This fortnight began with terrible news about the climate. It went downhill from there.
The Guardian reported on July 27th—too late for us to deal with properly in our paper of July 30th, too important to leave out now—“many of the key indicators of the global climate crisis are getting worse and either approaching, or exceeding, key tipping points as the earth heats up.”
“Overall, the study* found some 16 out of 31 tracked planetary vital signs, including greenhouse gas concentrations, ocean heat content and ice mass, set worrying new records.
“‘There is growing evidence we are getting close to or have already gone beyond tipping points associated with important parts of the Earth system,’ said William Ripple, an ecologist at Oregon State University who co-authored the new research, in a statement.”
This all sounds vaguely familiar, right? These “new study reeks of global doom” stories appear with such frequency of late, purists might argue that under the “dog bites man” doctrine, they are no longer news. People still watch stuff like “The Walking Dead,” though, so we’ll continue publishing its non-fiction equivalent.
Just a few weeks earlier, NASA had warned that in the mid-2030s there will be a dramatic increase in the number and severity of “high-tide” or “sunny day” floods. They’ll be caused by an astronomical phenomenon colloquially known as the “moon wobble”—a term which, had it surfaced in the 1960s, would surely have inspired a dance craze.
Discovered in 1728, this 18.6-year cyclical shift in the moon’s axis alternately suppresses and amplifies tides.
“The Moon is in the tide-amplifying part of its cycle now,” according to NASA. “However, along most U.S. coastlines, sea levels have not risen so much that even with this lunar assist, high tides regularly top flooding thresholds. It will be a different story the next time the cycle comes around to amplify tides again, in the mid-2030s. Global sea level rise will have been at work for another decade. The higher seas, amplified by the lunar cycle, will cause a leap in flood numbers on almost all U.S. mainland coastlines, Hawaii, and Guam. Only far northern coastlines, including Alaska’s, will be spared for another decade or longer because these land areas are rising due to long-term geological processes.”
In other words, in about a decade, vast swaths of expensive Portsmouth real estate will look like the parking lot of the Bratskellar now does a couple of times a year.
After many rather tenuous decades, Strawbery Banke has been thriving for quite a few years now. Adaptation has been the key to that transformation. Perhaps SCUBA lessons can keep it going.
With these recent examples already rattling around in the national brainpan, along came AMOC—running amok.
Because the natural state of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC, is to relentlessly drive a vast current of warm ocean water north from the equator towards the Arctic, in this case amok actually means quiescent. It’s the meteorological equivalent of the scene in a western movie when someone says, “It’s too quiet out there.”
This new study† says that “the recently discovered AMOC decline during the last decades is not just a fluctuation related to low-frequency climate variability or a linear response to increasing temperatures. Rather, the presented findings suggest that this decline may be associated with an almost complete loss of stability of the AMOC over the course of the last century, and that the AMOC could be close to a critical transition to its weak circulation mode.”
Another nasty new revelation: the switch from a strong to a weak current could happen far more quickly than previously thought. If this should happen, the result would be “severe impacts on the global climate.”
All of these warnings of impending catastrophe came in a broader context, of course: that consisted mostly of fire everywhere.
Then, on Monday, came the IPCC, bringing the real bad news. We’ll let staid, boring, understated old Foreign Policy sum up the Sixth Assessment Report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:
“The catastrophic impacts of human-induced climate change have perhaps never been clearer than they are this summer, as searing heat waves, record droughts, and deadly floods tear across the world.
“It’s just the start of what experts forecast to be a worsening situation, according to the first new assessment in seven years by the U.N.-affiliated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. The report, released on Monday, is a stark compilation of the latest climate-change research. It details how profoundly humans have altered the climate and what the future could look like if harmful carbon emissions continue on their current trajectory.”
The Guardian, in its July 27th piece on multiple planetary vital signs approaching or exceeding their tipping points, noted that one of the “few bright spots in the study…[was that] fossil fuel subsidies [are] reaching a record low and fossil fuel divestment [is] reaching a record high.” However, even the “colossally decreased transportation and consumption” caused by the global coronavirus pandemic was “not nearly enough” to set us on a sustainable path.
If humanity plans to keep inhabiting the spinning rock on which it evolved, the paper opined, “transformational system changes are required.”
Foreign Policy was also careful to include a reed of hope, to which readers might cling: “the [IPCC] report also outlines a brighter future, where political will to create a low-emissions future could check runaway temperatures and limit the worst of the damaging impacts.”
OK, then…there seems to be a consensus here. We get the message. We’ll just call up our Congressman, and no doubt we’ll see some decisive action right away.
* “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency 2021,” William J. Ripple, lead author, in BioScience, July 28th.
† “Observation-based early-warning signals for a collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation,” Niklas Boers, lead author, nature climate change, August 2021.
One might think that a high-class joint with a lineage long and glitzy enough to include Zsa Zsa Gabor and Paris Hilton would take care at all times to present a dignified appearance. But, of course—as the trope employed here demands—one would be wrong. Violations of the Flag Code are the antithesis of dignity. If the symbol of our nation can be displayed in such a tattered condition, what might we surmise about the condition of other fabrics in the care of this enterprise? The Flag Police urge the management—and the public—to remember: eternal vigilance is the price of upholding the fetishization of material objects which symbolize the values of a purported republic in the absence of any perceptible functionality.
America’s Billionaires: Borrowing Their Way to Ever More Fabulous Fortunes
by Sam Pizzigati
No widely acclaimed artist in the 20th century baited and battled the rich with as much gusto as Diego Rivera. The Mexican painter’s Great Depression-era confrontation with Nelson Rockefeller, then the twenty-something grandson of the world’s single richest individual, captured front-page real estate all across the United States—and far beyond.
The Rockefeller family had hired Rivera to paint the artistic centerpiece of the newly constructed Rockefeller Center in New York. Rivera’s resulting mural contrasted the “debauched rich” with workers on the rise. Right-wingers went apoplectic. Young Nelson, getting hammered, asked Rivera to remove an image of Lenin from the mural. Rivera refused, offering instead to add a portrait of Lincoln.
The Rockefellers would eventually have Rivera’s mural plastered over, but not before E. B. White, the beloved author of Charlotte’s Web, penned “a classic of light verse” on the face-off for the New Yorker. His poem’s most famous couplet had grandson Nelson excusing his censorship:
And tho your art I dislike to hamper,
I owe a little to God and Gramper.
Today, some nine decades later, Rivera’s artwork has a different sort of relationship with America’s rich: His paintings are helping 21st-century American moguls live lives of tax-free luxury.
How can art like Rivera’s be subsidizing the super rich? These awesomely affluent are using their art collections—and any other assets they may hold, everything from classic car collections to shares of stock in the companies they run—as collateral for loans from America’s biggest banks. Why would billionaires need loans? The simple answer: They don’t need loans. They need tax breaks, and they can get them by borrowing—at exceedingly low interest rates—off their mountains of assets.
Take Elon Musk. In 2019, he took out $61 million in mortgages on five properties he owned in California. About that time he also had some 40 percent of his personal shares in Tesla pledged as collateral for still other loans. Musk’s millions in borrowed cash have been bankrolling his lavish lifestyle and new investments. These millions have also been providing a sweet end-run around Uncle Sam at tax time.
If Musk had sold some of his Tesla shares or surplus California properties to raise fresh cash, he would have owed capital gains tax on his sale earnings. But by borrowing for the cash, he let his Tesla and California property assets continue to increase in value and, at the same time, sidesteps any taxes.
Billionaires Clarissa and Edgar Bronfman have been playing the same borrowing game, only with their art collection. Diego Rivera’s 1928 “Dance in Tehuantepec,” the Architectural Digest notes, sits at one end of their Park Avenue triplex living room. The Bronfmans have been using their Rivera—and other artworks—as collateral for their own borrowed cash.
Billionaires like the Bronfmans can get loans these days at rates under one percent, and they’ve been rushing to take advantage. The “wealth management” departments at America’s top banks—the offices that service America’s most affluent—have now made loans that total over $600 billion in value, a sum that’s running 17.5 percent higher than the comparable total from the middle of last year. Loaning to the rich has essentially become a major part of the business that major banks do. These loans, the Financial Times observes, currently add up to “22.5 percent of the banks’ total loan books, up from 16.3 per cent in mid-2017.”
“JPMorgan and Citi are now lending more to a small number of ultra-high net worth clients than to their millions of credit card customers,” adds the Financial Times take. “A decade ago, JPMorgan was lending five times as much to credit card customers as it did to private clients.”
What makes banks like JPMorgan, Citi, and Morgan Stanley so eager to extend these billions in loans—to the rich—at such low interest rates? One reason: The loans come as close to risk-free as risk-free could be. A more important reason: Big banks cherish close relationships with extremely rich people. These rich often run extremely large corporate empires and can steer their corporate banking business to the banks that cater to their personal needs. Elon Musk, for instance, has used Morgan Stanley, his personal lender, for Tesla stock and convertible-debt offerings.
“Providing mega-mortgages,” a Bloomberg analysis sums up, “helps bank profit margins in the short run and is highly strategic long-term.”
The only losers in all this loaning and borrowing: average Americans who pay their taxes while wealthy people avoid theirs. Working Americans pay the price for that avoidance. They depend on public services that tax shortfalls cripple. Rich people, meanwhile, don’t use public services. They live in private worlds made ever more comfortable by the “asset-backed loans” that have become, points out Institute for Policy Studies analyst Chuck Collins, “one of the principal tools the ultra-wealthy are using to game their tax obligations down to zero.”
The best antidote to this gaming of the federal income tax? That may be the wealth tax legislation that Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts introduced this past spring with Representatives Pramila Jayapal of Washington State and Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania. These lawmakers are proposing an annual wealth tax set at a mere 2 cents per dollar on wealth between $50 million and $1 billion and 3 cents per dollar on riches over $1 billion. A wealth tax along these lines would have raised $114 billion in taxes from billionaires alone in 2020. Just one of these billionaires, Jeff Bezos, would have faced a personal $5.7-billion wealth tax bill.
Bezos and the rest of America’s billionaires could easily afford Warren’s proposed wealth tax freight. Their current combined fortune: $4.7 trillion, up $1.8 trillion since the pandemic began.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.
Oh, for the good old days, when free-spending tourists powered our economy by strolling our streets, their naked faces soaking up sunshine…wait—what’s that you say? Oh, dear. Our Wandering Masked Photographer has informed us that this view of Market Street was captured just five days ago, on Sunday, August 8, 2021.
Look Out! Here Comes Betsy DeVos!
Amplify New Hampshire, a progressive new non-profit, sent us the following item:
The conservative, D.C.-based advocacy group Club for Growth announced August 9th that it is launching its nationwide tour promoting school vouchers in New Hampshire—at an event that will feature former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The announcement comes on the heels of the passage of Governor Sununu’s state budget, which redirects funding from New Hampshire public schools to wealthy, private, and religious schools. Gov. Sununu’s school voucher scheme undermines public education and could lead to higher property taxes for communities across the Granite State.
In response to this announcement, Amplify New Hampshire executive director Craig Brown issued the following statement:
“Betsy DeVos and conservative Washington, D.C. special interests are launching their tour in New Hampshire to celebrate Governor Sununu’s extreme school voucher program. Governor Sununu sold out New Hampshire students to subsidize wealthy private and religious schools and could leave taxpayers with the $70 million price tag. The program is yet another attack from Sununu on public education that will be a disaster for students and taxpayers in New Hampshire.”