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Fortunes made; fortunes not spent

What would society look like had fortunes not been made? What would culture look like had fortunes not been spent?

We didn’t need the overwhelming evidence Piketty and others produced to tell us ‘money favours the rich’. We have always known that. We couldn’t plumb elegant equations like r > g [explaining growth of inequality – when the rate of return on capital (r) exceeds economic growth rate (g)], but we have learnt to live with inequality, whether patrimonial or the baron robber kind. The fatalist in us has accepted it as a fact of life. It is a part of our folklore.

In the West, wealth has a certain stigma attached to it. Not here, the wannabe Marxists notwithstanding. We have always revered the wealthy. Kings, Nawabs, Jagirdars, Millionaires through government service and billionaires via them, have all been worthy gods of our pantheon.

Our literature may on occasion have sung an elegy or two for the downtrodden, for the wretched of the earth, but more often it has celebrated the pomp and circumstance of money. Grandma’s bedtime stories were spun around riches and splendor of the wealthy, of emperors and wazirs, of ‘ghanis’. If they had their fortunes it was because that is how God willed it. Grandma was least bothered with ‘source of funds and money trails’, nor did she wish to impregnate our young minds with such inanities. If the impertinent questioned, it was droit du seigneur, right of the lord.

And in our political life we keep proving it. No matter what letters of the alphabet the leadership belongs to it cannot be accused of poverty of riches. Come polling time and we don’t hold it against them if they are, Masha Allah, well endowed. Even where we know it is not all kosher.

It is the non-vernaculars – the English-wallahs – who don’t get it. The intellectual who falls asleep with Frantz Fanon in his lap, the judge who pities the nation and waxes eloquent in a language no longer allowed by the constitution, the red tape so proud of the regimental silver and the Sandhurst tradition.

Us, ordinary folks, we are confused. Aren’t all in this bath naked? Isn’t this how it works? Where do we begin, where do we end? To take liberties with Mustafa Zaidi, everyone here is wearing gloves. This country has been kind to all those with a ‘nose for money’, whether holders of public office or not. If there is a crime behind every fortune then it is a heavy curtain that separates the two.

We want to tip our hat to the superior judiciary, but can’t help wondering if it is not a Sisyphean task they have undertaken – condemned to roll a huge stone up the hill only to have it roll down again.

All eyes are on the fate of the Islamabad plots ruled ultra vires by a judge. Let us see who appeals this pristine judgment establishing that land, even if acquired under the dubious pretense of public use, cannot be doled out like candy to children, the robed ones included.

Another judge has taken cognizance of the cutting down of trees in Islamabad. He is sure to establish malfeasance, but it will be interesting to know exactly who is raking it in: just public functionaries, or are the fallen trees the stuff that political rallies are made of?

How far will judiciary go? How far can it go in driving the wedge between public assets and private gain without supplanting the executive? Will it next take up who is the ultimate beneficiary of all the development funds spent in the name of the poor? Or who pockets salaries of ‘ghost employees’? Is private-public-partnership a scam? Are grants from Education and Health foundations ‘gifts’ or used judiciously?

It is a never-ending list, and judiciary is, perhaps more unwittingly than unwillingly, filling the void created by the dysfunctionality of organs of state, the parliament not excluded.

But going back to grandma. Her stories told us also of the ‘glory of money’: how it was used to create monumental edifices of culture – from literature to architecture, from the visual to performing arts.

The fortune-makers of the West have sought to destigmatize wealth by becoming the great patrons of art, reviving the centuries old traditions of ancient Greece, Roman Empire and Renaissance Florence. It is hard to emulate Pericles’ Parthenon; match the sculpture, portraiture and triumphal arches sponsored by Augustus, Tiberius, and Nero; or come close to the munificence of the Medici. But today many an artist and musician owes so much to the super rich, who have helped them either directly or through the foundations they fund – or commissioning stupendous works of art, like Chagall’s stained glass windows or Picasso’s Guernica.

Closer home, our culture is so much richer because of the indulgence of those who knew how to spend their money, whether inherited, hard earned or ill-gotten. Ours would be a cultural desert had they not spent their money on all kinds of arts: the court poets, the ‘gharanas’ of classical music, the splendor of our architecture and gardens, the kathak (taken from the nomadic bards and refined into that enchanting fusion of eye and body movements), even the kotha. It didn’t matter if their wealth didn’t really flow from the sweat of the brow. What mattered was how they used it. Even their debauchery contributed!

This is something for our billionaires to think about: would they like to be remembered for how they made their fortune or how they spent it? Even today we have many seats of learning, hospitals and parks, dating back to turn of the last century, that carry the name of those who made it good. Does anyone care how they chanced upon their fortunes?

Some of our rich have ventured into education and health, but few are there from the goodness of the heart and more because there is money to be made there.

There may be a crime behind every fortune, in a moral sense if not strictly legal, but does a fortune well spent mitigate the misdemeanor? We have a feeling the Rockefellers, the Slims, and even Bill Gates of the world think so.

Lesson there for our rich: playing monopoly, buying properties, is not enough.


Shabir Ahmed, "Fortunes made; fortunes not spent," Business Recorder. 2017-11-09.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Economic issues , National policy , Judicial power , Mustafa Zaidi