Steve Bloom/The Olympian via AP Carbon Washington Campaign Organizer Ben Silesky leads a group of supporters and organization members into the Elections Office for the Washington Secretary of State in Olympia, Wash. Thursday, October 29, 2015, as they deliver signatures for Initiative 732. W ith Congress unable to pass meaningful regulations on climate, Washington state may be poised to approve the nation’s first-ever carbon tax, in what environmental advocates say could become a national model. But first, advocates will have to get past a formidable obstacle: the fossil-fuel industry. In mid-January after a nine-month signature-gathering campaign, Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman sent state lawmakers a ballot initiative that would attach a $15-per-ton tax on carbon emissions (which adds up to about 25 cents on a gallon of gas). The levy would gradually rise over the next 40 years. If the measure, dubbed Initiative 732, becomes law, Washington state would join California and a...
AP Photo/Charles Krupa Opponents of Kinder Morgan's proposed Northeast Energy Direct pipeline protest on Boston Common across from the Statehouse in Boston, Wednesday, July 30, 2014. L ess than a month after the Paris negotiations concluded with pledges by virtually every nation to reduce their greenhouse gases, a pair of lawsuits in Massachusetts and Rhode Island will test whether those states’ commitments to scale back their emissions are legally enforceable. The suits, brought by the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and other environmental groups, will help determine whether state laws that set greenhouse gas reduction targets can be used to compel those states to cut emissions and put the brakes on new fossil-fuel infrastructure. With Congress unable to pass meaningful reforms, state-level policy has become a critical piece of U.S. action on climate change. Just how far states will go to implement and enforce meaningful change, however, remains an open question. “This is a...
F or progressives, 2015 was a year of tumultuous debates over issues ranging from wage inequity to mass incarceration, campus sexual assault to global warming. Here at The American Prospect , our writers weighed in every step of the way. For our winter issue, Nancy Gertner asked whether renewed attention to campus sexual assaults can be reconciled with the imperative for due process. In the spring, the Prospect ’s 25th anniversary issue took on the 1 percent’s towering concentration of wealth and power, which has begun to threaten the foundation of our democratic experiment. In the summer, Justin Miller reported on a more encouraging trend—the small but burgeoning union movement among college and university adjuncts demanding equal pay from American higher ed. And in the fall, Peter Dreier and Aditi Sen explored how the same Wall Street speculators behind the mortgage crisis are at it again, securitizing rental properties in a frighteningly familiar way. We also had stories on...
(AP Photos/Matt Dunham) Public health advocates were among those demonstrating at the recent Paris climate talks. W ith their landmark accord following talks in Paris, world leaders have hammered out not only the first global commitment to combat climate change, but arguably the most significant public health treaty of our time. “The stakes are high,” World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan told negotiators on December 8. “A ruined planet cannot sustain human lives in good health.” Chan’s sobering words echoed a June report by the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change that warned global warming could wipe out a half-century of public health gains. That has helped fuel a movement to combat climate change among health-care professionals, who are tackling both global warming's impact on public health as well as their own carbon footprint. The report also warned that much of that damage is already being done. During the talks, Beijing’s record-breaking—and...
Over the past few months, Bernie Sanders has repeatedly declared that the top one-tenth of 1 percent of U.S. earners own nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That claim has drawn the skeptical scrutiny of PolitiFact, which attributed it to a study by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman late last year. PolitiFact’s verdict: Mostly True.
But a new study released Wednesday by the Institute for Policy Studies shows that Sanders is spot on—and that he may even be underestimating the nation’s yawning wealth gap. Not only do the top one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans own more than most Americans put together, but the nation’s top 20 richest people own as much wealth as the entire bottom half of U.S. earners. That’s a sliver about 15,000 times smaller than the already superrich one-tenth of 1 percent.
Put another way, the 20 individuals who possess more wealth between them than 152 million Americans can fit together comfortably inside one Gulfstream G650 luxury jet. And just who are these 20? Not surprisingly, the list includes the likes of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates; billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch; casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett.
Konstantin von Wedelstaedt/Public Domain
A Gulfstream G650 about to land.
“It’s a stunner,” says the study’s coauthor Chuck Collins, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank. “I think people haven’t fully connected the dots until now.”
While previous studies, like the Saez-Zucman paper that bolsters Sanders’ claims, have used Federal Reserve data on household wealth to explore stratification, Wednesday’s report for the first time compares those figures with a much smaller group, namely the Fortune 400 annual list of the wealthiest Americans. That group has a combined net worth of $2.34 trillion, the study found, more than a full 62 percent of Americans—more also than the nation’s entire black population.
But staggering as they are, these figures still don’t paint the full picture, says Collins. That’s because they only represent taxable wealth that is not held in offshore accounts or siphoned through complex tax loopholes. According to a separate study published earlier this year by the Boston Consulting Group, offshore tax havens represent as much as $10 trillion globally, with as much as one quarter of that held by individual Americans. That pool of secret wealth accounts for $200 billion in lost tax revenue every year, while another $100 billion is lost through such complex loopholes as the Grantor Retained Annuity Trust, a financial instrument that allows wealthy families to avoid gift taxes on large estates.
“It may be that we’re only seeing half the wealth,” says Collins. Moreover, he adds, publicly disclosed wealth is shrinking while undisclosed offshore assets expand: “Going forward, more of this wealth is going to vanish into these tax havens and trusts beyond the reach of any kind of reporting.”
Part of the study’s purpose, says Collins, is to put the debate over wealth inequality into a larger context. While such issues as the minimum wage and student debt tend to dominate the debate, other more arcane forces that concentrate wealth, such as tax avoidance and antitrust policies, draw less notice.
“It’s harder for the media to talk about those issues,” says Collins. “Part of our motivation for this study is to say we can raise the floor but we have to tackle these concentrations of wealth or they will continue to distort the democratic process.”