6 years ago

Will we ever have (taka) trillionaires?

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Minus the "Taka," the above heading is from Tim McDonald's August 2018 BBC News article. It should open inquiring minds locally. McDonald was motivated by Apple entering the trillion-dollar income-club (his "four comma club"), quickly followed by Amazon, both this summer. Others may be hot on their heels: Alphabet, the parent company of Google, Microsoft, and so forth, have the chance. How long they stay there is difficult to say (Petrochina was the first to enter, in 2007, but is worth only $200 billion today), but getting the juices to flow among aspirants should not be hard.

McDonald calculated, for the ordinary US citizen with a $60,000 median income, it would take 16 million years to reach that target, provided no money is spent (perhaps the hardest proposition to deliver in this materialistic world). If, on the other hand, we turn to AI (artificial intelligence) entrepreneurship, and produce a drug to prolong life, for instance, "massive wealth," according to Martin Ford's Rise of Robots, would be guaranteed.

Another pathway McDonald examined was cryptocurrency (bitcoin). This is more likely, and, for the desperados, now may be the only moment before it becomes standardised. Yet, it carries a very, very "fleeting" trillion-dollar-membership card because of the "exceptional volatile" nature of the trade. Bringing back moon-rocks, or grabbing asteroids, would be two other options McDonald considered, since they could hold up to $100 trillion worth of minerals.

McDonald's inquiry leaves too few new earthly tracks to pounce on ('old' ones have all been standardised): software innovation, mineral-loaded asteroid crashing on to Planet Earth, a moon discovery brought back to earth, and so forth. Winning the most lucrative lottery ticket will not even come close.

He also looked at who might be the next frontiersman. Amazon's Jeff Bezos stood out among those we know. His $150 billion wealth puts him in the lead since Bill Gates gives so much away as gifts (he barely has one-third of Bezo's wealth). Here's McDonald's thought: to not expand his wealth, Bezos would have to give away $28 billion every day. Otherwise it would have to be someone like garage-whiz, Steve Jobs; in reality, many of him, given how much more multifaceted the competitive software industry has become today.

So where does Bangladesh fit in? As we recently learned in the media, Summit Group's Muhammad Aziz Khan stands on the throes of entering the billion-dollar-club, being the 35th richest Singaporean, measured in dollar terms. A "Taka" trillionaire only means $12-13 billion, at today's exchange rate. Perhaps the only pathways left in Bangladesh to legitimate wealth include land-ownership investment or a manufacturing start that culminates in a conglomerate; indulging as an intermediary in multiple commercial undertakings; and the likes. Though good to make one a millionaire a few times over in Taka terms, these do not come close enough to establishing a trillionaire springboard: every pioneer will soon face the 'herd instinct', that is, aspiring hordes rapidly snatching bits and pieces of the desired market with their own copy-cats.

Leaving asteroids and moon collectibles to comic books for now, something novel must enter the picture. It cannot but involve some degree of high-level intellect: like Steve Jobs, we clearly do not need doctorate-holders. What we need is an energetic mind to put some market-cracking software far before our next-door neighbour or office-mate copies it.

Steve Jobs's mind-cultivation in a garage (rather than a classroom), benefited from the institutionalised knowledge that comes from just living in a neighbourhood/country where literacy is more than an individualised accomplishment. It serves as a community infrastructure: the analytical knowledge is accumulated, generates intellectual competition, feeds off of more frontier-driven individuals, and breeds, among newcomers, a virgin desire for intellectual indulgences. We do not have enough institutionalised knowledge or literacy. Until very recently, our trillionaire-in-the-making would begin school in the same institution as the less ambitious students, and go through the same rigmarole school/university routine to really stand out. There are no Ivy Leagues, and our 'garages' have not yet become the escapades solo artists seek.

When asked why they seek undergraduate training, student answers tend to be understandably automatic: "go with the flow," that is, do what the high-school friend or next-door neighbour is doing; "find a good job," rather than probe the intellectual frontiers to invest; "find a suitable marriage partner," which continues to show male domination; "become a scientist/bank-owner," and so forth. Following one particular track, perhaps going where society wants one to, or following the father's footsteps, remains the pattern. Ingenuity is hard to find to make a social difference.

 'Software' may become the 'hardware' needed to change this paradigm. It opens our most lucrative "get-rich, and "get-rich-fast" door today, more genuinely than other tracks. Yet dedicating one's undergraduate years to harnessing the necessary skills to jump-start that breakthrough idea has proven increasingly and unfortunately taxing for our students: how it disrupts the "going with the flow" mindset distinguishes our society from those that can produce Steve Jobs. With the spiralling growth of copy-paste exercises and plagiarised papers into epidemic forms, our trillionaire-taka mindset could easily drift in illegitimate outlets: even the brightest students must resort to these practices to prevent their laggard classmates from stealing the show; and once harnessed in class, those practices look increasingly and surrealistically genuine as one progresses with life.

An individual mindset revolution is the game-changer: it permits probing one's own capacities, innovating to kill boredom/irritation, or edging the next-door neighbour or best-friend with a better idea, and so forth. The teacher is there to open new windows once the start-up's originality is confirmed, but the trillion-taka aspirant must bring his/her parachute with him/her to take the plunge, if needed: failure rates tend to be high. Perhaps a competition here or there on campus, then across the city, eventually across the country, might be what the doctor will have to order at some point for the aspirant to graduate into that trillionaire club. Membership is open, but an early start is the key: our brain cells do not grow after birth (and some of our addictions kill them brazenly); but since they collectively constitute the largest organ of the human body at that stage, the early bird (like Mozart, playing fluent piano at age 4), really catches the worm (trillion-taka-making skills).

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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