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Pandemic Profiteers: How U.S. Billionaires Like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Saw Wealth Grow by $1.3 Trillion

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A new report reveals that as a record number of people in the United States lost their jobs and struggled to put food on the table during the past year of the pandemic, the combined wealth of the 657 billionaires in the country grew more than $1.3 trillion, nearly 45%, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who saw his personal wealth increase by $65 billion — more than $7 million every hour. “They are often leading companies who have benefited from the pandemic conditions by having, essentially, their competition shut down,” says Chuck Collins, author of the report on pandemic profiteers by the Institute for Policy Studies and Americans for Tax Fairness. “These folks have reaped enormous windfalls in this pandemic.” The massive gains come as pressure grows on lawmakers to impose new taxes on the top 1%, with both Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders proposing new measures to address growing economic inequality.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s been a year of pain for so many, and massive gains for a select few billionaires. We begin today’s show looking at a new report that names the biggest pandemic profiteers over the past year. As unemployment surged at the start of the lockdowns, the Institute for Policy Studies began working with Americans for Tax Fairness to track the wealth growth of U.S. billionaires. They’ve just published their findings that show the combined wealth of the 657 billionaires in the country grew more than $1.3 trillion, nearly 45%, since the pandemic began.

This comes as a record number of people in the United States lost their jobs and struggled to put food on the table. Food banks reported massive lines, and mutual aid groups popped up across the United States to help those in need. This is Harlem resident Ruth Crawford, speaking from a food bank last Thanksgiving.

RUTH CRAWFORD: You have to try to relax and think of the better things, because it wasn’t always like this. But this is getting to people, and it’s just sad. I mean, you work all the time, and then you can’t go to work, or you can’t work from home. So it’s not easy.

AMY GOODMAN: Billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg all saw their bank accounts swell amidst the global crisis. This month, Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and others proposed an “ultra-millionaire” tax to tax fortunes above $50 million. Senator Sanders hosted a hearing on the inequality crisis last week.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: We’ll be asking about how it happens that the top one-tenth of 1% now owns more wealth than the bottom 90% — one-tenth of 1%, more wealth than the bottom 90% — and two individuals, Bezos and Musk, now own more wealth than the bottom 40%. And meanwhile, we’re looking at more hunger in America than at any time in decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Sanders is holding another hearing today.

For more, we’re joined by Chuck Collins, director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ Program on Inequality and author of their new report, “A Year of Billionaire Pandemic Gains.” Chuck Collins is also the author of The Wealth Hoarders: How Billionaires Pay Millions to Hide Trillions.

Chuck, welcome back to Democracy Now! Who are the pandemic profiteers, and how they do it?

CHUCK COLLINS: Well, good morning, Amy.

And you mentioned a couple, who — like Jeff Bezos, like Elon Musk. But what we found was that there was a whole group of people, almost 50 billionaires, whose wealth has gone up over 100%. And they are often leading companies who have benefited from the pandemic conditions by having, essentially, their competition shut down. So, they’re the online retailers, the online telemedicine. And then, think about it: Any of the companies that we’re sort of depending on while a bricks-and-mortar economy has been shut down, those are the ones that have seen their wealth surge dramatically. And as you said, you know, we’re talking about 657 billionaires whose combined wealth is $1.3 trillion increase in the last year, but they have $4.2 trillion total, which is double, almost double, the amount of the wealth of the bottom half of U.S. households. So these folks have reaped enormous windfalls in this pandemic.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Chuck, could you also respond to the ultra-millionaire tax proposals that Sanders was just talking about, what we played? And also, in 2018, you wrote that the effective rate of tax on the billionaire class was lower than for most middle-income taxpayers. Explain what the effective rate of tax is. And again, your response to the proposal for an ultra-millionaire tax?

CHUCK COLLINS: Well, it really is a good time to be talking about taxing the very wealthy. The effective rate is really what’s the percentage of your income and wealth that you pay in taxes. And the billionaire class is down to about 23%, which is like a 70-year low. That’s the level at which many schoolteachers pay their tax rates. So, a wealth tax, along the lines the ultra-millionaire tax that’s been proposed; Senator Sanders is going to introduce his reformed estate tax bill today, the For the 99.5% bill, today — those are the kinds of legislation that will raise significant money from that billionaire class. We estimated — Americans for Tax Fairness and Institute for Policy Studies estimated that the wealth tax, half the revenue would come from billionaires. Over 10 years, almost $1.5 trillion of revenue would come just from billionaires. So, it would go a long way toward making the tax system more fair and restoring the lost progressivity that we had in past decades.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Chuck, it’s clear that, of course, the U.S. was not the only country that saw billionaires increasing their wealth exponentially during the pandemic. There is another report that tracks global wealth, called the Hurun Global Rich List. And it found that in addition to billionaires, of course, increasing their wealth, the world also added 607 new billionaires, and that’s three billionaires every two days. So, could you talk about how this happened globally and where this wealth is most concentrated — the U.S., China and India?

CHUCK COLLINS: Yeah, it’s a good question. And we’re going to release an analysis of the one-year mark on global wealth, but let me give you a preview. The global billionaire class — there’s about 2,360 billionaires globally — their wealth increased $4 trillion. So, that group has $12 trillion. And if we were to levy a kind of Warren-style wealth tax on the global billionaires, just in one year that would raise about $350 billion. It would cost about $140 billion to vaccinate the world, according to Oxfam. So, you know, that’s the juxtaposition that we’re looking at in the pandemic.

But the common thing that these billionaires have, the ones that are really extracting enormous windfalls, is their Main Street business commerce competition has been shut down. I mean, it’s clear — you know, take an example like Amazon. The Main Street bookstore and retailer is shuttered. They are consolidating — these bigger, billionaire-owned companies are consolidating their ownership in certain sectors. And it’s both the things that we need, it’s also diversions — you know, Snapchat, sort of gaming, online gaming. All those things have also — there’s a huge amount of wealth that’s been extracted from these companies that own some of the online gaming firms. And the United States billionaires only account — count for less than a third of this global wealth. There’s a tremendous amount of new wealth in China, in Hong Kong. But what they all have in common is they benefit from the adversity and the artificial conditions that the pandemic has created in the marketplace.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Jeff Bezos. Earlier this week, we spoke to Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, talking about how Amazon treated workers during the pandemic. They’re attempting to unionize the first Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.

STUART APPELBAUM: Amazon cut people’s wages in the middle of the pandemic. At the end of May, they eliminated the $2 hazard pay they had been giving, even though the pandemic continued to rage, even though the hazards were just as bad, if not worse, as they had been before. And why did they do it? They didn’t do it because they needed to. You talked about how much money Bezos has made during this period. They did it because they thought they could get away with it. Oxfam put out a report that said if Jeff Bezos had given every one of his employees a bonus of $105,000, Bezos still would have been wealthier at the end of the pandemic than he was at the beginning.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about that, Chuck. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos saw his personal wealth increase by $65 billion — more than $7 million every hour. Tomorrow we’re going to be talking with Danny Glover, who is going down, along with Bernie Sanders and others, for the final push days of the Amazon unionization drive effort in Bessemer. The significance of them fighting, spending millions fighting this unionization? And yet you look at the massive pandemic profiteering that he has engaged in.

CHUCK COLLINS: Yeah, I mean, it’s clear that Bezos, you know, and Amazon hired 450,000 new workers during the pandemic globally, 800,000 workers now in the U.S. Many of them were sent into the viral line of fire with inadequate protection. I’ve talked to lots of Amazon workers in warehouses in the North, where even they are unionized in some cases, but they are still being forced to work in unsafe conditions.

Amazon could have done so much more. They could have kept hazard pay in place. They could allow workers to organize. They could share the wealth with their employees. But instead, they’ve hoarded the wealth at the top. And, you know, the average Amazon worker has seen their pay go up less than a dollar over the year, but compared to Bezos’s, as you point out, thousands of dollars an hour that he’s reaping from the situation.

So, it’s really great that people like Danny Glover and others are standing and organizing, standing with the workers in Alabama in their struggle, because this is a pivotal moment to push back on these sort of oligarchic owners. Same with Musk — Musk, again, sending his workers back into factories without adequate protection, while these billionaires sit in their own protective bubbles.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much, Chuck Collins, and we’re going to link to your report. Chuck Collins is director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ Program on Inequality. That new report, “A Year of Billionaire Pandemic Gains.” He’s the author of The Wealth Hoarders: How Billionaires Pay Millions to Hide Trillions.

Next up, the House Armed Services Committee holds a hearing on extremism in the Armed Forces. One in five of those arrested in connection with the deadly January 6th Capitol insurrection have served or are now serving in the military. Stay with us.

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