“Winners Take All”: Anand Giridharadas on the Elite Charade of Changing the World

Web ExclusiveMarch 15, 2019
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Extended web-only conversation with Anand Giridharadas about his book, “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. That’s the new book by Anand Giridharadas, editor-at-large at Time magazine, former correspondent and columnist at The New York Times. This is Democracy Now!, with Part 2 of our conversation.

In Part 1 of our conversation, Anand, we talked about the college entrance scandal. I’m wondering if you can tie that in to your overall thesis of Winners Take All.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: You know, Amy, we live in—I would guarantee you that a lot of the people, a lot of the parents, ensnared in this college bribery scandal embody what I talk about when I say—

AMY GOODMAN: Forty-nine people arrested.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: —”the elite charade of changing the world,” which is, both of the actresses, whom I checked out online, do a bunch of philanthropy. Right? This Bill McGlashan guy from TPG literally ran the biggest impact investing fund in the world, to help people through the power of investing. And so, in many ways, those—while they were rigging the system. Right?

So, let’s zoom out from those parents and think about that duality, which I think applies in many ways to our age and plutocracy in our age. A lot of the—it is hard to walk down the street these days without running into a billionaire who says they’re changing the world. Right? Mark Zuckerberg is changing the world. Jeff Bezos is transforming people through charity. And the Google people are organizing all the world’s information and trying to do this and that. Elon Musk is going to space—which, actually, would be great for everybody. And you really have more money being given away than has ever been given away. Social everything, social venture, social enterprise, social this, impact this, impact that. Every young person—I go to campuses, where I spend a lot of time. Every young person on these elite campuses, they don’t say they want to be bankers anymore. It’s not the '80s. They say, “You know, I want to sort of go to Africa, sort of help the Africans.” They've never been to Africa. And the Africans are getting tired of, actually, all these people coming there to help them and just collecting bracelets. But there is this tendency among the rich and powerful to want to make change and actually do these real activities. And to be clear, some of that activity is really good and does help and save lives. Some of it’s more marketing.

But the uncomfortable fact is that when you actually look at any of the data—these people claim to love data—the data is that the very same people who are giving and doing philanthropy, and doing social this and impact that, are actually also the great hoarders of opportunity in our time. Right? Their share of the world’s wealth increases, not decreases, every year. They’re grabbing more of the pie every year, even as they help. Their share of the nation’s income has doubled since the middle of the 20th century, the 1 percent’s has. And, you know, you know all the things you’ve covered in the show. Half of this country, the bottom half of this country, has not basically seen a pay rise since 1979. You’ve had a tremendous age of innovation that has failed to translate into progress, if progress means most people’s lives getting better.

And the unmistakable fact that I learned through my reporting—I started the reporting with a question: What’s the relationship between the two halves of this paradox? On the one hand, you got all these generous rich people; on the other hand, you have the fact that it’s a age of inequality, an age of anger. America feels rigged to people. The American dream is elusive. What’s the relationship? Is it just that this charity, this philanthropy, this do-gooding is not working? It’s not working fast enough? Or is it actually that this charity and philanthropy and elite do-gooding is part of how they maintain the system that allows them to keep taking all?

And what I found through my reporting was that when these elites get involved in social change, what they do is they change change. They take leadership of change. They Columbus social change. They declare themselves now the people, the CEO of Change Inc. And they edit out, in their capacity as board members, trustees, leaders of organizations, donors to causes—they edit out forms of change they don’t want to—they don’t really like. And they encourage forms of change they believe in. So, on any issue—you take the empowerment of women. You know what they don’t like? Maternity leave. You know why? Because it’s expensive. Costs money—right?—for companies, for the taxpayer, particularly wealthy taxpayers. So what do they like? Lean in. You know why? Because lean in is free. All you got to do is tell women that patriarchy is actually a posture problem: If you just lean at a slightly different angle of recline, patriarchy gone. Well, that’s very cheap. Rich people love lean in.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, but explain that, in terms of maternity leave.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Well, maternity leave—to do maternity leave, as one example of a social policy that would actually help women, would cost this society a lot of money. Right? Employers would have to—if that was a right, either the society would have to pay for that or private companies would have to pay for that in ways they don’t right now. That’s a way of actually empowering women, that we know from data in other countries, that would be good, it would do the job, but it would be expensive for the winners of our age. So what the winners of our age do, in their capacities as kind of change agents and thought leaders, is they kind of tip the scale and say, “You know that maternity leave? Ah, we don’t need to do that. Let’s just do lean in.” They encourage, they give platforms to—

AMY GOODMAN: And “lean in” means?

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: “Lean in” means telling women to raise their hands more and be a little more assertive in meetings, to fight patriarchy. Right? Which is, I don’t know, like telling the slaves to be nicer? I mean, like the answer to systems of oppression is not to tell people to be more pleasing to their bosses. But this is—but this is the advice from, you know, a billionaire corporate feminist, Sheryl Sandberg, who, while she was telling women to lean in, was also selling women out so that they would live under Donald Trump, because Facebook was so, you know, unwilling to deal with the cyberwar issue and the abuse-of-privacy issue and Cambridge Analytica, etc. Most of the women I know would prefer to live in a democracy, first and foremost, and not live under Donald Trump. So, Sheryl Sandberg was selling them her—you know, selling them her products. But she was selling them out in a much more fundamental way. But she’s not the only example.

If you look at the education issue, when the rich and powerful get involved in that issue, they love charter schools. Why? Because it’s a way for them—put their name on something, get on the board, be involved, tell their friends at a cocktail party in the Hamptons, you know, “I got three black kids into Yale. I feel so—I just—it’s the least I could do.” And it doesn’t require them to actually give up anything. Whereas if you really want to make progress on that issue, you’d have to end the manifest cruelty in this country of funding public schools according to ZIP code, according to how nice your house is. They don’t want to do that. Why? One, they’d lose access to a good public school, which some of them may use and some don’t. Two, a lot of their home values and the niceness of their neighborhoods is actually wrapped up in the access to better public schools than other people have. If you actually made rich people’s public schools fall to the level everybody else is, you know, people would lose $200,000, a million dollars of home value in Greenwich, in Marin and elsewhere—right?—just because now that house didn’t come with this extraordinary perk of an extra-special, super-duper public school. So, again, rich people don’t want to work on that issue, but they’re happy to work on charter schools.

You know, on basic finances, a lot of rich people who get involved in this kind of change making, they love apps. Let’s have an app to help workers with precarious income smooth their income, or let’s have an app, a fintech app, to help women save more for the future. Win-win, easy. Doesn’t hurt them at all. Right? You know what they don’t like? You know, how about an initiative to actually rat out the trillions of dollars hiding in tax havens around the world? How come you don’t really have many of the big billionaires funding philanthropic efforts to expose the tax havens? It’s a serious question. I mean, if they’re really about making the world a better place, that seems like a pretty good cause. It’s revealing that they’re not interested in that cause. Why? Because they’re never—the people who have the most to lose from change can’t be placed in charge of reforming the status quo. But all of us have actually allowed that to happen. All of us have participated in a culture that actually does sort of see Mark Zuckerberg as a change agent, that actually does see Silicon Valley as change agents, that actually does sort of buy it when ExxonMobil tries to rebrand itself as the renewable company. And so we all need to wake up and stop believing the phony story that the people with the most to lose from change can lead change.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain, Anand, what MarketWorld is.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: MarketWorld is a—you know, I found a long time ago, as a writer, that coinage is a powerful way to make people kind of see reality they’re familiar with in a new way. With the term “MarketWorld”—one word, capital M, capital W—I tried to scoop together a lot of things that I think a lot of your viewers would recognize but see as disparate things. Right?

So, first of all, philanthropy—all these rich people who make money, often by paying people as little as possible, avoiding taxes, lobbying for rigged policies that benefit them, and then donating that money philanthropically. So that’s kind of one thing.

Then there’s a different thing of people who claim their businesses themselves are humanitarian—right?—the way Mark Zuckerberg will say Facebook is creating community, liberating mankind. Right? So there’s that kind of activity. I wanted to scoop that into the ball, as well.

You know, then you have the kind of thought leader circuit—right?—Aspen, Davos, TED—these places where rich and powerful people go to kind of take in ideas like gelato and kind of want to hear ideas that don’t threaten them, and the way that that has incentivized thinkers to kind of clip the wings of their diagnoses of the society and be more palatable to billionaires. I wanted to scoop that into it.

I wanted to write about how young people, 21-, 22-year-olds on campuses, trying to decide what to do with their life, how their idealism has been understood and managed and coopted by JPMorgan, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs and others to convince these most talented young people we have that if you really want to change the world, you’ve got to spend a couple years at Goldman; otherwise, how will you know how to make change?

So, I wanted to take together this kind of complex of people and institutions that is defined by a common religion of doing well by doing good, that the best way to empower others is to also benefit yourself. Win-win. You can fight for social justice, and you can get rich. No problem. And I wanted to slay that BS.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what is the alternative?

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: The alternative is going back to politics as the place we go to change the world. Business is great for a lot of things. I actually don’t want my iPhone to be made by the government. I don’t want your coffee cup to be made by the government. I think there’s a lot of things in our society—most things in this room—are best made by the private sector. And so, this will always be a country in which most activity is private activity. But on the biggest problems we share in common. How do you empower women, locked out of opportunity for thousands of years, to be full and equal citizens? How do you deal with the legacy of slavery in a racial-wealth gap? How do you think about restoring social mobility to where it was for many Americans in the last century? Those are the kinds of problems that are only susceptible to big solutions, to solutions that are through public life.

And I often tell young people, if the solution you’re working on is not public, democratic, institutional and universal, it’s actually not solving the problem for everybody. Ice cream that gives 3 percent back to some charity is not changing the world. An app is not changing the world. Movements change the world. Laws change the world. Boring things like Social Security and Medicare change the world. And so I think we need to really relocate our imagination of change, and particularly for any young person watching this, because I know you have a lot of young people who are your fans. It is so important to think about how you actually want to spend your life. If you are a young person in this culture, you are being fed a very phony story, that change, you know, comes from interning with the worst of the kind of status quo, the worst of the establishment. And it’s not true. Change comes from making change in the way that your parent’s and grandparent’s and great-grandparent’s generation made the kinds of changes that allowed all of us to live in the society we’re in today.

AMY GOODMAN: And where does the Democratic Party fit into this and the new wave of people who are now getting involved with elected office?

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Here’s the uncomfortable truth about—this is a tough book, right? This is a book that is critical. I think it’s fair. I spent a lot of time with these people. I tried to understand my characters, which I always do. But I think one of the things that—when I talk about the “elite charade of changing the world,” I think most of the people I write about in this book probably vote for Democrats. And I think this is a conversation that we haven’t wanted to have in many quarters. It’s easy to say Donald Trump and Paul Manafort and the Koch brothers and Richard Mellon Scaife are the problem. We’ve got, you know, a couple of right-wing loons who are pulling the wool over people’s eyes.

The reality is, the Democratic—in the age of markets, the age of capital, ushered in by Ronald Reagan, which we have been living in ever since—we’re still in his stadium—the Democratic Party, in many ways, capitulated to—not joyfully, but capitulated to—a vision that is not unlike what I was describing, a vision in which markets were how you get things done. Even if they didn’t like it, that’s how you get things done. You have Bill Clinton saying the era of big government is over. You have even Barack Obama getting into the White House, creating his first office, new office, the Office of Social Innovation, the website of which said, “Top-down programs from Washington don’t work anymore,” which is a pretty remarkable statement from the administration of a man who wouldn’t have been able to vote for himself in that election without a really effective top-down program from Washington, that was about to be gutted, the Voting Rights Act.

So, you know, I think what is really important to think about with this Democratic primary coming up, there’s going to be a lot of people—there’s going to be a lot of inspiring people. But I think one framework—wherever you land on this, one framework to keep in mind is: Who is actually interested in dislodging rich and powerful people from positions of power they don’t deserve and from kind of rulership they don’t deserve? And who is, instead, in the more MarketWorldy “I believe everybody can do well”? Right? And if you go back to the 2016 race, you know, you really had Bernie Sanders talking about: “I actually believe some people need to do worse, be cramped a little bit, for the greater good to be done.” And you had Hillary Clinton talking more in terms of everybody can do better.

I think, in this race, that’s going to happen again. You know, Beto O’Rourke joined the race yesterday. And what’s interesting about Beto is, Beto is someone who is precommitted to positivity. It’s not that he looks at the issue and says, “Well, on this issue, I should be positive.” He’s precommitted to it. Right? He’s going to be positive. He doesn’t want to be negative. He doesn’t want to name villains. He doesn’t want to go after people. Trump’s an easy villain, right? But he doesn’t like to be negative. He doesn’t like to say anything is wrong with anybody.

Well, the problem with that is, when you have, you know, foxes eating hens, kumbaya is a recipe for slaughter. And I believe right now we have a situation that is not just inequality or not just some people being left behind—all this passive language. We have a situation in which there are people who are hoarding the American dream for themselves, who are making sure that, year by year, when the rain of the future falls on us, very few people harvest most of the rainwater. And if you are running for president and you’re not willing to be against anybody, you’re not willing to tell us who you actually want to make less powerful in order for the greater good to be done, you may be a great president for another era, but I don’t think you’re a good fit for this one.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Anand Giridharadas, I want to thank you so much for being with us, editor-at-large at Time magazine, former correspondent for The New York Times, has a new book out. It’s Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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