP: And you can read an excerpt from Jeffrey Sachs' book at npr.org.

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