Rethinking the System: Five Experts Imagine a Better Future
From the #MeToo movement to Afrofuturism, writers, documentarians, and other authorities offer their vision of a more utopian future.
All photo illustrations by Ben Giles
E.J. Graff on the Future of the #MeToo Movement
The pussyhats should have warned us that #MeToo was coming. We all saw those outraged, exhilarated women in cheeky pink hats, signs shouting pussy grabs back, can’t touch this, nasty women, grab ’em by the midterms, and fight like a girl. That outrage wasn’t at some random Republican. No, it was specifically outrage that the nation had elected a boasting groper, a sexual predator-in-chief, an unqualified showboat instead of that outstandingly qualified woman texting in dark glasses, kicking ass, getting shit done. Working women had seen that movie plenty times before: creepy dude with shameless hands promoted over hardworking gal. Not this time, those women roared, millions of them, in the largest single-day demonstration recorded in US history.
Did we really think those women were going to go home and shut up? After women had looked out on that sea of angry sisters, their blindingly peaky little hats screaming “hands off, asshole”?
After all, we’ve seen plenty of sexual predators exposed and publicly called to account in the past few years (hello, Bill O’Reilly!). But the pussyhats are why the Weinstein story was a lit match dropped in a drought, setting off the #MeToo wildfire.
To understand how we got here, we should first pour out libations for the wild and crazy women’s libbers of the late 1960s and 1970s, who changed the world by inventing and insisting on concepts such as sexual harassment, domestic violence, marital rape, equal pay, and so much more. And all hail the second-wave feminists like Eleanor Holmes Norton and Catharine MacKinnon who built on their radical breakthroughs, with hard, slogging work to institutionalize those insights—in law and in life—for years to come.
Now fast-forward to 1991, when American women watched, riveted with horror, as a panel of white male senators contemptuously belittled Anita Hill’s testimony about her former boss Clarence Thomas’s sexual harassment, a term most Americans didn’t yet know. That nationally televised spectacle alerted the nation—both working women and their employers—that what they’d treated as “private” sexual behavior was, as of the Supreme Court’s 1986 decision in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, now against the law.
Sexual harassment is against the law not because it’s gross, and not because it’s sexual. It’s against the law because it makes it harder for women to earn a living. You can’t do your best at your job if you’re spending your days defending your bodily integrity. You’re not getting a fair shot at earning your hourly wage if the assistant manager who schedules your Burger King shifts is whispering over the headset about what he wants to do to you alone by the dumpster and how he’ll give you more shifts if you’ll go on a “date” with him. Sexual assault is a violation of criminal law. And sexual harassment is an offense by your employer against you, one that unfairly widens the gender wage gap.
After Anita Hill’s testimony, sexual harassment claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission spiked. And American women were so outraged that more women ran for office than ever before—sound familiar?—turning 1992 into the “Year of the Woman” and pushing the number of women in Congress from 32 to 54.
But here’s the thing to remember. That wildfire didn’t stop sexual harassment; it just put it on the radar and gave it a name. No single historical moment can achieve everything; social change takes time to metabolize. Two generations of women then learned that sexual harassment was against the law—but that they couldn’t stop it from slowing them down, messing with their paychecks, and filling them with shame. They’ve been wandering in the wilderness, often traumatized, resentful about how powerful creeps derailed their careers and their lives.
Enter the pussyhats, a coming-out moment for sexual harassment. Every woman in America could see exactly how commonly outrageous it was—and that only they could make it stop.
As Kyle Stephens told convicted sexual abuser Larry Nassar in court, “Little girls don’t stay little forever.” Because of second-wave feminism, groped interns grew up to be assigning editors. Cowed law clerks became powerful judges (and can anyone imagine a male judge encouraging 156 women to testify about being violated?). Assaulted starlets became Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek. Factory workers and janitors and farmworkers organized themselves into class-action lawsuits, and reached out to more public and powerful folks who could get them help. And determined reporters told their stories.
Because of social media, all that outrage caught fire much more widely than anyone had ever seen before. Those predators, as another gymnast told Nassar, had created an army ready to fight for justice.
And here’s what gives me the most hope about this #MeToo moment: We’re seeing coalitions across class—poor and rich at least momentarily aligned. In November, people representing 700,000 female farmworkers wrote an open letter of solidarity to the women in Hollywood speaking up about sexual harassment and assault, saying they understood all too well what it meant to be “preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist, and otherwise threaten our economic, physical, and emotional security.” Some women in Hollywood expressed their own solidarity by launching the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, with a structure to help less privileged women fight sexual harassment.
Here’s my utopian dream. First, I believe that a woman should replace every sexual predator drummed out of his job. Every single one.
That kind of class solidarity is just what we need. After the Clarence Thomas accusations, many white-collar workplaces put strict procedures in place to protect themselves from sexual harassment charges; in some cases, that included actually working to prevent sexual harassment and to respond when women reported it. But the vast majority of working women in this country—in restaurants, factories, hotels—were left to fend for themselves. Women in male-dominated workplaces, women who are younger, women who are in low-wage service jobs where their income is dependent on who schedules them—these women are more often sexually harassed.
So besides Time’s Up, what should we be seeing? Here’s my utopian dream. First, I believe that a woman should replace every sexual predator drummed out of his job. Every single one. That’s what NBC did at the Today Show, replacing Matt Lauer with Hoda Kotb. When men sexually harass women, they not only invade their bodily integrity, they also cripple their careers, kneecapping their advancement—and giving the organization’s men an unfair advantage.
For every harasser exposed and drummed out of an organization, I’d give raises and promotions to between one and ten women for every year he worked there—the exact number to be determined according to the organization’s size. Why? Because if he groped one woman, he held back or drove out at least that many. (And if his name is Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, or some other media-disparager of Hillary, I’d undo the results of the 2016 election and put her in office. Hey, it’s my utopia.)
Further, I’d make sure that every woman he groped—including those who left their jobs to stay safe—is brought up to economic parity with the men in her career’s entering class. Every woman over 35 knows a raft of promising, ambitious young women who got lapped by their male peers. Sexual harassment, and all the sexist bullying that goes with it, is one of the reasons why.
What about the budding creeps? We’re not going to get rid of them; sexual predators, sociopaths, serial killers, racist haters, and so many kinds of ugly are endemic to our species. So let’s talk about how the rest of us should respond.
Let’s make sure that parents and high schools teach about sexual predators on the job, training teens how to say no forcefully and to report violations immediately, promising they’ll be heard. And as long as I’m being utopian, let me decree that from here on out, people who are sexually harassed will feel no shame. None. #MeToo is awakening folks to the fact that sexual harassment has nothing to do with them: If he’s doing it to you, he’s doing the same thing to a dozen others, scores, hundreds, as many as he can find. And so the shame all belongs on the predator. Every creep—the night-shift foreman assaulting janitors in the supply closet, or the Humane Society CEO inviting women up to his hotel suite, or the actor who whips out his johnson—every creep has created his own army of survivors angry for justice.
You know what else parents and schools will teach? Turning bystanders into what are now called “upstanders,” training kids how to intervene to ease someone out of danger without putting themselves at risk. Getting justice will be easier if, after #MeToo, bystanders speak up as soon as they realize there’s a bully in their midst, even when the bully is the boss. Plenty of folks now feel sick about staying silent or looking away when they knew something was off. From now on, they’ll figure out how to work together to step in—and teach others to do so as well.
Finally—and here’s the part I honestly believe is already happening—behind the scenes, organizations of all sizes and kinds will change how they respond to sexual harassment allegations. For decades, employers have quietly paid off or shunted away the powerless girls and boys, treating it as the cost of doing business, to hang on to their high-powered rainmaker. But now everyone in the country knows that sexual harassment allegations are like cockroaches: If you see one, hundreds of others are hiding, ready to poison your business and bring you down like the Weinstein Company and USA Gymnastics. If you don’t act right now (in both senses of that phrase), empathetic female judges and ferocious female reporters and ambitious female senators and fed-up female COOs will step in and yank that power right out from under you. It will be ugly. Starting now, employers will investigate the first allegation and take whatever the most appropriate action might be—and certainly fire that powerful creep when it happens again.
How will we know when we’ve won? When a bit more than half of Congress and the Supreme Court and the upper echelons of every corporation and nonprofit are female. When we’re on our second female president. That’s when we’ll know that sexual harassment and gendered bullying and the various forms of discrimination are no longer holding back half the population.
The #MeToo movement is a wildfire moment, a moment of revolutionary insight. This kind of outrage will pass; human beings can’t sustain that feeling for too long. But if enough people take it to heart and begin the hard slog to institutionalize protections against harassment—then we will create a culture where everyone knows that pussy grabs back. If we don’t, then I promise you we’re in for another wave of wildfire.
E.J. Graff is the managing editor of the Monkey Cage at the Washington Post and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.
Astra Taylor on the Future of Democracy
The week Donald J. Trump was elected president, I wrapped filming on a political documentary that will be released this fall. In my own strange, roundabout way, I was becoming a convert to the cause of democracy at precisely the moment a huge swath of liberal Americans had suddenly decided that something was shockingly, horribly wrong with the system of government they had long taken for granted as the best in the world. The seeds of the project were planted in 2011, when social movements swept the globe, and the call for “real democracy” could be heard from protesters operating in radically different contexts—the 15-M movement in Spain, the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt, Occupy Wall Street in the United States. Even as a participant in and chronicler of that wave of activism, I was uncertain about just what we meant by democracy and why we seemed to want it so badly.
It wasn’t that I was ever against “democracy”; it just wasn’t a term that deeply appealed to me. Justice, equality, freedom, solidarity, socialism—those ideals all resonated—but democracy struck me as mealy-mouthed, hollowed out, and corrupted. That authoritarian leaders and idealistic anarchists are equally inclined to praise “democracy” only seemed to prove its lack of meaning. Stepping back and taking a longer, more philosophical view inspired a renewed commitment not to democracy per se—which has never truly existed—but to what we might call the “democratic project,” the ongoing and admittedly always imperfect attempt of the many to wrest power from the few in order to create a society that is more free and equal than the status quo. “Democracy” may be the word used to describe our broken political system, but it’s also a shape-shifting principle that remains, to this day, profoundly threatening to power-hungry elites.
Unfortunately, in the wake of Trump’s rise, instead of rallying to fulfill democracy’s still-untapped potential, a growing number of pundits are lamenting democracy itself or predicting its imminent demise, as though our political system reached its apex before the last election and there is nowhere left to go but downhill. Trump’s victory has inspired a cottage industry of articles and tomes, the bleak mood exemplified by a recent New York Times headline “Is There Something Wrong With Democracy? ” and book titles like How Democracies Die. According to one popular strand of liberal commentary, it is the people themselves who are, ironically, guilty of endangering democracy—after all, Donald Trump won the election legally despite his repeated claims it was rigged in the other candidate’s favor. This attitude was perfectly captured by the title of another recent book, The People vs. Democracy, by the political commentator Yascha Mounk. In other words, foolhardy voters, their judgments marred by ignorance and motivated by bigotry, have endangered our fragile republic and put a solipsistic wannabe-autocrat in the White House.
I’m not denying that there’s truth to this view—it’s pretty obvious that electing Trump was a terrible mistake the world may not recover from. But I think we should switch the lens through which we comprehend the current crisis. The problem isn’t simply, or even primarily, that the masses made a terrible mistake. The problem is that we have a political system that enables such an outcome by design. Who or what ultimately deserves more blame for Trump’s victory: the people (who voted for Hillary Clinton by a large margin according to the popular vote) or the structure of our political system (which handed Trump victory thanks to the outdated Electoral College)?
Under even marginally more democratic conditions, Trump wouldn’t have stood a chance. Radically more democratic results could be achieved across the board by any variety of commonsense tweaks to our electoral procedures: widespread automatic voter registration; mandatory voting; making Election Day a national holiday; restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies; putting independent commissions in charge of redistricting to do away with partisan gerrymandering; adopting ranked-choice voting (as may happen in Maine); implementing proportional representation instead of first-past-the-post or winner-take-all arrangements; abolishing the Senate principle of equal state representation that privileges the populations of small states over larger ones; doing away with the Electoral College in favor of electing the president by popular vote. The impact of foreign disinformation on social media pales in comparison with these homegrown structural hindrances, which dramatically dilute the impact of citizens’ votes or disenfranchise them altogether.
We should democratize society from bottom to top. But we can’t rethink democracy if we haven’t thought about it in the first place.
Of course, as any teenage reader of A People’s History of the United States can tell you, the American system was not intended to be democratic. In the early days of the republic, Indigenous and enslaved people, women, and poor white men were all denied the most basic right of citizenship—the right to cast a ballot. While we have made remarkable democratic gains over the past two centuries, mainly thanks to the marginalized—those pesky “people” of Mounk’s title—agitating for rights and access, our present-day system hardly qualifies as one where the people rule. Indeed, as numerous academic studies show, the preferences of regular citizens have virtually no impact on public policy, while the agenda set by special interests and plutocrats routinely prevails. This needs to change, and it will only change if we organize ourselves and fight back.
Unfortunately, what I found working on my documentary is that most people have a hard time defining the word “democracy” in any meaningful way. No one I met on the street told me that democracy was a process of increasing egalitarian inclusion only made possible by tireless agitators, even though that’s a perfectly legitimate way to define it. Alarmingly, some college-educated people couldn’t define the concept at all. “Democracy,” one recent graduate said to me without a shred of irony, “isn’t that where they tell you what to do?” When we think about democracy, clichés fall out of our mouths like tumbleweeds rolling across a desert of thoughtlessness: Democracy is “free and fair” elections, “the peaceful transfer of power,” or, for many people, it’s “freedom” pure and simple, as though that clarifies matters at all.
This may seem to lend credence to the view that “the people” aren’t worthy of “democracy.” If they can’t even define the term, it’s no wonder they flocked to a fake-news-fueled charlatan. But I think that’s the wrong conclusion. While some citizens are worryingly misinformed or utterly tuned out, the vast majority of the people I spoke to during the process of filming cared deeply about the state of the world. They were worried for their communities and for their country, upset about inequality, anxious about making ends meet, and angry that they felt ignored and unrepresented. In the end, I felt that many people couldn’t define democracy in complex or interesting ways because it wasn’t something they experienced day to day: not during the media and celebrity-driven circus of national elections that happen every four years, nor at their jobs where they have to keep their heads down and are treated like cogs in a machine, nor at their schools where they are encouraged to see themselves more as consumers seeking a return on investment than as citizens educating themselves to participate in the common good. For all our pomp, democracy isn’t something Americans actually do that much. No wonder we struggle to define it.
This needs to change. We should democratize society from bottom to top. But we can’t rethink democracy if we haven’t thought about it in the first place. Only a pathological structure in desperate need of an overhaul would allow someone as ill-equipped, self-obsessed, and stunningly unpopular as Trump to rise to the top of its ranks. So here’s a little sliver of silver lining: Donald Trump, and the social crisis his reign portends, offers us an opportunity to take stock. Sure, life was better before he took office and you could look at Twitter without having a heart attack, but long before Trump announced his candidacy the world was plagued by unsustainable inequality, doomed military operations, systemic racism, and impending climate catastrophe. Instead of being nostalgic for the comfortable age of Obama, we should seize this opportunity to reflect on what the word “democracy” even means. Only then is there a chance that the future might be better, dare I say greater, than the past that was never democratic to begin with.
Astra Taylor is a writer, organizer, and filmmaker.
Reynaldo Anderson on the Future of Afrofuturism
These days, it’s not uncommon to see “Afrofuturism” in the headlines of the New York Times or on the lips of television’s talking heads. In large part, the wider recognition of this cultural and philosophical movement is a result of the massively successful Black Panther film. The blockbuster Marvel movie centers on a warrior king named T’Challa who rules an African nation-state called Wakanda. The story revolves around the political idealism of T’Challa and the political radicalism of his cousin Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. The film’s fictional country is a black utopia, boasting advanced technology, gender equality, and a highly intellectual society that has successfully resisted European colonialism and imperialism.
In light of the modern plights of black people across the African continent and the African diaspora, which range from climate change and refugee crises to police brutality and income inequality, Wakanda embodies our collective yearning for something beyond the problems associated with racialized oppression and neglect. But while Wakanda and its royal hero might be what most people are currently associating with Afrofuturism, the movement neither begins nor ends there. In truth, Afrofuturism is more than aesthetics and entertainment—it’s the ongoing project of black self-determination. The still emerging pan-African social philosophy has fostered revolutions and social change in the past and will most certainly be behind resistance efforts in the future.
The Haitian Revolution is arguably the spiritual genesis of Afrofuturism as a form of real-world rebellion. The uprising of enslaved Africans began in 1791, in the French colonial territory of Saint-Domingue, with a vodou ceremony under the moonlight. By 1804, the revolutionaries had beaten back the colonial power. More than 50 years before the United States had ended the Civil War, Haiti became the first nation in world history to form as a result of a rebellion of enslaved people.
This revolution became the wellspring of the black speculative imagination for freedom and autonomy that inspired leaders like Denmark Vesey, who started a thwarted slave revolt in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822; Marcus Garvey, the pan-Africanist who tried to establish a superpower for the people of the African diaspora in the early 20th century; Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister of Ghana after the country gained its independence from Great Britain, in 1957; and 1960s American civil rights leaders like Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton, who advocated for self-defense against the violence of racism. Thanks to Haiti’s triumphant inception, these subsequent leaders could dream of transcending what the early Afrofuturist W.E.B. Du Bois described as the “color line,” which makes us feel like outcasts even in the nations where we were born and raised.
I was pulled into the orbit of Afrofuturist thought in the late 90s, while working on a dissertation on the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. It was the party’s co-founder Huey P. Newton who once said, “Black Power is giving power to people who have not had power to determine their destiny.” For me, Afrofuturism is about putting that ethos into action, through speculative art and real-world rebellions.
Fifty-two years after the creation of the Black Panther comic-book character and the formation of the Black Panther Party, the Afrofuturist yearning for self-determination continues. It’s what drove millions of black people to the theaters to experience the mythos of Wakanda, a place that is untouched by the transatlantic slave trade or colonialism, a place impossible to exploit, conquer, or gentrify. But more than selling movie tickets, Afrofuturism is still inspiring actual movements. Black people all across the globe are attempting to fulfill the promise of Afrofuturism in the real world today, and they are doing it with a pan-African sensibility.
For example, the entrepreneur Isaac Muthui is developing Nurucoin, a synthetic currency using blockchain technology that could allow Africans across the continent to insulate themselves from the instability of the Western international financial system. Like the Haitian Revolution, at the core of this idea is the will to create a future for black people that is protected from the whims and tyranny of those who oppress us.
And while the extremely advanced technology wielded by African characters of the Black Panther film might seem far-fetched to some, the truth is that many African nations today are deeply invested in technological and scientific innovation. Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa all have space agencies and are launching their own satellites. Some might scoff at these efforts, but they are incredibly practical in giving these nations actual autonomy over some of their biggest concerns. For example, flooding has wracked Nigeria in recent years, killing thousands and displacing millions. This extreme weather has been linked to climate change caused by the excessive emissions of nations like the United States and China. But through its space program, Nigeria has a new tool it can use to fight back. The country’s satellite allows for documenting and monitoring climate patterns, updating maps, and tracking populations.
But what’s most fascinating in terms of Afrofuturism in the real world is the way its ethos inspires black people to unify and deepen our interdependence. In Haiti, during the late 18th century, it was the call of freedom that helped rally black people together to revolt and inspire future leaders. Today, in the Awra Amba village of northern Ethiopia, it’s the desire for equality and generosity that’s driving people to forge a new kind of forward-thinking community in pursuit of their own version of a 21st-century Afrocentric utopia.
Led by an egalitarian leader, the villagers of Awra Amba reject traditional gender roles. Empowering women to do the same work as men has helped them become more productive than neighboring communities. Their average income is twice the average in the region. And they use those profits to invest in public healthcare, schools, and elder care, ensuring that the next generation will have more than their forebears.
These sorts of progressive, innovative initiatives and communities can be found all over the African diaspora and the African continent. Their existence and prevalence is a reminder of the fact that our fight for freedom didn’t end in Haiti in 1804, or America in 1865, or the unfinished social revolution of South Africa in 1994. The immense interest Black Panther has ignited in Afrofuturism is a signal that we’re ripe for even more acts of self-determination. We are going to keep trying to tear down the color line of racism and social inequality, and build a real future for all black people to enjoy and thrive.
Dr. Reynaldo Anderson is the co-editor of several books on race and futurity, including Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness. He currently serves as an associate professor of communications and is the chair of the humanities department at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis.
Ngozi Erondu on the Future of Global Health
If we make the right choices now, the future of global healthcare could be bright. Here’s my vision of how that might play out:
Today, in 2068, our world is more connected than ever before. Theoretically a single sneeze harboring certain bacteria could start an international epidemic in mere minutes; yet according to my grandmother Ada, our world is safer than it was in her day. Now when she recounts her days traveling around the world as a young infectious disease epidemiologist in 2018, I am often astonished at how far humanity has come in just five decades. Our current global healthcare system is a testament to a concerted international effort to empower local communities to protect their own health and a true commitment toward democratizing innovation.
In Grandmother Ada’s day, she fought tirelessly against proposed cuts to the Global Health Security Agenda, a partnership led by wealthy countries, and she advocated for more funding and improved medical and research capacity in low-income-country health systems. Well, she and her colleagues around the world were successful, and that started the dissolution of the broken cycle of aid flowing from the sometimes-draconian, sometimes-well-intentioned wealthier Northern nations to the sometimes-reluctant and sometimes-insatiate South.
Back then, the conversation centered on “donor fatigue” and “broken institutions,” instead of asking the beneficiaries of aid what it was that they really needed. The argument was that this was, inherently, a useless notion since poor people in many of these countries were often at the mercy of corrupt government officials who sought to increase their own wealth rather than improve the health of their people. It just made more sense for decisions to be made for them, using the latest findings from a well-funded, randomized control trial. Of course.
But as more and more research emerged about the effectiveness of locally driven solutions to stop disease outbreaks and curb health-adverse behaviors, the conversation became more nuanced and more meaningful. People started to question whether a world where the lion’s share of funding, expertise, resources, technology, and innovation were dominated by rich countries was a world where health issues in poor countries could really be overcome.
Then a breakthrough came at the 2025 World Health Assembly, when several grassroots organizations from African and Asian countries demanded a hearing on locally led initiatives to decrease maternal deaths. They explained that they were tired of hearing that people giving birth in their countries were more likely than those in higher-income countries to die during childbirth, and they told story after story about their successes in reversing that reality. They had created community systems to monitor pregnant women in their villages, and they had enlisted local businesses to contribute toward building roads to hospitals. They had equipped health facilities in every village with lifesaving medicines. They had started home visits to newly married couples and educated families on health-facility births, essential medications and supplements, and planning for delivery. They had even integrated traditional practices that supported positive health outcomes.
Today, people want to know what’s happening in their communities as well as what is happening in surrounding areas. So, health data is open source, always up to date, and available on numerous platforms.
While they did find it challenging to educate enough of their own community members to be midwives, nurses, doctors, and trained pharmacists, they did not ask for readymade expat alternatives. Instead, they asked for access to technology. Then they asked the world to stop relying on institutions to save them; they were ready to save themselves.
After this watershed moment showing the effectiveness of local efforts came the Era of Aid Reform. Governments and charitable organizations installed longer-term funding strategies to improve all aspects of health systems including subsidizing and increasing the number of healthcare training programs and university courses around the world. Then non-health institutions and private businesses were given an extra push to work with governments to create an environment that was health-promoting. For example, in Nigeria, once home to the most polluted city in the world, local councils created policies on industrial waste removal, and businesses that financed the waste system received tax subsidies. During this era, countries doubled and even tripled their spending on health—especially on universal health coverage. With a healthier populace and fewer people being thrown into catastrophic financial hardship because of healthcare costs, economies began to flourish, and disparities within, and between, countries began to decrease.
On this more equal playing field, a revived focus on science, technology, and innovation not only took place, but was democratized, and the world saw an increasing number of technological solutions coming from the once rudimentary laboratories of the Global South. Today, West Africa, once assailed by one of the deadliest Ebola outbreaks recorded, is home to a premier global med-tech hub. I was recently in Guinea, where scientists at the University of Conakry are pioneering bionic kneecap replacement surgery for octogenarians. And today, it’s unimaginable to think that archaic vaccine-preventable diseases once ravaged Yemen and Bangladesh. These diseases have been wiped away with global immunization rates for all vaccines well over 90 percent. The acceptance of health as a human right and a necessity for human progress has changed the world. The diminished reliance on central institutions and a shift to citizen responsibility is embedded in every community. Larger organizations still exist but are less byzantine and more localized.
If local and community vigilance had not been as strong as it is, how could humanity have safely utilized such technology as supersonic air travel? There were just too many unknowns in Grandmother Ada’s world. Today, people want to know what’s happening in their communities as well as what is happening in surrounding areas. So, health data is open source, always up to date, and available on numerous platforms. Half a century ago, traveling from measles-infested Europe to influenza-oppressed North America meant that not only were you risking your health but also that you were exposing all plane passengers to your bug of choice. Shrinking global health has changed all this.
I’m heading to Santiago, Chile, and I just checked an app that shows me the weather, immunization coverage, and real-time prescription trends of health providers there. It looks like there is an increase in urinary tract infections at the moment, so I’ll be careful; one thing that my grandmother’s generation did not get right was antibiotic resistance. But I believe this will not be the case with the new antibiotics that are finally being produced. Today both patients and doctors alike know that their actions impact the world.
Ngozi Erondu, PhD, is an assistant professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, an infectious disease epidemiologist, and co-founder of the Global Bridge Group, LLC.
George Turner on the Future of Taxation
On a global scale, the amount of tax that multinationals avoid is huge, around $500 billion a year according to Alex Cobham at the Tax Justice Network. On top of that are the estimates of the amount of private wealth stashed offshore, which range from $21 to $32 trillion.
This impacts all of our lives. Tax avoidance and evasion is a key driver of global economic inequality. The crushing housing costs and poor job security suffered by the young in many parts of the US and the UK have their roots in the failure of society to tax wealth properly.
Governments have been starved of revenue they could use to provide for the health and well-being of their citizens, resulting in the lack of good quality public-health provision in many parts of the world, to the lowering of regulatory standards and the slashing of welfare budgets that leads to many vulnerable people living in poverty.
When I first started looking at these issues, the widespread use of tax havens was seen as just standard practice in the business community.
But the work of investigative journalists and whistle-blowers around the world, from David Cay Johnston at the New York Times, to Nick Shaxson (the author of Treasure Islands), to Richard Brooks at Private Eye, and the whole team at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and their partners, as well as many others, have changed how the public views the offshore world. In 2013, my own contribution exposed how UK water companies were shifting billions into offshore tax havens via complex loan arrangements. Now, under the threat of nationalization, some are abandoning these structures.
But despite the widespread acceptance that we have a problem, we still seem far from a solution. Each scandal has led to days of headlines, outrage from politicians, and calls for action, and then little happening before the next scandal breaks.
So how can we break this endless cycle? The answer is not to fix the loopholes in the tax system, but to rethink it entirely.
First, let’s think about how corporation tax, and corporate tax avoidance, works.
Corporation tax is a tax on corporate profits. Companies spend money making their product and make money selling their product. What is left over is taxed. After that, a company can do whatever it likes with the cash. The boss can transfer it all to his bank account in Cyprus, and no corporate taxation will have been avoided.
Tax avoidance is the art of moving profits from higher-tax countries to lower-tax countries before tax is paid. If a company is entirely based in one country, that is hard to do.
But the rise of the multinational firm with operations throughout the world has led to new opportunities to shift profits and avoid tax, because multinational companies can choose to locate profits where they please.
Tech firms, for example, argue that most of the value they generate is in the algorithms and the technology they create. That technology can be put into a legal instrument such as a patent or an intellectual property right and then sold to an offshore company created solely to hold that piece of paper. Other parts of the tech firm then simply act as resellers of the technology, paying the “owner” of the technology a hefty fee each year for the right to use it and making little profit themselves. That way, money flows from real markets to tax havens.
Outside of the tech world, other companies can employ similar techniques, especially if they have a strong brand. In the Paradise Papers, it was revealed that Nike companies in Europe have paid billions to another Nike-owned company in Bermuda for the right to use the “swoosh” logo.
These tax ploys are obvious fictions. They put forward an idea that the value of technology and brands is not created by people, the software engineers, designers, and marketing specialists that create them, but by pieces of paper sitting in the desks of offshore service providers.
But if we look beyond these tax avoidance schemes, how should multinationals really be taxed? Under the current system, the answer is not straightforward.
The current international standard is for each tax authority to attempt to unpick each multinational company and to come up with an idea about how much profit is made in its country; this is known as the arm’s length principle. But making these sorts of calculations is not an easy thing for governments to do.
Take a company like Apple. It makes its money by selling highly priced computers, tablets, and phones. To bring those products to market, it employs designers in California, has its products manufactured in China, and employs sales and marketing people around the world. All of these people have contributed to the success of Apple, a company that has been built on brilliant design, innovative manufacturing processes, and the highly successful marketing campaigns that convince people that paying $1,000 for a phone is a good idea.
If Apple were to be taxed properly, tax authorities would apportion some part of the profits of the company to each part of the chain of companies involved in creating Apple products, but how do we work out how much of the profits of a $1,000 iPhone should go to one part of the chain or another?
To do that, governments need to come to a judgment about the value each part of the chain contributes to the product. This is not something that has a right or wrong answer. Economic values, just like moral ones, are highly subjective and depend a lot on who is judging them. How do you value the work of a Chinese laborer versus the work of a London-based marketing professional? I can guarantee you that your view will probably be different from that of a Chinese trade union official. When those judgments result in wealth being divided up between countries, they can become highly political.
The political nature of this problem was exposed when the European Commission ordered Ireland to collect 13 billion euros (about $16 billion) in back taxes from Apple to account for a tax avoidance scheme that had seen Apple suck money out of its European operations into Ireland, where it was allowed to collect tax-free. Immediately there were protests from all sides of American politics: The EU had no right to put its hands in the cash register; if anything, these were American profits, and the taxes being avoided were American taxes. Apple has appealed the EU’s decision through the courts, calling it nakedly political.
So what is the answer? Firstly, we need to give up on the idea that tax authorities can or even should make decisions about the individual value proposition of each company. In truth, not even CEOs have a clear and complete understanding of the real contribution each part of a company makes to its success. If such a thing were possible, you wouldn’t end up with so many bad, value-destroying decisions being made by company bosses.
An alternative system is to divide up the profits of a corporation and apportion them to countries according to how many sales and employees they have located there. Each country could then apply its national tax rate to those profits. Such an approach would cut out the tax havens, where currently much profit is generated on paper, but little economic activity takes place. It is a system already used in the US to apportion the profits of companies between different states.
After all, in the end, profits are made by people—both employees and consumers—and not pieces of paper.
George Turner is an investigative journalist based in London. He is a founder of Finance Uncovered, an international network of journalists working on tax and illicit finance.