Saturday, July 12, 2008

Book Bundles: Superclass, Asian Godfathers

Superclass (2-stars) is a recently published book that talks about the 6000 people who are each literally one in a million, and who collectively wield enormous influence over society and the way we live. There's a review by Salon here.

It starts out as a relatively interesting book, but I found my attention wandering after the first half of the book. The ideas presented in the book are obvious enough once enumerated. That network effects, globalization, markets, corporations and political systems have created a class of vastly powerful individuals. But for all the book pontificates about how influential the superclass is and how we should all be aware and also wary of such concentration of power, it also acknowledges that the status quo is likely to remain for the foreseeable future. [That’s not to say that the author thinks that the existence of the superclass is necessarily bad. I don’t either.]

In other words, it’s nice to know who runs the world. Now, is there anything we can do to change it, assuming that we would want to?

No? Next.

Just about the most interesting part of the Superclass had to deal with the lives of the superclass and how they hobnob with each other (ok, I admit I am a bit of a voyeur here, but who isn’t). Which brings me to the second half of the book bundle.

Asian Godfathers (3-stars) talks about the, often corrupt, history behind the wealth of Southeast Asian (plus Hong Kong) tycoons. While it might be easy to pan the book as a rabble-rousing call to indignation for the masses, the book is not about the questionable origins of the wealth of Southeast Asian tycoons or their peccadilloes (fascinating as those may be: e.g. most tycoons are Christians for a rather special reason). Indeed, by the author’s own admission, Asian Godfathers is really about the rather unique history behind the cozy relationships between governments, political establishments, and local big businesses in Southeast Asia. For example, the book repeatedly asserts that much of the wealth of Southeast Asian tycoons is derived from economic rent, that is supernormal profits from businesses made possible by exclusive government concessions. We still see that in today’s business environment in Southeast Asia, whether by conscious design or historical inertia.

[For the record, I don’t think these relationships are unique to Southeast Asia. They’re not even uniquely egregious. The situation in Latin America closely resembles that in Southeast Asia. You could make a case that Carlos Slim’s fortune is built on concessionary businesses whose profit margins wouldn’t survive true no-holds barred competition.]

Reading Superclass tends to give one a better, more complete perspective on Asian Godfathers. While the first book gets only 2-stars, Asian Godfathers gets 3-stars for its more in-depth look at Southeast Asia, its greater relevance to Singaporeans, and also its plain readability (it really is a juicier read).

Ratings System

2-stars: Casual reading only, or interesting but not easily readable, or important but narrow interest material.

3-stars: Interesting, readable and ideas of some importance.

4-stars: Interesting, highly readable, and ideas of considerable importance.

5-stars: Interesting, highly readable, important material of high relevance to most people.

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