The US plu­toc­racy’s war on sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment

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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 Bjorn 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-a-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 de­car­bon­i­sa­tion (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 em­pha­sise 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 bln 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 pri­va­tised its prisons, cre­at­ing an in­dus­try with an over­rid­ing in­ter­est in max­imis­ing 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 bln in of­fi­cial de­vel­op­ment as­sis­tance (ODA) in 2016. The an­swer is easy: rel­a­tive to gross na­tional in­come of al­most $19 trln, 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 Amer­i­cabash­ing. 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.

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