Sam Ross-Brown

Sam Ross-Brown is The American Prospect's associate editor. 

Recent Articles

With Much of Climate Policy in State Hands, Will Commitments Be Enforced?

A pair of legal battles will help determine how far states will go to implement their climate laws. 

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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...

Best of the Prospect 2015

The American Prospect
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...

Climate Accord Mobilizes Health Industry

(AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
(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...

Report: Nation's Wealth Gap Wider Than Believed

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.”

Can Cities Take the Lead on Climate Change?

As national efforts heading into the Paris summit fall short of averting catastrophic warming, how far cities can go to close the gap is hard to know. 

Sipa via AP Images
Sipa via AP Images Belgium-Tunisian artist and architect, Naziha Mestaoui combined art and mapping technology to create a participatory global art project that will transform the Eiffel Tower into a forest of light on Sunday, November 29, 2015, to raise awareness about global reforestation. The launch of the project, 1 Heart 1 Tree, is part of the United Nations Climate Conference (COP21) to be held in Paris, on November 30 to December 11, 2015. T he 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, kicking off Monday in Paris, may well be the most consequential climate summit in history. While previous climate summits in Kyoto and Copenhagen buckled under the weight of binding, universal agreements, the Paris talks are largely built around what countries and other actors are willing to pledge on their own. Such voluntary commitments differ from government to government, but together may represent the biggest global response to climate change to date. Importantly, a big part of that...

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