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Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

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What Could Go Right? Tax justice

If corporations and the 1% couldn't participate in tax gymnastics anymore

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

This is our weekly newsletter, What Could Go Right? Sign up here to receive it in your inbox every Thursday at 6am ET. You can read past issues here.

Trying to stay afloat in the deluge of Covid news about variants, we can forget the simple but inspiring fact that there are really smart, hardworking people on the case. Meet some of the ones working at Pfizer in this long read from STAT News, linked to above. Something you might not know is that Pfizer “grows” its own variants themselves—there’s no waiting around for something really bad to emerge. So far the Pfizer vaccine has proven successful against all of the variants, but the team there is already working on “an updated vaccine to prepare for the day when one could be needed,” with the goal of being able to roll out a new vaccine within 100 days. No wonder it sounds like quite a few of them could use some sleep.

As for us, we’re rolling out congratulations to countries with high vaccination numbers, whose ranks are growing steadily. You might be able to plan a trip to Singapore soon—they’re at 80% vaccinated. Iceland has topped 70%, with 0 deaths from COVID through most of the summer. (In recent days, a handful of deaths put the country’s total death toll at 33. Thanks to reader Jody for the story.) After a tragic wave of Covid cases and deaths, India has now vaccinated more than half of its eligible population. For a country of 1.4 billion people, that’s a serious milestone. And as of Tuesday, 70% of adults in the European Union are vaccinated. We’ve come a long way from the heavily criticized beginning of the EU vaccination effort:

Last week we cheered on the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) full approval of the Pfizer vaccine, expecting that it would lead to increased vaccine uptake. Indeed, that’s what seems to be happening. A new poll from Axios shows that hesitancy is crumbling due to the FDA approval as well as the resulting work and governmental vaccine mandates. “Fewer adults than ever now say they won’t take the shot,” the article says, “and in the past two weeks there has been a sharp increase in the share of parents who plan to get their younger kids vaccinated as soon as it’s allowed.” By the way, The New York Times thinks that the US Delta surge has probably peaked

Our new podcast is here! We think you’re going to like it. So much so that we’re going to deviate from our usual newsletter format and share a brief excerpt from our first episode with the author of the forthcoming book The Raging 2020s, Alec Ross. (We’ll be back to business as usual next week.) Alec, tell us about tax justice:

Alec Ross (AR): I don’t want to turn this into a “Did you vote for Trump? Did you not vote for Trump?” binary. We all know people who have been drawn into politics in a way that we might think of as destructive, who we would otherwise think of as being totally reasonable people. I’d rather work with them than with the guy at the country music bar in my native West Virginia, who, as soon as he heard that I worked for Barack Obama, said, “why did you work for that communist Muslim who is trying to sterilize young white women?” That’s the point at which I changed bar stools. We should spend our time trying to create a more inclusive social contract rather than trying to engage in naive acts of persuasion.

Emma Varvaloucas (EV): That’s fair. Which of course raises a very obvious next question. How do we repair the social contract? What’s the nitty gritty of that?

AR: There are a lot of specific things that we can do. Part of it has to do with taxes. It struck me, writing this book, that I paid a substantially lower percentage of my income in taxes than the student loan debt-laden research assistants who worked for me. Why? Because the money I make is largely a function of the appreciation of capital, and the research assistants who worked for me, what they earned is a function of the labor that they put in. That’s really, really screwed up. When I hear my fellow members of the 1% defend that, it’s just not credible. It’s not just about “oh, you’re saying raise taxes.” What I’m calling for is more fair taxes. What I genuinely believe is that for the vast majority of the people in the world, that can and should mean that they’re paying less taxes.

So that’s an issue within the US tax system, but also internationally. In The Raging 2020s, I give an example of a dude named Marco buying a belt after having clicked on a Google ad. It’s a guy in Rome buying a belt from a belt maker in Florence, and I track the euros and cents of that transaction. The long and short of it is the belt maker has to pay the 21% VAT. Marco, the guy who bought the belt, dutifully pays his 40% in taxes. And Google, ultimately, for the money that they earned, ends up paying 0.07% tax because of a bunch of tax gymnastics. It might seem really geeky, but creating tax justice will give us the resources to pay for all of the sorts of things that we want and need the government to do, and will enable everyday middle-class and working-class citizens to pay less taxes. 

Zachary Karabell (ZK): Let me push you on that. There is the reality that since the mid-eighties, we’ve been in a golden age of capital. “Great to be capital, sucks to be labor” would be your easy equation. That’s been true in most of the developed world, but much less true in the developing world, where it’s actually been pretty good to be labor, because the starting point was either non-monetized or zero. The other way to look at it is that this has been, until COVID, the golden age of the emergence of what we used to call the developing world, and the stagnation of the developed world. You could design a much more equitable tax structure, but doing so wouldn’t create a golden age of labor, right? That, to me, is why the tax conversation ends up being politically satisfying and intuitively gratifying, but not systemically mollifying. So what do you do about that?

AR: I would argue that it is systemically mollifying, because in part what it does is transfer trillions of dollars to the public sector that wouldn’t otherwise be there. And those trillions of dollars in the public sector do things like pay for schools and high-speed rail. But to your point, which I’m very sympathetic to, how do you create a golden age of labor? Part of how you create a golden age of labor, in my opinion, is to make capital more accessible. When I think about the American dream, for example, the thing that most defined it for decades and decades was owning a home. Not very many Americans owned their home 100 years ago, and fewer still 150 years ago. And then we put a thumb on the scale that incentivized homeownership, and in so doing, we created the economic basis for the American middle class. 

What I want to do now—and full disclosure, one of the controversial ways in which I do this is the venture fund in which I’m a partner, we own between three and four percent of Robinhood. I radically believe in the virtue and value of making access to cap tables and stocks and other such things much more accessible to larger numbers of people. So my answer to how we bridge capital and labor, in part, is to make capital more accessible to middle-class and working-class folks. One of the not-so-secret sauces of Silicon Valley’s success, why startups drew in people, was because of employee ownership in the form of stock options. I want a world where more of our labor is participating in the ownership of companies that are being created and developed.

You can listen to the whole episode here.

Before we go, Hurricane Ida is still battering the US, leaving many without power. But it is no small thing that we did not see a repeat of Hurricane Katrina. We are not talking about catastrophic damage to the tune of $100 billion and almost 2,000 lives lost. Why? Because of a $14.5 billion storm risk-reduction system installed post-Katrina that largely worked.

Below in the links section, Veterans Affairs is launching a pilot program to fund the training of service dogs for veterans, 98 countries (and Airbnb) have pledged to house Afghan refugees, scientists in Oaska used stem cells to create the world’s first 3D-printed Wagyu beef, and more.


Our World in Data Head of Research Hannah Ritchie tweeted this breakdown—via the organization’s energy data set—of the share of electricity from low-carbon energy sources by country. Go Paraguay!  (And Sweden, France, et al.)

From us: Now that you’ve had a taste of our first podcast episode, why not eat the whole thing—and then go back for seconds? Our second episode is up and waiting for you, too! Our guests are Zeynep Ton, president of the nonprofit Good Jobs Institute, and Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law. They join us to examine how we might improve the future of work. Listen to it here.

Progress, Please

(Found good news? Tweet at us @progressntwrk or email.)

Other good stuff in the news

New Member Alert

Hubert Joly is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and serves on the boards of Johnson & Johnson and Ralph Lauren. Formerly, Joly was the chairman and CEO of Best Buy. He is the author of the national bestseller The Heart of Business.

Until Next Time

Until next Thursday: Try some pandemic yoga. Or just take a nap.

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas is the Executive Director of The Progress Network. An editor and writer specializing in nonprofit media, she was formerly Executive Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is the editor of two books from Wisdom Publications.