The US Plutocracy’s War on Sustainable Development

NEW YORK – The US plutocracy has declared war on sustainable development. Billionaires such as Charles and David Koch (oil and gas), Robert Mercer (finance), and Sheldon Adelson (casinos) play their politics for personal financial gain. They fund Republican politicians who promise to cut their taxes, deregulate their industries, and ignore the warnings of environmental science, especially climate science.


When it comes to progress toward achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the US placed 42nd out of 157 countries in a recent ranking of the SDG Index that I help to lead, far below almost all other high-income countries. Danish author Bjørn Lomborg was puzzled. How could such a rich country score so low? “America-bashing is popular and easy,” he surmised.

Yet this is not about America-bashing. The SDG Index is built on internationally comparable data relevant to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 157 countries. The real point is this: sustainable development is about social inclusion and environmental sustainability, not just wealth. The US ranks far behind other high-income countries because America's plutocracy has for many years turned its back on social justice and environmental sustainability.

The US is indeed a rich country, but Lord Acton’s famous aphorism applies to nations as well as to individuals: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The US plutocracy has wielded so much power for so long that it acts with impunity vis-à-vis the weak and the natural environment.

Four powerful lobbies have long held sway: Big Oil, private health care, the military-industrial complex, and Wall Street. These special interests feel especially empowered now by Donald Trump’s administration, which is filled with corporate lobbyists, not to mention several right-wing billionaires in the cabinet.

While the Sustainable Development Goals call for mitigating climate change through decarbonization (SDG 7, SDG 13), US fossil-fuel companies are strenuously resisting. Under the sway of Big Oil and Big Coal, Trump announced his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement.

America’s annual energy-related per capita CO2 emissions, at 16.4 tons, are the highest in the world for a large economy. The comparable figure for Germany, for example, is 9.2 tons. The US Environmental Protection Agency, now in the hands of lobbyists from the fossil-fuel sector, dismantles environmental regulations every week (though many of these actions are being challenged in court).

The SDGs also call for reduced income inequality (SDG 10). America’s income inequality has soared in the past 30 years, with the Gini coefficient at 41.1, the second highest among high-income economies, just behind Israel (at 42.8). Republican proposals for tax cuts would increase inequality further. The US rate of relative poverty (households at less than half of median income), at 17.5%, is also the second highest in the OECD (again just behind Israel).

Likewise, while the SDGs target decent jobs for all (SDG 8), American workers are nearly the only ones in the OECD that lack guaranteed paid sick leave, family leave, and vacation days. The result is that more and more Americans work in miserable conditions without job protections. Around nine million American workers are stuck below the poverty line.

The US also suffers from an epidemic of malnutrition at the hands of the powerful US fast-food industry, which has essentially poisoned the public with diets loaded with saturated fats, sugar, and unhealthy processing and chemical additives. The result is an obesity rate of 33.7%, the highest by far in the OECD, with enormous adverse consequences for non-communicable diseases. America’s “healthy life expectancy” (morbidity-free years) is only 69.1 years, compared to 74.9 years in Japan and 73.1 years in Switzerland.

While the Sustainable Development Goals emphasize peace (SDG 16), America’s military-industrial complex pursues open-ended wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, to name some of America’s current engagements) and large-scale arms sales. On his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, Trump signed a deal to sell over $100 billion in weapons to the country, boasting that it would mean “jobs, jobs, jobs” in America’s defense sector.

America’s plutocracy contributes to homegrown violence as well. The US homicide rate, 3.9 per 100,000, is the highest of any OECD country, and several times higher than in Europe (Germany’s rate is 0.9 per 100,000). Month after month, there are mass shootings in the US, such as the massacre in Las Vegas. Yet the political power of the gun lobby, which opposes limits even on assault weapons, has blocked the adoption of measures that would boost public safety.

Another kind of violence is mass incarceration. With 716 inmates per 100,000 people, America has the world’s highest incarceration rate, roughly ten times that of Norway (71 per 100,000). Remarkably, America has partly privatized its prisons, creating an industry with an overriding interest in maximizing the number of prisoners. Former President Barack Obama issued a directive to phase out private federal prisons, but the Trump administration reversed it.

Lomborg also wonders why the US gets a low score on global “Partnership for the Goals,” even though the US gave around $33.6 billion in official development assistance (ODA) in 2016. The answer is easy: relative to gross national income of almost $19 trillion, ODA spending by the US amounted to just 0.18% of GNI – roughly a quarter of the global target of 0.7% of GDP.

America’s low ranking in the SDG Index is not America-bashing. Rather, it is a sad and troubling reflection of the wealth and power of lobbies relative to ordinary citizens in US politics. I recently helped to launch an effort to refocus state-level US politics around sustainable development, through a set of America’s Goals that candidates for state legislatures are beginning to adopt. I am confident that a post-Trump America will recommit itself to the values of the common good, both within America and as a global partner for sustainable development.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

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