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Silicon Valley’s richest are getting richer just as the pandemic is getting worse

The net worth of Jeff Bezos grew by a record $13 billion on Monday.

Elon Musk in profile.
Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has tripled his net worth in 2020.
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

America’s wealthiest tech billionaires are faring extraordinarily well six months into a historic pandemic, posing a striking contrast with the fate of other Americans during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

When the coronavirus pandemic began to ravage the economy, those who worry about inequality expressed concern that billionaires — and particularly tech billionaires — would amass more power and that the income gaps would grow more dramatic. And their worries appear to have been well founded.

People like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Steve Ballmer have added tens of billions of dollars to their net worths since the beginning of the calendar year, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The success of the very richest was punctuated on Monday when Bezos’s net worth grew by $13 billion, the largest single-day jump since Bloomberg began tracking the day-to-day changes in 2012.

It’s easy to lose track of precisely how wealthy the ultra-wealthiest have become. Terms like “billionaires” can generalize and disguise the scale of the fortunes created in today’s economy. A billion here, a billion there — the very rich remain very rich. Exactly how rich can feel irrelevant.

But the particulars of their staggering success matter because at the other end of America’s income inequality divide, the extra money would not feel so irrelevant. More than 30 million Americans are now depending on unemployment benefits, some of which are set to expire at the end of the month. Low-wage workers are especially prone to layoffs. And the pandemic is pounding poorer neighborhoods in particular, where the number of Covid-19 cases is higher.

Voices on the left see this as zero-sum — those extra billions can make a difference if redistributed — and are calling for a remaking of the American economy after this crisis. They would like to see the very wealthy pay more in taxes in order to repair what they believe is an insufficient safety net.

Market-oriented thinkers argue that these billionaires are becoming rich because they are creating value for their shareholders — which is a basic imperative of capitalism — and the billionaires happen to be some of these companies’ largest shareholders.

That argument, though, is why it is worth assessing the figures in the uppermost echelon of America’s elite. Over the last few weeks in particular, tech fortunes have climbed to new heights.

That’s true for no one more than Bezos, whose assets in 2020 have climbed by $75 billion; his net worth is now nearing almost $200 billion.

That historic wealth gain is due to the rise of Amazon, which has proved indispensable as people around the world stay at home in response to the pandemic. Its stock has skyrocketed 70 percent since the start of the year. That’s a boom for him as well as for his ex-wife, MacKenzie Bezos, whose shares in the company have put her on the doorstep of becoming the world’s wealthiest woman, a position held now by Francoise Bettencourt Meyers. On New Year’s Day 2020, MacKenzie Bezos was the world’s 25th wealthiest person — now she’s 13th, with $63 billion to her name, per Bloomberg.

Amazon is not the only big tech company whose relative success has made the rich richer. The S&P 500 may be about flat in 2020, but the stock appreciation at Facebook, Apple, and Google parent company Alphabet has created even more winnings for its billionaires. But the rise of two other tech companies and the billionaires behind them have changed the tippiest of the tippy-top.

Ballmer, the longtime CEO of Microsoft, is not a household name for most Americans, who are far more familiar with his predecessor, Bill Gates. (Many of the country’s richest people are not faces you would recognize if you passed them on the street.)

But Ballmer is not just any rich person — he has sneakily become America’s fifth-richest person thanks to the enormous growth in Microsoft’s stock, which has almost quadrupled over the last five years. That could draw more scrutiny to Ballmer, who remains in the public eye primarily as the animated courtside presence at the home games of the Los Angeles Clippers, which he owns. Ballmer began the year as the 15th-richest person.

The other tech billionaire who has turned a fortune into a super-sized fortune amid the recession is Musk, the idiosyncratic founder of Tesla and SpaceX. At the start of 2020, Musk ranked as the 35th richest person. But his net worth has nearly tripled over the last seven months, and Musk is now the sixth wealthiest person in the world with almost $75 billion. Tesla’s stock has almost quadrupled this calendar year.

All told, the coronavirus is proving to offer pretty good times for Big Tech’s leaders. Nine of the 15 richest people in the world come from America’s technology sector, according to the Bloomberg rankings, compared to seven at year’s beginning. Almost every tech billionaire is in the black, not the red, this year.

Not many Americans can say the same. And if the American economy drops further, the tech billionaire will loom — fairly or unfairly — as an easy scapegoat.