Oligarchy is derived from the Greek words oligos (“few”) and arkho (“to rule”), in essence “government by the few,” where supreme power is vested in a small exclusive class. Lately, the term “oligarch” has been used by corporate media in connection with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and sanctions imposed against Moscow’s billionaire class to blunt his aggression. But undue influence of wealth on international politics isn’t limited to Russia’s elites. Neither is it confined geographically or ideologically. Pursuit of power by the privileged is as insatiable and boundless as greed itself. So many rich Russians now live in the UK, for instance, steering MPs and Lords with hefty donations, British journalists are calling their capital “Londongrad.” As preferential treatment comes to light, members of Parliament, hoping to salvage careers, are leaving boards of Russian corporations conveniently omitted from UK sanctions lists.
Closer to home, the U.S. is also oligarchic. America’s two wealthiest citizens own more than the lower 42 percent of the population, a financial worth of over 130 million people combined. The remaining top 1 percent now has more capital than the combined bottom 92 percent of our citizenry. And that disparity keeps getting worse, representing a massive transfer of wealth in the last half century which has effectively hollowed-out our middle class. And these rich individuals have enormous sway over what is and isn’t passed in Congress, buying influence over state and federal legislatures to pass agendas which benefit them financially while denying what’s essential to us. Take, for example, the desperately needed Build Back Better Bill. It was designed to combat climate change, reduce prescription and other medical costs, and make child care and electric cars more affordable. At a cost of $175 billion per year over a decade, it would cost less than 25% of our annual military budget. About $1 trillion of its financing would come exclusively from taxes on wealthy Americans, levying a tax surcharge on citizens earning over $10 million and raising taxes on some high-income businesses. The rest would come from new taxes on corporations and stock buybacks, resulting in a net decrease of the federal budget deficit. Build Back Better failed because of two democrats (one with close connections to pharmaceutical companies, the other indentured to fossil fuel interests) and because not a single republican had the intelligence, foresight or guts to break with their ranks.
Globally, the 10 richest multi-billionaires now own more than the bottom 40 percent of the world’s population, 3.1 billion human beings. During the pandemic, while millions have died, prices escalated, supply-chains broke, and income of 99 percent of our species declined, heritable assets of those 10 multi-billionaires actually doubled. According to Oxfam, an estimated 21,000 people die every day because of hunger and limited access to healthcare caused by global income inequality. Yet, the planet’s 2,755 billionaires feathered their nests with an additional $5 trillion since March of last year, an increase from $8.6 trillion to $13.8 trillion to buy additional mansions, mega-yachts and priceless works of art. Wall Street firms, such as Black Rock, Vanguard and State Street, using money to make more money but producing nothing that benefits society, now control an estimated $21 trillion in assets, exceeding even the U.S. GDP. With that greater ownership of the economy, ranging from banking and media to housing and healthcare, handfuls of CEOs have the power not only to control major companies, but international and American workforces and governments, even the future of the biosphere itself.
CEOs that accumulate wealth by extracting and selling fossil fuels deserve their own designation. After all, they’re endangering the planet with greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to mass extinctions and helping to finance the genocide occurring in Ukraine. Because military-industrial complexes and fossil fuels are financially connected let’s call them “oiligarchs.” Even as prices at pumps continue to drop from strategic stockpile access and gasoline tax cuts, conservation should be stressed not only to thwart Russian “oiligarchs” whose fossil fuel exports help finance the war in Ukraine, but also domestic suppliers who deliberately drove-up prices by slashing production here. As politicians assure reelection by lowering the price of gasoline for constituents, the true cost of a gallon of gasoline is seldom considered ─ from risks of traffic accidents to impacts of climate change. These are the unpaid costs to society, ultimately borne by us, not by oil companies, which economists call “externalities.” When factored into transportation, driving costs society much, much more than we’re paying to do it, even if current prices were to double. Accidents kill tens of thousands every year. Traffic causes gridlock which hampers productivity and consumes personal time. In the United States alone, air pollution caused by vehicles, oil extraction and refineries kills 100,000+ of us each year from chronic heart disease and respiratory illnesses (mostly asthma, COPD; lung cancer). Globally, the toll is 4 million.
Annually, the average U.S. passenger car adds about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, all told nearly 30% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Put another way, because gasoline is 87% carbon and 13% hydrogen, and each gallon weighs about 6.3 lbs., every gallon of gas we burn in our vehicles releases the carbon-equivalent of a 5-lb bag of charcoal to the atmosphere. State and federal gas taxes, if eliminated, could decrease gasoline prices by 50 cents per gallon. But, just factoring in the severity of medical and environmental consequences, costs of hidden externalities actually add another $3 or so per gallon unseen at the pumps.
Special access to heads of state has enabled oligarchs to use their baubles and gaud as political impetus for legislation that multiplies their wealth. Externalities of their plunder (wars, chronic disease; environmental disasters) are left at our doorsteps. They anchor their yachts in the Virgin Islands or Barbados, where the air is cleaner. Centuries ago, with the invention of gunpowder, ravens, flocks of crows (we zoologists call “murders”) and other long-distance scavengers learned to fly in the direction of cannon fire and reports of multiple firearms. The birds soon associated those sounds with human carnage and battlefields strewn with corpses, in essence, raw meat. Across many avian species, each succeeding generation passed that learning on, not only to their offspring but to others in their communities ─ the definition of culture. The highly intelligent cosmopolitan family of oscine passerine birds we call corvids (including jays, rooks, magpies, ravens and crows) continue to fly to battlefields even today, doing so to survive, not to amass fortunes.
According to RAND Institute, since 1975, $50 trillion has been redistributed from the bottom 90% of us to the top 1%, largely because corporate profits and CEO compensation far-outpaced hourly wages for average workers. Still, lawmakers refuse to commensurately increase taxes on corporations and the unconscionably rich to address climate change and expand some social services. Does anyone truly believe we’re not in an oligarchy? President Biden proposed a 20% minimum tax on people worth over $100 million. Senator Bernie Sanders is about to introduce legislation for a 60% tax on obscene financial gains billionaires are making during the pandemic. We should be outraged that where there is life, oligarchs will watch it destroyed to reap windfalls; where there is hunger, they grow fat; where there are crises, they exploit them spending billions in stock buybacks. If driving a little less lightens their wallets while defunding Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, let’s do it!
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.