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Billionaires got 54% richer during pandemic, sparking calls for "wealth tax"

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The world's 2,365 billionaires enjoyed a $4 trillion boost to their wealth during the first year of the pandemic, increasing their fortunes by 54%, according to a new analysis by the Program on Inequality at the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies.

Between March 18, 2020, and March 18, 2021, the wealth held by the world's billionaires jumped from $8.04 trillion to $12.39 trillion, according to the IPS' analysis of data from Forbes, Bloomberg and Wealth-X. founder Jeff Bezos, the world's wealthiest person, saw his fortune soar to $178 billion from $113 billion, or 57%, during that time, the study found. All told, the total wealth of the world's billionaire class grew 54% during the pandemic year, IPS reported. 

The ballooning wealth among the world's richest people is sparking calls for a "wealth tax," or an additional tax that would be added on top of regular income and capital gains taxes. On Tuesday, more than 80 unions and left-leaning organizations sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to reverse some Trump-era tax cuts they say largely benefited the wealthy, while also adding a 10% tax on incomes above $2 million.

But so far, a wealth tax is proving elusive in Washington, D.C., even as two-thirds of Americans express support for the idea of raising taxes on people earning more than $400,000. Rather than taxing the growing wealth of the nation's billionaires and millionaires, Mr. Biden wants to pay for his $2 trillion American Jobs Plan by boosting the corporate tax rate to 28% from its current 21%. In the meantime, the wealth disparities between the world's richest and poorest citizens have only widened during the pandemic. 

Some tax experts say a wealth tax could hurt growth prospects for lower-income people, not help those prospects. It also could incentivize the ultra-wealthy to hide or off-shore their income as well as their assets that would be the basis for taxing their wealth. 

"A wealth tax would have a negative impact on the economy. It would reduce national income, discourage saving and encourage consumption," among other downsides, noted Tax Foundation economist Erica York in a March blog post.

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Chuck Collins, researcher at the IPS' Program on Inequality and the author of the forthcoming book "The Wealth Hoarders," to be published in April by Polity Books, doesn't buy those arguments.

"It makes total economic and moral sense to tax billionaire wealth windfalls to help pay for pandemic recovery," Collins said. "Our pain has been their gain."

He added, "Even with the proposed wealth tax, they will be billions wealthier than prior to the pandemic."

Rich get richer, poor get poorer

Bezos and other billionaires have grown wealthier through a combination of several trends. First, the stock market has reached record heights on expectations that the economy will experience a strong rebound in 2021. And some businesses, such as Bezos', have profited as people switched their behaviors amid the pandemic — boosting online services, for example. 

At the same time, poverty rates have increased due to hardship created by the pandemic, with the worst effects felt by women and people of color. The number of people living in poverty globally doubled to more than 500 million during the first nine months of the pandemic, the anti-poverty group Oxfam said in January.

In the U.S., about 4 in 10 people said their household income remains impacted by the crisis, according to a recent study from TransUnion, a financial services firm. 

Wealth tax: $1.5 trillion in 10 years

Various wealth taxes have been proposed in recent years, partly in response to widening inequality. Among them are Senator Elizabeth Warren's "ultra-millionaire" tax, introduced earlier this month with Representatives Pramila Jayapal and Brendan Boyle. All three are Democrats. 

Their plan would levy a 2% annual tax on the net worth of households and trusts between $50 million and $1 billion, while adding another 1% tax on fortunes above $1 billion. In all, billionaires would pay an additional 3% annually on their wealth under this plan. 

If such a tax had been in place last year, global billionaires would have paid $345 billion in wealth taxes. Applied only to U.S. billionaires, it could raise $1.5 trillion over the next decade, IPS estimated. 

"It makes sense that the infrastructure investments to revitalize the U.S. economy should be paid by closing corporate tax loopholes that incentivize shipping jobs overseas," Collins said. "It truly is a build the U.S. economy package."

But, he added, "A wealth tax will be one of the options for future revenue — along with other provisions to ensure that wealthy individuals pay their fair share of income and estate taxes."

The 10 wealthiest billionaires

Below are the 10 wealthiest billionaires, along with their net worth as of March 18, and the year-over-year increase in their wealth, according to the IPS estimates.

  1. Jeff Bezos, $178 billion (57%)
  2. Bernard Arnault & family, LVMH Moët Hennessy: $162.6 billion (114%)
  3. Elon Musk, Tesla: $162.1 billion (560%)
  4. Bill Gates, Microsoft: $126.5 billion (29%)
  5. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook: $101.7 billion (86%)
  6. Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway: $96.5 billion (43%)
  7. Larry Ellison, Oracle: $90.2 billion (53%)
  8. Larry Page, Google: $88.6 billion (74%)
  9. Sergey Brin, Google: $86 billion (75%)
  10. Amancio Ortega, Zara: $79.1 billion (44%)
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