Author Anand Giridharadas Brings His Research on America’s Extreme Wealth and Inequality to Southside Commons

by Carolyn Bick

Anand Giridharadas is a former New York Times foreign correspondent, but his newest book, Winners Take All, isn’t based on what he witnessed in other countries. It’s based on what he’s seen right here in the United States. The book examines our current understanding of philanthropy, in which the nation’s wealthiest give money to mitigate the problems they help to create.

Giridharadas will be speaking about his book at Southside Commons Sept. 20.

(This interview was edited for length and clarity)

Carolyn Bick: Tell us a little bit about what your book focuses on and why you decided to write it in the first place. Did your experiences as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times factor into it?

Anand Giridharadas: No, I think the book was really driven by my experiences observing America in the wake of the Great Recession, and an age of extreme inequality, and trying to make sense of … a very maddening puzzle, which is, how is it that we live in an age of extraordinary generosity and billionaire-giving and social enterprises, and impact investment funds and tote bags that give back, and young people that want to move to Africa after college to change the world, and yet an age that has been so punishing for the middle and working classes in America –– perhaps as punishing as we have seen since the 1930s.

I wanted to show the connection between that elite social concern and the elite predation I saw in maintaining a system that harvests most of the reign of the future [and] pipes it to the one percent, pipes it to the elite. And what I discovered was the conventional wrath against some of the this do-gooding is simply that it’s not enough, that it’s a drop in the bucket. But what I found as I did the reporting … in these rooms where it happens, where rich people figure out how they want to make change is that they … seek to give in ways that protect their ability to keep taking. They seek to make a difference in ways that assure their right to keep making a killing. They seek to change the world in ways that avoid their world having to change. And what’s that’s resulted in is that they have assumed more and more power over social change, and they have privatized social change. It’s a discourse and a practice of social change that is severely delimited, and delimited because of what elites use their power to rule out.

CB: But what specifically – was there one instant … or one, ‘Ah ha!’, lightbulb moment, when you decided you wanted to work on this book?

AG: This book originated in a speech I gave, so that was “the moment,” although the intention was not to write a book at the time. I was part of this fellowship at the Aspen Institute that’s mostly for business people trying to learn how to make a bigger difference, but they let a few other people in, and I was one of those other people. At some point, they asked me to give a speech, and I said yes, and sort of surprised this room of very wealthy and powerful people by giving a speech a little different than what they expected –– a speech that was actually about the worldview of the room, and how all these folks thought they were making a big difference, and thought they were changing the world, but, in fact, in my view were perhaps upholding a system that was morally insensible.

There was a video of it, and it went out there, and it had this crazy life online for a few days, as often happens, and I had no plans to write a book about it, but the reaction by the public kind of pushed me in that direction. What happened was people started sending me … the craziest, most interesting and touching testimonies from around the world. People saying, “I’m stuck in these systems,” … “I worked for this company or that company, and my personal views about what’s wrong with the world kind of conflict with what I have to say in my work. What do I do?”

And, of course, I’m not an advisor. I had no idea what they should do. But I realized that we were living in an age where a lot of these elite do-gooders are not just part of shoring up a bad system, but are actually aware that they are, and are hugely conflicted about it inside, and have no place to talk about it. And that’s the kind of thing that as a writer I felt I could illuminate, and unpack, and parse, and make sense of.

CB: Since I’m in Seattle, where you’ll soon be, let’s use Amazon’s head, Jeff Bezos, as an example. On the one hand, the guy makes money hand over fist, and is the wealthiest person in modern history, yet some Amazon workers don’t make a living wage for the city, never mind receive benefits. Some of them are even on food stamps. On the other hand, earlier this year, he announced he’s donating $33 million for 1,000 Dreamers to go to college. [Since this interview, Jeff Bezos also committed $2 billion to support organizations housing homeless people and preschools educating children from low-income families.] How does this sort of charity perpetuate the problems you talk about in your book?

AG: I think to understand Bezos or Gates or Zuckerberg or Elon Musk or Goldman Sachs or Pepsi’s social corporate responsibility department –– any of these things –– you actually have to go back to the founding charter of American philanthropy, which is Andrew Carnegie’s tract called “Wealth,” which became known as “The Gospel of Wealth.”

That one document has played such a role in shaping how people think, both about making money, and giving money back, and it did so in the following way: he argued in a way that was somewhat novel at the time, for, basically, the businessman to live a life of extreme taking followed by extreme giving. Take as much as you can, give as much as you can. Don’t pay your workers, if you don’t have to –– pay them as little as you have to, I should say. … Bust unions, if you have to. Don’t give an inch, when it comes to the kinds of demands … that would cost your profits. But then, he argued, in a way that was quite radical, also, that the way that that wealth those profits earned you was not even really yours. … You were just the trustee of that wealth, and you had to disburse it to society’s benefit.

This has become incredibly influential, the idea that, as I see it, that ruthlessness in business is justified by ex post facto giving. One of the challenges today is that a lot more people have taken Carnegie literally, when it comes to extreme taking, than taken him literally, when it comes to extreme giving. I actually don’t think there’s that many rich people today who follow the extreme giving part.

I don’t think we have a problem of individual people who are … greedy and treat workers badly. I think we have a systemic problem, and a cultural problem, and a values problem, of a model of wealth creation and philanthropy that is based on this Carnegie notion of screw your workers, and then build a library for them.

I think there is a reckoning starting to happen, for several reasons. One, the taking is on a scale far, far, far greater than the giving ever becomes. And if you’re the Sacklers [the family that founded the pharmaceutical company that developed Oxycotin], you helped create the opioid crisis. You are hurting people in the millions, essentially. And even if you give to a lot of art museums, it’s just hard to imagine catching up to the sin. So there’s the very basic problem of math.

But there’s also just the problem of contradiction, the problem of causing the problems you later seek to solve.

Then there’s the kind of democratic problem, where you’re weakening the state both ways. First, you’re doing the extreme taking, and what that requires is that you tell the government to get off your back. … In order to do that extreme taking, you’ve got to be left alone, laissez faire, so you get the government off your back, thwart regulation, and all of that. And then, having done that, look what happens. You’ve got a lot of wealth. The public has a lot of social problems, because workers have been underpaid, and not well-treated, and whatever, and government is weak, because you’ve persuaded it to get out of the way, or, perhaps pushed for low taxes. … And then, lo and behold, you come in and say, “I have enough money to solve these problems, because the government doesn’t have enough money to solve them.” And you step in, and assert even more power over public life by now solving the problems you helped to created.

Even if you were able, which is never the case, to go back philanthropically, and solve those problems … the problem still is that in both causing those problems and pushing government away and then in going and solve them –– each of those would be an act of asserting power over democratic life that, frankly, gives you way more votes than one person, one vote.

Rich people giving back tends to come back as an unelected fourth branch of government. And in that fourth branch of government, none of us vote, except the plutocrats. And more and more of our public choices, like what are our public schools like, how do we empower women, how do we give workers job security in the 21st century –– we’ve pushed more and more of our issues that we can’t resolve among the three branches of government … to this fourth branch of government.

CB: I noticed you chose to interview renowned economist Dani Rodrik. I have been reading some of his publications – I loved his Boston Review piece on our current concept of neoliberalism, a piece that, as I am sure you know, touches on some of the same concepts as your book when it comes to market solutions over community solutions – but he’s the only economist directly interviewed in the book, and his interview is a brief one. Why didn’t you talk with other economists?

AG: I have no particular need to talk to economists. … I actually think the economist worldview is heavily over-represented in our discourse. I think Dani is useful, because he actually does not think like an economist. He actually understands human beings and societies in a way many, many economists have failed to, and part of what I was trying to do in this book was push back against the economistic worldview that has driven a lot of this misfortune of our age.

The people I mostly talked to for this book were not experts commenting the world, like Dani. I brought Dani in for a very specific purpose. I was actually trying to embed myself with the protagonists of this kind of elite social change, and see the world from their eyes.

I think there are plenty of books out there that are full of grand, airy opinions about why we are in the world we are in, and my technique in all of my books has been to really zoom in and understand how human beings live in the big force of our age, and endure change, and make change. I wanted to understand this moment we are in, from this age of extreme inequality, to the Trump era, through this kind of period of fake change, and perhaps this age of reform that is coming, through the eyes of human beings grappling with their conflicts and dilemmas, and efforts to build a better world, while also being flawed human beings with needs and rationalizations and blind spots.

CB: What’s the biggest challenge standing in the way of shifting society’s view of what charitable giving and improving others’ lives should look like?

AG: I think we need to change where we go as a society to change the world, and that means something actually very simple, which is the next time you or me or any of your readers sees a public problem, sees something that is not right … something that is not working right in the society –– next time you see that, seek a solution that is public, democratic, and institutional. Don’t just seek a solution that is a private workaround. Seek something that actually works at the level of the system, at the root, to make things better for everybody.

That mentality, I think, if it is played out, in the world that I would want to live in, young people will make career choices differently, I think society will make choices differently around how we tax and spend. I think those who do have money and are giving it away … could make choices about ways to give which erodes the bad system, instead of defend it. I think there is a lot that all of us can do.

The one thing I think that 80 percent of Americans might agree on is that this society is not working in some very fundamental way, and the society feels rigged to most people, and I think we have learned from the utter depravity of the Trump presidency that when we don’t tend to our common institutions, and when we don’t bother to make sure most people feel that they are able to create a better life for themselves and their family, they will lash out in ways that ruin the parties for everybody.

I think we live in an age of a thousand generous initiatives, but that isn’t enough. It hasn’t stopped us from living in an age of extreme inequality. It hasn’t stopped the rise of Donald Trump. It hasn’t stopped the anger at the rise of populism all around the world. Its hasn’t made globalization work for most people. It hasn’t made trade work for most people in America. It hasn’t created social mobility –– in fact, social mobility has gone down. It hasn’t allowed blessings of the future actually fall to most Americans.

I would say this generosity as a solution to problems of most Americans has been thoroughly discredited by the facts of the age, and now it’s time to think about doing what we did 100 years ago in a similar age –– where private endeavor and private generosity was abundant, but our underlying systems were not so developed –– which is to have an age of reform, where we let the private endeavoring go on, but let our primary energy as society be to build the institutions and systems and laws to keep pace with the modern world, the modern realities … and actually provide a set of rules for the road, and a common minimum existence for people, and a common life that is worthy of a great country.

Featured Image courtesy Town Hall Seattle.