Sunday, August 2, 2015

Rani Issac's "The Philanthropist": An Odd Little Text

Isaac’s concern is the concentration of wealth to top earners (and the preservation of generational wealth passed down through families). In this book, she takes on this issue by fictionalizing the future and making a story through the eyes of a member of one of the richest families. In the book, the representative character of the rich has second thoughts about the economic system and her place in it. She secretly attends school and through the teachings of a mentor who knows the past better than she does, she is able to see through the edifice that was built by her family and class for their own self-perpetuation, and see that instead her high status means lower status for so many.

Through some machinations, the main character is able to make some changes and release funds out to the world - basically she dissolves her wealth and the family foundation that was part of how she controlled so much capital.

I’m sympathetic to Isaac’s position. The concentration of wealth at the top is a real issue these days, as explained by both the authors of the “Spirit Level” and more recently by Thomas Piketty in his widely-purchased but little read magnum opus “Capital”. What strikes me as unworkable is that the vision of the future finds that this issue will not be resolved until those who have made the accumulations decide that it is in everyone’s best interest to do what is against their short term self-interest. So despite heroes of capitalism like Gates and Buffett pledging to give away their wealth, there are those who are fighting tooth and nail to eliminate estate and gift taxes. If the problems of capitalism are dependent on the beneficiaries of capitalism to solve them, then the issue will not be solved.

A further issue is the format that Isaac takes. I’m not sure if the fictio format is the best angle for her argument, The book is short and tries to pack a lot in its few pages, but it is lacking in character development. The narrative voice doesn’t help, it’s a close third person past, so it has this weird clinical detachment where we are told and not shown things. The author shows her familiarity with stringing together a proper sentence, but lacks in the verve necessary to tell a compelling story.