‘With a hundred million you can also feel poor'

‘With a hundred million you can also feel poor’

The least worn item of clothing by the ultra-rich? winter coats. Sure, they’ll probably have a lot of them in their closet – for hunting, winter sports, the few yards they walk on the sidewalk after being dropped off at an upscale restaurant. But in general, life for the super-rich is room temperature, thanks to private jets and drivers that make contact with the outdoors unnecessary. A consultant told about this jacketless existence to the makers of succession, the hit series about a twisted media dynasty, after she was asked to rate how realistic the script was.

This remarkable phenomenon could have just happened in the book Jackpot. How The Super-Rich Really Live – and How Their Wealth Harms Us All, by American journalist Michael Mechanic. He spoke to dozens of people who wouldn’t have to work a day in their lives: lottery winners, tech millionaires, an heiress who, out of shame, keeps her fortune a secret. But also the people around them: asset managers, ultra-exclusive concierges, nannies specialized in taking out kidnappers. In Mechanic’s work you can read about the excesses of the very rich: showering in mineral water; 40,000 euro suits of vicuña wool, a rare species of camel; armored wine cellars to witness the end of the world.

It goes even more, according to The New York Times “readable” book, about the Dickensian feel of this era: billionaires’ space races as the gap between rich and poor widens. The presence of extreme wealth in a society – this month reported business magazine Quote a record number of billionaires in the Netherlands, 45 – harms us all, says Mechanic in his office in Oakland, California. The interview will take place via Zoom.

What surprised you most about the psyche of the super-rich?

“The fear that what is in their bank account is not enough. Even billionaires want to grow their fortunes at any cost, with or without very aggressive tactics. A US study of 175 wealthy families, with an average wealth of $45 million, showed that a majority would only feel financially secure if their wealth was a third larger. When you read that, you think: are they kidding me? These are people who can stop working immediately; their children and grandchildren would still live a comfortable life.

“It’s one thing to get to a certain level. But at a certain point, wealth becomes meaningless. For people like Jeff Bezos [baas van webwinkel Amazon] and Elon Musk [baas van elektrischeautomaker Tesla] money is just a game. Every day their wealth increases by huge amounts. They are so rich that they cannot spend all their money while alive.”

How do these types of people justify their wealth?

“Studies show that the richer people are, the more convinced they are that they owe it to their own talent. I’m not going to deny that successful people haven’t worked hard and made the right decisions. But one’s own role in amassing wealth is often overestimated. A lot of it revolves around luck, timing, the environment in which you grew up. Successful start-ups are glorified, but think of the 99 others that didn’t make it because they didn’t get a financial injection at the crucial moment. The founder of the one start-up that did make it may have had a wealthy relative who could help.”

What is the greatest burden of being rich?

“Many super-rich feel that their lives are no longer authentic. When they had no money, life was more adventurous and exciting because they took more risks. That which makes life life disappears, because you outsource everything: taking children to school, gardening, cooking. In my book I describe a woman who looks outside from her beach villa and breaks down in tears because she sees a group of people barbecuing by the sea. These kind of simple pleasures were missing in her life, she only came to fancy gala dinners.”

In a way, being extremely rich is like being extremely poor, you write. What’s up with that?

“Of course being poor is much, much worse. But in both cases you are constantly dealing with money, it takes up your entire thought process. Mentally, it’s better to be in the middle: not having to worry about bills, but also be able to lead a normal life.”

What I thought was crazy to read: many rich – and we’re talking about multimillionaires – don’t see themselves as rich.

“Correct. I came across cases where people in the top 5 percent [minstens 1,9 miljoen dollar vermogen] and even in the top-1 percent [minstens 5,6 miljoen dollar] self-described as middle class.

“Today you can be a multimillionaire and still feel poor because it’s a pittance on a Bill Gates’ wealth. I also write that in my book: in a neoliberal society, wealth is so stretched that it takes more and more effort to feel successful.”

Inequality is one of the great themes of our time. How do the super-rich experience this era?

“Once people get rich, they isolate themselves from the rest of society. That makes sense: if people know that you have a lot of money, they suddenly want everything from you. And with your old neighbors it would be awkward to talk about your second home and private jet. You can do that at the neighbors drink in your new, prosperous neighborhood.

“The problem is that this creates bubbles, with a distorted picture of what is normal. If you isolate yourself geographically and hang out with the same people all the time, you lose touch with reality, the problems that go on in the real world – even if you’re progressive. You become less empathetic. That state of denial alternates with feelings of guilt. For example, you saw a record number of philanthropic donations in the first year of the pandemic.”

Do you think that also has to do with fear of the masses?

“Several people I spoke to for my book mentioned that they have the feeling that one day there will be a rebellion, where everything will be taken from them and their house will be set on fire. Incidentally, that was before the social unrest of last year. But there are definitely feelings of fear, fear of burglars, stalkers or kidnapping.

“Many super rich have luxurious safe rooms installed, an armored bedroom or home cinema. One man turned his wine cellar into a safe room: if he went down, at least drunk. You pay half a million dollars for such a space, for this group of people it is like an alarm system.”

Why is extreme wealth so harmful to a society, as you argue in the subtitle of your book?

“In a materialistic society, more antisocial behavior occurs, research shows. People see each other as competitors, rather than as a collective. The social fabric disappears.

“Due to all kinds of tricks, the super-rich pay less tax, so that they withdraw money from public facilities. Research shows that this group cares less about public education, but also less about the climate. Rich people have shorter lines to politics, so that they have a say in policy and can, for example, stop tax increases. This creates a major imbalance in society between what the rich want and the rest.

“That leads to anger among people who can hardly tie the strings. Politicians manipulate those feelings. A figure like Donald Trump says: I’m on your side, I’m against the elite – while I don’t know anyone more other-worldly than him. But he uses the right language and stirs up the anger.”

Should billionaires exist?

“Right now there are shocking tax breaks in America for people with a lot of money. You pay more tax on your salary as an employee than on, for example, profit on investments. As a result, you attract people who already have a lot of money. There are financial benefits to the super-rich in all sorts of ways. If this was a game where the odds were evenly distributed, fine, but in today’s unequal system I don’t think billionaires should exist.”

Still, there’s no point in being angry, or hoping for some sort of new French Revolution, you write.

„If you feel threatened, you get on the defensive; anger is counterproductive. Then the super-rich isolate themselves even more. I think an empathetic approach works better. Trying to change the mindset of this group, explaining that the whole society benefits from a fairer distribution of wealth. You see that among charities it is on the rise not only to have this group donate money, but also to take them on the road, so that they come face to face with people who experience life differently. You also have a capitalist argument: because who is going to buy your products if there is no longer a middle class?”

Can you still sympathize with the very rich after this book?

“I think a lot of rich people are decent people whose bubble needs to be pierced.”

‘With a hundred million you can also feel poor’
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