On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Anand Giridharadas, the author of the new book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. It’s a book about his travels in the world of the international elite, and how he believes they have convinced themselves that they are changing the world via philanthropy and by pushing public policy they deem to be altruistic. But, he argues, in reality they’re merely helping entrench a system where elites gain more and more power, the poor have less and less power, and society is more and more reliant on the goodwill of several rich people. Giridharadas was formerly at The New York Times, where he reported extensively from India.
In this edited excerpt from our conversation, we discuss whether the titans of Silicon Valley and Wall Street are really as well-meaning as they say they are, a surprising conversation Giridharadas once had with Bill Clinton, and why think tanks tend to only focus on certain kinds of solutions to political and social problems.
You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.
Isaac Chotiner: How would you describe the thesis of the book?
Anand Giridharadas: The book argues that we live in this extraordinary age in America … in which rich people and plutocrats are generous by every measure: [They] give a lot of money back, every elite young graduate wants to change the world, wants to do good, wants to help out. And yet we live in an era that has been absolutely punishing for perhaps the majority of Americans. Since 1979, the bottom half of Americans—about 117 million people—have seen their incomes rise from $16,000 to $16,200 over the last 39 years of innovation, growth, and transformation of the world order, whereas those in the top 1 percent and .01 percent and .001 percent have seen their incomes double, triple, multiply by however many X.
How is it that we live in this age in which Mark Zuckerberg and every other Silicon Valley person is claiming to change the world, and in which every finance person in New York is involved in giving back? Why do we live in such a generous age that has also been such a cruel age? The argument of the book is that these things are not a coincidence, that giving has become the wingman of taking, and generosity has become the wingman of injustice, and changing the world has become the wingman of keeping the world fundamentally the same and keeping the winners on top.
What would be a specific example of “giving as the wingman of talking”?
When the winners of our rather extreme form of market capitalism move into and even conquer the arena of social change, they put their thumb on the scale and favor forms of change that don’t threaten them and kind of discourage and shame forms of change that would hurt them. You can pick any issue, and we can think about what would be a thoroughgoing change that might be a little painful for winners and what would be a light facsimile of change that would be fine with them. If you think about empowering women, most people, in theory, think, “That’s a good idea.” If you look at other societies that have made strides in that direction, it’s pretty clear that it takes a lot of policy, and expensive policy, frankly, to make that work: maternity leave, family leave, universal child care, or child care tax credits.
Well, all those things I just outlined are pretty expensive for winners: billions of dollars in costs and taxes and companies having to spend more money or have more complex workforce issues. Instead of ignoring the clamor of women for empowerment, what the plutocrats and kind of elite charadists do is put forward an alternative form, a light facsimile, of women’s empowerment that is like “lean-in” circles, right? “Let’s just get women together. They’ll mentor each other. They’ll lean in. They’ll raise their hand more.” The advantage of this kind of change, although it’s not real change, is that it doesn’t cost the winners anything. The powerful don’t have to concede an inch. It’s a win-win, and win-win becomes a very important word in this framework. Change that benefits the left behind without costing those in power anything.
If you switch to an issue like education, where a lot of plutocrats do a lot of work and are very interested in making public education better, they tend to gravitate toward things like charter schools. [These] are a way of working on the public education problem that doesn’t hurt winners. You divert some money from the public school system to a private school that you essentially advise, maybe sit on the board of, and it doesn’t hurt you in any way. You’re giving back, you’re helping some kids have better opportunity, and you’re probably making some difference in those kids’ lives. However, if you think about a real change, like equalizing public school funding across this country, ending the manifest injustice of the fact that we fund public schools according to how expensive your parent’s home is, well, that’s the kind of thing that would hurt the winners. That’s the kind of thing that would make home prices in Marin and Greenwich fall.
One theme of the book is that many of the people that you’re writing about, the rich people who are keeping these systems in place and perpetuating these problems, are presented as extremely sincere. Was that something you came to believe while writing this?
If you think about the Wall Street finance types who speculate wildly and make a bunch of money and give a little back to the Robin Hood Foundation Gala, my general experience with folks like that is that they are certainly motivated by money, green is an important factor, and they often quite pragmatically recognize that a certain amount of giving, equipped with a good publicist to let people know about it, is an essential component of a strategy of continued taking.
When I go to Silicon Valley and I spend time with people at Facebook and Google and places like this, it often feels very different from that. It feels closer to the naïve side. I think you have a lot of sincerity about making the world a better place. I think you often have, in these companies, people who are truly motivated in the way that a Gandhi or a Mao was, and the spectrum of morality there is what should give us pause: [people] who really think they are doing the best for humanity but … do not see the dangers of their own monopoly. Do not see that they are powerful, and that power needs to be kept in check. Do not understand the importance of accountability. I think a lot of the naïve idealists are, in some ways, more dangerous because they so deeply believe that they are making the world a better place simply by doing what they do that they view any kind of pushback, whether it’s by a regulator or a journalist or anyone else, as slowing them down from their mission of emancipating people. They look at you as though, “Why are you trying to stop me from emancipating humankind as fast as I can?”
I’ve lived in the Bay Area now for almost four years, and that was definitely my feeling in my early time here. I’ve gotten slightly more cynical about it since then and now wonder how much all this is just a cover for more simple notions of greed. Has your idea of the tech world changed at all based on what we’ve seen in the last year or 18 months?
Well, I think the world’s view of the tech world has changed in the last 18 months, and that’s very good. I think you may be right.
There are definitely many people motivated by money. I think the really big companies that are, in some way, the most dangerous, I think, are also, and this may be just naïve on my part, but I think are motivated, often, by these very large civilizational missions. But I don’t say that to exonerate them in any way. I actually think our society is much better equipped to keep in check somewhat greedy people who just want to make a buck. I think we have a pretty advanced regulatory infrastructure to deal with those people, which is why we have an SEC, and which is why car seats are safe.
In general, when you’re an operating business person, if you’re trying to pull a fast one on society, the society’s actually not defenseless against that. We don’t have an SEC for the tech world. We don’t really regulate much of it at all. I mean, I don’t think there’s been a single antitrust case against any of these big tech platforms.
One character in your book is Bill Clinton. What did you make of him, and how was your opinion changed by the reporting, if it was?
I actually spent two days at the final CGI, the Clinton Global Initiative, that he had in September 2016. He was deeply invested in that moment in the idea that populism was this thing to be defeated, but was really narrow and [appeals to] foolish people, et cetera. There was a lot of talking down of this populism thing at that CGI. I … was curious about how in that world, rich people are presented as the only people able to actually effect change these days, and government is sort of passively denigrated, including by Clinton himself, who said in his final speech, This is all that works in the modern world, i.e. plutocrats working with government and others in these private, unaccountable, invisible projects to make the world better. If you go back to 1964 when he’s at Georgetown, an undergraduate, it was hard to think about anybody who believed more deeply than he did in the idea that you use the power of government and the law to change the world, right?
And now, if you flash forward to 2016 or 2017, it’s hard to think about anybody in the world who now more deeply believes in this alternate theory of how you change the world, that has since taken hold, which is that you change it through partnerships among plutocrats and Goldman Sachs doing a project with McDonald’s and McKinsey and some local agency and others to make the world better. I wanted to understand how he got from A to B, and we had probably a 90-minute session together. He is brilliant as always, and he had an answer for everything.
Feels like there’s a “but” coming.
There is. We probably met about five or six months after Hillary Clinton’s defeat, and it struck me that there was a defensiveness around … these people didn’t understand what they’re doing. It struck me that there was an inability to say in retrospect, the two of them having made, I dunno, a couple hundred million dollars, according to the Wall Street Journal, in their post-presidential life, [to say] that this may have been a bad move in an age of rising populism. There was no ability to say, “A lot of the form this anger is taking is bad, but some of the impulses behind this anger of feeling the game is rigged are real, and a lot of the people that I’ve brought into this CGI sphere are part of the problem.” He just couldn’t go there because these are his people now.
One of the things he’d done in kind of his signature post-presidential work was he’d worked on the childhood-obesity issue. He’d gotten interested in this because of his own heart trouble, and I think someone had asked him to work on this issue of childhood obesity and the soft drink companies having these vending machines in public schools, and what could be done. In his typical fashion, [he’d worked] with the schools and the companies, and they’d made smaller cans, and they’d done a few different things. I said to him, “Mr. President, this seems as clear a case to me as any could be of a place where government is a legitimate actor. I’m not sure why you need to work with the soft drink companies to make smaller cans. You have products that have no redeeming nutritional value for children. You have a problem of childhood obesity that you’re trying to solve. You have children who cannot vote and cannot easily organize to thwart the power of these products, which have addictive qualities. This seems as clear a case for using political action and collective action.”
He said, “No, that doesn’t really work because you gotta make sure the companies have a business model. If you don’t help them continue making money after you fix this, it’s not gonna work.” I just thought that was such an astonishing moment. A man who had actually run the most powerful machinery of state in human history saying, “No, we can’t use that machinery of state to protect children from harmful products. We have to make sure the companies have a business model on the other side.” Part of what I’m trying to interrogate in the book is: When did many of us start to believe that social change must be congenial to those profiting from the status quo?
You write, “There’s almost no problem probed in this book, no myth, no cloud of self-serving justification that I haven’t found a way of being part of. This is a critique of a system of which I am absolutely, undeniably, a part.” Your bio mentions that you do TED Talks, you have a blurb from Bill Gates on the back cover. I think part of you is acknowledging that there’s something very appealing about this world. But what is it that’s so appealing about this world?
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s many different things. I think we can’t talk about this without talking about what’s happened in many of the other arenas where writers and thinkers made their bread and butter … if you think about the newspaper world, newsrooms lost 40 percent of their staff over the last couple decades. If you think about academia … if you think about the world of book publishing, advances and print runs are smaller.
What’s happened to a lot of people who make a living thinking is, as all those institutions have withered, the one [group] that’s stepped up, because of how our economy is structured and because of where the money is now, is plutocrats. You can get paid to give talks, or things like TED, which don’t pay you, you get an enormous amount of exposure. I’ve done that. I’ve given TED Talks. I’ve given two, and it’s an extraordinarily powerful thing.
Part of what I became interested in is when more and more of us are co-opted into these spaces, what becomes difficult for us to say? What silences do we have to abide to be in play in those spaces? What does one not hear discussed in those gatherings? It seemed to me that as more and more of us are required to kind of pay to play to have that kind of exposure, certain important lines of thinking were just entirely left out of the discourse.
You’re a fellow at the Aspen Institute, correct?
Do you feel that certain lines of thinking as a fellow there are discouraged?
Absolutely. This book began as a speech that I gave in 2015, and I’d been a fellow at that time for four years. The idea behind it is to take 20 or so people every year and have them read great books and also read a little bit of Jack Welch, which should have been a sign. You read Plato and Aristotle and Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Jack Welch seems like the name that doesn’t fit of those five.
That’s certainly what I thought, but I think others would disagree. You read all of them and you sit around this room and you discuss and you talk about how can you do more. This whole fellowship is designed to get businesspeople, and they throw a couple people like me into every class, but it’s 16, 17, 18 businesspeople in every class of 20, and to get them to think about, “How do you step up? How do you do more? How do you take on the problems of your society?” That sounds great, but it’s also part of this idea that government is not good at solving problems anymore and that we need businesspeople to solve problems.
The fellowship itself was great. The people in my class were really nice. It was a nice exposure. We bonded. I officiated one of their weddings. I started to notice that we were having a lot of these discussions about bettering the world at the Koch seminar building, funded by one of the Koch brothers, who don’t necessarily seem bent on making the world a better place. It was not lost on me that Monsanto and Pepsi helped sponsor the Aspen Ideas Festival, which seemed like a curious choice for, again, people talking incessantly about making the world better, and that Goldman Sachs sponsored our annual fellowship reunion in the summer. David Rubenstein, who started this private equity fund the Carlyle Group and helped push for the carried interest policies that have kept a lot of money out of the government that could have gone to helping people, was on stage every year as a donor to this program, rebranding himself as a patriotic philanthropist, solving public problems that the government couldn’t solve anymore, in part because he lobbied for the government not to have as much money as it would have otherwise had.
I was asked to give a talk to my fellow fellows one summer, and I decided to surprise everyone and give a talk about what I thought we were not talking about when we came to Aspen. I talked about the Aspen Consensus and the idea that you can ask people to do more good but you’re not supposed to talk about companies doing less harm. You can ask people to give back more, but you’re not supposed to talk about taking less.
What do you mean when you say “supposed to”?
Well, it’s just not done. … When you think about an idea like tax havens or tax-avoidance measures every company uses … most people who look at our economy and look at the global economy will tell you that you can’t get serious about fixing a lot of our problems without thinking about a problem like that. But … that’s just not part of the elite change-the-world discourse because that would come at the expense of elites. On the other hand, I can’t tell you how much you hear about charter schools, because that hurts no one in the room.
Did this make you want to quit Aspen or drop out of this system?
I mean, after that speech I’ve never been there since, and it was made clear to me in certain ways that I was not necessarily welcome back.
But you’re still a fellow?
Well, I mean, the fellowship is two years, so it’s over after two years.
It’s like the Mafia—you’re a member for life?
I mean, you’re on a mailing list. You’re invited to the reunion every summer, if you want to come.