The US Government Should Declare Climate Emergency

BY MEAGAN DAY, Jacobin, July 2019

The havoc that will soon be wrought by climate change is unfathomable. It’s a crisis — one which Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Sen. Bernie Sanders demanded yesterday the US government recognize. It’s a needed step towards winning a Green New Deal.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks during a rally at Howard University May 13, 2019 in Washington, DC, for the Green New Deal. Alex Wong / Getty Images

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To justify his administration’s barbaric actions at the Southern border, Donald Trump is using the language of crisis. In May 2019, a scaremongering statement from the White House declared that the United States “has been invaded by hundreds of thousands of people coming through Mexico.” This “sustained influx of illegal aliens” is “overwhelming our schools, overcrowding our hospitals, draining our welfare system, and causing untold amounts of crime,” the administration said.

This, of course, is bullshit. The United States is currently seeing a net outflow of undocumented immigrants. And even if we weren’t, these people have a right to migrate in order to create a life free from wanton violence and economic devastation — chaos largely created by the United States.

Immigrants do not “overwhelm” us; they are us, and their presence in this country does not constitute a crisis. Their abuse at the hands of our government, however, absolutely does.

The Trump administration recently invoked the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to justify its inhumane treatment of immigrants on US soil. This struck Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon as unjustifiably hypocritical. What if we used the language of crisis to instead describe an actual mass emergency: the looming threat of climate disaster, which the Trump administration categorically neglects and which, unlike the presence of undocumented immigrants, requires drastic and immediate political action in order to ensure public safety?

Blumenauer has teamed up with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to propose legislation declaring global warming a national and international emergency. The resolution was submitted to the House of Representatives on Tuesday. In order to address the crisis at hand, it calls for “a national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization of the resources and labor of the United States at a massive-scale to halt, reverse, mitigate, and prepare for the consequences of the climate emergency and to restore the climate for future generations.”

The legislation may have been inspired by Trump’s duplicity, but the idea did not spring fully formed from Blumenauer’s mind. It is a response to climate activists, who have been increasingly demanding that national, state, and local governments around the world declare the climate crisis an emergency.

In April, the new group Extinction Rebellion occupied central London for ten days. “The science is clear: It is understood that we are facing an unprecedented global emergency,” says the group. “We are in a life or death situation of our own making. We must act now.” Extinction Rebellion’s first demand is that governments “must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.”

Declarations of emergency are also the most urgent demand of The Climate Mobilization, a US-based climate activist group waging a campaign to pressure governments to sign on. The group states that “declaring Climate Emergency is the critical first step to launching the comprehensive mobilization solution required to rescue and rebuild civilization.”

In response to the Extinction Rebellion protests, the United Kingdom House of Commons declared emergency in May. Similar declarations around the world are pouring in. To date, climate emergency has been declared by 740 jurisdictions globally, one of which is New York City, which declared emergency in June. Los Angeles appears set to follow suit. The joint resolution proposed by Blumenauer, Ocasio-Cortez, and Sanders would make the United States the seventeenth and largest nation to heed the crisis declaration call from climate activists.

It remains to be seen whether the US federal climate emergency resolution has the support needed to pass into law. The United States government sustains intimate ties with the fossil fuel industry, ties that have so far prevented political representatives from touching anything that opens the door, as this resolution does, to a national mobilization to cease fossil fuel extraction and transition to a zero-emissions economy. Even though the resolution is nonbinding, it clearly gestures toward the implementation of a Green New Deal which, as envisioned by Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, would spell the end of the fossil fuel era.

There’s another reason legislators may be hesitant, despite clear evidence that we are indeed facing a climate emergency, to vote for a bill that paves the way for a Green New Deal. The GND isn’t just about saving the planet: it’s about doing so in a way that builds the power of working people and erodes inequality, on the basis that the current capitalist system brought us to the brink of destruction to begin with.

To this end, the GND would create millions of green jobs, and insists that they come with “a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States.”

American politicians aren’t just beholden to the fossil fuel industry; they’re beholden to the capitalist class writ large. Reducing unemployment and building worker power — including providing universal healthcare, education, and housing, also outlined in the GND — makes exploitation harder, which means profits for the few will sink even as living standards for the many improve. There’s no doubt that the GND will face tremendous pushback in the halls of power, and that pushback may begin with shooting down this declaration.

The best shot we have at muscling this bill through is to raise hell in the streets. It’s sound politics: when the people in power don’t want to budge, the majority must create pressure from the outside to force their hand. It’s no easy task. But if people fight hard enough, we might be able to get the United States — the biggest carbon polluter in world history — to formally acknowledge the real crisis at hand.

Here’s What Bernie Could Do in Power


From climate change to criminal justice and student debt: here’s what Bernie Sanders could do if he had executive office and mass popular support, but faced a hostile Congress.

Bernie Sanders speaking with supporters at a campaign rally in Phoenix, AZ in July 2015. Gage Skidmore / Flickr


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Abolish the Billionaire Class

Luke Savage

A Plan to Win Socialism In America

Peter Gowan

Here’s What Bernie Could Do in Power

Meagan Day

Ilhan Omar Is Not Antisemitic

Seth Ackerman

Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in the United States. If he were to make it through a crowded Democratic Party primary field, successfully dodging attacks from party elites who recognize he’s not their ally, there’s no question that he could win the presidency in 2020. It’s an exciting prospect for those of us who believe, as Sanders once put it, that “this is class warfare, and we’re going to stand up and fight.”

But a democratic socialist in the White House is far from a silver bullet. The Supreme Court will be lost to liberals, let alone socialists, for many decades to come, and a majority of Congress will likely be composed of some combination of conservative Republicans who are bent on austerity and centrist Democrats who are more than willing to meet them halfway. Even if their numbers increase exponentially, progressives like Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who share Bernie’s economic and social justice agenda, will be in the minority under a Sanders administration.

We should have healthy reservations about what a lone democratic socialist could accomplish at the helm of the capitalist state. In this political environment, what could Sanders do besides fight and lose, negotiate and concede, inevitably disappoint?

Executive orders are powerful tools for the president, who often issue hundreds of them for both good and ill. There are the soaring heights of Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation, and there’s also Trump’s recent directive permitting more federal logging on public lands. Franklin D. Roosevelt used 3,522 executive orders to do things like create the Civil Works Administration, which gave jobs to the unemployed, and the Rural Electrification Administration, which brought power to the rural poor; he also used an executive order to initiate the internship of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Executive orders are ephemeral: they can be reversed by the president who comes next, overturned by the Supreme Court, and in some cases nullified by new legislation. To make lasting change, we can’t rely on directives from a single politician. We need a mass movement from below that can send progressive and democratic-socialist representatives into the state, while mounting protests, strikes, and other disruptive activities that create crises outside of the state, to which officials are forced to respond.

But building that movement is not mutually exclusive with aggressive executive action. If a hypothetical President Sanders were to pass hundreds or even thousands of orders intended to curb the power of capitalists, it would be a major boon to extra-parliamentary movements.

First, ambitious executive orders can expand the popular imagination and raise expectations. Policy ideas that once seemed unfeasible can be instantly legitimated, and so can the politics that animate them. Second, adjustments made by executive order that mitigate ruling-class power make it easier for workers to organize and participate in political activity aimed at longer-term change.

The Right has caught onto the fact that dramatic shifts in policy have enormous potential to alter the balance of power. Donald Trump’s barrage of executive orders is a case in point. From instituting a discriminatory travel ban to ordering the construction of a border wall, he has moved political goalposts and established horrifying norms in American politics, even as fights have ensued in the courts and in Congress.

A President Sanders wouldn’t be able to bring society’s masters to heel alone, but he would be obligated to use every tool at his disposal, including executive orders. Here are just a few examples of the kind of measures he could issue in office. This list is far from comprehensive, but it demonstrates the power of a single president to intervene and to create new political possibilities — in this case for the many, instead of the few.


By executive order, a president could set aggressive greenhouse gas and energy use reduction goals across the federal government, including the military (the Department of Defense is one of the world’s worst polluters). He could direct all appropriate executive branch agencies — including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department, and the Army Corps of Engineers — to account for the greenhouse gas impacts of any proposed infrastructure project, and declare that any project with the potential to exacerbate climate change should be rejected.

“This will inevitably lead to litigation,” explains Basav Sen, Climate Justice Project Director at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). “Courts will eventually allow some of these projects to proceed, but this is a very important delaying tactic, and it creates a roadblock because the industry will have to fight a court battle against the federal government for every piece of harmful infrastructure they try to build. Some of them will be blocked and all of them will be significantly slowed down, sinking capital and making it harder to build new fossil fuel infrastructure.”

Sanders could also issue an executive order directing federal agencies to account for environmental justice impacts of all proposed infrastructure projects, Sen adds, and then reject the ones which do disproportionate harm to communities of color and the poor.

He could also issue an executive order to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. “The Paris agreement is fundamentally flawed,” says Sen. “Its goals are not ambitious enough and it is entirely voluntary. But that being said, it is still important for us to be part of the global community of responsible nations, and actually engage with this process and contribute in the ways that we can to global climate action.”

A President Sanders could establish an interagency task force to lay out the parameters of a Green New Deal. He could also stop all lease sales for coal, oil and gas extraction, uranium mining, and other forms of mining and logging on federal land. Finally, he could bar any company with environmental violations in the last ten years from securing federal contracts. Taken together, these executive orders would push American climate policy in a dramatically more sustainable direction, making it harder for business to degrade the planet for profit.

Foreign Policy

The United States has the most far-reaching military presence in world history. By executive order, President Sanders could “withdraw troops from countries around the world where they are deployed,” says Phyllis Bennis, Director of the New Internationalism project at IPS, including places where they are “carrying out assassinations and other so-called counterterrorism actions, which are in violation of international law and which are not keeping us safer and are not keeping people in other countries safer.”

Sanders could issue an executive order declaring the official termination of the “Kill List,” a database of individuals that the Pentagon has flagged for capture or murder. He could also end all secret bombing campaigns. “In 2017 alone, there may be as many as six thousand civilians who have been killed in US-led coalition bombings in Iraq and Syria,” says Bennis. “It’s horrific. Secret bombings are clearly not secret to the people who are being bombed,” and yet they occur constantly, wasting money to destroy lives. As commander in chief, Sanders could end them unilaterally.

President Sanders could issue an executive order reestablishing the legitimacy of the War Powers Resolution, which requires Congressional consent to make war. Presidents have been violating this law for decades. The first successful assertion of Congress’s power to override executive warmaking since 9/11 came last year, when Sanders himself invoked the War Powers Resolution in a bill to end US support for Saudi intervention in Yemen. Sanders could issue an executive order establishing a policy of abjuring any military intervention not authorized by Congress, publicly affirming the antiwar and pro-democratic principles that would motivate his own compliance with the War Powers Resolution.

Sanders could also declare that no individual who has worked for a defense contracting company can be appointed to a federal agency. Issuing an order like this “would have the effect of redefining publicly what American interests are,” says Bennis. “Do the interests of the Pentagon reflect the interests of corporations, or of the US people?”

While the power of the purse belongs to Congress, Sanders could establish a commission to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the military budget, with a view to radically scaling it down. President Trump recently ordered a task force to identify bloat in the US Postal Service — why not create one to assess the most frivolous and destructive military the world has ever encountered?

Finally, the Pentagon currently has a program to provide free and low-cost military equipment to US law enforcement agencies. “That’s how you got an armored personnel carrier in the streets of Ferguson after Mike Brown was killed,” says Bennis. “And when they had it, they used it.” President Sanders could issue an executive order discontinuing this program, forestalling efforts to militarize domestic police and make war in American streets.

Criminal Justice

The structure of the criminal justice system poses unique challenges for the executive branch, since most of its activity occurs under state and local jurisdiction. Still, a president could chip away at the foundation of mass incarceration through certain executive orders, and could use others to send a powerful message.

Sanders could issue an executive order directing his Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to shutter federal private prisons completely, including immigrant detention centers, and cut all contracts with private prison companies.

Sanders could also issue an executive order directing the Department of Justice to abandon mandatory minimum sentences in federal prosecution, and to pursue non-carceral solutions for low-level offenders. The president also has the power to grant clemency to federal prisoners by executive order: President Jimmy Carter pardoned draft dodgers en masse in the wake of the Vietnam War, and Obama did the same for hundreds of drug offenders in his final days in office. Obama’s commutations applied selectively to inmates who had completed ten years of their sentence and who had behaved well in prison. Sanders could finish the job by pardoning every federally incarcerated drug offender sentenced under the draconian requirements of the War on Drugs, no matter how much of their sentence they’d served or whether they’d gotten a GED or held a job — criteria that were important to the Obama administration.

Similarly, while presidents can’t decide on absolute funding amounts, they can set priorities for how that funding is used within agencies. “The Department of Justice can say we’re not going to spend this billion dollars that would otherwise go to the Drug Enforcement Agency for law enforcement on pursuing and prosecuting drug dealers,” says Kara Gotsch, Director of Strategic Initiatives at The Sentencing Project. “Instead we want that money to be shifted. We want to take a billion dollars and invest in an intervention program trying to divert people with substance-use disorders into treatment, a community health-based approach. There’s so much that can be done at the administrative level to reprioritize strategies on how we address crime.”

Sanders could issue an executive order directing all agencies to stop civil asset forfeiture, the practice of seizing someone’s property merely on the suspicion that they’ve committed a crime. Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, placed limits on it, but they were rolled back. Sanders could declare an immediate end to the civil asset forfeiture across agencies, from the DEA and the FBI to the Department of Homeland Security.

By executive order, Obama “banned the box,” meaning the tick-box that compels federal employment applicants to disclose their criminal records. Trump has not rescinded the order yet, but he’s likely to get around to it sometime. If he does, Sanders can reissue the order with an extra provision: ban the box for federal contractors as well, since they are nearly as many of them as there are direct federal workers.

Finally, Sanders could take some risky moves with executive orders in an attempt to break new ground around criminal justice issues. For example, last year Sanders introduced a bill in the Senate to withhold federal anti-crime funding from cities that use a cash bail system. While funding is primarily the jurisdiction of Congress, an executive order could be a powerful gesture to legitimate the movement to end cash bail. In 2017, Trump issued a comparable order stripping sanctuary cities of eligibility for federal grants. Though it was swiftly declared unconstitutional by the courts, it had a major impact on the political atmosphere, escalating anti-immigrant sentiment and validating the idea that undocumented immigrants endanger US citizens.

If Sanders were to try the same tactic for cash bail, it might get struck down — but it would put the injustice of the cash bail system in the national spotlight, strengthening congressional efforts to pass a bill like his No Money Bail Act.


The United States is full of places that banks have decided it’s unprofitable to serve. This forces people to turn to predatory payday lenders and check-cashing operations, spending an average of 10 percent of their income on the exorbitant fees that “alternative” financial services charge. There’s a solution to this problem within our reach: federal law already requires the US Postal Service to have a brick-and-mortar post office in every zip code, and 60 percent of them are in zip codes with only one or no bank branches. President Bernie Sanders could issue an executive order directing the post office to begin offering public banking, ensuring that nobody will be kept from traditional financial services.

Besides simply avoiding certain neighborhoods, banks also engage in discriminatory lending. While they’re no longer allowed to deny loans to African Americans on racial grounds, for example, they can run complex risk-assessment algorithms that perpetuate racial bias, and simply hide behind the numbers when the fairness of their lending policies is questioned. Sanders could issue an executive order requiring all financial supervisory agencies to prioritize documenting and combating lending discrimination, not only reaffirming the spirit of the Fair Lending Act but also leaving a paper trail of disparate outcomes and potential corporate violators.

The Volcker Rule, which prohibits banks from using depositors’ money for the kind of risky speculation that led to the 2008 economic collapse, made Wall Street angry. Under Trump, federal bank regulators were put to work rewriting the rule to give bankers more leeway. Sanders could issue an executive order instructing all of these agencies — the Fed, the SEC, and the FDIC — to leave the Volcker Rule intact. And while he’s at it, Sanders could issue an order prohibiting Obama-style appointments of Wall Street bankers, lawyers, and lobbyists to agencies tasked with overseeing the finance sector.

In 2014, Obama issued an executive order setting the minimum wage for federal employees and contractors at $10.10 per hour — four dollars less than what analysts at MIT determined constituted a living wage. Sanders could issue an executive order correcting the problem, establishing a task force to determine the real living wage across the United States and setting the federal worker minimum accordingly.

Finally, Sanders could issue an executive order establishing new priorities across federal agencies that administer social programs. Last April, Trump issued an order stating that “many of the programs designed to help families have instead delayed economic independence, perpetuated poverty, and weakened family bonds” and instructing agencies to adhere to what it called the “Principles of Economic Mobility”: strengthening work requirements, reserving benefits only for the poorest (means-testing), reducing “wasteful spending by consolidating or eliminating Federal programs that are duplicative or ineffective” (austerity), and empowering the private sector to step in and solve problems currently delegated to the federal government (privatization).

Sanders could immediately reverse that order and issue one of his own, instructing agencies wherever possible to operate according to “Principles of Economic Equality,” such as universal program design instead of means-testing, decommodification instead of privatization, and redistribution instead of austerity.

Canceling Student Debt

Americans hold more than $1.5 trillion in student debt. It keeps tens of millions of people from buying homes and starting families, and locks them into jobs they don’t want, often more than one at a time, scrambling to make payments before interest gets out of control. What could a President Bernie Sanders do by executive order to address this crisis? For one thing, he could issue an executive order directing his secretary of education to erase all debt from fraudulent for-profit colleges.

During Obama’s tenure, activists pressured his education secretary, Arne Duncan, to cancel all the federally held debt incurred by students who pursued degrees at fraudulent for-profit colleges like Corinthian and ITT. But Duncan demurred. One of the rationales he gave, according to Ann Larson of the Debt Collective, was that the Department of Education didn’t have a mandate for such a dramatic move, since its leaders aren’t elected. An executive order from Obama would have undermined that rationale — but none materialized.

But that would still be only a drop in the bucket. What about students with degrees from typical nonprofit universities who are struggling to find a foothold due to their student debt burden? In 2015, 70 percent of college seniors graduated from nonprofit colleges with student debt.

Larson says a president could do something about that, too. “When Congress was first given the power to issue and collect student loans in 1958, the Department of Education also received a power from Congress called ‘compromise and settlement,’ which allows them to waive the right to collect on them,” says Larson. “And then the Higher Education Act in 1965 solidified that power in the hands of the secretary of education.”

Sanders could issue an executive order directing his secretary of education to immediately write off all student loan debt for which the federal government is the creditor, which is the majority of student loan debt in the United States. The executive order could also direct the Department of Education to assume all the debt of borrowers who owe money to private lenders, and write that off too, reducing Americans’ student loan burden from $1.5 trillion to zero.

According to economists’ estimates, immediate cancellation of all student debt would deliver a major windfall to the American economy, reducing unemployment by roughly 0.3 percent and boosting GDP by almost a trillion dollars over the next decade.

Democratic socialists have a far-reaching program for political change that needs to be measured in decades, not years. We can’t expect this change to happen overnight, nor for it to be enacted by a single politician. As Eugene Debs said, “I would not lead you into this promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else would lead you out.”

But much can be done in the present to both ameliorate suffering and pave the way for future transformations.

We know that reactionary measures from the top can sow division and resignation among working people, and present formidable material obstacles to resistance. By the same token, bold progressive action from the top can foster the emergence of socialism from below — as long as it is undertaken in the spirit of a slogan Sanders used during his 2016 campaign: “Not Me, Us.”


Abolish the Billionaire Class

Billionaires are the grotesque products of an exploitative, immoral economic system. We should get rid of them.

CEO and founder of Amazon Jeff Bezos participates in a discussion on September 13, 2018 in Washington DC at the Economic Club of Washington. Alex Wong / Getty

Our new issue, on the housing crisis and capitalism, is out now. Get a discounted subscription today.

Abolish the Billionaire Class

Luke Savage

A Plan to Win Socialism In America

Peter Gowan

Here’s What Bernie Could Do in Power

Meagan Day

Ilhan Omar Is Not Antisemitic

Seth Ackerman

Thanks in part to an ongoing reawakening of left politics amid rising inequality, questioning the tyranny of extreme wealth is fast becoming the stuff of mainstream political debate. And with the re-injection of class politics into the American political arena, there is growing momentum for previously unthinkable policies like a 70 percent top marginal rate and a sharply increased estate tax. (Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar also deserves credit for proposing an even higher top marginal rate of 90 percent).

The singling out of individual billionaires has also gained a foothold in mainstream politics, thanks in no small part, once again, to Bernie Sanders, who has made moral condemnation of the billionaire class, from Jeff Bezos to the Walton Family, his bread and butter. Asked about Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s prospective presidential run several weeks ago, for example, he curtly replied:

Why is Howard Schultz on every television in the country? Why are you quoting Howard Schultz? Because he’s a billionaire. There are a lot of people I know personally who work hard for a living and make forty, fifty thousand dollars a year that know a lot more about politics than Mr Schultz. But because we have a corrupt political system, anybody who is a billionaire, who can throw a lot of ads on television, suddenly becomes credible.

This sudden rupture in America’s longstanding political culture of obsequious deference to billionaires is overdue, to put it mildly, and the Democratic presidential primary race — which is going to run the gamut from progressives like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to billionaire-adjacent candidates and maybe even actual billionaires — will be a testing ground for pro and anti-billionaire arguments alike.

Likely for this very reason, some centrist opinion-makers seem keen to plant their flags somewhere in the middle of the debate (where else?), defending the ultimate existence of billionaires while arguing there could, potentially, be fewer of them, maybe. A recent illustration of this position was the New York Times op-ed by Times contributor Will Wilkinson, of the soft-libertarian Niskanen Center, entitled “Don’t Abolish Billionaires — Abolish Bad Policy Instead.”

Wilkinson rightly recognizes that “enthusiasm for radical leveling” is “blossoming into a mainstream mood.” But he cautions, “I hope that [prospective Democratic nominees will] stick up for the idea that it can be morally kosher to bank a billion and that the existence of virtuous three-comma fortunes is a sign not of failure but of supreme policy success.”

His ensuing argument largely rests on a particularly bogus kind of syllogism: liberal democracies have billionaires. Liberal democracy is good. Therefore, billionaires are good. Wilkinson writes:

The empirical record is quite clear about the general form of national political economy that produces the happiest, healthiest, wealthiest, freest and longest lives. There’s no pithy name for it, so we’ll have to settle for “liberal-democratic welfare-state capitalism.” There’s a “social democratic” version . . . and there’s a “neoliberal” version. You may prefer one version over the other, but they’re not all that different. And in comparative terms, they’re all insanely great. The typical citizen of these countries is as well-off as human beings have ever been. These places are the historical pinnacle of policy success. But guess what? There are billionaires in all of them . . . So what’s the problem? Preventing billion-dollar hoards guards against the bad consequences of . . . having the best sort of polity that has ever existed?

He then proceeds to proffer an all-too-familiar narrative in defense of billionaires: namely, that some of them are innovators who have simply been rewarded for their contributions to society. There are therefore deserving billionaires and undeserving ones, and the former should be actively celebrated. In this telling, billionaires are a potentially, though not inherently, positive corollary of our economic system rather than a structural deficiency or failure.

A few things should be said about these arguments.

The first is a basic complaint about Wilkinson’s circular logic. System Y being better than System X is not a sufficient defense of System Y, even if its relative superiority can be agreed upon. Most members of the urban proletariat in nineteenth-century Europe were almost certainly materially better off than their equivalents in the Middle Ages, but the superiority of pre-democratic industrial capitalism to feudalism is not an argument for its superlative virtue. By the same token, the presence of billionaires in modern liberal or even social democracies is not in and of itself a defense of them.

And even with his qualifier attached (“in comparative terms”), Wilkinson’s characterization of all Western liberal democracies as “insanely great” is difficult to credit. The United States is the richest society in the history of civilization but also has obscene levels of poverty and inequality. As Meagan Day recently noted, Jeff Bezos makes the equivalent of the median US income every twelve seconds, but some 40 percent of Americans lack even $400 in reserve funds and are thus a single emergency away from disaster.

To state what should be obvious, these two facts are not unrelated. Vast concentrations of wealth in the hands of the few is both how and why there is so much poverty and insecurity among working and middle-class Americans, despite there being so much wealth overall. Thanks to their cumulative labor — in factories, schools, hospitals, care homes, restaurants, and throughout the economy — an immense amount of wealth is produced in a society like the United States, but much of it is expropriated by billionaires in the form of rents and capital income. No one earns a billion dollars, but hierarchical economic structures and a skewed political system ensure some nevertheless acquire it because of the property they own. A billion dollars, let alone the over $100 billion amassed by Jeff Bezos, is not a reward proportionate to someone’s social contribution. It’s institutionalized theft, plain and simple.

Nor is it the case that billionaires are just like regular citizens but happen to be wealthier than others. Wilkinson, to his credit, does at least acknowledge the potentially nefarious influence of the billionaire class on the institutions of democracy, but mostly elides it using the same circular logic:

The progressive idea here is usually that people with vastly more wealth than the common run of citizens wield vastly disproportionate political power and therefore imperil democracy and the equal worth of our basic rights. It’s a worry we’ve got to take seriously, but it’s based more in abstract theorizing than empirical analysis. Inspect any credible international ranking of countries by democratic quality, equal treatment under the law or level of personal freedom. You’ll find the same passel of billionaire-tolerant states again and again.

And contrary to what Wilkinson says, the threat described above is anything but an abstractly theorized one. As a class, billionaires visibly exert a tremendous and insidious influence on political decision-making, bankrolling key figures in both the Democratic and Republican parties and working overtime to mold legislation in their collective favor. Being a thousand, ten thousand, or a hundred thousand times wealthier than the average person invariably translates into a level of power and influence that is incompatible with the basic principles of democratic equality. To put it in the starkest terms possible, you can have a society with billionaires or you can have a genuine democracy, but you can’t have both. (Swedish social democracy may be somewhat more insulated from the threat posed by its billionaires than American liberal democracy, but it remains imperiled and compromised nonetheless.)

Far from being a necessity or even a basically tolerable corollary of prosperous societies, the obscene hoarding of wealth by a tiny few is an expression of deep and abiding injustice. The billionaire class is the modern, capitalist equivalent of the feudal landed gentry: acquiring its fortunes through the exploitative extraction of rents and wielding its immense wealth and power to tighten its illegitimate grip on both politics and the economy.

It’s a moral abomination we’d all be much better off without.