Extreme wealth inequality, in short, is America’s “preexisting condition.” And unless we act intentionally — with ambitious public policies aimed at reversing inequality — the pandemic recovery will supercharge our existing inequalities of income, wealth and opportunity.
By contrast, my colleagues and I found that the Forbes 400 — the wealthiest 400 billionaires in the United States — had fully recovered their wealth within three years. Within a decade, their wealth had increased over 80%.
We see that pattern repeating now on a shockingly compressed timeline.
Already, the combined wealth of US billionaires is higher than a year ago, according to our study. At least eight of these billionaires have added another $1 billion to their wealth during the pandemic.
Among these “pandemic profiteers” are Zoom CEO Eric Yuan and Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, which owns Skype and Teams. Both Yuan and Ballmer are profiting off the boom in videoconferencing.
In short, while the majority of Americans lurch toward a recession worse than the crash of a decade ago, a tiny number of billionaires is set to make out like bandits.
Given all this, it’s not surprising that policy responses in times of crisis tend to reflect the priorities of the wealthiest first. Last time, in 2008, we bailed out the banks on Wall Street, but not the homeowners and small businesses on Main Street.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Instead, Congress should design stimulus bills to put more money in the pockets of ordinary people. An initial six-month universal basic income of $1,500 a month per adult, for households with incomes under $70,000, would reduce economic stress and destitution and boost struggling local communities.
Meanwhile, we should guard against profiteering and windfall profits by ensuring vigorous congressional oversight of the stimulus funds already passed and by levying an excess profits tax, as we have during times of war.
Finally, the frontline workers who deliver the packages, groceries, meals and care for those of us staying at home deserve health care coverage, decent wages and workplace rights and protections — to protect their wealth and health.
Extreme inequality may be America’s pre-existing condition. But with the right actions now, we can exit this pandemic on a pathway to a more decent and equitable society.