The limits of imagination

Many would think of authors as having limitless imaginations. We can imagine amazing futures, fantastical worlds, utopias, dystopias, magics, stuff that we call science that is actually just more magic, but we can’t imagine a rich person as wealthy as actual rich people.

That’s right when it came to thinking of massive piles of money that a fictional character would go swimming through, it didn’t amount to as much money as our actual wealthiest people.

Fictional 15 richest

  1. Scrooge McDuck – $65.4 billion
  2. Smaug – $54.1 billion
  3. Carlisle Cullen – $46.0 billion
  4. Tony Stark – $12.4 billion
  5. Charles Foster Kane – $11.2 billion
  6. Bruce Wayne – $9.2 billion
  7. Richie Rich – $5.8 billion
  8. Christian Grey – $2.2 billion
  9. Tywin Lannister – $1.8 billion
  10. C. Montgomery Burns – $1.5 billion
  11. Walden Schmidt – $1.3 billion
  12. Lara Croft – $1.3 billion
  13. Mr Monopoly – $1.2 billion
  14. Lady Mary Crawley – $1.1 billion
  15. Jay Gatsby – $1.0 billion (Source: Fictional 15, 2013) Total = $215.5 billion

Let’s compare that to the real-life Richie McRiches.

Real 15 richest

  1. Jeff Bezos – $131 billion
  2. Bill Gates – $96.5 billion
  3. Warren Buffett – $82.5 billion
  4. Bernard Arnault (and family) – $76 billion
  5. Carlos Slim Helu (and family) – $64 billion
  6. Amancio Ortega – $62.7 billion
  7. Larry Ellison – $62.5 billion
  8. Mark Zuckerberg – $62.3 billion
  9. Michael Bloomberg – $55.5 billion
  10. Larry Page – $50.8 billion
  11. Charles ‘f@#k the environment’ Koch – $50.5 billion
  12. David ‘f@#k poor people’ Koch – $50.5 billion
  13. Mukesh Ambani – $50 billion
  14. Sergey Brin – $49.8 billion
  15. Francoise Bettencourt Meyers (and family) – $49.3 billion (Source) Total = $993.9 billion

On the fictional list, we have a literal 350-year-old blood-sucking parasite who had several lifetimes to accumulate his wealth. Another is the image we conjure up when we think of rich people. One character even has rich in his name twice. Yet for all of their billions, they aren’t matching it with the real-life billionaires.

It says something that the richest fictional character has half as much money as the richest man in the real world. And the total worth of the Top 15s couldn’t be more different. All of the world’s authors couldn’t come up with a list of the wealthiest characters with as much money as their real-life counterparts ($215 vs $994 billion!!).

But the worst part is the real-life billionaires. Do we see Jeff Bezos swimming in a giant vault of money? Does he even own a giant vault? What type of pathetic billionaire is he? Too busy stopping his workers unionising to enjoy a swim in his money is what he is. Bill Gates has not once tried to scare dwarves away from his mountain of gold, on the plus side, he isn’t a gold hoarding dragon. And will we ever see the Warren Buffet spanking a college newspaper reporter sex tape, and will that be hotter than the 50 Shades of Grey movies?

What about superheroes? Zuckerberg isn’t donning a cowl and fighting crime, he’s too busy selling elections. Tony Stark was fighting to save the planet, the Koch brothers only seem to have time to see the planet burn. Would it kill them both – or at least one more – to try to build an arc reactor?

Authors may not be able to imagine ridiculous levels of wealth for their characters, but billionaires seem equally unable to imagine doing something worthwhile with their billions.

Book review: Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the WorldWinners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first rule of MarketWorld is you do not criticise MarketWorld.

Winners Take All is a critique of the modern market-driven and capitalistic thinking that dominates the social and political landscape. Giridharadas focuses upon philanthropy in particular, as the more moralistic and benign problem of MarketWorld that is often used to whitewash the more obviously bad actions of those solely interested in the accumulation of wealth and power to the detriment of others.

This was a very interesting read and particularly insightful.* Throughout the book, Giridharadas is able to show us how MarketWorld created itself and now perpetuates and grows itself. And it doesn’t back away from being critical of people who think of themselves as doing good (and in a sense are) and of the system that allows this to happen.

Two topics in the book particularly resonated with me. The first was the idea of the immoral or amoral approach that is used to making money, which is then used for philanthropy later. This money is often made by exploiting people and the commons ruthlessly, and then is whitewashed of guilt by “giving back”, rather than, you know, not exploiting people/commons in the first place and thus negating the need for giving. I’ve previously come across this idea from a few philosophers and people like Alain de Botton who have discussed this on moral grounds.

The second topic was that of the Thought Leader. I’ve long been troubled by the happy-clappy approach to ideas and intellectual thinking we see in popular culture. Whether it be TED talks or deceptive pop-science authors like Malcolm Gladwell, there is a tendency in this field to be anti-intellectual or present a facile understanding of an issue/topic. So I especially enjoyed seeing the Thought Leader taken down a peg or two and the winning formula exposed.

Thought Leader 3-Step:
1) Focus on the victim, not the perpetrator.
In this way, you can avoid dealing with larger systemic issues and instead make smaller changes that have more direct and emotional appeal. Think, telling women to not dress too sexily so they won’t get raped** instead of addressing the issue of rape and rapists.

2) Personalise the political.
Or to put it another way, don’t be a critic pointing out systemic and collective issues, but instead make it about personal and individual dramas.

3) Be constructively actionable.
This is about having some nice and easy steps that people can do to make a difference. Remember to keep it at a personal level!***

This book wasn’t without fault. I’m not a particular fan of the narrative/literary journalism style employed. You commonly see this style in the pretentious long-form essays and “important” journalistic pieces. What it tends to do is obscure hard facts in the narrative and steer away from addressing points fully. This might make for a more “human” piece of writing that many would call more engaging and interesting, but it weakens just about any point and argument made.

I highly recommend this book.

Thanking our sponsors:

*The reason for the insightfulness is obvious if you are familiar with Giridharadas or read the Acknowledgements section. This is his playground. He is the son of a director of the McKinsey Institute consulting firm (they come in for a lot of flak in the book), worked there himself, he’s a Harvard alum, has given TED Talks (thought leader), and was a Henry Crown fellow of the Aspen Institute.

**And ironically, this is a great example of why this sort of focus just doesn’t work. It is a myth that clothing has anything to do with rape, but addressing rape and rapists would require a systemic change that makes many uncomfortable.

***This is why we see IPCC and other climate change reports making recommendations like installing solar panels, installing led lighting, and buying an electric car, rather than demanding a move away from fossil fuel usage at a society level.

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Down with Reading?

An interesting table of statistics – yes I am assuming statistics are interesting, why yes, I am a huge nerd – crossed my feed today. The table, presented below, shows the household expenditure breakdowns over time (1990-2009). The highlighted lines show the amounts spent on entertainment and reading.

US Bureau of Labor Statistics (with labour spelt incorrectly)
US Bureau of Labor Statistics (with labour spelt incorrectly)

For those of you who are blind or prefer reading my words rather than a table of numbers, the statistics show that since 1990 there has been a pretty steady increase in household expenditure on entertainment, but the amount spent on reading has been in steady decline. Clearly it is time to panic. Movies, TV and gaming have won. Time to give up reading and writing. No future in it.

Well, that would be the conclusion if you don’t go and look for the source data.

Now I am rather lazy, so I haven’t bothered to look up every year of data and tried to recreate the table. But what I have done is looked up the figures from a few of the years not included in the table: 2010, 20112012 and 2013. The spend on reading from those years is $100, $115, $109 (no 2013 data as yet) and entertainment spend of $2,504, $2,572, $2,605 and $2,482. Seems like that trend stopped, or something.

Actually, the trend has more to do with the household demographics and income than any change in book buying. Whilst in the early 2000’s there was a drop in reading for entertainment from ~0.4% of household expenditure to ~0.2%, this has been consistent since. So readers are still buying and reading books at roughly the same proportion as always.

And who are the readers? Well, from the demographics breakdown the readers tend to be middle-aged or older, higher income, educated households, or households without kids. Apparently having kids stops you reading, can’t think why. And clearly older and more affluent people are the ones who can afford the hardcover prices, or see the value in them, or just like having something on the bookshelf surrounding their money pile – rich people have money piles in their houses, right?

To me this doesn’t say reading is a dying industry, rather that there are groups being missed by the current industry. Of course I’m biased and probably daydreaming about a magical place where books hunt down DVDs for sport. The younger people tend to have less entertainment expenditure, with the average consumer spending 5% of their income on entertainment, whilst under 25s spend between 4 and 5%. Their book buying appears to have declined and is lower than the average consumer, at 0.14% (2012). This makes them a missed market (or possibly buying cheaper e-books). The other groups spending less on books are the less educated and lower income people, and again, not just in total expenditure but in the proportion of household expenditure.

Clearly these three groups could be reading just as much but instead of buying books they are borrowing them from friends or libraries, or they might be buying cheaper books. But something tells me this isn’t the case, what with the kids these days with their hippity hop music and haircuts. To my mind the fear that the market for books is shrinking, as suggested by the above table, is not borne out by the more recent data. We see more competition for entertainment dollars yet books don’t change that much ($150 to $110 over 22 years is 3 paperbacks in the US) suggesting that the problem is in who is reading. If reading is going to be only for richer, older and more educated people then we have a problem, especially if we aren’t creating the next generation of readers.