With only two weeks until a national election, the unseemly juxtaposition between the fortunes of U.S. billionaires and the dire conditions of millions of working families could not be more striking. Meanwhile Trump and Senate inaction are worsening this divide.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the wealth of U.S. billionaires has surged $931 billion, according to analysis by the Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies. This updates ongoing research by the Institute for Policy Studies begun with the report, Billionaire Bonanza 2020: Wealth Windfalls, Tumbling Taxes and Pandemic Profiteers.

Between March 18 –the rough start of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic — and October 13, the total wealth of 644 U.S. billionaires increased from $2.95 trillion to $3.88 trillion, a rise of 31.6 percent. (See a detailed spreadsheet of all billionaires, based on analysis of Forbes billionaire data).

The COVID-19 pandemic has killed over 220,000 Americans and destroyed the health, wealth and livelihood of millions of households. The U.S. Senate’s failure to pass another emergency relief bill has increased desperation for many households and localities – as some regions enter a second wave of infections with winter approaching. Unemployment is rising again as many businesses are being shuttered, some permanently. States and localities are reeling from declining revenue and facing budget shortfalls just at the time when robust state and federal action is required.

While the wealth of billionaires tracks the rises and falls of the stock market, a group of “pandemic profiteers” have seen their wealth surge to unimaginable heights during a time of misfortune for most of their neighbors. Many of them are profiting from increasing dependence on cloud-based technologies, online retail, drug research, telemedicine, video-conferencing – services that have become essential services during the pandemic. Wall Street is anticipating a further concentration of corporate ownership and rewarding those best positioned to reap those rewards.

The expansion of retail giant Amazon comes at the expense of millions of bricks-and-mortar small businesses forced to close to foot traffic. Jeff Bezos’s wealth grew from $113 billion on March 18 to $203 billion on Oct. 13, an increase of 80 percent. Adding in his ex-wife MacKenzie Scott’s wealth of $65.7 billion on that day and the two had a combined wealth of more than a quarter of a trillion dollars thanks to their Amazon stock.

Elon Musk’s wealth has more than tripled since the beginning of the pandemic. Thanks to Musk’s technologies, such as Tesla, his wealth grew from $24.6 billion on March 18 to $92.8 billion on Oct. 13, an increase of 277 percent. Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth grew from $54.7 billion on March 18 to $101 billion on Oct. 13, an increase of 85 percent, fueled by his Facebook stock.

Video conference technologies have become essential services during the pandemic. Zoom’s Eric Yaun wasn’t even a billionaire in 2019. Now is wealth is over $22 billion, an increase of over 300 percent since March 18th. Steve Ballmer, a major owner of Microsoft and its TEAMS video conferencing, has seen his wealth increase by $22 billion since March 18, an increase of 43.4 percent

The increasing dependence of online financial services and telemedicine have boosted some fortunes. Dan Gilbert, chairman of Quicken Loans, saw his wealth rocket by 656 percent, to $49.2 billion from $6.5 billion 7 months earlier.

Not all billionaires have seen their fortunes boom. Major owners in the fossil fuel energy sector have seen their wealth decline.

What can be done? In Billionaire Bonanza 2020, IPS recommends a number of actions to address pandemic profiteering. These include:

  • Establish a Pandemic Profiteering Oversight Committee that goes beyond oversight of stimulus funds.
  • Discourage wealth hiding through passage of the Corporate Transparency Act.
  • Levy an emergency 10 percent Millionaire Income Surtax.
  • Unleash a Charity Stimulus to mandate payouts of donor-advised funds and emergency 10 percent payout for private foundations for three years.
  • Make the federal estate tax more progressive and institute a wealth tax.
  • Shut down the global hidden wealth system.

Since the publication of the report, members of Congress have introduced an emergency billionaire wealth tax to capture a portion of these gains and direct to health and state and local aide.

Why March 18? Forbes’ annual billionaires report was published March 18, 2020, and the real-time data was collected Oct. 13 from the Forbes website. This analysis was recently favorably reviewed by PolitiFact. The ATF-IPS analysis also looks at wealth growth since February 2019, well before the start of the pandemic and the previous date of Forbes’ annual billionaires report. In roughly 20 months, many of these same billionaires have seen unprecedented gains.

See the full press release HERE.

Sources: All data in table is from Forbes and available here.
March 18, 2020 data: Forbes, “Forbes Publishes 34th Annual List Of Global Billionaires,” April 7, 2020
Oct. 13, 2020 data: Forbes, “The World’s Real-Time Billionaires, Today’s Winners and Losers,” accessed Oct. 13, 2020
Feb. 8, 2019 data: Forbes 2019 World Billionaires Report, March 5, 2019

Chuck Collins directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies. Follow him on Twitter @Chuck99to1.

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