Yes, the wealth gap is obscene. No, a global wealth tax won’t help. But there is something that will.

fikry anshor znzfuvcgen4 unsplash
Photo by fikry anshor on Unsplash.

The eye-popping news that the world’s 10 richest men doubled their wealth during COVID-19 was met with near-universal horror and approbation this week.

As well it should have been.

The wealth gap was already well beyond obscene, beyond even the wildest dreams of would-be world conquerers and robber barons like Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Andrew Carnegie, Attila the Hun, and Steve Jobs- combined.

It should have been obvious from the very first, and indeed it was obvious to some, that everything the world did in an attempt to mitigate COVID-19 worsened inequality and poverty worldwide. Two years in and it’s clear: The ultra rich- the 1% of the 1%- got much, much richer and the poor got that much poorer.

By almost any metric, the news is grim. Poorer countries suffered from lack of access to critical treatments and vaccines; economically disadvantaged public school children suffered a catastrophic learning loss at a rate far exceeding that of their wealthier counterparts.

Wealthier children from families with the means to send them to private schools suffered very little in the way of learning loss as private schools predominantly stayed open even as so many U.S. public schools remained stubbornly shut.

The pandemic era of these past two years may someday be immortalized in a political cartoon of the old-style, depicting on one side a sobbing public school kid standing outside a boarded-up public school cordoned off with crime scene tape; on the other side a smiling private school student, streaming happily through the open doors of quality education and rosy future prospects.

Private school students, and public school students lucky enough to attend in districts which stayed open, will have no trouble competing in the job market with the thousands of already at-risk kids who have now dropped out completely or were shut out by local school districts.

And that’s just learning loss. The kids are most definitely not alright.

In opinion piece after opinion pieceprogressive news outlets are now suddenly falling all over themselves to describe the damage done to school-age kids who have been taught over these last two years to see themselves and their peers as deadly vectors of disease and little else.

Two years of disrupted learning, social upheaval, uncertainty, doubt, broken promises, media fear-mongering, mixed messages and the loss of every enjoyable activity that gave their young lives meaning has resulted in increased behavioral problems and mental health issues among children and teenagers?

You don’t say.

“Children cannot afford another year of school disruption,” begged the executive director of UNICEF recently. It is a call being echoed from all sides even as it goes unheeded by so many districts in the U.S.

In 2020/2021, as Main Street was cannibalized by mega-corporations better able to capitalize on the instant switch to online purchasing, U.S. small business took a major hit. They have not recovered. Staff shortages, quarantines, rising inflation, a supply line crisis, and now for many small businesses, the burden of enforcing mask mandates and checking vaccine passports without enough staff to do either: It is hardly a recipe for success.

Long lines are as much a part of life in large cities today as hand sanitizer was in 2020. Lines to check vaccine status, lines for rapid testing kits.

Nor are the difficult times over. Far from it. Inflation is not expected to be transitory. Some things that have gone up- and way up- like rent and used cars aren’t likely to go down anytime soon if they ever do. While Sen. Elizabeth Warren and her ilk blame Big Meat or grocery stores for the price hikes, the grocers and retailers best able to keep their prices low and competitive are…big corporations.

Amazon-owned Whole Foods can afford to spread out price increases, increase more slowly. Mom and pops aren’t as well set up financially.

As a result, the organic, family farm-grown frozen blueberries you used to buy at under $4.00 are now over $6.00; Amazon’s organic brand, $4.19. Guess who’s losing market share?

Prior to 2020, extreme poverty and world hunger were on the run. Between them, China and India had raised billions of people out of poverty. Thanks to technology and better weather-projection models, droughts and other natural disasters which once would have kicked off a mass starvation event were anticipated and alleviated before people died.

Those old commercials showing children dying from starvation disappeared and since no one on earth missed them, hardly anyone noticed.

That’s all over. The technology is just as good, and droughts will still be projected and mitigated when possible, but 99% of incomes fell worldwide. A toxic combination of unemployment, crime, economic uncertainty, covid-fatigue, and general worsening inequality has plunged untold numbers back into the deprivations of poverty and hunger.

Everyone from the staunchest free-market capitalist to the most committed liberal progressive feels a bit uneasy about all this.

Never before has the difference between the haves- the 1% of the 1% who doubled their wealth during a global pandemic- and the have-nots been so glaring: “Wealth of 10 richest men doubled in pandemic as 99% of incomes dropped.

On the heels of this news, the recent call at the UN for a global wealth tax seems a tiny bit more reasonable, if not still unadvisable. This strategy would present its own problems and wouldn’t solve the worsening problems of wealth inequality.

Who would get the money? Which countries? Who would manage it? Who would be in charge of making sure it didn’t wind up financing a coup attempt or funding a war?

Most importantly of all: Who would enforce it? Laws without enforcement are merely suggestions.

If proponents of a global wealth tax think- for one minute- that sovereign nations- their leaders and their voters- are going to agree to an international body seizing the personal wealth of citizens, they need to think again.

The only way a we get a global wealth tax authority is if every nation on earth agrees to surrender sovereignty- every monarchy, republic and democracy- to this higher global authority. As long as there is one nation willing to provide a tax haven for untaxed wealth, billionaires will find and use it.

Even if world authorities did manage to achieve such a tax, and all the nations on earth submitted to the ultimate authority of the global tax police to seize citizens- and their wealth- it still wouldn’t solve the ever-widening wealth gap.

Our current models for tackling extreme poverty and problems like hunger worldwide are neither foolproof, nor particularly scalable even if they were.

This problem was thrown into stark relief only recently. Elon Musk, who is one of the wealthiest 1% of the 1% who doubled his wealth during COVID, offered $6 billion dollars to a major non-profit organization to help solve the hunger crisis worldwide.

It was a global wealth tax Musk offered to willingly pay. There was only one catch: Elon Musk insisted the money be spent transparently, using open-source accounting.

He is presumably still waiting to hear back.

For these reasons, and many others, a global wealth tax isn’t a sensible solution. A better one would be better domestic taxation.

Besides fixing the tax code, and preventing U.S. billionaires from fleeing the U.S. with their great bounty, there is just one thing the U.S. government, and other wealthy nations, could require companies to do and it’s a big one.

Pay workers a living wage worldwide. U.S. companies should be paying employees, whether they work in San Francisco or in a factory in China, a wage commensurate with U.S. standards.

Corporations should not be shopping the global economy for emerging nations with the lowest labor standards and fewest environmental regulations in order to exploit that nation for maximum profitability.

If this is what wealthy elites meant by “globalism”, it’s been a sham.

Nothing has done more to widen the wealth gap over the past hundred years, probably in the last thousand years.

On the backs of low-wage workers from rural America to Sri Lanka, wealthy corporations and their owners have widened the wealth gap, doubled and trebled and doubled again their wealth.

Allowing corporations to outsource manufacturing to produce goods more cheaply, and more unscrupulously, made the rich much richer; it hurt the poor and the working class worldwide.

Until that wrong is rectified, a global wealth tax will be a hollow gesture unlikely to move a single decimal for anyone.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)