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Relevant reading

American journalist sheds light on plutocrats’ anxieties

by Hans Dembowski

In brief

Helicopter on a luxury boat during the Monaco Yacht Show in 2018.

Helicopter on a luxury boat during the Monaco Yacht Show in 2018.

Poor people are thoroughly researched, but we know very little about billionaires. A book by an American journalist sheds light on their anxieties.

Many people believe that the super-rich don’t have any worries. They are wrong. Though prosperous people know they can pay their bills and will not go hungry, they fret about other things, personal security for example.

The superrich fear they may be assaulted, stolen from, kidnapped and blackmailed. Many thus avoid public spaces. It is common for them to employ body guards and security services. Many keep a low profile so no potential criminal will recognise them. The fear also has implications on their choice of homes. They want safety, but they also need space for leisure, sports and various hobbies since they mostly stay away from public and commercial amenities. Some residences resemble fortresses with aspects of amusement parks.

“How the super-rich really live – and how their wealth harms us all” is the programmatic subtitle of  “Jackpot”, the recent book by the American journalist Michael Mechanic. The author relies on interviews with some super-rich persons and people who provide services to them. He also uses the existing literature, which is rather scant, because plutocratic elite normally want to keep things private and avoid being studied by social scientists or psychologists.

No public services required   

As Mechanic writes, the super-rich hardly need public infrastructure. They buy private health care and private education, preferring services that are superior to what state agencies provide. Not needing public institutions, many resent taxation, which, to them, means being denied their money,  without getting anything in return.

Their mindset, however, is transactional, as Mechanic writes. Very prosperous people are used to thinking in terms of “what do I get for this”? To many, tax evasion thus does not feel wrong. On the other hand, transactional thinking makes it difficult to have normal friendships. According to Mechanic, plutocrats constantly suspect others are really only after their money. Accountants, lawyers and other service providers are confidants moreover, but fear of being cheated can permeate those relationships too.       

Mechanic adds that the superrich tend to see themselves as superior human beings. Even those who have inherited their wealth, feel they deserve their fortune. There is very little appreciation for the societal settings that allowed their dynasty to rise.

One implication is that those who fare worse are considered to be stupid, lazy, weak or deficient in some other way. A the same time, many superrich persons tend to be very competitive, according to Mechanic. They want to be in control – and they want to own the most spectacular yachts. Their approach to peers is transactional too.  

Attitudes resulting from privilege

Every person is different, of course, as Mechanic reiterates. After all, some were not too reclusive to share their experiences with him. Not all individuals will share the attitudes the author describes, but since they result from the privileges enjoyed, they are entirely plausible. Mechanic writes about the USA, but things are likely to be similar elsewhere too.  

The superrich only make up a tiny share of any nation’s population, but they are a powerful interest group. Mechanic spells out many examples of how rules and regulation benefit plutocrats in the USA. Their lobbying has made a difference. In particular, Republicans have been serving their interests. The National Revenue Service is now understaffed, so tax laws are no longer stringently enforced

The Kochs, the Mercers and the Murdochs are examples of families with long track records of supporting right-wing activism, sometimes under the label of philanthropy. Typically, their propaganda emphasises individual achievement and disparages “needy” people, including minorities. Where the gaps between the super-rich and ordinary people become too wide, the public good suffers. There is indeed such a thing as plutocrat populism .


Reference
Mechanic, M., 2021: Jackpot. How the super-rich really live – and how their wealth harms us all. New York, Simon & Schuster.


Hans Dembowski is the editor in chief of D+C/E+Z.
euz.editor@dandc.eu

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