Income is by far the most important determinant of environmental impact. It doesn’t matter how green you think you are; if you have surplus money, you spend it

Alan MacLeod, Russia Has ‘Oligarchs,’ the US Has ‘Businessmen,’FAIR. The United States as an oligarchy without oligarchs.

Kelsey Piper, The charitable deduction is mostly for the rich. A new study argues that’s by design, Vox. Do we mean to be a society that subsidizes giving by the rich while taxing giving by everybody else?

Keith Girard, Taxing the Rich: Two Academics Lay Out Options In New Paper, Money & Power. An insightful new analysis from law profs Lily Batchelder and David Kamin.

Justin Lahart, Inequality Is Holding Back the U.S. Economy, Wall Street Journal. Rising inequality not a problem just for those at the economic bottom.

Excerpt from George Monbiot, For the sake of life on Earth, we must put a limit on wealth, Guardian. Just as we recognize a poverty line, below which no one should fall, we should recognize a “riches line,” above which no one should rise.

A series of research papers shows that income is by far the most important determinant of environmental impact. It doesn’t matter how green you think you are; if you have surplus money, you spend it. The only form of consumption that’s clearly and positively correlated with good environmental intentions is diet: people who see themselves as green tend to eat less meat and more organic vegetables. But attitudes have little bearing on the amount of transport fuel, home energy and other materials you consume. Money conquers all.

The disastrous effects of spending power are compounded by the psychological impacts of being wealthy. Plenty of studies show that the richer you are, the less you are able to connect with other people. Wealth suppresses empathy. One paper reveals that drivers in expensive cars are less likely to stop for people using pedestrian crossings than drivers in cheap cars. Another revealed that rich people were less able than poorer people to feel compassion towards children with cancer. Though they are disproportionately responsible for our environmental crises, the rich will be hurt least and last by planetary disaster, while the poor are hurt first and worst. The richer people are, the research suggests, the less such knowledge is likely to trouble them.

Another issue is that wealth limits the perspectives of even the best-intentioned people. This week, Bill Gates argued in an interview with the Financial Times that divesting (ditching stocks) from fossil fuels is a waste of time. It would be better, he claimed, to pour money into disruptive new technologies with lower emissions. Of course we need new technologies. But he has missed the crucial point: in seeking to prevent climate breakdown, what counts is not what you do but what you stop doing. It doesn’t matter how many solar panels you install if you don’t simultaneously shut down coal and gas burners. Unless existing fossil fuel plants are retired before the end of their lives, and all exploration and development of new fossil fuel reserves is cancelled, there is little chance of preventing more than 1.5C of global heating.

But this requires structural change, which involves political intervention as well as technological innovation: anathema to Silicon Valley billionaires. It demands an acknowledgement that money is not a magic wand that makes all the bad stuff go away.

Bill Gates
 ‘Bill Gates argued in an interview with the Financial Times that divesting (ditching stocks) from fossil fuels is a waste of time. But he has missed the crucial point.’ Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Tomorrow, I’ll be joining the global climate strike, in which adults will stand with the young people whose call to action has resonated around the world. As a freelancer, I’ve been wondering who I’m striking against. Myself? Yes: one aspect of myself, at least. Perhaps the most radical thing we can now do is to limit our material aspirations. The assumption on which governments and economists operate is that everyone strives to maximise their wealth. If we succeed in this task, we inevitably demolish our life support systems. Were the poor to live like the rich, and the rich to live like the oligarchs, we would destroy everything. The continued pursuit of wealth in a world that has enough already (albeit very poorly distributed) is a formula for mass destitution.

A meaningful strike in defence of the living world is, in part, a strike against the desire to raise our incomes and accumulate wealth: a desire shaped, more than we are probably aware, by dominant social and economic narratives. I see myself as striking in support of a radical and disturbing concept: enough. Individually and collectively, it is time to decide what “enough” looks like, and how to know when we’ve achieved it.

There’s a name for this approach, coined by the Belgian philosopher Ingrid Robeyns: limitarianism. Robeyns argues that there should be an upper limit to the amount of income and wealth a person can amass. Just as we recognise a poverty line, below which no one should fall, we should recognise a riches line, above which no one should rise. This call for a levelling down is perhaps the most blasphemous idea in contemporary discourse.

But her arguments are sound. Surplus money allows some people to exercise inordinate power over others: in the workplace; in politics; and above all in the capture, use and destruction of the planet’s natural wealth. If everyone is to flourish, we cannot afford the rich. Nor can we afford our own aspirations, which the culture of wealth maximisation encourages.

The grim truth is that the rich are able to live as they do only because others are poor: there is neither the physical nor ecological space for everyone to pursue private luxury. Instead we should strive for private sufficiency, public luxury. Life on Earth depends on moderation.

• George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist


Russia Has ‘Oligarchs,’ the US Has ‘Businessmen’

In 150 NYT, CNN and Fox articles, ‘oligarch’ seems reserved for Slavic billionairesALAN MACLEOD

Russia Has ‘Oligarchs,’ the US Has ‘Businessmen’

Even in corporate media, you will occasionally see references to the United States as an “oligarchy.” That is the judgment of former President Jimmy Carter, of peer-reviewed academic studies, and even opinion pieces in our most prestigious media (e.g., Washington Post4/8/14New Yorker4/18/14). Indeed, Paul Krugman has been saying it in the New York Times (11/3/115/15/157/15/19) for years.  Just three men hold more wealth than the bottom 50% of the country combined, and the richest people in society use their money to influence media, society and the government.

David Koch (cc photo: Fred Thompson)

Non-oligarch David Koch. (cc photo: Fred Thompson)

But if the US is an oligarchy, then who are the oligarchs? One candidate who has been in the news of late is conservative multibillionaire David Koch, who died August 23 (FAIR.org9/5/19). Koch was the world’s 11th richest and 29th most powerful person, according to Forbes, amassing a fortune of over $50 billion. The chemical and fossil fuel magnate used his enormous wealth to fund climate change denialists and block efforts to address climate breakdown. He bankrolled a multitude of right-wing causes, including the Tea Partyconservative mediapoliticians and think tanks. Koch undercut unionsopposed gun restrictions, blocked public transport initiatives and thwarted moves towards nationalized healthcare. As such, he and his brother Charles have shaped the Republican Party and modern society more than almost anyone else.

Yet in their obituaries, even media catering to a more liberal audience refrained from using the term to describe him. “Philanthropist” was the preferred description in the Washington Post (8/23/19) and NBC (8/23/19). CBS News (8/23/19) also described him as such, framing him as an “icon” who “committed millions to various hospitals for cancer research.” Meanwhile, the New York Times (8/23/19) glowed over the “gregarious, socially prominent” “man-about town philanthropist,” who gave over $1 billion to charity. (See FAIR.org9/5/19.)  The tone of these articles was functionally identical to that of more conservative media, like Fox News (8/24/19) or the Wall Street Journal (8/23/19).

Many outside the corporate media bubble were highly scornful of the coverage. Independent journalist Caitlin Johnston (Medium8/23/19) remarked that if Koch were Russian, he would be called an “oligarch,” while the Appeal’s Adam H. Johnson claimed on Twitter (8/23/19) that “oligarch” is a loaded term used exclusively for the elite of enemy foreign countries, and not our plutocrats.

Who is and isn’t an oligarch, according to media

To test these critiques, FAIR analyzed the 50 most recent articles using the search term “oligarch” from the New York TimesCNN and Fox News websites. (Full documentation, including a complete list of sources, used can be found here.) The study sought to ascertain:

  1. Who is referred to as an oligarch?
  2. Which countries are considered oligarchies?

Yevgeny Prigozhin, Oleg Deripaska, Viktor Vekselberg, Victor Pinchuk, Roman Abramovich, Aras Agalarov: That is the full and distinctly Slavic-sounding list of people identified by CNN as “oligarchs.” Indeed, only two articles across the entire sample of 150 identified Westerners as such: one angry New York Times opinion piece (15/7/19) that creatively decried people like Elon Musk and Richard Branson as “rocket oligarchs,” and a Tucker Carlson Tonight segment (Fox News4/2/19) in which an NRA spokesperson attacked gun control advocate Cory Booker as a “constitutional oligarch.” The rest were all from Russia or former Eastern Bloc countries.

In the 150-article sample, Russia was described as an oligarchy in 89, while Ukraine was labeled as such in 35. The word was also used in connection to other ex-Eastern Bloc states in 13 articles: Those states were Moldova (6 times), Kazakhstan (twice), Hungary (twice), Georgia (twice) and Azerbaijan (once). Guatemala was also once referred to as possessing oligarchs. In all, 98% of countries referenced in connection to oligarchs were either Russia or formerly Soviet-dominated states.

In contrast, only 1% of articles mentioned the US in connection with oligarchs, which is all the more remarkable, considering all the outlets in the sample are US-based and devote vastly more time, space and words to US issues than Eastern European ones.

The fact that oligarch has taken on ethnic connotations was made doubly clear in a New York Times article (5/22/19) about the changing world of soccer. It noted (emphasis added):

In 1997, the Egyptian businessman and department store owner Mohamed al-Fayed took control of Fulham, a London team in the second division, and led its promotion into the Premier League; in 2003, the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who had made his fortune in oil, aluminum and steel, bought Chelsea; in 2007, Stan Kroenke, the husband of a Wal-Mart heir, began accumulating shares of Arsenal. That same year, the family that had controlled Liverpool for half a century sold out to two American businessmen, Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

The word, defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as an individual or group of powerful people that control a country or industry, is surely as applicable to the Walton dynasty as to a mining giant like Abramovich, but US billionaires are merely “businessmen”—when they aren’t “philanthropists”—while Russians are “oligarchs.” In other words, our elites are engaged in normal economic activity or else looking out for the betterment of humanity, while theirs are nefariously dominating politics.

Steven Colbert talking about oligarchs

“Especially in Russia” (Late Night7/20/17).

Many articles stressed these oligarchs’ apparent connections to President Vladimir Putin (e.g. CNN3/20/193/22/19), even when the oligarchs in question aren’t from Russia (Fox News3/21/195/14/19). Late Show host Stephen Colbert (7/20/17) defined “oligarch” as “Russian for ‘rich guy don’t ask where his money came from.’” (“Oligarch” actually came to English from Ancient Greek.) To be fair, Colbert joked about the selective use of the term—explaining that “over there, the political system is controlled by wealthy elites who buy influence and pull strings of the government, whereas in America, we speak English.”

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, however, was apparently quite serious with his xenophobic comments that Russians were “genetically driven” to nefarious ends like co-optation and gaining favor. The guest of one Fox News show (5/7/19) referred to a “Russian” before switching that to a “Ukranian oligarch,” suggesting the entire region was an amorphous mass of devious, plotting, squatting Slavs.

There was very little difference between how the three outlets used the term. Fox News was a little more likely to reference Ukraine, primarily because it closely covered the story of Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s connection to a Ukranian business executive, while CNN’s commitment to Russiagate encouraged it to connect oligarchs personally to Vladimir Putin. But overall, the three outlets displayed a shared tendency in how and to whom they applied the word.

Use of "Oligarch" in NYT, CNN, Fox

While not labeling its own wealthy and powerful elites as “oligarchs,” US corporate media do, as noted, occasionally acknowledge that the United States itself is an oligarchy. But even those admissions are few and far between, appearing for the most part only in articles devoted to arguing exactly that point. Otherwise, the US is overwhelmingly presented as a democracy and a force for good in reporting.

And when a politician like Bernie Sanders suggests that these oligarchs influence the media, senior editors react angrily, claiming he is “ridiculous” and a “conspiracy theorist.” What a strange country the US is—an oligarchy without any oligarchs.