The coronavirus pandemic is the perfect opportunity for billionaires to justify their existence.
For years, wealthy Americans have argued that philanthropy was essential to a functioning society. In contrast to unwieldy, inefficient government programs, private donors have the ability to take swift action and deliver social impact free of bureaucracy.
“My wife and I set up a foundation about 20 years ago,” computer magnate Michael Dell said last year in response to a Democratic proposal to enact a wealth tax. “I feel much more comfortable with our ability as a private donation to allocate those funds than I do giving them to the government.”
JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz made the same case, arguing that taxing wealth robs billionaires of their capacity to invest in private and public innovation. Philanthropy, Bill Gates said when asked about a wealth tax at The New York Times’ Dealbook conference last year, “plays a role that neither the private sector or the government is able to do.”
Two months into the coronavirus outbreak, America is still waiting for billionaire philanthropists to deliver on any of these promises.
As of Wednesday afternoon, America had logged at least 54,453 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and 737 associated deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ending the pandemic will require bold ideas, private-sector innovation, new technology — and a massive infusion of resources. Hospitals need beds and protective equipment. Americans need swift and reliable diagnostic tests. If there was ever a time when America needed decisive action from its wealthiest citizens, this is it.
So far, however, they haven’t stepped up. A systematic review of America’s 50 richest people reveals that vanishingly few billionaires have made even token efforts to address the COVID-19 crisis.
Dell’s company has donated software and...