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Pledging To Help, Billionaires Still Profit Big From The Coronavirus

Paul Morigi
Getty Images for Amazon
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announces the co-founding of The Climate Pledge at the National Press Club on September 19, 2019 in Washington, DC.

One in four working Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since the coronavirus pandemic began a couple months ago, according to the Department of Labor.

With the federal government directing close to $1 trillion to bail out America’s corporations, and looting now affecting companies’ bottom lines, much attention has been placed on the responses of the ultra-wealthy.  

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has appointed some of his billionaire campaign donors to a coronavirus task force, while Bill Gates has vowed to steer Giving Pledge donations from other American billionaires to coronavirus response. The investment firm Blacksone, which has been involved in immigrant detention and deforestation in the Amazon, among other controversies, has pledged $15 million (0.2% of its annual revenue) to coronavirus response.

Meanwhile, American billionaires made $434 billion over the course of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, according to the latest reports from the advocacy group Americans for Tax Fairness and Washington D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies.

“The best way to fight the coronavirus crisis is not with the tools that caused it,” said Anand Giridharadas, host of "Seat At The Table" from Vice News. It’s a philosophy paraphrased from the black feminist poet Audre Lorde that the “master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.”

Credit Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images for Wired 25
Getty Images for Wired 25
Anand Giridharadas speaks onstage at WIRED25 Summit: WIRED Celebrates 25th Anniversary With Tech Icons Of The Past & Future on October 15, 2018 in San Francisco, California.

“I don’t attribute the birth of this novel coronavirus to the billionaire class,” said Giridharadas. “But we’ve made a bunch of social choices in the last generation that have caused the pandemic to have the kind of outsized impact it has on us."

Giridharadas added, "The question then becomes who made those choices that pushed society to adopt those particular positions — not to have universal healthcare, to defund pandemic prevention? Who decided it was more important to let people be billionaires before we solve the problem of allowing most people to have the rudiments of a decent life and enough savings to survive a minor shock? And the answer is the billionaire class."

In his New York Times bestseller Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World Giridharadas argues that in getting involved with Democratic politics or donating to coronavirus relief efforts, billionaires are obscuring the pervasiveness of an ideology known as neoliberalism, which exists in both major political parties.

“It’s the notion that human flourishing will flow from helping business be business, be great, and grow. And the nice thing about a theory like that is you can try it. We’ve tried it, and it turns out not to be true," Giridharadas said. "Leaving businesses alone is a really good strategy to let businesses get bigger. It turns out that it’s not particularly good for human flourishing."

“Educating people actually helps human flourishing. Cutting education so you can cut corporate taxes, not so good for human flourishing," he continues. "Building roads: great for human flourishing. Having potholes in roads because you want to give companies a chance to hide their money in the Caribbean, not so great for human flourishing.”

Giridharadas cited Wisconsin as an ultimate test case in neoliberalism, with a fraught history of labor relations, and a more recent history of the state subsidizing the Amazon fulfillment plant in Kenosha and Foxconn’s plant in Racine.

He suggests that the tease of an American Dream is what has kept neoliberalism alive for many people. Responding to a quote from John Steinbeck, that “the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” Giridharadas said, “You just had no chances of being a billionaire before this, and you certainly don’t have any chances of being one after. The only thing I’m going to do is make you feel slightly better about that reality.”