It’s by now widely understood that the past twelve months have been a tale of two very different pandemics. Amid the countless stories of human misery buried in monthly unemployment figures, reports of widespread hunger, and tragic (though avoidable) deaths of frontline workers, COVID-19 has been a veritable bonanza for the tiny few at the commanding heights of the hyper-financialized global economy. Recent numbers published by the Financial Times underscore just how dramatic these gains have really been:
Over the past two decades, as the global population of billionaires rose more than fivefold and the largest fortunes rocketed past $100bn . . . The pandemic has reinforced this trend. As the virus spread, central banks injected $9tn into economies worldwide, aiming to keep the world economy afloat. Much of that stimulus has gone into financial markets, and from there into the net worth of the ultra-rich. The total wealth of billionaires worldwide rose by $5tn to $13tn in 12 months, the most dramatic surge ever registered on the annual billionaire list compiled by Forbes magazine.
In addition to increasing the wealth of existing billionaires, the pandemic has also created quite a few new ones. As the Times’ Ruchir Sharma notes, China alone added 238 to the global total — roughly one every 36 hours. More than 100 new billionaires have been created in the United States in the past year, the global number of individuals worth $1 billion or more jumping from around 2,000 a year ago to a record of just over 2,700 as of April 2021. A few, like Tesla CEO Elon Musk, have seen spikes in their wealth that border on incomprehensible (in Musk’s case from a mere $25 billion to over $150 billion in a single year).
On straightforward ethical grounds, the current distribution of wealth would be difficult for all but the most die-hard followers of Ayn Rand to defend. Since the days following the 2008–9 financial crisis, there’s been an ambient consensus spanning fairly conservative institutions like the International Monetary Fund or the leadership of the Democratic Party to the socialist left that “inequality” — defined in the broadest conceivable sense — is a problem. Somewhat crude though its formulation of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent was, Occupy Wall Street did at least succeed in popularizing the idea that a tiny minority at the top of the pyramid were hoarding gains for themselves while a majority were left behind to struggle.
The issue, however, is less often understood in relation to democracy. According to one recent estimate by economist Gabriel Zucman, billionaire wealth in the United States is rapidly approaching an amount equal to 20 percent of total GDP. Against such a backdrop, inequality certainly remains an applicable and important framework. But it only gets us so far when it comes to understanding the full implications of wealth concentration.
When sufficiently lopsided, the ownership of wealth ceases to be merely a question of how money and commodities are distributed and transforms into one of power and control. On its face, the market revolution of the 1980s and ’90s was animated by a conceit that Keynesian welfare states had become too centralized and monopolistic — their design strangling prosperity and giving small, unaccountable cadres of public bureaucrats the power to make key decisions about how society’s money and resources should be allocated.
The solution, or so the story went, was simply to let the markets rip: their unfettered operation diffusing power among individuals while taking it away from unelected bureaucrats and granting risk-taking entrepreneurs the opportunity to more efficiently determine how crucial investments would be made. In the new environment, it was said, competition would act as a check against the threat of monopoly or undue concentration: the greatest rewards being distributed to those whose enterprises were the most productive or yielded the highest social value.
If this fairy tale was unconvincing before the pandemic, the recent surge in billionaire wealth should be the final nail in its proverbial coffin. The obscene rise in wealth concentration over the past year, after all, has had nothing to do with production or social utility and everything to do with ownership and the extraction of rents. The world’s billionaires have not become richer and more powerful because their ventures have suddenly grown more productive, creative, or useful to the common good.
Undeniably, the divide between the vast majority and the tiny minority at the top remains as needless and immoral as ever. But the growing concentration of wealth in America and around the world also raises the rather ominous question of what happens when an economic system allows a small handful of unelected plutocrats to wield power on such a large scale.
The answer, plainly, is nothing good.