Billionaires are greedy

Suicide : The billionaires' drama

He's the richest man in his small town. His business acumen is legendary. But he mistrusts banks. Scrooge McDuck is hoarding his money in a huge private storage facility that also serves as a swimming pool. Whereby avarice is the wrong expression for the way in which the self-proclaimed “manufacturer, shipowner, trader, investor and bill collector” is constantly increasing his mountains of coins and banknotes. He doesn't always need more money to lead an increasingly comfortable life. 772,000 cubic meters of it are stored in his treasury. Wealth has become an end in itself for him and in his neurotic worship of money he makes a game of owning it. It is easy to see in Scrooge McDuck, the greedy zillionaire, a forerunner of today's financial capitalism. Mainly because all of his thinking revolves around the immensity of a fortune that grows by itself.

Scrooge's descendants, whom we call billionaires, believe in the same alchemist's dream. But their confidence is shaken. German industrial families such as the Haniel-Klan, Henkel, Siemens, Wacker and Merckle each lost over three billion euros in the course of the financial crisis, "Capital" reported. Suddenly the financial aristocracy is drawn into the maelstrom of social decline - something that actually no longer applies to them, after all, according to the "Forbes" list of the richest people, the billionaire is one who is only getting richer.

So the shock is deeper. The suicide of the 74-year-old Ratiopharm entrepreneur Adolf Merckle, who lay down on the train tracks on Monday night not far from his villa, shows how much the financial structure has faltered. So much so that death becomes an alternative. At the end of September, the 47-year-old fund manager Kirk Stephenson had thrown himself in front of a local train west of London. He had speculated about the purchase of bank shares in the Swiss UBS. At the beginning of December, the head of the Swiss Julius Baer private bank put an end to his life at the age of 52. Finally, just before Christmas, a French investment banker committed suicide after desperately trying to get his investors' money back. It was lost in the Wall Street tycoon Bernard Madoff fraud scandal.

Tragedies. Acts of desperation. Escapes from the world. The way high flying bankers and punters step out of life is something of a beacon. That the prospect of death seems more bearable to them than living on with shame and the knowledge of a squandered fortune (sometimes not even your own) is strange and alarming. It demonstrates how much even billionaires attach their self-esteem to the sums they are listed for on the stock exchange. If wealth melts, people also erode - an experience that capitalism has in store for everyone regardless of income class. Making a lot of money is an investment in yourself; if it suddenly has to be less, psychological downgrading is inevitable.

This is not about material wealth. The super-rich own more than they could spend on luxury goods. Mark Twain ironically broke this fact in the story "The Million Pound Note" - filmed in 1954 with Gregory Peck. In it, two filthy rich British brothers bet about the use that a banknote of this size can have for its owner. Can he even spend the pound note to make a living? Or does he not have to because everyone automatically considers him creditworthy? Nobody has to feel cheated in the end.

Since less than a third of super wealth is based on regular income, the money elite is condemned to gamble. Your money has to flow. It is not lying around in silos like with Uncle Dagobert, but obeys, as the American economist Aron Brown says, the laws of the casino.

Perhaps one day it will be possible to explain how the medium-sized Swabian entrepreneur Merckle became a global financial juggler with growing success, who bought his company empire with risky credit transactions. The type of social climber and high-flyer who ultimately gets lost in the stock market has long since found its way into literature. In “Cosmopolis” in 2003, Don DeLillo describes the odyssey of an insanely wealthy asset manager through New York. Eric Packer is the name of the tycoon reminiscent of Madoff and he sits in an obscenely long and armored stretch limousine to be driven to the hairdresser's. He wagers his money in foreign exchange deals and goes bankrupt within a day. "Oh shit, I'm dead," he'll say to himself afterwards. And further: "Maybe he didn't want this life in the end, broke start all over again, call a taxi at a busy intersection full of jostling senior young employees ... But what did he want that was not posthumous?"

A thin trail of blood already runs through the novels by John Dos Passos ("Big Money") and F. Scott Fitzgerald ("The Great Gatsby"). In one case it is an aircraft manufacturer whose life ends at a railway barrier after a rapid social rise - in a race with an express train. In the case of Gatsby, the author disguises the more precise circumstances of the hero's death. An exchange of fire? Murder? No matter. The bullet hits someone who has given up on himself. This is what happens in America, where wealth often comes from the sheer violence of outsiders who want to belong.

Once, when thieves drill into Scrooge's Talerturm and suck the enormous fortune underground, Scrooge is devastated. Even a lost coin drives him to the brink of madness - and then that: everything is gone! But it's strange with this drake who keeps a malicious intrigue about his line of succession simmering. Just as he does not accept his fate as an impoverished ex-zillionaire, neither does he age. Death is not an alternative.

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