How Billionaires Became Easier to Hate in the Age of Coronavirus

Elon Musk unveiling a Tesla Cybertruck, pre-pandemic, November 2019.  (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

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n March 25 of this year, just as windows were boarded up and workers headed home for the start of shelter in place, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce published an article telling American small businesses how to survive. The advice amounted to this: ask for donations.

“While government stimulus plans are being discussed, many local businesses simply can’t wait,” the webpage advised. “That’s why some have turned to their loyal patrons and wider communities to help them meet their immediate needs in these uncertain times... If your business is considering a crowdfunding campaign to mitigate COVID-related financial losses, here’s what you need to know and a few popular platforms to consider...”

Nearly six months later, we’ve all seen our fair share of crowdfunding campaigns. And we've also seen how little they, and the federal government’s conservative relief efforts, have done to stem the tide of small business closures.

In May, however, a handful of Bay Area restaurants were granted a reprieve, when Mark Zuckerberg stepped in and gave his eight “personal favorite” eateries $100,000 each, to ride out shelter in place securely. While that’s undoubtedly a relief for the chosen few, the truth is that Zuckerberg could have given that much money to 10,000 restaurants and he still would have been left with $95 billion for himself.

Meanwhile, since shelter in place began, 40 million people have filed for unemployment, and the food insecurity rate for parents has been hovering between 20 and 25%. To say that COVID-19 has gravely transformed the lives and the priorities of human beings around the globe would be a gross understatement—except, that is, if you apply it to the super-rich.

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t the start of August, Business Insider reported that, during shelter in place, American billionaires have increased their total net worth by at least $637 billion. Figures so far put Elon Musk up by $57 billion (there was a $8 billion bump on Aug. 17 alone); Jeff Bezos by $48 billion (his net worth jumped by $13 billion in a single day); Mark Zuckerberg by $30 billion; the Walmart founders, the Walton family, by $21 billion; Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer by $15.7 billion; and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson by $5 billion.

It is true that the men making the most money from our collective crisis aren’t averse to making some donations here and there. At the start of the pandemic, Salesforce founder Marc Benioff committed to donating 5 million masks. Sheldon Adelson's Las Vegas Sands Corp. pledged to give $250,000 to hunger-relief programs, as well as donating two million masks and 20,000 protective suits. The richest of them all, Jeff Bezos, committed in April to donating $100 million to Feeding America, $20 million to improving COVID-19 tests, $2 million to emergency COVID-19 funds in Washington, D.C. and Seattle, and $5 million relief for small businesses.

While that sounds like a lot of giving, bear in mind that someone like Jeff Bezos is sitting on such enormous reserves of cash, his spending $1.2 million dollars is the equivalent of the average American spending $1. In fact, these billionaires have the power and wealth to transform millions of lives, but simply choose not to. Which is why this Twitter account exists:

With all that in mind, Elon Musk donating 1,255 ventilators to hospitals in California—which may or may not have even arrived—is a flimsy effort at best. Musk has not helped himself during this period by also referring to shelter in place orders as “fascist,” declaring that children are “essentially immune” to coronavirus, and recommending unverified medications to treat COVID-19.

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ur collective tolerance for over-privileged famous people bottomed out early on in the pandemic. It started as a collective eye roll over that rendition of “Imagine.” It has since passed through the kind of irritation caused by Madonna calling coronavirus "the great equalizer" from her pristine, rose-petal-filled bathtub. And more recently, it's turned into Twitter doing math on an unprecedented scale.

Americans are now examining the billionaires in our midst more closely than we have done since Occupy Wall Street dominated the news cycle in 2011. And never have they seemed more out of touch, or, frankly, more useless.

Since 1980, America's financial system has weighed heavily in the favor of the ultra-wealthy. Taxes on billionaires have decreased by 79% in that time, and Bezos’ Amazon is a shining example of the runaway wealth that can result. In 2019, after two years of paying no taxes whatsoever, Amazon was taxed just 1.2% of its income. Then, in the past quarter, it broke records with profits of $5.2 billion as consumers were forced online by business closures, and pushed to the cheapest possible source by mass unemployment.

These issues are exacerbated by the fact that large corporations are often amoral behemoths, eager to gobble up money wherever they can find it. Even government programs set up to assist smaller businesses have been exploited as a result. Before it stopped accepting applications on Aug. 8, the Paycheck Protection Program —“a loan designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll”—made $349 billion of assistance available. $243 million of that ended up in the pockets of multi-million dollar corporations.

Even Vanity Fair, a magazine traditionally prone to revering the privileged classes, reported with some disdain on the “luxe quarantine lives of the Silicon Valley elite” earlier this month. One insider, close to a number of wealthy CEOs and venture capitalists, was quoted as saying: “They just can’t stop themselves from throwing parties and going on their jets and socializing as if everything was normal.”

(That was in evidence this week when Hailey and Justin Bieber ignored Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's “no party” mandate, and threw a lavish one. Billionaire Kylie Jenner and her sister Kendall were photographed arriving maskless, with the latter throwing a thumbs up to awaiting photographers.)

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apitalism enthusiasts will happily pop up at this juncture and declare that it's the billionaires’ money and they can do what they want with it. And that's true. They can. Lord knows, the U.S. government has shown little willingness to tax them appropriately and make this easier on everyone. But it’s also true that social contracts exist. If we want to live in the kind of place where neighbors help neighbors in need, and everyone does their part for the community, that also needs to apply to the people at the top of the money pile—especially if it in no way fundamentally diminishes said pile of money.

The ultra-rich making the switch to doing the right thing is not unprecedented. Back in the 1990s, the vitriol and revulsion directed at Bill Gates was similar to what Musk, Bezos and Zuckerberg inspire now. And he put a stop to that by engaging in what the Seattle Times recently called the “largest act of charity in world history.”

Since 2000, the Gates Foundation has spent billions on getting vaccines and contraception to humans who would not otherwise have access to them. In June alone, it gave $1.6 billion to the Vaccine Alliance. Since February, it has donated $250 million to expand testing for COVID-19 and find a cure.

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Warren Buffett, having already donated $34 billion to worthy causes, has pledged to leave a further $37 billion to the Gates Foundation when he dies. Both Gates and Buffett remain billionaires many times over, despite this generosity. But they avoid the kind of ire directed at Bezos, Zuckerberg and Musk because of it. Just imagine the impact that could be made if all American billionaires focused their efforts in a similar manner. At the very least, we would surely hate them less.