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Jeffrey Sachs is Upset

Photo: Wesley Mann

Jeffrey Sachs is one of the world’s top development economists and has been a global anti-poverty crusader for decades. He is special advisor to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and a major champion of the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030—a comprehensive set of targets and methods for improving life on earth. The SDGs put special emphasis on helping the world’s least powerful people, ending poverty and hunger, and improving health, as well as reducing inequality, bolstering justice, and especially combating climate change and environmental degradation.

Techonomy founder David Kirkpatrick sat down with Sachs in March 2018 in his New York apartment for a wide-ranging conversation about how tech could bolster progress towards the global goals for 2030, and the role of business. He is a scathing critic of those who do not take these goals seriously and is willing to embrace radical new methods in order to tackle some of the world’s previously intractable problems. Sachs is University Professor at Columbia University and directs the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia’s Earth Institute. He is author of many influential books including 2005’s The End of Poverty and the recent The Age of Sustainable Development.

Techonomy: How would you assess progress towards the SDGs?

Sachs: Well, we’re not directed enough or focused enough to actually achieve these goals, and that’s quite frightening because these goals are not a luxury. They are a need for humanity. The SDGs are about reorienting the way a vast and increasingly dangerous world economy operates. It’s creating inequalities of wealth and poverty that are astounding and dangerous for our democracy in the United States, and dangerous for the world. And it is relentlessly destroying the environment through global warming and the loss of biodiversity.

The idea of the sustainable development goals is to say that with all of this wealth and technology and knowhow and skills, we could reorient the way we do things, locally to globally, so that we could have it all—economic prosperity, social fairness, and environmental sustainability. That’s the purpose of the SDGs. Many governments are trying to orient around them. Our own in the United States, in Washington, pays zero attention. I don’t really want to tell Trump about them, because he would try to destroy them.

But it’s shocking for me. I visit probably 50 countries every year. Most of the world is worried about global warming, worried about the instability of the food supply, water crises, extreme storms, heat waves; most of the world is worried about wealth increasingly concentrated in a few tech companies and a few billionaires and leaving a lot of the rest of humanity outside. But in the United States unfortunately, our political circles are not part of that.

Techonomy: When you speak and write about the many reasons for optimism, you often mention the information revolution, new materials, and genomics. But then you said recently, “But none of them are trained for these challenges.” What do you mean?

Sachs: We have a remarkable technological revolution, one of the greatest in human history. Everything around computation, AI, and connectivity I’d put on par with the greatest scientific revolutions we’ve had, with the steam era, or electrification itself. But we need to use this in a way to solve problems, to make the environment safe, to address renewable energy, to address to the needs of the poorest people, to address social inclusion.

Our system, especially the U.S. system, is market-based. You look at how technologies are evolving, to stream movies, to capture eyeballs for advertising, to sell data profiles. It’s all for market purposes. You look at a lot of the innovations. In healthcare, they’re oriented towards the next drug with a 20-year patent and a markup of 1,000 times production cost. The system works very powerfully, by the way, to put a lot of money into innovation, but it directs the innovation towards monetizable outcomes, whereas what we need are two other kinds of innovations. One is innovations for poor people to help them have better education, better healthcare, and so forth. A second is education. This is the knowledge revolution, after all.

Techonomy: So how would you assess the role of business so far in embracing the SDGs?

Sachs: Parts of business are totally on the case, like the renewable energy business—the future for them is sustainable development. Or some in the food sector see that their supply chain is going to disappear if we don’t get climate change under control. Then there is the part of the business community for whom this agenda really is a harsh message. I would put the coal, oil, and gas industries in that list. The message for them is, “You’re going to have to close. We don’t need you. You’re dangerous.” Of course, they’re fighting back. They’ve got a lot of wealth. They’re trying to deny what is obvious to almost everybody, that the climate is changing dangerously and rapidly. They’re liars and they’re creeps.

Techonomy: [LAUGHS] I love how you mince your words…But we also have things happening like the statement by BlackRock CEO Laurence Fink, who said business leaders must make societal progress and responsibility central to their business plans. He’s the head of the world’s largest investment management firm. You must have been heartened by that.

Sachs: Absolutely heartened. Wonderful. And real, by the way. And the influence of that approach is already percolating through a lot of the pension funds and insurance industries. But then another part of industry is just relentlessly bottom-line oriented. It has blinders to any social issue. And that’s a lot of Wall Street. That’s the hedge fund industry. They want to make money, and don’t care if it’s from jacking up prices of drugs or a new pipeline or whatever. And unfortunately, to my shock, a lot of the tech industry has become that. I wouldn’t have thought that Larry Page and Sergey Brin would be just relentlessly bottom line, thinking only of who they can sell more ads to. Facebook—some kid in a dorm getting the Harvard class online, but now his highest aim in life in the end turns out to be, again, selling personal data? They’ve got the tools to change the world for the good, but right now they’re basically trying to figure out how to sell more ads. And that is a profound disappointment.

Techonomy: Mark Zuckerberg himself has talked about the company as the hub for global community in highly aspirational, idealistic ways. And you also talk a lot about the importance of human well-being, which he, too, raises.

Sachs: I haven’t seen it from them. What I’ve seen is, first, an opaque business model. We don’t really know what they’re doing. We don’t know how our identities, our online data are actually being used.

I went to Facebook at one point and said, “You’re connecting so many people, why don’t you get into the SDGs, SDG 4, for example, on education?” “Well, that’s not our priority.” I said: “I don’t care if it’s your priority. It’s the world’s priority and you have a contribution to make.” “Well, that’s not our priority.” Okay, I’m not impressed by that.

Techonomy: So you don’t really buy “doing well by doing good”?

Sachs: I think it’s nonsense for half the challenges we face. It is a convenient, ignorant, nonreflective, non-experienced vision. The mentality in this country has been formed by that lousy novelist and pseudo-philosopher Ayn Rand. People think there’s a business case for everything. But that’s leading us farther and farther from sustainable development.

We used to have a government that could regulate business. Now we have business that regulates government. Mitch McConnell is a weak person. He’s not an agent looking for the public good. He really is just a pawn in a corporate game. And then we’ve got 2,200 billionaires now worldwide, many in the tech sector. They’ve got $9.1 trillion of wealth. Come on. They alone could fund the solution to the world’s problems. A few are trying. Bill Gates, I give him credit. Most of the rest, no.

Techonomy: But companies exist to make money. And you’re saying you need to harness them and harness the technologies they create. How do we make the leap to real social engagement and human action?

Sachs: You know, one of the things you learn in economics—it’s actually the core of serious study—is what things can be left to the market and what things cannot be solved by the market because they are market failures. It could be climate change; it could be preserving biodiversity; it could be disease control. I know from my career-long work on poverty, if we just go with market forces, millions of people will die of extreme poverty. And businesses will be doing just the right thing, quote-unquote. From the business perspective, these people have no money so what are you going to do? And this is technically not a market failure. It’s markets working. It’s a human failure. It’s a moral failure. All those people could be saved, and they could be put on a path of a decent life, but not by businesses alone.

Techonomy founder David Kirkpatrick (left) sits with Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs. Photo: Wesley Mann

Techonomy: Should government play a bigger role in, whether you call it regulation or not, essentially forcing companies to take action?

Sachs: Of course. For example, will consumers go for electric vehicles? I find that a ridiculous question, because the answer is: We can’t go on with internal combustion engine vehicles. We need electric vehicles, or we need zero-emission vehicles. Government should say after 2025, or some other date, you can’t sell internal combustion engines. In the U.S., all this got completely twisted out of shape. We’ve lost recognition of the most basic fact—that markets can’t solve all problems.

Techonomy: In your book The Age of Sustainable Development, you talk about interconnectivity being central to the logic of the age of sustainable development. Why is that so?

Sachs: We are 7.6 billion people in the world now. That’s a very crowded world. It’s increased tenfold since the start of the Industrial Revolution. But a billion people don’t have reliable access to safe water, a billion people don’t have basic electrification that is at all reliable. To make 7.6 billion people live viably on this planet, we need systems— for transport, energy, health, water, food supply. And the great gift of the information revolution is we have the means to do that.

Techonomy: What priority do you give to getting everybody online?

Sachs: It’s absolutely central. It is double edged and controversial though. I’ll give you my favorite current conundrum—India’s Aadhaar system, the online biometric identification system. It’s a fundamental breakthrough. And yet it’s under attack, pretty heatedly right now, by civil society in India. Now, from my point of view, India doesn’t stand a chance without something like Aadhaar. Millions of people will not have access to services if government cannot be made to work through a mechanism like this. So these technologies are pivotal, brilliant. On the other hand, there really are challenges of privacy, surveillance, systems biases, built-in discrimination, and all the other areas of that are causing angst and controversy in the connectivity and AI community right now. But let’s solve those problems. These systems are vital to make the world work properly.

Techonomy: What about just the basic notion of internet connectivity for everyone, do you embrace that as a goal?

Sachs: I do, but with one big caveat. When I went to Facebook and was kind of rebuffed, they said, “Our interest is connectivity.” I said, “Yeah, but the content matters a lot.” Just being connected is not going to make your online curriculum; it’s not going to solve the problems of schools or healthcare. Nandan Nilekani [who spearheaded the creation of Aadhaar and previously was CEO of Infosys] has a concept called societal platforms. It’s the idea that you need a system that sits on the internet, sits on connectivity, in order to make health or education or digital payments, finance, or e-government work. Investments should be made so the connectivity actually means something. Without the content directed at the needs of poor people and the needs of the environment and other public goods, we’re not getting to where we need to go. You need a framework. You need systems and content, not just connectivity.

Techonomy: But the very gripe against Facebook on supposed net neutrality grounds in India, when they launched their Internet.org Free Basics program there, could be seen as contradictory to what you’re saying. Facebook would say, “We were giving them stuff that’s good for them.”

Sachs: I believe in politics to serve the public good. If Facebook wanted to do something good for India, then it should have dealt with the government and said, “We’re at your disposal to help support a national plan for online education or online curriculum or online healthcare. But you’re in charge, not us.” But arrogantly, they didn’t do it that way. They said, “We’re doing it. We’re Facebook.” That’s the mistake. The psychology in Silicon Valley is that all politics is retrograde—“We don’t have to pay taxes, we don’t have to listen to government.” And the result is this kind of libertarian naiveté that ends up not solving the problems of those in need.

Techonomy: How could we build what you have called “supranational” institutions that could, among other things, impose some restraints on these companies and help enforce the systemic thinking you advocate. Do we have the institutions we need?

Sachs: The one line I hate hearing in development is ‘We have to do it through existing organizations.’ Every breakthrough in the world is with startups, with new organizations. I helped get one going 17 years ago that I’m very proud of, called The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. I said, ‘Don’t go to the World Bank; they can’t do this.’ Now we need new organizations for education, new organizations for the SDGs. But I face two kinds of challenges. One is that the incumbents, even the governments, the U.N. agencies, say “No, no, no, no, we’re handling it,” which they’re not. And then the other argument back to me is, “Well, why set up something new when it has no resources? No one wants to fund that kind of thing.” And that’s where I start looking at the 2,000 billionaires or how rich the world is, if we only cared to put the resources that we need into it.

We should have a global fund for education. Ghana recently said, “We want universal secondary education and we know online is critical for that. We want to develop a program. We need help.” There should be a fund that provides the help.

Techonomy: You talk about models in human capital for sanity and kindness. Zuckerberg, as we mentioned, thinks he’s helping. You don’t agree. Could technology help?

Sachs: A lot of psychologists are telling us that screen time is really adverse for mental well-being. Where I see tech playing a different role is giving us more leisure time. I’m persuaded in general that machines are good for us. People don’t like backbreaking labor. I’ve tried it. I don’t like it. Most people who are suffering it right now want to get out. I don’t think there should be miners in the future, because it’s dangerous, dirty work. Being on an assembly line is no great shakes, so that’s better for a robot than a person. It raises the question that everybody asks every day now, “Well, what about us? What will we do?” And the answer that was classically given by Keynes 90 years ago was, “We’ll have more leisure time.” And I find that still a persuasive answer.

Techonomy: Do you feel that in the end we’re facing a spiritual crisis?

Sachs: Well, we are facing definitely a moral crisis because we’re in an absolutely insane situation where we have everything going for us and we’re still at the edge of self-destruction. We’ve become so rich, so capable, so knowledgeable, so clever scientifically, yet we can’t handle the success. America could not be richer; we couldn’t hope for more, and yet the country is falling apart in many ways. And that’s a bizarre reality that we haven’t been able to come to grips with. We’re so frenzied and focused on short-term profits that we can’t even take a deep breath and get a grip on our own destructive activities. So that’s a moral crisis. Aristotle said that the highest human activity was contemplation, to have the time to be able to think, to reason about the human good. That’s what we’re missing right now.

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