In your ideal society, do you imagine there would be no private jets anymore, or would there be private jets for all?
This was the provocation that the late sociologist Erik Olin Wright issued to his hosts at a San Francisco lunch following a talk promoting his book “Envisioning Real Utopias” at a housing cooperative in 2016. A hardware engineer and entrepreneurial acquaintance of mine who happened to be at the meal recounted to me some of the flavor of the conversation. It was no idle, contrarian stratagem for prompting entertaining post-prandial intellectual repartee. Wright was a specialist in social stratification and his work has profoundly influenced contemporary left thinking on economic classes in recent years.
The way in which one answers the question speaks to vital considerations for any progressive regarding political strategy, policy design, social structure and even worldview. It’s not just about private jets, but about everything.
How the professor answered his own question was somewhat more complex than the binary he posed, and that interesting position will be described shortly. But the Private Jet Question in recent months has passed from the mealtime conversation piece to popular interest due a series of celebrity scandals relating to the sector’s relatively outsized greenhouse gas emissions, which have in turn prompted a flurry of opinion pieces, think-tank reports, climate activist protests at private-jet airports and even a legislative crackdown in France.
Relatively outsized are the key words here: it is not that private jets come close to being a significant source of atmospheric carbon in absolute terms (they amount to just 4% of aviation’s emissions, which in turn are 3.5% of all emissions), but rather that they are just so outlandishly, cartoonishly carbon intensive in terms of emissions per passenger-mile—gargantuan volumes of the villain gases for the transport of just a handful of extremely wealthy travelers, and sometimes just one at a time, or even none. An average member of this jet set produces more than 10 times the carbon pollution that a passenger traveling with a commercial airline does.
An analysis of private jet flights taken by celebrities and carried out by digital marketing firm Yard concluded that in 2022, the worst offender was singer Taylor Swift, who took 170 trips in her $40 million Falcon 7X. This meant that this one person had emitted over the course of the year just shy of 1,200 times the average airline passenger’s volume of emissions. (Her weak defense amounted to pointing out that she had lent her jet to friends a few times, so the carbon emissions were not technically all her own.) Other celebrities in the private-jet-offender top 10 include Mark Wahlberg, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey—who, by the way, also says that the environment is the thing she values most in her life. Across the pond, the climate scandal of multimillionaire and billionaire private-jet use has been provoked by the Paris Saint-Germain football club taking a private flight to Nantes, a mere two and a half hours from the capital by train, and by Bernard Arnault, the head of luxury-goods giant LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Arnault, who surpassed Elon Musk this year to become the world’s richest individual, had taken 18 such flights in one month, mostly between Paris and Brussels, an even shorter train distance of just an hour and 22 minutes.
Many progressives writing in prominent publications have answered Wright’s question by saying that there should be no private jets at all. Moreover, given the threat posed by climate change, we really shouldn’t wait for our ideal society to emerge, but push for private-jet curtailment policies right now.
Farhad Manjoo writing in The New York Times this month called the very existence of private jets shameful, endorsing proposals that had been made in a report published in May on the subject from the center-left Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and a group of progressive high-net-worth individuals called the Patriotic Millionaires. The IPS is calling for surcharges on flights under 210 miles, a 10% tax on sales of used private jets, a 5% tax on new ones, and a doubling of fuel tax for private jets.
France has gone so far as to follow through on curtailment policies, with the centrist transport minister, Clément Beaune, incorporating into this year’s budget bill a 70% increase in fuel tax for private aviation from 2024.
Others would go further than mere curtailment and want to see immediate enactment of fully abolitionist policies. Climate activists demanding outright bans have in recent months protested and even blockaded private airports from Milan to New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport—the busiest private jet airport in the world.
My friend and colleague Luke Savage, writing in Jacobin, the leading magazine of the American socialist left (for whom I also write regularly), this month has argued that the IPS proposals are good but do not go far enough. Livid that the ultra-rich “treat their pricey aerial toys like a regular person might treat a taxi or a bus, hopping on board for short trips that can last as little as ten or fifteen minutes,” he wants to see the planes “taxed into oblivion.” The revenues raised would then be directed to socially constructive ends (thereby implying that there can be no socially constructive ends performed by private jets—a claim I will interrogate—in friendly, comradely fashion—below). Other Jacobin writers would go further still and implement an immediate ban, not waiting to see how long it would take for sin taxes to achieve an end to private jets. They are “the ultimate example of excessive consumption,” wrote climate campaigner Aaron Eisenberg in the same magazine in 2019. “No one needs a private jet. We should ban them.” And in 2022, Ben Davies writing in Tribune, the venerable British left-wing magazine for whom George Orwell had been literary editor, echoed this call for immediate abolition, saying that every socialist and climate-action group should push for direct regulation banning such travel, noting that the British Labor Party under Jeremy Corbyn had backed precisely this in 2019. Last year in France, MPs from the country’s Green Party (Europe Écologie Les Verts) and the leftist party La France Insoumise introduced a bill to ban them outright.
There seems to be no one on the left that in answer to Wright’s Private Jet Question would say that ideally, there should be private jets for all (or their technological equivalent). So let me be the one to suffer the slings and arrows of internet outrage by doing precisely that.
Herewith is my left defense of private jets (sort of).
The mega-yacht problem
The incandescent fury at both the economic and the carbon inequality of private jets is entirely legitimate. I feel it myself. It is grotesque that T-Swift and her girl squad of Lena Dunham, Emma Stone, Selena Gomez and pals can swan about in their plush leather sky-armchairs while there are still 775 million people on Earth who do not have access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency, regardless of whether clean or dirty (an increase of 20 million on 2021, the first time since such data were recorded that electricity access has declined). I’m even a little personally peeved that they get to take off and go whenever they like while I’m stuck in three-hour-security-line hell (although, plainly, my having to remove both belt and shoes before being patted down by TSA agents because I forgot to remove a handkerchief from my back pocket is not quite the same burden as an electricity-free life in sub-Saharan Africa, with its limited access to basic health care that requires refrigerated medicines or vaccines, limited access to clean water that depends upon electricity for pumping and purification systems, and so on).
But let’s separate what are in fact two problems with private jets, not one. The first is the contribution of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and the consequent challenge of global warming to human flourishing. Then there is how private jets symbolize economic inequality in extremis.
Starting with the carbon side of things, both curtailment and abolition will be unsuccessful at reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases. As Manjoo himself concedes, the ultra-rich would just treat the IPS-proposed taxes as part of what it costs to use a private jet.
“For Musk, that wouldn’t break the bank, and it’s hard to imagine that IPS’s proposals would halt the private jet boom,” he writes.
Perhaps, if we squint, such taxes might somewhat delimit the extent to which the mere multimillionaires use private jets, but this is unlikely to have much impact on atmospheric carbon concentration. And even if they did reduce private-jet emissions at the lower-upper-class and higher-upper-middle-class margins, such taxes would not eliminate those emissions. We need GHG elimination, not mere reduction. So this program of tackling private jet carbon-intensity is insufficient.
And if we go further and ban private jets or tax them into oblivion, then the billionaire class (and their multimillionaire mini-mes) will just spend their unearned hordes on some other carbon-intensive wheeze.
Ban private jets? They’ll just spend their mega-cash on mega-yachts. Fine, then we ban mega-yachts, too, I hear you say. But the problem is this: Taylor and Elon and Oprah will always find something else, from flying a thousand of their closest friends to a bachelorette party in the South Pacific (but using unbanned, un-taxed-to-oblivion commercial airlines) to the energy costs of owning and staffing eight 40-room mansions, each with three swimming pools and a private golf course, that will still be eye-wateringly carbon-intensive. Ban that too? Then they’ll find something else, and so on and so on.
It’s carbon Whac-a-Mole.
Hard to abate
Aviation as a whole, not just private jets, is one of the handful of sectors, like cement and many industrial processes, that are ”hard to abate,” meaning that we do not yet have technological solutions at commercial scale that can sharply mitigate or eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions.
Very-short-haul flights can be cleanly electrified, and the distances e-planes can fly is increasing with improvements to battery technology all the time. Hybrid e-planes that extend the range of their planes by complementing the batteries with conventional fossil-derived jet fuel or biofuels are a great option as a bridge on our way to fully net-zero aviation. In the Pacific Northwest, a regional airline has already carried out fully battery-electric commercial test flights of seaplanes and expects to roll out the service to paying customers this year. (Note that this is not a ”bush plane ” service, but a proper regional service; it’s just that the region covering Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle and neighboring communities is somewhat archipelagous) National carrier Air Canada has recently ordered thirty 30-passenger ES-30 hybrid electrics from Heart Aerospace for 2028 delivery. Their range is a decent 200 km (124 miles) running fully electric and 400 km as a hybrid, or 800 km as a hybrid with 25 passengers. Electrification of short-haul aviation is taking off.
Even in these cases, it is still early days and such technologies could use some industrial policy assistance taking them from start-up to robustly competitive with conventional short-haul flights.
Long-haul aviation cannot be electrified. So we are going to have to use some sort of aviation fuel, perhaps cleanly produced hydrogen or a synthetic hydrocarbon. There are multiple options, all of which are at even earlier stages of development than clean short-haul electric aviation, not just with respect to the fuel but aircraft design and fuel distribution and storage. Worse still, all technically feasible options are still horrendously energy-intensive due to the clean electricity demands of fossil-free hydrogen production and, in the case of synthetic hydrocarbons, carbon-dioxide drawdown.
So the aviation sector as a whole needs some industrial policy muscle to help commercialize the relevant clean technologies to reach net-zero emissions in the coming decades. The United States is doing precisely this through the Inflation Reduction Act’s $297 million support for sustainable aviation fuels over the next five years. One might argue that these sums are insufficient compared to the scale of the challenge. An earlier version of such supports clocked in at $1 billion. There are members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from both parties who would agree with such an assessment and are actively pushing for additional funding.
Meanwhile, curtailment or abolition of private jets does nothing to achieve this technology development and deployment goal.
Abolition of private jets would also bring a halt to essential rapid air delivery of medical services, in particular organs for transplant, organ-transplant patients themselves or the surgeons and other medical staff required for such interventions. All of these are extremely time sensitive. The amount of ”cold ischemia time,” or the hours and minutes between harvesting and transplantation, has a decisive impact on whether the transplant will be a success. The maximum cold ischemia time for kidneys is between 24 and 36 hours, and for vital organs, like the heart, it drops to within just four hours of removal from the donor. Commercial airlines also carry out organ transplant activities, and there are many occasions where this is the most appropriate transport option. But the time lost due to delays can sometimes exceed the maximum cold ischemia time. Direct flights are better than those requiring multiple legs of the journey. Patients close to large aviation hubs are at an advantage over those where the closest airport has fewer airline connections, and at a significant advantage over those living in rural or remote locations.
None of the partisans of private-jet bans or curtailment have, as far as I can find, suggested there be any exceptions for medical services provided by private jet. Perhaps they just had not thought of this issue. But even if they had conceded such an exception, it still would not solve the problem we are trying to solve: elimination of greenhouse gas emissions. It would only reduce those emissions, for those few remaining private jet flights would still be fossil-powered.
Meanwhile, aerial medical-service logistical challenges as well as lack of access by ordinary, non-ultra-rich people to faster, more flexible private jets contribute to the fact that every day in the United States, 18 people die waiting for a transplant. And for many parts of the world, organ transplant air delivery and air ambulance services do not exist even for the rich.
In Canada, the majority of the substantial cost of such provision is covered by the state at the federal level via progressive taxation and provided to all, with delivery carried out by the provinces. In British Columbia, home to one of the largest ambulance services on the continent, the government owns a fleet of air ambulance private aircraft (10 fixed-wing planes, including turboprops and Lear jets, as well as helicopters). The provincial government also pays for the services of chartered privately owned aircraft to complement them where necessary. This is a great benefit to a vast province with its population centers very widely spread out, made feasible by a system built to ensure everyone has access to the same quality of health care regardless of income (a system that, to be sure, has in recent decades come under terrible assault by both Liberal and Conservative funding cuts and creeping privatization, but one that at least in principle remains universal).
I suppose we might call the vehicles that carry out British Columbia’s publicly funded air ambulances and aerial medical evacuation and organ transport ”public-private jets” (and public-private helicopters and turboprops). No progressive and certainly no socialist would want these taxed into curtailment or banned. No leftist other than the most ghoulish would even want ”private-private jet” aerial organ transplant delivery curtailed or banned.
When only the ultra-rich have access to life-saving technologies, we don’t say, “This is unfair, so let them die.” We say that access to these technologies must be provided to all.
To be fair, only about 1% of private jet flights are used for medical services, like organ transport, so this is a very small proportion of global GHG emissions. But we have already established that it does not matter that a sector only produces a small proportion of emissions; we need there to be no GHGs at all, and this means every sector needs to zero out their emissions.
Instead, the progressive and certainly the socialist position is to push for everyone in the world regardless of income or location—Global North and Global South, urban and rural, close to and far away from airport hubs—to have equal access to public-private jet provision of urgent medical services.
In the medical sense at least, this is a call for private jets for all.
Adding to the challenge to the claim that private jets play no socially constructive role is the vital role they regularly play in disaster relief due to their ability to mobilize rapidly. Global freight constraints, for example, hindered delivery of supplies to Ukraine in the early months of the war, while private jets were much more flexible.
If our goal is to avoid dangerous climate change, then instead of bans or taxes aimed at curtailment or abolition of private jets, why not perform a bit of political jiu-jitsu? Let’s turn the very desire of the ultra-wealthy to fly privately against the climate problem.
We could instead push for a near-term ban on all private jets if they do not use low-carbon propulsion, either via clean electricity or scalable clean jet fuels. (The word scalable is in there to avoid the private jet set from vacuuming up all the sustainable aviation fuels made from biomass. In some cases—such as via the recycling of cooking oil or the production of aviation-standard biofuels from agricultural and forest waste—such fuels genuinely are low carbon, but they are not scalable to current or future demands of the global aviation sector.)
If we look a bit closer at the approach to private jets endorsed by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labor Party and the analysis by a left-wing think tank, Common Wealth, upon which it was based, we find that the headline in The Guardian reporting that the party would ban private jets by 2025 is false. Instead, both Labor and Common Wealth propose a near-term ban only on fossil-powered private jets to accelerate electric aerospace R&D. The report focuses on electrification rather than sustainable aviation fuels because the majority of private jet flights are short-haul, the portion of the aviation sector most amenable to electrification, but the principle works just as well for these clean-fuel options, too.
“The user base for private jets may represent the highest concentration of wealth of any group of consumers in the world,” the Common Wealth report authors conclude. “This is a good place to look to leverage private investment into rapid decarbonisation.”
The report also says that both medical aircraft and private jets chartered to support humanitarian relief should be exempt from the ban until clean aviation options are commercialized and able to meet all their operational needs. It takes into account precisely the concerns I outlined regarding outright bans and taxes aimed at abolition.
The IPS recommendation of taxes could work in a similar way if instead of aiming at private-jet curtailment, they aimed at raising sums to fund industrial policy to perform the same acceleration of clean technologies for the entire aviation sector.
A 2021 report by Transport & Environment, a European green NGO, combined the two approaches, arguing for a slightly later, 2030 date for a ban on all fossil-powered private jets, and until then for aggressive ticket and fuel taxes on fossil-fuel private jets, scaled with flight distance and aircraft weight, to bankroll development of clean aviation technologies. They too argued that the aim here is to take advantage of the enormous wealth of private-jet owners to catalyze funding for clean aviation, noting that the average private jet owner is worth $1.4 billion, “meaning they have the resources to fund important decarbonising technologies for the sector.”
Clean private jets are still private jets
So what if the private jets are clean? There would still be private jets!
Here we arrive at the second consideration embedded within popular fury at the existence of private jets. The carbon intensity is in some senses just the cherry on top of the real source of anger: how private jets perhaps more than any other good or service symbolize deep economic inequality.
But again, if private jets (both dirty and clean) were banned, the super-wealthy would just spend their riches on something else inaccessible to the vast majority of people, a repetition of the mega-yacht problem. And we cannot just introduce greater equality through a series of bans on how the billionaire class spend their money.
Achieving lower levels of economic inequality is, however, more than possible. It already exists in so many lands. Canada, Australia, Scandinavia and many other European countries have much lower levels of inequality than the United States while still enjoying high standards of living. The sort of social democratic, redistributionist policies necessary to achieve this are multifarious and much more complex than a simple ban on luxury goods. (Some of the countries that today have high levels of economic equality are so only because everyone is very poor, including those society’s elites. The ideal society, therefore, surely is not simply one of low inequality, but one of prosperous low inequality: a world of Norways approaches this ideal rather than a world of Sudans.)
But would anyone in a world of much greater economic equality be able to afford private jets any longer? When Professor Wright answered his own question, he thought not. It was not that the sociologist thought there should not be private jets, but rather that with sufficiently progressive taxation in service of redistribution, there would not be private jets, as those at the top of society would no longer be billionaires. Economic inequality, to the extent that it continued to exist, would be more rugby-ball-shaped than pyramidal. This akin to the point that Sen. Bernie Sanders makes when he says, “If you had a tax structure that was fair, there would not be billionaires.” There would not be a surfeit of cash sloshing around at the top of society to be spent on private jets, as that money would instead have been redistributed in the form of social programs, in service of more consciously directed economic development to lift the Global South and left-behind regions in the Global North. Such progressive taxation is not merely aimed at redistribution, but also at improving the economy by channeling capital into productive investments (machinery, buildings, infrastructure, innovation, and skills) instead of unproductive speculation or expensive fripperies that do little to nothing to expand the capacity of the economy.
Wright is not wrong with respect to taxation structure. But it only follows from this that there would not be private jets in the more progressively taxed ideal society right now. At any moment of technological and economic development, there are items that are more luxurious and less essential. So long as we have not eradicated poverty and raised everyone’s standard of living much higher up the hierarchy of needs, it is indeed both unfair and economically irrational that anyone’s money is spent on such items. But technologies can become cheaper and people can become wealthier.
Technological progress in the future could take the private jet from luxury good to mass consumer item. The history of technology is littered with such transitions. In the 1987 film “Wall Street,” Michael Douglas’s ultra-rich villain, Gordon Gekko, owns a Motorola Dynatac 8000X—the world’s first handheld mobile phone. It cost $3,995 upon its release in 1983, or just over $12,000 in 2023 money. Today, 91% of the planet owns a cell phone, and 86% own a smartphone—a technology that kicks sand in the face of Gekko’s puny Motorola. You might have found some purchase in 1983 arguing, “No one needs a mobile phone,” but today, billions of people would disagree. We didn’t take Gordon Gekko’s mobile phone away, we gave everyone Gordon Gekko’s mobile phone, and then some.
We should want to make every peasant a lord, not to make every lord a peasant.
And the socialist claim dating to Marx is that through economic planning rather than leaving economic allocation to the anarchy and perverse incentives of the market, this process of technologies passing from luxuries to commonplace should happen even faster and cover an even greater set of goods and services than under capitalism, for the set of all things that are useful is larger than the set of all things that are profitable. This is in essence the same rationale for industrial policy. As the Italian-American progressive economist Mariana Mazzucato has shown, most of the advances that have allowed smartphones to exist were developed by public-sector actors, like government labs and state-financed university researchers, rather than private firms, as the state was able to take greater risks on unproven new ideas and technologies than the private sector. Thus, if you wanted to be cheeky, you could say that socialism, or at least a form of economic planning, gave to the masses something far better than Gekko’s luxury phone.
So it is likely to be the case with private jets, or their equivalent. Remember that the fury regarding private jets is that the elite use these aircraft for short flights as ordinary people would a bus or taxi. Already, the electrification of short-haul flight coupled with the feasibility of vertical take-off and landing, itself a product of key advances in electric propulsion has resulted in an explosion in the last few years of designs from both start-ups and major manufacturers, including Airbus, Boeing, Honda and Toyota, for what NASA calls ”jet-taxi services” aimed at a mass market. Likely no plush armchairs or champagne upon boarding, but more like, well, a regular taxi. The key desideratum of private jets, the air passenger being able to freely choose the time and destination, is achieved. “Meet George Jetson,” indeed.
The only question remaining is whether the development of jet-taxi services, either market led or with an industrial-policy assist, is a rational deployment of resources for society. Jet-taxi service has the potential to expand aviation services to many regions that are underserved by the sector as a whole, to improve medical-aviation capacity and save more lives. According to a 2021 National Academies of Sciences study, electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft could have an energy efficiency that is equal to or even superior to terrestrial electric vehicles. So the allocation of resources to develop this sector appears to have some strong arguments in its favor. At the same time, even with the energetic, medical and transport improvements that could flow from jet-taxis, it could still be argued that the allocation of resources this requires could be better spent on clean drinking water and health care for all. I would be sympathetic to such a prioritization. But this only means that private jets for all might have to wait awhile.
Even then, surely the progressive always favors public transit over private transit?
This is not quite right. If it were, the left would oppose the use of bicycles and skateboards, for these are also private modes of transport. For the progressive, it is instead what is most rational, most efficient, what is most likely to achieve the goals that society has democratically agreed upon that decides the optimum mode of transport for a given journey and region, not how collective it is. In dense cities, the most rational option might mean more buses, subways, trams (public) and bicycles (private), and in rural and remote areas, more buildout of rail (public), connection of coaches (public), and sufficient wealth to deliver universal access to (electric) cars (private).
One can certainly wonder how air-traffic control will work in jet-taxi scenarios, and perhaps such services will turn out to be as much of a pipedream as rapid rollout of self-driving cars has been so far. But if the difficulty of safely coordinating mass adoption of personal flight is what prevents the emergence of private jets for all, then it is not because private jets for all would cook the planet or require a maintenance of deep economic inequality.
The increased affordability of technologies over time can occur not just due to cost reductions but also if there is equitable economic development that lifts everyone up. Things get cheaper, but we also get wealthier. Over time as the overall wealth of society grows—so long as equitably distributed—perhaps even the plush armchairs and champagne arrive for the masses, too. It is true that there could not be any ”sky butlers” catering to your every onboard whim in the ideal society, for when everyone can afford a butler, who is left to play the role of butler? But even here, over time, technological progress passes an ever greater number of onerous tasks over to the responsibility of machines. For many middle- and working-class Americans, machine butlers and machine maids now wash and dry our clothes, clean our dishes and, in the last few years, have even started to do the vacuuming.
Wants vs. needs
Humans are unique in nature in having unbounded needs. There can never be sufficiency for us: over time as we technologically progress, what once was a mere want turns into a need. Electricity, refrigerators, washing machines and many other technologies have passed from what were luxury wants to essential needs for everyone in the Global North, and most rightly think it a grave injustice that there are so many millions in the Global South that still do not have access to them. Meanwhile, by any strict definition of the biological needs of a human—food, water, oxygen and shelter—even prisoners have their needs met. But humans are so much more than biological. So the distinction between wants and needs is a false one; there is only prioritization.
One of the main historic left critiques of capitalism was that markets prioritize according to profit rather than in alignment with democratically decided goals. This critique remains correct. The progressive position should be to try to correct poor prioritization, not to impose limits on technological advance.
So private jets for all. One day. Once other, greater priorities have been taken care of. But still private jets for all.