Jeffrey Sachs is one of the world’s top development economists and a relentless anti-poverty crusader. He is 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. Techonomy’s David Kirkpatrick sat down with Sachs in March for a wide-ranging conversation in preparation for our upcoming Techonomy NYC conference on May 8-9 in midtown Manhattan, where the two will continue onstage. Sachs directs the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University’s The Earth Institute. He has written many influential books including 2005’s The End of Poverty and the recent The Age of Sustainable Development. He does not mince his words. (The following are excerpts from the conversation, which will be published in full in the upcoming Techonomy Magazine.)
On achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals
We’re not directed enough or focused enough, 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 is 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. 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.
On how technology can help
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 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. In healthcare, they’re oriented towards the next drug with a 20-year patent and a markup of 1,000 times production cost.
On doing well by doing good
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.
On whether tech will make life better or worse
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.
On universal basic income
The concept is right. It’s a more involved than simply—we’re going to hand everyone some cash. But the basic idea that we’re rich enough to ensure dignity and material life for everybody on the planet is correct. It is absolutely correct that AI and related breakthroughs could lead to a massive loss of market earnings for a significant part of the population. I’ve studied that as a macroeconomist. Robotics and AI absolutely will impoverish a lot of people in terms of their market earnings.
But your disposable income is not equal to your market earnings. Your disposable income is your market earnings plus the transfers you receive, minus your taxes. To use fiscal transfers funded by taxation to ensure everybody a basic improving condition of life is absolutely correct. Where I disagree is that rather than handing a check over, which is kind of the libertarians’ thrill, I would like a properly funded healthcare system, a properly funded education system, and investments in modern infrastructure. I would also say that every person is entitled to a certain number of vacation days and certain parental leave and other basic labor standards.
On his disappointment with Google and Facebook
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.
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.
Sachs and Kirkpatrick will continue this discussion at Techonomy NYC. See the full agenda here.