It Must Be Horrible to be Rich When A Pandemic Rages

Petter Stordalen på scenen
Our community has mercy on Petter Stordalen in a year where the fight against wealth tax became the largest symbolic issue. In the rest of the world, the rich have become incredibly richer in a year that was so hard on so many. Photo: Jacob Mørch/Norsk olje og gass

Commentary: Almost one year into the pandemic, the absence of domestic political debate about anything but the pandemic itself is remarkable. If we disregard our joint despair over the USA for one second, the claim that the rich are suffering was one out of very few issues that managed to rank high on our national agenda in 2020.

The backdrop for this was a last-minute proposal in a small council meeting in a northern municipality in Norway. This was what was to become the symbol issue for those who had the energy to do more than worry about Donald Trump and Corona.

Deadly warnings

Many of us had more than enough drawing our breath between deadly warnings from the authorities, whereas some vocal people also had the power and guts to attack the Norwegian wealth tax revenue’s contribution to the community. The largest fortunes should be managed by the rich themselves rather than – as taxed income -contribute towards kindergartens and health care services.

In hindsight, it may appear somewhat dissonant, to some of us, that tax cuts for the rich were to be the symbolic issue of a year in which the importance of our common resources has proven itself for nearly every enterprise that has been hit by the pandemic. Just like our national savings account has also been important for those who were furloughed or lost their job last year.

It may appear somewhat dissonant that tax cuts for the rich were to be the symbolic issue of the year

Remarkable also because those who were at the front of the queue of those who allegedly were entitled to business benefit packages from our common resources also were those who had the energy to fight against a seemingly untenable tax pressure.

The rich brutally hit

Perhaps it had to be like that, because in the first year of the pandemic – it is, as we all know, not over by far yet – the rich of the world have been brutally hit.

Or have they?

International statistics appear to claim otherwise.

Bloomberg, which is world leading in financial news and statistics, shows little if any trace of the pandemic in the corporate accounts monitored by the company. But then again, Bloomberg does not monitor closed hairdressers or unemployed artists.

A handful of the world’s 500 richest people have nevertheless been thoroughly investigated. In a year during which several nations’ wealth is crumbling, this little circle of people’s wealth increased by 1.8 trillion dollars.  The people we talk about are so few that they would fit into a small-town theatre, yet in a year when an increasing amount of Americans went hungry to bed, their wealth increased by 31 percent. Bloomberg writes that never before in history has it seen such a growth in the wealth of the wealthy.

18 zeros

A trillion is written with 18 zeros, and as the amount is given in US dollars, it takes one more to turn it into Norwegian currency and make it understandable at home. Or understandable – the amount remains incomprehensible for most of us, though the series of zeros clearly indicate that the brutality of the pandemic is rather unevenly distributed.

To put it mildly. And ‘mildly’ might be appropriate in a year in which the American president has made language a barrier between people where it used to be a bridge.

If we move home – after all, this is where the fight against taxes has competed with the pandemic for political attention – statistics tell us that from March until the end of year last year, Oslo Stock Exchange grew by more than 50 percent. Today, the same stock exchange set a historic record. I dare argue that few average Norwegian salaries have been able to afford joining in on this ride.

Oslo Stock Exchange boasts that 70,000 new investors came to last year.

But outside the stock exchange, there is a statistic showing that the number of young people under the age of 29 who had dropped out from work life and education had increased from 110,000 to 130,000 during the pandemic. Adding to that; 400,000 people were furloughed or lost their job during the same period, and almost 84,000 of these are still without a job.

In a discussion where the demand for tax cuts trumps the means of our community, I also note that Norwegian hotel mogul Petter Stordalen by the end of August had received NOK 220 million through the national compensation scheme. This is money that goes to him as owner, not to the staff at his hotels.

Elon Musk, verdens rikeste mann
Bloomberg has never before in history seen such a growth in the wealth of the wealthy. Elon Musk is now on top of the list. Photo: Daniel Oberhaus (2018), Flickr

Olympic ski champion tax flight

Bjørn Dæhlie, ex-skier with countless Olympic, World Cup and World Series gold medals, is one of the millionaires who have announced their moving to the municipality of Bø in Vesterålen, Northern Norway, in order to save taxes. According to Ole Andreas Elvik Næss at the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH) in Bergen says that Dæhlie over the past 15 years has paid two percent tax on his company Sisa’s profits. The profits amount to NOK 436 million.

That may sound brutal. So brutal that the former ski king did not see any other solution than moving to the rather snow-less Bø municipality.

If we return home, Petter Stordalen is not by far the only one to benefit from our society’s savings, money created from taxing fortunes and income. Not in any way. The list over those in need is long, but no individuals have received as much as Petter Stordalen.

We are gradually manipulated into believing the myth that wealth means trouble. In my own local newspaper, and it is by no means alone in this, this kind of suffering is on display almost on a daily basis. Even during the pandemic. Real estate brokers’ cheers over record-high house prices is repeatedly in its columns. Happy news, they call it.

And house sales like that contribute to a few per milles in wealth tax.

Fortunately, those who cannot afford entering the very same house market do not have to pay that tax.

We are manipulated into believing that large wealth means trouble for the rich

To the extent, if any, that these try to object, their cries drown in journalistic frenzy cheers over a housing market moving away from average people’s hunt for a roof over their head.

When our days’ largest challenges are to be juxtaposed, there may be reason to keep in mind that even three zeros on a bill may be enough to smash the private economy for people who notice little or nothing of the increased welfare that some have been able to get their hands on in a year during which the pandemic has challenged our community and solidarity almost to a point of bursting.


This commentary was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.