Saturday, August 3, 2013

Book Review: Filthy Rich In Rising Asia

The full title is How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid. A good review is here, though I would recommend actually reading the book first. I encountered this book via Tyler Cowen, who also enjoyed it, and who unsurprisingly thinks it's about economics.

The pretense is to be a self-help book, a guide to getting filthy rich in rising Asia, a premise that is imaginative, charming, and makes for great storytelling. A consequence is there are few proper nouns. None of the characters have names, nor does the country or the city where the novel takes place. You can imagine that it happens anywhere in Asia, but I found it useful to place it in Lahore, Pakistan, which is the author's home town.

The chapter titles are the stuff self-help books are made of. Some would do Stephen Covey proud, such as Get an education, and Work for yourself. Others are more...shall we say...Pakistani, like Be prepared to use violence and Patronize the artists of war.

Many reviewers compare the book to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Somehow I missed that in high school, and so read Gatsby for the first time only a few months ago. The comparison isn't really very apt--both are about rich people, but that's about it. Fitzgerald hated them, and clearly believed the Marxist myth we're poor because the rich people stole all the money. Indeed, Gatsby was a gangster.

Hamid's rich man is more an accidental figure. He certainly isn't evil, nor (beyond petty theft) did he steal money. He just happened to be at the right place at the right time, and was smart enough to take advantage of it. Further, like most rich folks, he improved the lives of the people around him--his family, his employees and his customers. Not that he was altruistic or above cheating, but there is a thread of fair play that runs through the entire novel.

In the end, money comes and money goes. It's not even particularly good for keeping score. The success of the protagonist's life is measured in much more quotidian terms: love, friends, and family. Indeed, the subplot is a love story.

I'm not going to tell you the plot, but I will address three themes: ideologues, water, and graft.

The protagonist goes to university. In doing so, partly for self-protection, and partly for economic support, he joins an ideological group described as "bearded men." Their immediate mission is to stop drug use by their fellow students, a task they pursue with occasionally violent zeal. Our hero depends on them for help when his mother falls ill, but then becomes increasingly cynical and disengaged. He's about to get into some serious trouble, but makes himself scarce just in time. That's the end of his university career.

So that reminds me vaguely of my time in the Socialist Workers Party--absent the violence. Instead of being kicked out of school, I was simply ostracized by my former comrades.

Water is a central theme of the book. The government wants to build a special community, labeled Phase Ten. Here's what the retired brigadier says about it:
In ten, when you turn the tap, you'll be able to drink what comes out of it. Everywhere. In your garden. In your kitchen. In your bathroom. Drinkable water. When you enter phase ten, it'll be like you've entered another country. Another continent. Like you've gone to Europe. Or North America.
This utopian vision is vivid to me because of the year I spent in Uganda. The expense and effort that Ugandans of all classes spend securing enough potable water for the day is astonishing. School girls invest much energy lugging heavy jerrycans on their heads, sometimes for many kilometers. Ex-pat families, like mine, depended on the water tower behind our complex, and the expensive electricity needed to pump water into it. And even then we had to boil and filter the stuff before we could drink it--it was an hour-long chore I had to perform every evening.

In the US we take potable water for granted--we live in a blessed place. Pakistan--and most of rising Asia--is more like Uganda, and it is truly fitting that Mr. Hamid has chosen water as a central plot element.

Graft is endemic in Rising Asia, ranging from petty theft by employees, to bribery on a grand scale. The former is tolerated and functions as a social safety net. The narrator observes that a servant stays
because it is easy to skim money from you. You do not begrudge him this. You would do the same. You have done the same. It is a poor person's right.
Emergency expenses--e.g., for sick family members--is usually taken from employers, either by gift or by theft. Likewise, money is saved for retirement by skimming a little off the top. As such, graft in Pakistan appears to serve the same function as our social welfare state.

The important government bureaucrat collects a big bribe from our rising rich man. In this he is like America's tenured college professors--a person who is paid by virtue of his position rather than for any service rendered. (Like a college professor, he may actually perform a service, but his paycheck has nothing to do with that.) In a word, bureaucrats are the same everywhere--they are rent collectors. Perhaps there's a moral difference between the Pakistani official and an American college professor, but there isn't an economic difference.

Still, institutions matter. Though both American professors and Pakistani bureaucrats are parasitic rent collectors, the former operate under the rule of law. Their rent is predictably calculated. The latter follow the rule of the jungle--eat what you can steal. So the professoriate is at very least less damaging to the economy, and may actually be more productive (though that's hard to say).

Because of corruption and incompetence, the water and sewer lines never get built. Citizens depend on bearded street gangs for protection rather than any police department. Contracts cannot be enforced. Pakistanis are poor, and Americans are rich. Rising Asia--at least parts of it--is sinking fast.

Anyway, for a really good story, along with fresh insight into Rising Asia, How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia is well worth the read. Highly recommended.

Further Reading:

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