Journalist explains why the super-rich aren't happy — and how their greed is poisoning our society
Last Tuesday, Jeff Bezos, the world's richest man, soared into space in a rocket many observers compared to a penis. A week or so before that, Richard Branson also blasted himself to the edge of space in a "spaceplane" designed by his company, Virgin Galactic.
After his history-making feat, Jeff Bezos gave $100 million to CNN commentator Van Jones, and another $100 million to chef José Andrés, who has dedicated himself to providing free meals to frontline workers and others in need during the pandemic. They were asked by Bezos to use the money for charitable purposes. This beneficence was a type of "apology" for his grotesque act of hubris and ego: he and most others of his class have no sincere sense of social obligation.
In so many ways these billionaires and their space adventures, during a time of human misery and rising neofascism in America and the world, is like bad science fiction turned to life. It is as if Paul Verhoeven, Mike Judge and Roger Corman collaborated on a film and then found a way to replace reality as we once understood it with their elaborate simulation.
Bezos and Branson's antics are further evidence that America is a plutocratic pathocracy that is cannibalizing itself. In this new Gilded Age, millionaires and billionaires have enriched themselves through a political and economic system in which social parasitism and social Darwinism rule largely uncontested.
In this new world — that in many ways is an old world, with echoes of feudalism and debt peonage — neoliberalism means "socialism" for the rich and "free markets" for everyone else. Even worse, the poor, working classes and middle class directly subsidize the wealth and greed of the very rich, because the latter largely do not pay federal and state taxes.
With the billions of dollars Bezos and Branson collectively spent on their rocket rides to space, they could instead have chosen to provide vaccines for the poor around the world, rid the human race of a deadly disease, help uplift the poor and other vulnerable people worldwide, create a project to address the global climate emergency, or done other good works that would have simultaneously soothed their egos and desperate need for attention while also helping others.
With the money spent on his rocket ride and his gifts to Jones and Andrés, Bezos could have instead chosen to provide a true living wage for his employees (the very people who helped him to obtain his vast wealth) or given each of them a substantial cash bonus.
As seen with the Biden administration's new Child Tax Credit it does not take large sums of money to substantially improve the life chances of poor and working-class people in America. Bezos and Branson could easily choose to do the same.
In response to these billionaire space flights, Deepak Xavier, who heads Oxfam International's global inequality campaign, said this:
We've now reached stratospheric inequality. Billionaires burning into space, away from a world of pandemic, climate change and starvation. 11 people are likely now dying of hunger each minute while Bezos prepares for an 11-minute personal space flight. This is human folly, not human achievement.
The ultra-rich are being propped up by unfair tax systems and pitiful labor protections. US billionaires got around $1.8 trillion richer since the beginning of the pandemic and nine new billionaires were created by Big Pharma's monopoly on the COVID-19 vaccines. Bezos pays next to no US income tax but can spend $7.5 billion on his own aerospace adventure. Bezos' fortune has almost doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic. He could afford to pay for everyone on Earth to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and still be richer than he was when the pandemic began.
Billionaires should pay their fair share of taxes for our hospitals, schools, roads and social care, too. Governments must adopt a much stronger global minimum tax on multinational corporations and look at new revenues. A wealth tax, for example of just 3 percent, would generate $6 billion a year from Bezos' $200 billion fortune alone ― a sixth of what the US spends on foreign aid. A COVID-19 profits tax on Amazon would yield $11 billion, enough to vaccinate nearly 600 million people.
What we need is a fair tax system that allows more investment into ending hunger and poverty, into education and healthcare, and into saving the planet from the growing climate crisis ―rather than leaving it.
Bezos and Branson command such vast financial resources and power that they can engage in acts of global spectacle for their own ego gratification. Why are the super-wealthy flying off to space? For reasons of personal glory, or perhaps out of collective narcissism and greed, and perhaps to flee a ruined planet — or just because they can.
In the final analysis we may all share planet Earth, but the very rich live in their own reality. Michael Mechanic, a senior editor at Mother Jones, knows this well. His new book "Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live — and How Their Wealth Harms Us All" explores that private and exclusive world.
In this conversation, Mechanic explains what the wealthy and super-rich understand about money that other people do not. He shares how the lives of the wealthy and super-rich are indeed very much outside the lived experiences and reality of all other human beings. Mechanic also explains how the wealthy engage in sociopathic or antisocial behaviors, while suffering few consequences — other than their own rootlessness and unhappiness. He warns that no society with such extreme levels of wealth and income inequality is stable and that a healthy democracy needs a more balanced economy with a flourishing middle class.
This conversation has been edited, as usual, for length and clarity.
As the saying goes, there's a class war in America and the rich won. Why don't we see any mass resistance or pressure to change this unjust system?
This can partly be explained by an American ethos which emphasizes the myth of upward mobility. So many Americans actually believe, "We can be in the mansion someday, and when we get there, we don't want to be taxed too much." This pervasive wealth fantasy exists much more in America than in other countries. As compared to Europeans, for example, Americans are overly optimistic about the prospects for upward mobility. American politicians are constantly telling these rags-to-riches stories as well. Such stories ignore the structural realities of American society and the fact that upward mobility is more mythical than real. Family circumstances are the biggest predictor of a person's own economic circumstances, unfortunately.
What does the average American not understand about the very rich? What is their world like?
Here is one example. White men have much greater access to a network of people in the worlds of finance, venture capital and other lucrative industries that they can rely upon when they need a step up. If you have a friend who works in finance, you can use that relationship to get funding for your business. Even to get in the room with a venture capitalist you usually need to have a friend or other contact to arrange it. If you don't have access to that network, you are at an extreme disadvantage. Most women, in general, do not have such financial networks. Black people in America tend not to have access to those networks either. If you are a working-class Black person looking for funding for a company, good luck — whereas if you come from a wealthy white family, your dad likely knows somebody who can get you that access.
Wealth is intergenerational. There are many among the rich who actually believe that they "earned" their money through "hard work" as opposed to family money, luck and access to other resources. Donald Trump is one of the most notable examples: he received millions of dollars from his father yet brags about being a "self-made" man who got a "small loan" to start his business. Do the wealthy really believe such things?
It varies. Donald Trump is the least self-aware person on earth. He probably believes these myths about self-reliance and that he did it himself. I believe there are wealthy people who appreciate how lucky they are. When you come from a wealthy family it is easy to downplay all of the structural and institutional factors which helped you and your family and that hurt others in terms of accruing intergenerational wealth.
What is the average day like for one of the super-rich?
There are many different types of the super-rich. There are those people that don't work, who are just socialites and go around to events and so forth. There are people who are in industry and are workaholics. But either way, people tend to travel a great deal. They have massive social calendars and many things of that nature to plan. Super-rich families actually have something called a "family office." This is a private company that handles all their personal affairs and investments, and manages all the properties and household employees, and pays the bills. But mainly, the purpose of the family office is to make you richer and to protect your wealth. The family office also helps them to avoid taxes by whatever means necessary. These family offices just perpetuate a dynastic system.
What is it like to live a life without fears or worries about not having enough money?
Many of the super-rich still care about money a great deal, even though they have a ton of it. They don't need more of it, but they use money as a scorecard for their success. It becomes a big game, a competition when you can buy anything you want and have anything you want. That is a quite surreal experience. It is spending money on stupid things. It creates a mindset of "I don't care about money, I don't need it, I can just do what I want." I believe this hurts the children of the wealthy even more because it allows them to flounder through life, never having to stick with anything.
They just wander through life aimlessly. Many children of the wealthy end up getting into the family business or doing something else to maintain a lifestyle that they do not really care about – and that makes them unhappy. To me, that is a bad way to live.
Because they travel so much, the wealthy are often away from their kids for long periods of time. These very wealthy families outsource everything. There are people who do the cooking, the cleaning, the yard work, who take care of the children, etc. There are also consultants for everything. As one of my sources told me, "I meet these super-wealthy people and they don't do anything. They just sort of live in this bubble where everything's being done for them." I believe this explains why we see the super-wealthy engaging in crazy, high-risk, high-priced adventure activities.
There is much research which suggests that the rich, especially the super-rich and the plutocrats, are more likely to be sociopaths than the average person. Did you encounter any people who fit that profile?
Psychologists have studied these questions and have shown that wealthier people, on average, are less empathetic. They are more prone to antisocial behaviors. They are less socially oriented. On the other hand, there's no data that shows the same person before and after getting these large sums of money. Thus, the question: Is it more that these types of personalities are the ones that pursue wealth, or that wealth actually has these negative impacts on a person's behavior?
Does money change people? I asked that question of many people who are sources for the book. Some of them said, "If you have $50 million and you were a jerk, you're going to be a bigger jerk. And if you are a great person, you'll have opportunity to do greater." Essentially, it amplifies your personality. One thing we do know is that children of wealthy families are at high risk for drug addiction and low-level criminal behavior. The risk is similar for very poor kids. People who are from middle-income families are at much lower risk of such behavior.
What of the children of the very rich? Do they just learn that there are no rules for people like them? Poor and working-class people can't claim that they are sick with "affluenza" when they get drunk and run over people, for example.
I do believe that is the case. There is a sense of entitlement that the rules don't apply. We see this among those who are rich but not super-wealthy as well. It is just the idea, "Oh, I can just do this thing and who cares, right? I can cut in line, whatever." It manifests across a range of small behaviors.
What do we know about new money versus old money?
Professional athletes are a classic example. It's actually getting harder and harder for poor kids to make it into the NFL and the NBA. But there is still a pretty sizable number of people who make it in professional sports and come from financially challenging circumstances. They are extremely talented and have focused like a laser beam on being successful in their sport. Then, all of a sudden, they are getting paid $2 million a month. These are crazy amounts of money. I talked with a business manager whose clients are mostly MLB and NBA players. He told me about the following: "This one kid, he's making a million or two a month. He had to hire a housekeeper. Someone to go fold his clothes, do his laundry. Because this kid had never done his own laundry. He never folded his own clothes."
Many of these professional athletes do not know how to function in normal life. They have lived in a bubble. There are all these hangers-on and others in their orbit who are trying to get money from them. It can be the coaches from before they went pro, family members and others who are trying to get these young athletes to take care of them financially.
There are a lot of athletes who fall victim to that. And if you're a big superstar like a Pat Mahomes or Steph Curry, then you can afford to behave in such a way. But as my contact told me, "If you're a backup point guard for the Grizzlies, you can't support a bunch of family members for very long or you are going to go broke." It happens. They get in serious financial trouble. If you come into all those millions of dollars without any sophisticated knowledge about what to do with it, the whole thing can be really disconcerting.
Many people fantasize about wealth. But when you get that wealth, especially all of a sudden, it really changes your relationships with people – including old friends, your middle-class friends. You want to enjoy the money, and you may also want your friends to enjoy it too. "Can I invite my middle-class friends on this fancy trip where I'm going to pay for everything?" Sure, maybe you can do it once. But what's it going to be like if you keep treating your old friends to these super high-end things? It's going to get weird. Pride's going to get in the way, or maybe you'll feel like they are freeloaders. All that money can create very weird dynamics. Family tensions get involved. Children squabble about inheritances. It can become a total mess.
What are the informal rules about wealth that old money understands and new money does not?
Put that money away to make it last. Preserve it, and do not do what the young athletes do. You do not want to be flashy. Old money? it wants nobody to know it exists. The big wealth dynasties with their family offices generally do not want to be big public figures.
Some years ago, I was acquainted with a husband and wife who won the Lotto. It was a modest sum after taxes, perhaps only $150,000. Everyone knew about it because their names were in the newspaper. I asked them a few years later about what they spent the money on. The husband told me he wished they had never won the money, because all they did was pay off some bills and buy a new pickup truck. That was it. But everyone in their family, friends, the neighborhood, their co-workers, all thought they were rich. He told me it was so much stress with everyone asking him and his wife for money that they wished they had never won it to begin with. Is that a common experience?
Yes it is. The conventional wisdom about winning the lottery is that it ruins your life. And in some cases, it really does. I interviewed a guy who was a hedge fund manager. He had a house on Lake Tahoe right next to Larry Ellison's house. And the neighbor on the other side, it was this young guy in his 20s. It turned out, the guy had won a big lottery and bought this $4 million house on Lake Tahoe. He was always up there, just partying with his friends. He didn't seem to have anything else going on in his life. One day the rich guy pulls up in his driveway and he sees the coroner's van next door. He goes over there and asks, "What happened?" They told him, "The person is deceased. This young guy killed himself."
When you have a lot of money there are issues with trusting other people. You do not know who's coming at you. There are going to be people trying to get you involved in business partnerships, pitching ideas to you or trying to become your friend. But you don't really know whether they're there for some other reason. This includes potential romantic partners.
There was a documentary a few years back about lottery winners, that showed how they got all this money and moved into a new neighborhood, and the people there did not accept them. The interviewer asked one of the Powerball winners, an older Black man who came from a working-class neighborhood, what it was like to have all this money. The man was miserable. He and his wife almost started crying. He told the interviewer, "Look around. All we have is a house full of stuff. I don't want to buy anything because I got everything. The neighbors here don't talk to us because they don't think we belong. We were poor in the projects but now we don't trust anyone. We don't have those friendships or family relationships anymore. All we got is a whole bunch of money and a house full of stuff." Then the interviewer asked the obvious follow-up and the man said, "You know what? I was happier when I was poor."
It's true. If you don't have something to give your life meaning, and if you think money is the meaning of life and you pursue that path, forget it. You are going to be miserable.
So what's the magic number in terms of income and happiness?
There is research that looked at millions of people and their self-reported happiness. Positive emotions peak at incomes over 65 grand. Your negative emotions are minimized at about 95 grand. And then there is what is known as "life satisfaction," which is a type of measure of how you view yourself relative to your peers. That maxes out at $105,000, a modest amount of money.
Once you get above the satiation point where a person knows that their needs are met, it is all just creature comforts and other bonuses in life. As you go past the satiation point, your life satisfaction starts to decrease in wealthy nations. We still do not know why that is. But one of the speculations is that in order to maintain this high-end lifestyle, a person has to work all the time and they lose their social connections. If you take a high-paying job and you're just on-call all the time and have too many responsibilities, there is less time to enjoy your life and your relationships. What good is it, right? You have a large bank account and no friends.
We know a great deal about the poor and the "underclass," but we know very little about the very rich. They are under-researched because as a rule they do not talk to outsiders. How did you get access to them?
It was a very laborious process. I had many rejections. In fact, the billionaires wouldn't talk to me at all. They'll talk to you about other things. But they are not going to talk to you regarding their feelings about wealth. But the wealthy also have lots of middlemen, the PR people and the like, who said no. I got a lot more rejections than I got acceptances, I would say. So I had to fill in the gaps by talking to people who are on the periphery of the billionaire class, people who work with them closely, in financial management, of course, but also in such varied roles as building safe rooms for hedge funders, for example. I spoke to a woman who works security for billionaires and trains their nannies in physical combat. I also spent time hanging out with luxury realtors and luxury car dealers and all manner of people who interact with these incredibly wealthy clients.
What do you want the American people to understand about the super-rich?
By and large they are not bad people. The point of writing "Jackpot" was not to disparage the wealthy, but to point out how flawed our system is in America that allows people to amass such wealth at the expense of others. The policies that enable such an outcome is driving us apart as a society. It's really tearing at the social fabric, because as the rungs of the economic ladder get wider and wider apart, we are losing empathy for the people on the other side. There is now a situation where we are a society of extreme winners versus extreme losers. A healthy society has a thriving middle class. That's what really lifts all boats.
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