It’s been a big week for yacht news. Yesterday, white supremacist shirt-layering aficionado Steve Bannon was arrested on a $28 million, 150-foot yacht in Connecticut for defrauding donors to his Build the Wall crowdfunding page.* Also yesterday, Politico reported that the boat from which Evangelical Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. posted a scarring picture with his pants unbuttoned several weeks ago was, in fact, a 164-foot yacht owned by Nascar mogul Rick Hendrick that Falwell has repeatedly vacationed on “after the university committed to a lucrative sponsorship deal with Hendrick Motorsports.” Meanwhile, amid mass unemployment on both sides of the Atlantic, British real estate mogul Nick Candy is selling his $71 million yacht for one simple reason: “I want to build a bigger yacht.” There’s a single common thread in these distasteful vignettes and only one obvious solution: ban yachts.
To clarify, I’m proposing making private yachts over 79 feet (“superyachts”) subject to 100 percent taxation. Technically, there is no standard definition of a yacht, which can be anything from a racing vessel to any sort of large or even mid-sized pleasure craft—and far be it from the long arm of the state to stop seafaring proms or bar mitzvahs. Greta Thunberg crossed the Atlantic last year on a modest, carbon-neutral yacht, after all. But private yachts of the sort showcased in The Wolf of Wall Street, featuring helipads, swimming pools, and their own tiny sub-yachts—have no place in a just and sustainable society. If you don’t believe me, just look at their track record.
Has anything good ever happened on a yacht? Sure, people may have fallen in love or had pleasant family getaways to far-off lands. You might have some passing fondness for yacht rock (fair enough). But superyachts are floating private castles providing safe havens for oligarchs and white-collar criminals, fenced off for the pleasure of the obscenely wealthy. They can even be a means for the 1 percent to avoid paying property taxes, according to the website Mansion Global.
Like many other pastimes of the ultra-wealthy, superyachts are an environmental catastrophe, spewing greenhouse gases into the air and pollution into the oceans, burning diesel as they idle in ports around the world. The U.S. government valiantly sought to place environmental restrictions on new yachts in 2015, requiring vessels built after 2016 to be equipped with machines for converting nitrous oxide into nitrogen and water. The yacht lobby called this “doomsday.” If anything, those rules weren’t strong enough.
For practical and political reasons, banning superyachts could prove difficult. Aside from the complete lack of domestic political will to ban the monstrosities, the owners of maritime vessels have well-worn ways of skirting regulations, flying under foreign flags to avoid U.S. law. Banning superyachts even just in the United States may be a lost cause without international solidarity. But as the world looks to increase collaboration to take on such pressing issues as a deadly pandemic and the climate crisis, leveraging multilateral institutions to reign in the scourge of the ultra-wealthy on the high seas could be good practice. U.S. leadership should seek to curb the influence of Big Yacht and Big Shipping in the International Maritime Organization, where monied interests have consistently fought common sense reforms and climate rules.
Building the political will to ban yachts means challenging the boat-shoed, footloose forces of international capital. The past few weeks of epic right-wing yacht shenanigans aside, yacht mania has been a thoroughly bipartisan phenomenon. In 2015, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo extended a generous tax credit to luxury boat buyers, exempting wealthy shoppers from paying sales taxes on any dollar they spent above $230,000 on a new boat. (The same year, he went to war with New York’s teachers’ unions.)
Establishment Democrats have largely won the battle for party platform in 2020. The progressive slogan “every billionaire is a policy failure” will remain just that—a slogan. But since the party is so keen to signal unity with its left flank, courting Sanders’s voters and hiring his staff, the least it could do is ban billionaires’ ugly, polluting boats.
* A previous version of this article misstated the value of the yacht on which Steve Bannon was arrested.