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As millions of jobless Americans line up for food or risk their lives delivering essential services, the nation's billionaires are making conspicuous donations to lend a helping hand during the pandemic.
$100 million from Amazon's Jeff Bezos for food banks, billions from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates for a coronavirus vaccine, thousands of ventilators and N95 masks from Elon Musk, $25 million from the Walton family and its Walmart foundation. The list goes on.
In reality, the amounts involved are tiny relative to the fortunes behind them.Bezos's $100 million, for example, amounts to about 11 days of his income. Well-publicized philanthropy also conveniently distracts attention from how several of these billionaires are endangering their workers and, by extension, the public.
With online sales surging, Amazon is on a hiring binge. But Bezos still doesn't provide sick leave for workers unless they test positive for Covid-19, in which case they get just two weeks. On 20 March, four senators sent him a letter expressing concern that the company wasn't doing enough to protect its warehouse workers.
Walmart's booming sales have caused it to hire more than 100,000 workers over the past three weeks. But the firm failed to implement social distancing for two weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced guidelines on March 16th. Several workers have died. Most still don't have access to gloves, masks or hand sanitizer. They don't get paid sick leave, not even at stores where employees have contracted the virus.
Musk initially dismissed sheltering as "dumb" and defied a sheriff's order to shelter-in-place by keeping open Tesla's factory in Fremont, California, telling employees the factory was an "essential" business.
The third way conspicuous philanthropy is self-serving is by suggesting that government shouldn't demand more from the super-rich, even in a national emergency. As Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal editorial page put it, if we had a wealth tax like Elizabeth Warren proposed, "it's unlikely [Bill Gates] would have the capacity to act this boldly."
That's absurd. Warren's tax would have cost Gates about $6 billion a year, roughly his annual income from his $100 billion.
Besides, all the billionaire charity combined is a tiny fraction of the trillions the government has already spent on the coronavirus crisis. How does the Journal believe we're going to pay down this added national debt if the wealthiest among us don't pay more taxes? Even when this nightmare is over, most Americans will be hard pressed.
And why should we believe that Gates or any other billionaire's "boldness" necessarily reflects society's values and needs? Oligarchies aren't the same as democracies.
The worst fear of the billionaire class is that the government's response to the pandemic will lead to a permanently larger social safety net.
"Once the virus is conquered and it will be the biggest risk will be the political campaign to expand government control over far more of American economic life," warns Murdoch's Journal.
Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has a new film, "Inequality for All," to be released September 27. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.