Whether Bill Gates, Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos – millions follow the private lives of the super-rich. How they increase their wealth, however, is largely a mystery. Forbes magazine counts 2640 billionaires worldwide. How does one become so immensely rich? And does society benefit from this miraculous increase in money?

In her book „Who will become a billionaire? Vom großen globalen Abkassieren„, financial journalist Heike Buchter has sought answers. Whether financial tycoons, Silicon Valley investors or oligarchs, „the super-rich have their own agenda,“ says the New Yorker-by-choice in an interview with ntv.de: „They rake in money for money’s sake and thus not only increasingly promote inequality in our societies. They are also endangering democracy and may therefore pose a risk to the entire planet.

In your book „Wer wird Milliardär?“ not only does practically every billionaire of note get their comeuppance. You also reveal secrets about unimaginably rich people who prefer to remain hidden. Was there a specific reason for this reckoning?

Heike Buchter: Years ago, I already had the feeling that there was a super-rich person behind almost every product. That made me curious. At some point, I asked myself why everyone always focuses on these people, how and with whom they live. I’m interested in what makes these success stories possible in the first place.

And what is that?

It’s the mechanisms of the financial sector that are behind these people and their fortunes. They make the difference these days. They decide who gets really rich and who never will. Unfortunately, this is all too often ignored.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos caused a sensation during the pandemic with his new giga yacht: 125 meters long, costing 470 million euros. Because a historic bridge in Rotterdam was blocking the way to the open ocean, the shipyard demanded that the bridge be dismantled. The first thing that came to mind was an April Fool’s joke. Is this loss of grip symptomatic of today’s super-rich?

It’s not all of them, but there is indeed a group of prominent super-rich people where more and more such examples are becoming known. The perception of how this is received by „normal people“ has been completely lost. We need to finally realize that many of these super-rich people have assets that are as big as entire national economies. There are hardly any limits to what they can do with it. That harbors dangers.

Who specifically do you have in mind?

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, for example, is convinced that we need nuclear power. That is why he has decided to build new types of nuclear reactors. A project is already underway in Wyoming, for which he has given two billion US dollars in funding; he got the US Department of Energy to add another two billion – despite criticism from experts. What bothers me are these people who have the means, the self-confidence, the conviction and the influence to implement things they think are right. The problem is that they believe their immense wealth and what it makes possible is an affirmation of how good they are and how right they are living. In the case of Tesla boss Elon Musk, this is particularly evident. Billionaires are too often seen as saviors. This is fatal because it stops us from looking for solutions that we urgently need.

You could argue that if you have a lot of money, you’ve done something right. The rich would say that criticism of their wealth is pure envy.

Envy is a killer argument that says nothing. The problem is a different one. The billionaires in my book represent what is going wrong in our financial system and in our economy. Today, the financial sector no longer serves to finance our economy and our prosperity, but to make more and more money with assets. Our companies, pensions, infrastructure, patents and even our health care have, to a certain extent, become chips to be played with in the big casino called the financial sector. The fact that some have the better cards is problematic: it endangers our democracy because people have realized that this economy no longer works for the masses.

Are the super-rich in the USA different from those in Germany?

The multi-billionaires in Germany are almost more fascinating than those in the USA. The dominance of family businesses in this country is seen as a good thing by the public. In reality, however, they are nothing more than global corporations with thousands of employees. There are statistics on the wealthy dating back to 1911 – long before the Forbes list. It contains family names that still appear in the Manager Magazin ranking of the 500 richest Germans. These families have kept their fortunes together through a monarchy and several dictatorships right up to the Federal Republic of Germany. This is unique and does not exist in the USA. It could be seen as a merit, but it also means – as an IMF study has pointed out – that a large part of the profits of globalization in this country have flowed into the pockets of a few.

Does this mean that our family businesses are not the backbone of the German economy, as is always said?

Contrary to what is assumed, they do not contribute significantly to the prosperity of Germans. In fact, statistics show that Germans are on average among the poorest in the EU. The structure of family businesses also does not ensure that Germany has a broad middle class. The public sphere in Germany is not significantly different from that in countries where inequality in society is supposedly much greater than here. We go easy on the rich in terms of taxation, which is why no money flows there. And why? Because we still think that family businesses will help us in the crisis.