Although most Americans currently face hard times, with unemployment surging to the levels of the Great Depression and enormous numbers of people sick or dying from the coronavirus pandemic, the nation’s super-rich remain a notable exception.
Financially, they are doing remarkably well. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, between March 18 and April 28, as nearly 30 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits, the wealth of America’s 630 billionaires grew by nearly 14 percent.
During April 2020 alone, their wealth increased by over $406 billion, bringing it to $3.4 trillion.
According to estimates by Forbes, the 400 richest Americans now possess as much wealth as held by nearly two-thirds of American households combined.
Some of the super-rich have fared particularly well. Jeff Bezos (the wealthiest man in the world) saw his wealth soar between January 1 and early May 2020 to $142 billion — an increase of $27.5 billion. During that same period, Elon Musk’s wealth grew by $11.4 billion to $39 billion and the wealth of Steve Ballmer (ranking sixth in wealth) increased by $8 billion to $66.1 billion. The gains of Mark Zuckerberg (ranking third) were more modest, but his wealth did rise to $79.3 billion.
Although some billionaires lost money, this was not likely to put them out on the streets. The wealth of Bill Gates (ranking second) dropped from about $113 billion to $106 billion, while the wealth of Larry Ellison (ranking ninth) slipped from $58.8 billion to $58.7 billion.
During this time of economic crisis, two features of the U.S. government’s economic bailout legislation facilitated the burgeoning of billionaire fortunes: first, the provision of direct subsidies to the wealthy and their corporations, and, second, the gift of huge tax breaks to rich Americans and their businesses. Consequently, although the U.S. economy continues to deteriorate, stock prices, helped along by this infusion of cash, are once again soaring.
In terms of health, American billionaires are also doing quite nicely, with no indication that any of them have been stricken with the coronavirus. When news of the disease hit, billionaires immediately began renting superyachts at fantastic prices to ride out the pandemic. As one yacht broker explained, a yacht “in a nice climate isn’t a bad place to self-isolate.” Such yachts can carry supplies that will last for months, and “clients are arranging for their children to be schooled on board, with cooking lessons from the yacht’s chef and time with the crew in the engine room learning about technology.” Other super-wealthy Americans took refuge in their fortress-like country estates or flew off in their private jets to fashionable, secluded areas.
Of course, the ability of the rich to stave off a serious or fatal illness is enhanced by their easy access to the best of medical care. On Fisher Island — a members-only location off the coast of Florida where the average income of residents is $2.2 million per year and the beaches are made from imported Bahamian sand — the residents, unlike other Floridians, had no problem purchasing thousands of rapid Covid-19 blood tests. To secure immediate and near-unlimited access to healthcare, including such tests, billionaires often employ “concierge doctors” — for a hefty annual fee.
Naturally, thanks to their soaring wealth and relatively secure health, America’s billionaires are able to continue the kind of lifestyle to which they are accustomed.
Housing is not a major problem. Although journalists have trouble keeping track of the bewildering array of mansions purchased by America’s billionaires, Jeff Bezos reportedly owns 14 homes, including a newly-acquired $165 million Beverly Hills mansion. Another of his lavish dwellings, located in an exclusive section of Washington, D.C., contains 11 bedrooms and 25 bathrooms. Although Mark Zuckerberg apparently possesses only 10 homes, Larry Ellison has bought dozens of incredibly expensive mansions and real estate properties, plus (at a price of $300 million) a Hawaiian island.
Just how many homes Bill Gates owns remains unclear, as he has made a number of secretive real estate purchases. Nevertheless, they include multiple luxurious horse ranches scattered across the United States. He spends most of the time, though, at Xanadu 2.0, his $127 million, 66,000 square-foot mansion in Medina, Washington. Requiring 300 workers to construct, this behemoth contains very unusual high tech features, a trampoline room with a 20-foot ceiling, six kitchens, a dining room able to seat up to 150 people for dinner, a 22-foot-wide video screen, a home theater, garages for 23 cars, and 18.75 bathrooms. There is also a lakefront shore containing large quantities of sand delivered every year by a barge from the Caribbean.
The super-rich have more than enough wealth to squander upon a variety of extravagant items. Their superyachts cost as much as a billion dollars each, and boast such fixtures as night clubs, swimming pools, helipads, and even missile defense systems. In 2019, the United States ranked first in the world in superyachts, with 158 in operation. Many billionaires also own private superjets, such as the $403 million (“before any customization work”) “Queen of the Skies,” featuring a full office, bedroom, and “a stately dining room that can be converted into a corporate boardroom.” (Both Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are superjet owners.) Moreover, the ultra-affluent possess luxury car collections, multiple passports (available for millions of dollars), and gold toilets.
Billionaires do face problems, of course, including boredom, finding the necessary household “help,” fending off challenges from their increasingly desperate workers, and defeating politicians who dare to champion taxing great wealth to fund vital public services.
Nevertheless, the vast gulf separating the lives of the super-rich from those of most Americans raises the issue of whether this small, parasitic stratum of U.S. society should be maintained in such splendor. Many Americans might already be wondering about this as they cope with economic collapse and ever-widening death.
Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of “Confronting the Bomb” (Stanford University Press).