The idiocracy of America
Opinion by Jeffrey D. Sachs | CNN.com
July 20, 2021
Editor's Note: Jeffrey Sachs is a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and president of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. His most recent book is "The Ages of Globalization" (Columbia University Press, 2020). The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion on CNN
(CNN) - The hilarious 2006 film "Idiocracy" offers a vivid depiction of American politics. The movie is classified as a sci-fi comedy, but it is more like a searing documentary. It almost perfectly describes America's crisis of survival today.
In "Idiocracy," set 500 years in the future, America is suffering from famine. Every public function has been turned over to some self-serving corporate interest. A fruit-drink company controls crop irrigation, and the nation's crops are being poisoned by the fruit drink. In the meantime, the public is kept in a state of abject ignorance and distraction by demolition derbies, drugs, and debauchery. The nation is saved when an average joe, miraculously resuscitated from the distant past, reintroduces clean water to the crops, thereby saving the nation. He is hailed as a genius for his simple insight.
Which brings us to America's idiocracy in 2021. Our most important public functions are handed over to corporate sponsors. Our entire political system is designed to let corporate money speak, through campaign contributions and corporate lobbying.
Instead of famine caused by fruit drink, today's disasters are due to human-induced climate change caused mainly by burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas).
Hundreds of people have already died this summer due to severe weather events linked to climate change. The heatwaves in the Western states and parts of Canada have been relentless, not to mention deadly. The hurricane season arrived a month early in the Caribbean. Extreme flooding in western Europe killed at least 185 people.
Yet even as these disasters unfold, the US political system continues to defend fossil fuels. And in the current round, it is West Virginia's two senators, Republican Shelley Moore Capito and Democrat Joe Manchin, who are the mouthpieces of the fossil fuel industry. Each has received more than $2 million during their careers in campaign contributions from the energy and natural resource sectors. And each stands shoulder to shoulder with the fossil-fuel industry.
Earlier this month, an ExxonMobil lobbyist called Manchin the "kingmaker," and said he is in contact with the senator's office once a week. (As I described in a recent column, ExxonMobil and the lobbyist himself subsequently denied, walked back, and apologized for what the lobbyist said on the covertly recorded tape, so we can rest easy, fellow citizens of our idiocracy!)
After President Joe Biden and Senate Democrats on the Budget Committee announced an early agreement on a budget reconciliation package that includes, among other things, provisions to tackle climate change, Manchin predictably raised objections. He said that he was "very, very disturbed" by the provisions he believes would phase out fossil fuels.
"I know they have the climate portion in here, and I'm concerned about that," Manchin declared. He continued, "Because if they're eliminating fossils, and I'm finding out there's a lot of language in places they're eliminating fossils, which is very, very disturbing, because if you're sticking your head in the sand, and saying that fossil (fuel) has to be eliminated in America, and they want to get rid of it, and thinking that's going to clean up the global climate, it won't clean it up all. If anything, it would be worse."
This is blather. Climate safety requires that the US and the rest of the world decarbonize the energy system. Towards that end, Biden successfully brought together China, Europe, and other countries in April to commit to decarbonizing their economies. Manchin is simply aiming to derail that effort.
West Virginia's pro-fossil-fuel politicians have long been a disaster for their own constituents. West Virginia ranks near the bottom of the US in just about every major dimension of wellbeing. In the current US News and World Report ranking of all 50 states, West Virginia ranks 47th in healthcare, 45th in education, 48th on economy, and dead last on infrastructure. The state is also notorious for having the highest number of opioid-involved overdose deaths per 100,000 people. But instead of looking for real solutions for the state, and moving beyond the fossil fuel sectors (which employ less than 2% of the state's workforce), Manchin and Capito are actually trying to slash Biden's plans for federal investments in infrastructure.
Of course, the idiocracy extends beyond West Virginia. In the 2020 election, according to OpenSecrets, federal campaign spending reached $14.4 billion, plus another $3.5 billion spent on lobbying last year. With this financing, corporations run the show. Right on cue, Republican senators have now decided to oppose additional funding for IRS enforcement against tax evasion.
The American people, and the people of the world, deserve better than an American idiocracy. The US is perilously close to becoming a failed state. Yet the positive message of the film "Idiocracy," should also be clear. Our problems are solvable, if and when an average joe -- even a Joe Manchin -- defends the common good against corporate interests.