Why would anyone argue against billionaires paying more tax? Just see Useful Idiot theory

Arwa Mahdawi
·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

There is a school in my Manhattan neighbourhood that has been giving out free meals during the pandemic – and every time I walk past it the line seems longer. A community fridge recently popped up a couple of blocks away; it’s one of many that activists have installed across the city to combat growing food insecurity. Just around the corner there’s a young woman who has become a new fixture among the beggars I usually see in the area. She lost her job because of Covid, her cardboard sign says; she can’t pay her rent.

It’s not all doom and gloom. While the poor are getting poorer, the 1% are making out like bandits. America’s 600-plus billionaires saw their wealth grow by more than $700bn (£525bn) in the first few months of the pandemic, according to an analysis by the progressive non-profit Americans for Tax Fairness. During the same period, more than 50 million American workers lost their jobs. The US government has printed trillions in economic relief, but many of the forgivable emergency loans earmarked for small businesses seem to have been nabbed by the super-rich. My local independent coffee shop has closed down, but Kanye West received a partially forgivable loan worth at least $2m. It is becoming increasingly clear that the US is experiencing one of the biggest wealth transfers in history.

Bernie Sanders has a plan to help. Last week, Sanders introduced a bill, the Make Billionaires Pay Act, that would establish a one-time 60% tax on billionaires’ pandemic gains and use the money to guarantee Americans free healthcare for a year. There is very little chance the bill will get passed, but if it did Jeff Bezos would have to pay about $45bn in tax from the $75bn he has gained since mid-March, and Mark Zuckerberg would owe about $25bn out of the $42bn he has made in the pandemic, according to Americans for Tax Fairness (although these profit calculations have been contested). Somehow, I feel that each man would still manage to live a fairly comfortable life.

Billionaires shouldn’t exist in the first place – the idea that they should be taxed at a higher rate during a pandemic to help subsidise healthcare shouldn’t be remotely controversial. However, there are some who reckon such a move would be grossly unfair to poor unfortunate billionaires who, as we all know, are one of the most unfairly maligned groups in the world. Both Fast Company and MarketWatch, for example, argued that the way Americans for Tax Fairness calculated billionaires’ profits during the pandemic was flawed, and they hadn’t actually got that much richer after all.

We are teetering on the edge of a devastating global depression that could see 60 million people around the world pushed into extreme poverty. At a time like this why on earth would anyone argue against billionaires paying their fair share? The Useful Idiot theory might help explain it.

“During the 1930s and 40s and 50s, the right had derided liberal writers and editors as communists’ ‘useful idiots’, unwittingly doing the communists’ propaganda work,” the American writer Kurt Andersen recently wrote in the Atlantic. “It looks in retrospect as if, starting in the 1970s, a lot of them – of us – became capitalists’ useful idiots.” A lot of educated liberal professionals got co-opted into helping the super-rich argue that their unconscionable wealth is well-deserved. It is not just economic policies that have led to extreme inequality, it is the normalisation of inequality and the gentrification of greed; the re-branding of robber barons as “philanthropists” and hard-working innovators. It is hard to Make Billionaires Pay when so many useful idiots are intent on pandering to them.

  • Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist