Pandemics, we’ve often heard over the past two years, are great equalizers: Everyone is vulnerable to some degree, and they make us realize we’re all in this together.

Yet somehow, the wealthy — and especially the wealthiest of the wealthy — have come through this painful period in our history doing better than ever. And while it initially seemed that the pandemic might create conditions ripe for a fundamental overhaul of our political economy — one that might reverse decades of structural change channeling wealth, income and rents relentlessly upward — that intemperate ambition suddenly seems increasingly tenuous as well.

Let’s start with this new analysis by Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies:

America’s billionaires have grown $2.1 trillion richer during the pandemic, their collective fortune skyrocketing by 70% — from just short of $3 trillion at the start of the COVID crisis on March 18, 2020, to over $5 trillion on October 15 of this year.

The result:

The $5 trillion in wealth now held by 745 billionaires is two-thirds more than the $3 trillion in wealth held by the bottom 50% of U.S. households estimated by the Federal Reserve Board.
The great good fortune of these billionaires over the past 19 months is all the more stark when contrasted with the devastating impact of coronavirus on working people. Almost 89 million Americans have lost jobs, over 44.9 million have been sickened by the virus, and over 724,000 have died from it.

That’s just 745 people. Expand the view a bit and it’s no less shocking: CNBC reports that the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans now own 89 percent of all stocks, a new record. The wealth in stocks alone for the top 1 percent increased by more than $6.5 trillion over the course of the pandemic.

So for a small number of people these have been boom times, even as tens of millions of Americans felt an unprecedented degree of economic insecurity and fear.

Meanwhile, Democrats in Washington, D.C., are struggling over whether we will succeed in getting the very rich to pay just a bit more in taxes as part of the Build Back Better bill.

But it looks like they are winning there, too: As the process has gone on, the amount to be gained by taxing the rich has been steadily reduced from President Biden’s original proposal (let alone what more progressive Democrats would have preferred).

And policies with transformative potential are falling by the wayside. For instance, it’s widely understood that a proposal to tax inherited wealth will not make it into the final bill.

This provision would have ended a status quo enabling large estates to escape taxation when passed down to heirs. When assets are inherited, they are assigned value for tax purposes at that moment, and if they are sold later, they’re taxed based on their appreciation in value from that point onward. All the appreciation up until then escapes taxation permanently.

You may recall that lobbyists defending that status quo managed to resuscitate an old Republican lie that taxing inherited assets would destroy the owners and operators of family farms.

They were able to do this, even though the proposal went to great lengths to avoid targeting family farms, and despite a parade of new revelations that have focused public attention on the tax chicanery of the super-rich. As Binyamin Appelbaum noted, this provision protecting inherited wealth is one of many ways in which “the real tax scandal is what’s legal.”

No matter: A Democratic aide tells us numerous Democratic lawmakers balked at this proposal, finding it too politically hot to handle, so it’s all but certainly dead.

To be clear, the Biden agenda, if it passes, might make some strides in the right direction. For instance, a proposal from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to tax the wealth of the super-rich is still very much in the mix, the aide confirms.

This proposal would require those with $1 billion in assets or $100 million in annual income to pay taxes annually on assets such as stocks. This would target wealth that has historically escaped taxation via a tactic unavailable to those whose income comes from labor.

“Finally ending the ability of billionaires to essentially pick and choose when, and even whether, to pay taxes isn’t just about raising revenue,” Wyden told us in a statement. “It’s about restoring a sense of fairness, so the working people in this country don’t think they are suckers for actually paying what they owe.”

Another proposal still in the mix is increased funding for the IRS to crack down on tax avoidance by the wealthy. Still another would enable the United States to join in a global minimum tax that would help prevent multinationals from reducing their tax bills via dodgy profit-shifting abroad.

Those things would make a difference. But the super-rich have to be feeling pretty psyched right now about their chances of emerging from this process largely untouched.

On the other side of the ledger — how much help Americans will get with child care, home care, health insurance and other needs from Biden’s agenda — likewise keeps getting smaller as Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) make demands.

What’s striking about this is that the pandemic had seemed to create a sense of real possibility. By exposing so many deep injustices in our economy — from the unfairness of our reliance on essential workers who were poorly paid while braving great personal danger, to the gaping holes in our welfare state and care economy, to the startling precarity of millions who were pushed into free fall so easily — a confluence of conditions seemed to be making lasting change possible.

Indeed, the government did prove capable of performing remarkable rescue efforts that helped avert short-term disaster for countless Americans. But when it comes to long-term transformation, it’s hard to be optimistic right now. Unless, of course, you’re fortunate enough to belong to the ranks of the very, very rich.