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Opening our borders will solve just about everything
A lot of people say we need to “save the planet” when what they really mean is we need to “save humans.”
The planet will be fine. I mean, it won’t—the sun will expand and consume the whole thing in about 5-8 billion years—but in the context of Earth as a planet? It doesn’t really matter if it heats up or freezes over or flames out in a ball of fire, that’s just what planets do.
What matters then is not whether we can save the planet—we can’t—but whether humans can survive on it until it dies (or until we become an interplanetary species, but I’ll leave that to the space operas to pursue). And it makes sense that we should want to protect as many people as we can from experiencing bad things while we’re here.
Can we do that? Yes. Even if the ice caps melt and the forests burn and parts of the world fall into the ocean as they’re predicted to do, as a species, we can still survive on this planet—even thrive. We’ll just have to move. People who live in areas that will become too hot will need to move to cooler areas. People who live in places that will eventually be underwater will need to move to places that will remain land. People who don’t have access to water will need to move to places that do have access to water.
In fact, moving will solve a lot of the challenges humans will face. As Parag Khanna says in his aptly titled book Move: The Forces Uprooting Us: “What is the best way for all of us to cope with the complex interplay of political upheavals and economic crises, technological disruption and climate change, demographic imbalances and pandemic paranoia? The answer to all of these questions can be summed up in one word: Move.”
We’ve been migrating for all of those reasons since the dawn of humanity. The only thing preventing us from moving now is our borders—our countries.
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There’s a good reason we have countries. As long as there was one conquering party, other parties had to defend themselves or become big enough to conquer back. Smaller parties—or ones without a military—were themselves conquered. As a result, the entire earth was claimed with little flags and we now have countries with militaries that can defend them. And that’s important—peace needs to be protected from those who want to keep conquering or fighting about stuff.
The problem with countries is that now we have these defined structures that make it very hard for people to move from bad countries (where bad stuff happens or bad climate change stuff is happening) to good countries (where good stuff happens and not as bad climate stuff is happening) because countries have to pay for all the good things they have (like militaries that protect them and cities that keep them safe and schools that educate them and healthcare systems that keep them healthy) and the thing that pays for all of that is citizens earning money, which is how the government makes money.
And now we’re in a quandary. Because if someone wants to move from a bad country to a good one, they might not be earning income—probably because it's illegal for them to do so—and thus they won’t be paying taxes. As a result, there might be more people living in a country than there are people paying for it, and we could very understandably get into a situation where a smaller portion of the people who live in a place are trying to pay for the larger portion of people who live in a place, and that could squeeze a country financially until it becomes one of the bad ones.
It seems to me then, that the obvious solution is to come up with a way for every single person who lives in a place to contribute taxes to it. And we can do that, not by taxing income—because most people entering a country are not earning income—but by taxing consumption. Now, it doesn’t matter if an emigrant makes money in our country, it only matters if they spend money. And every single person who lives in a place (or even visits a place) spends money from the very moment they arrive.
Yes, I’m suggesting we replace income tax with sales tax.
This is not a new idea—in fact, it was the method proposed by Alexander Hamilton in the federalist papers when we were establishing the United States treasury. More recently, the idea entered the modern lexicon as the FairTax, a popular talking point during the 2008 election. I was very into the plan back then—it effectively eliminates income tax, corporate tax, and capital gain tax, and replaces it with a flat-rate consumption tax for all new goods and services at 30 percent.
This is interesting because now every single person who lives in a place pays taxes to that place. And everyone pays the same tax rate as everyone else. If you’re a millionaire and I’m not but we both purchase a $500,000 home, we’ll both pay the exact same amount in taxes. But if you want to purchase a $20 million home, you’ll pay more in taxes. You don’t pay more in taxes because you earn more, you pay more in taxes because you spend more, and that just makes sense.
This has the additional benefit of curbing consumption, which we definitely need to do. Right now we dump 2.12 billion tons of waste into big piles every year and if we keep going at that rate it’s only a matter of time before we’re living in trash. If we tax consumption though, we might be more willing to fix our microwave instead of buying a new one. And as used items wouldn’t be taxed in this economy, we’ll have a thriving secondary market for our stuff.
Though many agree that a consumption tax would be better for the United States than an income tax, the only reason we haven’t made it happen is because of disputes about the details. Some people think it will work, others worry it won’t. Many want to do it, but a few argue the FairTax isn’t the best way to implement it. And then there’s the short-term economic hurdle we’ll have to be prepared for when it’s first introduced and people adapt their spending habits as a result—no one wants to be blamed for a downturn.
In other words: It’s very difficult to make decisions as a big group, and that is how our government makes decisions right now. I plan to come back to how we can eliminate the “too many cooks in the kitchen” effect in a future essay, but for the sake of this one, let’s just imagine we implement the consumption tax so we can come back to solving the one thing we came here to do: giving people the ability to move freely about the planet as they’ll need to.
Ok so we replace income tax with sales tax. Now the government is earning money from all its citizens, and it can use that money to make the country nicer for all of the people who live here. Well now we can let people in, and they’ll be paying taxes right away. In fact, it’s in our best interest to let more people in, because the more people who live here and spend money here, the richer our country becomes. And that will allow our country to do more good things like building new cities and new housing and providing all the great things countries provide for them.
This is important—even necessary. One Gallup World Poll found that “more than 40 percent of adults in the poorest quartile of countries ‘would like to move permanently to another country’ if they had the opportunity.” And that trend is likely to continue. There are whole countries that are suffering climate disasters, bad economies, and authoritarian governments, but they can’t leave because we can’t afford to take them in. Not with our tax dollars, our countries shout!!!!
But what if it’s with their tax dollars?
With some background checks and the right tax policy, opening up the borders would not only allow emigrants to contribute to our economy but, according to Michael Clemens, doing so would grow our global economy by 20-60 percent! As the director of migration, displacement, and humanitarian policy at the Center for Global Development, Clemens says we’re not taking advantage of half the world’s population who want to work, but can’t because they live in countries with no economy. He argues restricting emigration is effectively leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk.”
“Divide the world into a ‘rich’ region, where one billion people earn $30,000 per year, and a ‘poor’ region, where six billion earn $5,000 per year,” he says in his paper. “Suppose emigrants from the poor region have lower productivity, so each gains just 60 percent of the simple earnings gap upon emigrating—that is, $15,000 per year. This marginal gain shrinks as emigration proceeds, so suppose that the average gain is just $7,500 per year. If half the population of the poor region emigrates, migrants would gain $23 trillion—which is 38 percent of global GDP.”
In other words, just by allowing people to emigrate from bad countries to good ones, half the people double their income, eliminating poverty worldwide while ushering in a booming worldwide economy. And the countries emigrants move to don’t lose in this transaction, they win, becoming more affluent as newcomers contribute to the economy, buying more things, adding more jobs so we can make more things, growing their incomes over time, and having children who earn even more and spend even more—all of them paying taxes in their new country.
Not only would our global economy skyrocket, but think of how society would progress if we unlocked half the world who, right now, are being underutilized by bad, economically ruinous, and authoritarian governments?
“We have wealthy countries across North America and Europe with 300 million and counting aging people and decaying infrastructure—but roughly 2 billion young people sitting idle in Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia who are capable of caring for the elderly and maintaining public services,” Khanna says in Move. “We have countless hectares of arable farmland across depopulated Canada and Russia, where millions of destitute African farmers are driven from their lands by doubt. There are countries with sterling political systems yet few citizens, such as Finland and New Zealand, but also hundreds of millions of people suffering under despotic regimes or living in refugee camps. Is it any surprise that record numbers of people have been on the move?”
There can be no doubt: humans will need to be able to move freely about the planet—this is how we’ll survive climate change and even poverty—and that’s something I’m very much exploring in my utopian novel. In fact, I take this idea one step further, imagining a world where countries, who become more affluent by letting more people in, have to start competing for citizens and thus have to become very beautiful places for people to live. I’m calling it “country capitalism” and I’ll talk about that in my next essay (and in my novel chapters).
I’m curious: How are you handling our ability to move in your art?
Thank you for thinking through utopia with me!