Human beings have a very limited attention span, a fact amplified a thousand fold by modern media. It seems the “news” can consist of a only handful of widely followed stories at a time, and only one truly complex narrative. This is a shame because the recent breaking of one substantial news story was followed by the breaking of another one which knocked it out of the field of our electronic tunnel vision. Without some narrative connecting the two only one can really hold our attention at a time. Neither of these stories have to do with Kate Middleton and the birth of Prince George.
Back in late May revelations of Apple dodging tens of billions in taxes from the US broke unto the news. Revelations which were quickly followed up by congressional hearings. But then, right on its heels, came the revelations of Edward Snowden about very questionable surveillance techniques of the NSA. The Snowden leaks did not so much spark as spread a desperately needed debate over the growing capacity of the American security state to tap the open design and marketing of the Internet as the medium for a new “transparent society” as a means to its own ends. Snowden turbocharged a debate we need to be having, and we need to keep alive however short our attention spans.
It is unfortunate, though, that the Snowden revelations managed to push the story of Apple’s and other corporations tax dodging- and especially that of other tech giants such as Google and Amazon off of the front page. For, in many ways that story is just as important a story as the Snowden leaks, and despite appearances, is in some ways connected to them.
As a reminder of what happened at Apple, here is a description from one of those “anti-capitalist” over at Forbes Magazine . Lee Shepard reports that after Apple had set up what were in effect a series of shell companies in Ireland where:
“….60% of Apple’s profits, are routed through these Irish subsidiaries and taxed nowhere. “
“….the holding company pays no tax to any government, and has not paid tax for five years. It claims tax residence nowhere.”
When the story first broke I thought Apple’s efforts at tax evasion were out of the ordinary. I was wrong. What Apple was doing is not just widespread- it was representative of the way global capitalism in the 21st century worked. Since at least the 1990’s corporations had in fact become organizations no longer anchored to territorial states. What this meant was that multi-nationals of all sorts were able to escape effective taxation anywhere. The Tax Justice Network , calculates that tax evasion through the establishment of havens and fancy financial accounting costs the world’s states roughly 3 trillion dollars per year or around 5% of global GDP in lost revenue.
Some of the most egregious tax avoiders are tech companies we all know and love. Google’s motto might be “Don’t be evil”, but one wonders how much food or medicine its 2 billion of avoided taxes a year might have bought. What is particularly rankling here is that we have come to associate a certain social consciousness to Silicon Valley companies we no doubt do not link to other types of multinationals such as Oil Companies. The very same people who lecture us at TED about new projects to save the world, along with the people who applaud them in the audience, are often the very individuals people starving government services for cash as part or at the head of globe straddling multinationals.
Yet the nation-states bereft of the funding they need to function seem to be turning against this massive tax avoidance with a vengeance. The G20 charged the OECD with writing and issuing a report that calls for coordinated efforts by states to recapture a good deal of this missing revenue. President Obama’s recent proposal of a “grand bargain” with the GOP on taxes called for the lowering of corporate rates to be offset by the closure of loopholes that allow corporations to avoid taxes nearly all together.
Whatever their seriousness in dealing with tax evasion the development of coordinated rules between the leading economies is likely to take years and be beset by wrangling, distortion through corporate lobbying and attempts at arbitrage. Trying to tie the revenues of what truly are global corporations to some particular state or divide such taxable revenues proportionally between different sets of states is bound to be messy, complicated, and to take a long time.
Such re-nationalization of taxation would constitute a step backwards for globalization. Yet the digerati of TED and the global elite of Davos are right about this- many of our problems are global in scope and require global solutions. As I have suggested elsewhere what we need is a truly global tax a means of investing not in the nation-state, as important as it remains, but in the well being of the world as a whole.
Some Christian denominations promote the idea of a tithe where 10% of one’s income should be given to charity. A similar 10% tithe on the missing revenues of global corporations would give us 300 billion in revenue we could invest in the state of our shared world. What follows then are some suggestions on where we could spend this windfall.
Prevention and Response to Pandemic Disease:
Much about early 21st century life might suggest that humanity has finally “conquered nature” and that the largest threats to civilization stem from we ourselves. We should not, however, count the threat from nature out. The largest potential killer in the near future is probably pandemic disease. How big of a threat? The World Bank states it this way:
Because a novel flu virus could infect 30-40% of all people, in a worst-case scenario, business and consumer confidence would plummet, worker absenteeism would rise sharply, and public services would falter, says Olga Jonas, economic adviser for the World Bank health team. “Disruptions would propagate across economies and could include breakdowns of food distribution and public order in megacities,” she says.
A severe flu pandemic could cost 4.8% of global GDP, or more than $3 trillion—and it would hit the poor the hardest. The risk is rising because livestock and human densities increase alongside weak veterinary and public health systems in developing countries.
Globalization and an explosion of urbanization make ideal vectors for killer flus or other forms of devastating communicable diseases. Most of these diseases are zoonotic, that is they emerge out of animals especially those human beings have close contact with due to their being raised for food. Preventing the emergence and spread of these diseases will therefore require the introduction of higher standards of sanitation. It will also require the improvement of public health systems in the developing world. The cost? Again, according to the World Bank:
To this end, veterinary and human health systems in developing countries will require $3.4 billion annually, compared with less than $450 million currently. A Bank report argues that this sustained level of investment is justified in view of at least $37 billion in annual expected benefits from prevented pandemics and other major outbreaks.
Let’s just round it to 3 billion 1% of our 300 billion dollar global tithe.
Avoiding Impacts from the Sky:
We all know about the “big-one” that slammed into earth 65 million years ago killing the dinosaurs along with 70% of the life on earth. In terms of probability, however, we should be just as worried about impacts such as the Tunguska Event an asteroid impact which flattened around 2,000 square kilometers of forest in Siberia in 1908. According to a 2008 report by the Association of Space Explorers, Tunguska scale impacts occur roughly 3 times every thousand years.
A future asteroid collision could have disastrous effects on our interconnected human society. The blast, fires, and atmospheric dust produced could cause the collapse of regional agriculture,leading to widespread famine. Ocean impacts like the Eltanin event (2.5 million years ago) produce tsunamis which devastate continental coastlines.
The impact of a Tunguska size asteroid on a major world urban area or in the oceans near it would be akin to the explosion of 500 Hiroshima sized atomic bombs and/or could set off devastating tsunamis of which we have become in recent years all too familiar.
The main problem when dealing with asteroid impacts isn’t so much dispatching with them once found (really deflecting) as it is finding them in the first place. To this end, former NASA astronaut Ed Lu established the B612 Foundation, a private company that hopes to launch a satellite called Sentinel in 2018 which will look for near earth asteroids.
Lu is to be highly commended for this initiative, yet the question needs to be asked why isn’t NASA or the ESA or some other combination of national space agencies doing this on a scale commensurate with the threat? B612’s answer is that:
NASA lacks the funding for a mission to find and track the million asteroids that threaten our planet. Because of the ongoing federal budget situation, there is no realistic prospect for those funds to materialize.
B612 estimates the cost over the 12 year planned life of Sentinel to run on the order of 450 million dollars. NASA itself does have an asteroid detection program that costs 20 million per year and the Obama administration awakened to the threat posed by near earth asteroids by the spectacular explosion of one such asteroid over Russia earlier this year proposes to double amount for FY 2014. In other words, the budget of B612, an organization funded through charitable donations is equivalent to the allocation for the same vitally important endeavor as that of the richest country on earth with the most sophisticated and well funded space organization of all time.
NASA’s well known budget woes are merely symptomatic of an American government crushed between rising entitlement costs, a massively bloated security architecture, and the sheer inability to raise revenues to meet these expenses. What suffers as a consequence are all the other vital things a government is supposed to do which in the US context is labeled with the misnomer “discretionary spending”. Related to the prior issue of climate change the essential tools and abilities of earth sciences, not just at NASA but at related agencies such as NOAA, are being steadily eroded by budgetary constraints.
This is no stain whatsoever on Lu, who is filling a vital gap left by our problems funding government, but the lost annual tax revenue of the company where he worked after leaving NASA from 2007-2010, Google, the aforementioned 2 billion dollars, could fund launching and supporting 4 of B612’S Sentinels.
Let’s imagine that we use the equivalent of Google’s avoided taxes out of our global tithe to quadruple the size of the Sentinel project giving us 2 billion to avoid asteroid induced armageddon or the destruction of a major city with all of the death and destruction that would cost. It’s a bargain.
Preparing for Climate Change including Geo-engineering research
There is growing realization that we have passed the point at which we can stop our production of atmospheric carbon dioxide raising the earth’s temperature by 2 degrees celsius (3.6 degrees fahrenheit) before the end of the century. How destructive this rise in temperature will ultimately be we can’t be sure, but it would be smart of us to put aside funds to hedge against worse case scenarios, and start doing major research into geoengineering should we confront Venus style runaway warming.
One thing we need to fund is more research on geoengineering. Many environmentalist do not want us to go there, all of us should not want us to go there, but in the case the effects of rising temperature threaten the lives of billions of people or even civilization itself, we need to have a better grasp of the possibilities. China has declared geoengineering to be a major research focus. During the 2009-2010 FY the Obama administration received requests for 2 billion dollars towards geoengineering research of which it awarded 100 million. The most dangerous scenario would be for a country suffering desperately under the impact of climate change to unilaterally decide to geoengineer the climate to a lower temperature without any international scientific consensus on if and how this should be done.
With our global tithe the world could easily quadruple the amount requested for geoengineering research in the US. Part of that 8 billion could be used to fund international entities charged with coming up with clear red lines where geoengineering should be used and what kind.
Something else we need to be prepared for is widespread displacement whether from sea level rise swallowing low lying areas or desertification. Estimates of just how many refugees will emerge from the impact of climate change are wide indeed- anywhere from 250 million to 1 billion people. Both numbers are incredibly scary.
Systems need to be put in place to help nation- states deal with population flows on a scale never seen before, especially scenarios where sea level rise consumes low lying heavily populated countries such as Bangladesh. The UN agency charged to deal with both refugee flows and disaster response is the UNHCR. It is the first line of defence poor countries responding to increasingly frequent and more devastating natural disasters. As of 2013 its budget was $87 million. In 2013 there are roughly 44 million refugees. Even if we stick to the low estimate of 250 million eventual refugees from climate change that would mean 5 times more internally and externally displaced persons than there are today. We should therefore bulk up the UNHCR to five times its current size to prepare meaning that its portion of our global tithe should be around $450 million dollars.
A Second Green Revolution:
The overall rate of population growth may have slowed but projections that we will hit 9 billion before the end of the century still hold. The problem we are facing is that we have no idea how we will feed so many people. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimates that food production between the early 2000’s and 2050 will have to grow by 70% and developing country production to double by 2050 to keep pace with population growth.
The last time we had Malthusian warnings of mass hunger, back in the late 1960’s we were saved by a revolution in agricultural production that goes by the name The Green Revolution. This revolution in agricultural production is credited with saving a billion human beings from starvation and worked by applying mass production methods to food production, using synthetic fertilizers, the development of higher yielding varieties of staple crops and the application of intensive irrigation.
The problem is the Green Revolution appears to have petered out. Growth in yields near 3% in the 1970’s have declined to almost half of that now. It seems we’ve rung all we can from this industrialized model of agriculture. As the World Resource institute puts it:
…most high-quality agricultural land is already in production, and the environmental costs of converting remaining forest, grassland, and wetland habitats to cropland are well recognized. Even if such lands were converted to agricultural uses, much of the remaining soil is less productive and more fragile; thus, its contribution to future world food production would likely be limited. The marginal benefit of converting new land increases the importance of continuing to improve crop yields so the existing agricultural lands can produce additional food.
Some things we could do about this looming crisis of food scarcity according to Alex Evans from the Center for International Cooperation at New York University they would include among others:
Devote more money to agriculture:
“The last twenty years have seen a disastrous decline in the proportion of foreign aid that goes to agriculture, from 17 per cent in 1980 to 3 per cent in 2006. Total aid spending on agriculture fell 58 percent in real terms over the same period. Today, developed country donors urgently need to reverse this trend, and to start plugging the gap left by years of under-investment.”
Devote more public research money to agriculture:
… the budget of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research has fallen by 50 per cent over the last 15 years, for example.
Such monies could be used to rapidly deploy potentially game changing technologies such genetically engineering major food to take nitrogen from the air which might end our destructive reliance on synthetic fertilizers.
Create an IEA for food:
A global system of food reserves need not entail the creation of a new agency, but to be credible the system would need to be overseen by a disinterested party, such as the World Food Programme. It would also be essential to be clear that the role of any system of reserves would be limited to emergency assistance: not to act as a price support for producers, or a permanent system for managing food aid.
How much would those things cost? I have no idea. Let’s take as our ball park figure the combined amount the US and the EU now spend on highly distorting agricultural subsidies. For the US that’s about 20 billion for the EU it’s around 50 billion. Taking away a 70 billion dollar slice of our initial 300 billion tithe.
The idea of ridding the world of nuclear weapons may seem utopian, but many of those who think the goal both attainable and necessary are some of the hardest of realists around. The contemporary movement to ban nuclear weapons got its start with an article in the Wall Street Journal back in 2007. “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons” was written by former Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, George Schultz, and signed by none other than Henry Kissinger. Since then we’ve had Global Zero an international movement whose aim is to rid these apocalyptic weapons from the earth. Global Zero has a four phased plan that gets us to zero nuclear weapons by the 2030s. This would be an incredible way to mark the centenary of the Second World War which gave us these weapons in the first place.
How much would it cost? Probably around 2 billion per year. As always, let’s just double that cost and say that the program runs from now until the centenary of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki- 2045.
At 4 billion per year for 32 years that’s about 128 billion from our tithe.
Universal Primary and Secondary Education
If we are ever to achieve the world set forth in the Universal Declarations of Rights we will need to ensure that education is available for all. This is Article 26 of the Declaration, but is also the keystone upon which all other parts of the Declaration rest- the means for the full development of every human personality. While the spread of primary and secondary education has been great over the last few decades, many, especially girls, remain locked out of its benefits.
How much would it cost to ensure that primary and secondary education were available to all? Right now the developing world spends about 82 billion on education at this level.
A high end estimate for how much making free primary and secondary education universal is 35 billion additional dollars. Let’s just double the 82 billion now spent and throw in a few extra billion for could measure- 88.5 billion the remainder of our global tithe.
To review the numbers:
3.0 billion Pandemic diseases
2.0 billion Asteroid Impacts
8 billion Geoengineering Research
500 million UNHCR
70 billion Next Green Revolution
128 billion Nuclear Disarmament
88.5 billion primary and secondary education for all
With a mere 10% of the lost taxes from global corporations we have protected ourselves against pandemic diseases and asteroid impacts, created an insurance policy against climate change, done something to address the risk of global famine, eliminated nuclear weapons and provided free primary and secondary education to everyone in the developing world. In the process we have achieved or come far closer to achieving at least 3 of the 8 Millenium Development Goals. Not bad at all.
Of course, this is not meant to be an absolutely serious proposal but an exercise to show that we do indeed have the resources to address many of the most pressing of our global problems- we just need to get our priorities straight. And this brings me back to where I began- the Snowden leaks whose gorey details just keep on coming.
What the Snowden leaks revealed is that however much the members of global corporations talk the talk of world citizenship they remain subjects of the nation-states from which they stem. The recognition of this fact threatens the most positive elements the globalization of the economy has brought us, namely an increased awareness of our global interconnection and interdependence and hence our global responsibility. The combined facts that techno-elites are simultaneously acting as a tool of the US security state, avoided paying taxes anywhere in the world, and touting “techno- philanthropy” as the main route to solving the world’s problems leaves one in a state of ethical vertigo from which it is difficult to get one’s bearings.
What seems clear to me, however, is that if the positive elements of globalization are to survive, then the elites whose capital is increasingly likely to be sucked up by the nation-states better find a way to make sure a good slice of this capital is used to address the kinds of global problems which the elites tried to make us aware. Even if, or perhaps especially because, they had robbed us of the wherewithal to actually solve them in the first place.