We have to talk about money – literature & lectures

BOOK IN DISCUSSION: Mareice Kaiser lets people talk about their wealth or poverty to start a debate.

You don’t talk about money. Children learn that early on. Saying how much you have or don’t have, how much you earn or don’t earn is taboo. As a result of this dubious tradition, the topic of money is associated with a great deal of shame, because: Who you are depends on money. It affects where you live, what education you have, which doctors operate on you. It puts another person in a relationship of power and value that would not exist without the knowledge of the size of the respective purse. You quickly become ashamed or at least feel uncomfortable – either because you have more than others or less.

Mareice Kaiser talks about money. Although, or rather because, she hates it herself, as the readers find out right from the first sentence of her book. The journalist, author and moderator (born 1981) describes feelings and sensitivities in connection with money and tells what she calls the money story of a number of very differently wealthy people.

It once again becomes clear how unfairly money is distributed in our country and to what extent income and assets, including those of our family of origin, determine what status we have, to what extent we can participate in social life – and to what extent our political and economic system influences this Sloping favored.

These are by no means new facts. But linked to specific people, their employment history and thoughts about their own situation, they are given faces and have a lasting impact – unlike an abstract report on population statistics and economic figures (which are nevertheless abundantly available in this book). Kaiser’s interview partners are unusually open about what they have and where their money comes from. They provide an insight into extremely wealthy, middle-class and extremely precarious situations.

There is, for example, Erwin Husel, who used to run a small shop and is now trying to supplement his meager pension by collecting returnable bottles in his neighborhood in Berlin. He can’t get his heating fixed, but he’s happy with his “income” overall because he can pay rent and groceries.

But we also get to know the self-made multi-millionaire Sven Faltin, who is sure that anyone can make it rich and climb the social ladder, but who doesn’t seem to see how unusual his own story is. We meet Marlene Engelhorn, heiress to millions and descendant of BASF founder Friedrich Engelhorn, who advocates high taxes for the very rich because she believes that society cannot afford “over-wealth” if it really wants to fight poverty. Or Elisa, whose surname is not mentioned, from a “simple” background, now a well-paid lawyer, who talks about the envy and concerns of the wealthy and about achieving status, which she likes to show with designer clothes and furniture.

And finally there is Mareice Kaiser herself, who explains with her origin story where her hatred of money comes from: Money was always scarce at home and therefore always an issue. She experienced first-hand what it’s like when parents discuss whether they can afford to let their daughter go on a class trip. Kaiser knows from her experience: “People who have little money and a low social status are often questioned.” It becomes clear: poverty is a reason for discrimination like origin, religion or sexual orientation.

And now? The author questions capitalism, works on it and on all sorts of theories that aim for a fairer distribution of money. She doesn’t find the perfect recipe, just this much: She writes that things won’t go on as before. It needs a – yes – turning point in terms of justice.

The book is a startling (thought) journey of an interested and angry citizen – not an expert. That may bother some people, but that’s exactly Kaiser’s point: we all need to talk about money – and about the injustice associated with it. Because naming things, she hopes, leads to thinking about them and possibly wanting to change them.