Never let a crisis go to waste: The pandemic brings more inequality
By Pete Dolack
December 25, 2020 "Information Clearing House" - Heeding that time-honored advice to never let a crisis go to waste, the world’s industrialists and financiers have taken full advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to accumulate more wealth. And although you already know that large numbers of people have been thrown out of work and/or are at risk of losing their home, you might not have realized how obscene the increase in inequality has become.
Not surprisingly, given that capitalism is a system with a stranglehold on almost every place on Earth, the rise in inequality is a global phenomenon. Unfortunately, capitalists have usually understood their class interests better than do the world’s working people.
When we discuss the increase in wealth the world’s richest are enjoying, we are talking literally about trillions of dollars.
We’ll start our survey with a report issued by one of the world’s biggest banks, UBS, and Big Four accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. The authors of the report, “Riding the storm: Market turbulence accelerates diverging fortunes,” can hardly contain their enthusiasm at how successful their clients have been during the pandemic. UBS and PwC “have unique insights into” billionaires’ “changing fortunes and needs” and in the report breathlessly extol “a time of exceptional, Schumpeterian creative destruction” by “billionaires [who] live in turbulent but trailblazing times.” As you can already surmise by the tone-deaf writing, the report is intended as a celebration of vast wealth inequality and is written in a style that comes as close to that of Hollywood celebrity publicists as you are likely to find produced by bankers and accountants.
The report says “Some 209 billionaires have publicly committed a total of USD 7.2 billion” in donations, written within a passage told in solemn tones intended to make us gasp in awe at the selflessness of the international bourgeoisie. Yet we soon enough read that the wealth of the world’s billionaires totaled US$10.2 trillion in July 2020. For those of you scoring at home, that $7.2 billion in proposed donations represents 0.07 percent of their wealth. The average working person donates a significantly bigger portion of their income.
In just three months, from April to July 2020, the world’s billionaires added $2.2 trillion to their wealth! Technology billionaires did particularly well during the pandemic, the UBS/PwC report says, due in large part to the surge in technology stock prices. During the first seven months of 2020 alone, technology and health industry billionaires saw their wealth increase by about $150 billion. Yes, never let a crisis go to waste.
The number of the world’s billionaires, the report tells us, is 2,189. To put these numbers in some kind of perspective, there are exactly two countries in the world (the United States and China) that have a bigger gross domestic product than the wealth of those 2,189 billionaires. Or, to put it another way, their wealth is greater than the economic output of Japan, Germany and Britain, the countries with the world’s third, fourth and fifth largest GDPs and which have a combined population of 277 million.
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As might be expected, billionaires in the center of the world capitalist system are no laggards among those accumulating wealth at the expense of everyone else. An Institute for Policy Studies study, “U.S. Billionaire Wealth Surges Past $1 Trillion Since Beginning of Pandemic — Total Grows to $4 Trillion,” reports the collective wealth of the 651 billionaires in the United States has increased by over $1 trillion “since roughly the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to a total of $4 trillion at market close on Monday, December 7, 2020. Combined, just the top 10 billionaires are now worth more than $1 trillion.” Those gains are more than the $900 billion pandemic relief package that passed Congress this week, a package held up for months by Republicans fretting over the cost.
Wall Street has been amply taken care of in the current economic crisis, as it was in the wake of the 2008 collapse, and industrialists also have had massive amounts of subsidies and tax cuts thrown their way. For working people, crumbs. The Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank, committed US$5.3 trillion to corporations on its own initiative in the first weeks of the pandemic, and most of the $2.5 trillion offered in last spring’s two congressional stimulus packages (the CARES Act of March 27 and the supplement of April 24) went to big business. (There was nothing unique about that as Britain, the European Union and Canada pushed through similar programs.)
The Institute for Policy Studies report notes that the $1 trillion gain by U.S. billionaires since mid-March is:
Jobs losses and insecurity around the world
A University College London report, “Financial inequalities widen due to Covid-19,” called by the authors the “UK’s largest study into how adults are feeling about the lockdown,” found that more than two-thirds of Britons surveyed have suffered deteriorating finances. The report said, “Almost half (47%) of those who were finding things ‘very difficult’ financially before lockdown are now reporting things are ‘much worse’, with a further 23% saying things are ‘worse’. This figure has increased significantly from July, when 57% of the same group reported being financially worse off than before the pandemic.” The report quoted an educational leader, Cheryl Lloyd, as summarizing the situation as follows: “This report shows that the financial impact of the Covid-19 crisis is not being felt equally across the UK. This threatens to further widen existing inequalities as the pandemic continues.”
Conditions are no better across the Channel in the European Union, with disparate impacts on jobs widening inequality on the continent. The Brussels think tank Bruegel reports that, across the EU, “8% of workers educated to lower secondary level or below lost their jobs between the last quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of 2020. Over the same period, the number of jobs for workers with university degrees increased by 3%. Jobs for employees with middle-level qualifications declined by 5%. This picture of differences between low-educated and tertiary-educated workers can be seen in all EU countries and the United Kingdom.”
Those at more risk of losing their jobs are also at more risk of contracting Covid-19. “Sectors more exposed to the pandemic, including restaurants, travel, entertainment and personal services have unsurprisingly suffered more,” Bruegel reports. “But the ability to telework has greatly influenced labour market outcomes. About 70% of those who completed university studies are able to work from home, compared to about 15% of those who have not completed secondary school. Two-thirds of professionals and 85% of managers can work from home, in contrast to close to zero for workers in transportation, installation, construction and agriculture.”
And, as would be expected, conditions in the developing world are still worse. India has experienced a 26 percent decline in industrial employment, according to an India Today report. The broadcaster said:
“Ever since India went under a strict lockdown on March 25, millions of the country’s poorest workers were immediately rendered jobless and left without any income. An unresolved migrant crisis is the biggest example of the plight India’s poor are facing at the moment. Even the country’s vast middle class population encountered a sharp loss of income during the pandemic due to a wave of job losses and pay cuts. … A recent report by the Centre For Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) indicates that [21 million] salaried jobs were lost in the first five months of the pandemic, indicating that income levels among middle class households have fallen sharply.”
At the same time Indians across the country were undergoing difficulties, Mukesh Ambani, one of the world’s richest persons, saw his wealth increase by $30.5 billion. Another Indian billionaire, Cyrus Poonawala, added $5.6 billion to his wealth this year, India Today reported.
Even capitalists’ spokespeople profess concern
Inequality has become so extreme that even some of the staunchest upholders of the capitalism that creates this inequality profess to be concerned. (Or perhaps they are worried about people rising up to do something about it and thus advocate a little softening, at least for now.) In November, the Brookings Institution was moved to issue a report, “Windfall profits and deadly risks: How the biggest retail companies are compensating essential workers during the Covid-19 pandemic,” that discussed the big increases in profits enjoyed by giant retailers while their workforce sees only crumbs. Brookings reported:
“We find that while top retail companies’ profits have soared during the pandemic, pay for their frontline workers—in most cases—has not. In total, the top retail companies in our analysis earned on average an extra $16.9 billion in profit this year compared to last—a stunning 39% increase—while stock prices are up an average of 33%. And with few exceptions, frontline retail workers have seen little of this windfall. The 13 companies we studied raised pay for their frontline workers by an average of just $1.11 per hour since the pandemic began—a 10% increase on top of wages that are often too low to meet a family’s basic needs. On average, it has been 133 days since the retail workers in our analysis last received any hazard pay.”
For top executives and speculators who hold large numbers of shares, however, the year of the pandemic has been a bonanza. The Brookings report further stated:
“Many of the least generous companies were the most financially successful, posting huge profits. Amazon and Walmart combined earned an extra $10.9 billion in profit compared to last year, an increase of 53% and 45%, respectively. Their workers, on the other hand, have received below-average COVID-19-related compensation: an extra $1,369 ($0.95 per hour) and $900 ($0.63 per hour), respectively, over the eight-plus months of the pandemic—representing just 6% pay bumps for full-time workers that earn starting wages. Meanwhile, Amazon and Walmart’s stock prices are up 65% and 41% since the start of the pandemic, adding more than $70 billion to the wealth of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, and $45 billion to the Walton family—the country’s richest family, who own more than half of Walmart’s shares.”
Wal-Mart spent $500 million on new stock buybacks during the third quarter of 2020 while offering no new hazard pay bonuses for its employees, the Brookings report said. Another big chain, Kroger, announced $1.2 billion in new stock buybacks, causing the stock price to rise (which is the intention), at the same time its grocery workers were given no hazard pay for six months while earning an average wage of $10 per hour. Kroger’s profits during the first six months of the pandemic, meanwhile, totaled $2 billion.
Wal-Mart is a company that pays its employees so little that they skip meals and organize food drives; receives so many government subsidies that the public pays about $1 million per store in the United States; and is estimated to avoid $1 billion per year in U.S. taxes through its use of tax loopholes. Meanwhile, the Walton family collects billions of dollars every year from dividends just for being born in the right family.
Amazon is notorious for the brutal inhuman conditions in its distribution centers and for not paying taxes. Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, is one of the world’s richest people yet he organized a nationwide sweepstakes to see what cities or states would give him the biggest subsidies when he announced Amazon would create a second headquarters.
The International Monetary Fund likely isn’t having second thoughts or feeling remorse about its decades of imposing harsh austerity on developing countries, but has weighed in on the rise of inequality — whether from genuine concern or, much more likely, as a public relations gesture. (IMF papers purporting to reconsider neoliberalism are always much less than they appear.) Because lower-income people are less likely to be able to work from home during the pandemic, and thus more likely to have lost their job, the IMF said “the estimated effect from COVID-19 on the income distribution is much larger than that of past pandemics.”
Loss of work and specter of hunger hit developing world hard
Whatever the motivations of the world’s capitalist think tanks and financial institutions may be in discussing global inequality in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is no question that working people everywhere are suffering. As early as late April, the International Labour Organization issued a report, “As job losses escalate, nearly half of global workforce at risk of losing livelihoods,” predicting that half of the world’s working people are in danger of disaster. The ILO said:
“The continued sharp decline in working hours globally due to the Covid-19 outbreak means that 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy — that is nearly half of the global workforce — stand in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed. … The first month of the crisis is estimated to have resulted in a drop of 60 per cent in the income of informal workers globally. This translates into a drop of 81 per cent in Africa and the Americas, 21.6 per cent in Asia and the Pacific, and 70 per cent in Europe and Central Asia. Without alternative income sources, these workers and their families will have no means to survive.”