Politics in the Way of Progress

BERKELEY – There are 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to tackle problems including poverty, hunger, disease, inequality, climate change, ecological degradation, and many others in between. Clearly, 17 is too many. As Frederick the Great supposedly said, “He who defends everything defends nothing.” Similarly, those who emphasize everything emphasize nothing.


This points to the problem of forging goals through consensus: they can end up being a wish list for everything short of heaven on Earth. But, to be effective, goals should operate like turnpikes, which allow you to make progress toward a specific destination much faster than if you had taken the scenic route. The purpose of consensus building, then, should be to get us to the on-ramp, after which it becomes harder to make a wrong turn or reverse course.

Still, there could be obstacles on the road ahead. For Tsinghua University’s Andrew Sheng and Xiao Geng of the University of Hong Kong, these include “technological disruption, geopolitical rivalry, and widening social inequality,” but, above all, “populist calls for nationalist policies, including trade protectionism.”

Sheng and Geng see a world in which “the sovereign state still reigns supreme, with national interests overshadowing shared objectives.” They point out that, for advanced and developing economies alike, “paying for global public goods has become all the more unappealing,” given that “both democratic and authoritarian governance” have struggled to deliver “equitable development.” Their conclusion is that “achieving the SDGs will probably be impossible” in a world beholden to “the antiquated Westphalian model of nation-states.” After all, there is “no global tax mechanism to ensure the provision of global public goods,” and “no global monetary or welfare policies to maintain price stability and social peace.”

Another obstacle, argues Mark Suzman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is that “without a more deliberate, data-driven focus on the needs of women and girls in particular, progress toward a wide range of [SDG] objectives will suffer.” Over the past two centuries, the world has made significant strides in reducing infant mortality, such that the typical woman no longer has to spend five years of her life pregnant and another ten years nursing. Yet traditional patriarchal systems are still blocking women from contributing as much as they otherwise could, and without more data, we cannot see where those blockages are occurring.

Nobel laureate economist Michael Spence, for his part, warns that as long as there are “non-inclusive growth patterns” in both developing and advanced economies, there is little hope of “reducing poverty and fulfilling basic human aspirations for health, security, and the chance to contribute productively and creatively to society.” And, complicating matters further, inequitable growth risks fueling “political or social turmoil, often marked by ideological or ethnic polarization, which then leads either to wide policy swings or to policy paralysis.”

And Kaushik Basu of Cornell University laments that a “growth slowdown” in India, once “a poster child for political stability and economic growth among emerging economies,” has become a “source of serious concern not just domestically, but around the world.” To right the Indian ship, Basu calls on the government to focus its development efforts on specific sectors such as health, education, and medical tourism, and to do more to attract capital investment.

To me, a common underlying concern in all of these commentaries is not so much economics as politics and people – and a politics of people. We live in a world that is far richer than that of any previous generation. In theory, it should be easy to ensure that all people have the nutrition and health care they need to live full lives. Educating all people so that they can make the best use of modern technologies and the other resources at their disposal should be rather straightforward. And it should be obvious to everyone – even the richest among us – that providing comfort in old age, and prosperity for the next generation, requires that the wealthiest pay enough in taxes to ensure that growth is truly and equitably shared.

The problem is that while many people work toward the SDGs, political confidence men (and some women) are throwing up new barriers, by stoking the resentments of those who have benefited the most from inequitable growth, as well as those who have missed out. In the United States, one can see this every hour on Fox News, where Mexican auto-parts workers, Salvadoran refugees, Muslims, “ungrateful” non-white Americans, and “globalists” of all stripes are routinely vilified. And, of course, one can see the same thing in other countries around the world.

But many of those sitting at home watching cable news (or reading commentaries about the SDGs) hail from the top 50% of the income distribution in the Global North, or from the top 20% in the Global South. We are the ones who need to be sufficiently grateful for our circumstances. Some of us have much more than others; but we all have far more than we deserve.

Then again, perhaps we should stop thinking in terms of what is “deserved” at all. “For we each of us deserve everything,” a character in Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed reminds us, “and we each of us deserve nothing.”

In other words, achieving the SDGs may require a radically different approach. “Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning,” Le Guin’s character continues, “and you will begin to be able to think.”

J. Bradford DeLong, a former deputy assistant US Treasury secretary, is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

By J. Bradford DeLong

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