Q&A: Anand Giridharadas

By 2015, Anand Giridharadas, then a columnist with the New York Times who had spent several years as a reporter in India, was growing increasingly uncomfortable with the divisions of wealth in America when he was asked to give a speech at the Aspen Institute, where he’d become a fellow. What he said that day shocked the room: The people of the Aspen Institute, who’d come together to do good, were actually the problem.

That germ of an idea turned into Giridharadas’ new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, an inside look at how efforts to improve the world can instead preserve the status quo. The book, his third, has become a bestseller, and Giridharadas has been traveling the country spreading his message, which he believes is an especially urgent one in the Trump era.

Anand Giridharadas. Photo by Thatcher Cook for PopTech

Born in Cleveland, Giridharadas has also lived in Paris, and studied at the University of Michigan, Oxford and Harvard. Like many of those he interviewed for his book, he worked briefly as a consultant for McKinsey, before becoming a journalist. His first articles at the New York Times, about money and politics, give a hint of where his interests would lead.

Q: Your book seems to have struck a nerve. Are you surprised?

A: I have been surprised and amazed and delighted.  I have found that a lot of those who operate in the hyper-elite spaces of our time, whether that means you work at Facebook or you’re a minor philanthropist of inherited wealth, who have come through this age of inequality, are aware that maybe the business mantra that all things would be solved through a little bit of philanthropy isn’t coming true. Perhaps the biggest surprise to me is how many of those people are willing to say, “OK, maybe this society is built on certain illusions right now that we need to strip away.”

I also I feel that Donald Trump has done this country an enormous service, because he has flamboyantly discredited 30 or 40 years of bad ideas in a very condensed period of history.

What do you mean, bad ideas?

The idea that rich people are especially valuable and wise and able to know what’s best for us all. The idea that the people who caused our problems should be put in charge of solving them. The idea that you can fight for the forgotten while enriching yourself at every turn. These are all ideas that have been running America for the last 30 or 40 years.

What Donald Trump has done is to boil these ideas down to their filthy essence and parade them for all the world to see. I don’t think we could have concocted a president better suited to discredit the age of market fundamentalism and billionaire salvation, and perhaps if we are wise and lucky, to catalyze the place we need to go from here, which is an age of reform in American life.

So you think Trump is a wake-up call?

If you are a very privileged person, you live, perhaps, in an impregnable fortress of your own assumptions. You perhaps imagine that fundamentally, capitalism as it’s practiced in America today is good, and the edges need to be sanded a little bit, but the system is good. I think Donald Trump has helped a lot of people, including rich and powerful people, to find out that they may be wrong, because it takes an earthquake like this to shake people’s moral foundations and philosophical intuitions.

Why did you start looking at this issue?

This book was a coming together of an observation and an experience. The observation was that America was going through a very peculiar kind of national decline. If you look at Spain or France or Britain, those are countries that have really declined across the board. They used to run large parts of the earth’s surface, and pretty much every sector of those societies is less powerful and influential than it used to be. America’s decline, such as we were talking about it in recent years, wasn’t like that. In other words, there was a part of America, the top 10 or 20 percent, which was not in decline at all. The America of Facebook and Google, Harvard and Yale and the Ford Foundation, and Goldman Sachs, and McKinsey, and many of these other leading institutions is in no way in decline.

But, a great many, perhaps most Americans were not living in that country anymore. They were living in a second-world country that was sort of in the middle of this first-world country. I became interested in this pattern of bifurcated decline.

The experience that I had was that I got called in to join the Fellowship at the Aspen Institute, which is devoted to helping business people paint on a bigger canvas, move from success to significance. I would go to the Aspen Ideas Festival, and you’ve got Pepsi and Monsanto sponsoring that. You think, “That’s a little weird.” I began to just feel a great unease. There were many among us in the Fellowship who whispered in the back of the room that something was not quite right. They asked me to give a speech about a book that I wrote about hate crimes, and I decided to give a different speech instead. I surprised the room with a speech about how all these rich and powerful people gathering in Aspen to make the world better might actually be the problem.

You say that rich people have taken over social change, and you’ve called that “fake change.” What do you mean?

When the rich and powerful step up, give back, get involved, chip in, they don’t just show up in the back row of social change. They don’t just usually write a check and slip out the back door. When the rich get involved in change they like to sit in the front row, they like to get on the board of directors of Change, Inc. They invariably end up taking leadership roles. They end up using their megaphones to pump into the discourse new terminology and concepts such as “scale” that displace an older language of power, justice and rights. In other words, they remake change in their image.

We all know that when you put people with a vested interest in things not changing in charge of change, we’re going get change lite, if any change at all. But somehow in recent years, we have actually started to believe that the people with the most to lose from changing the status quo should be the ones in charge of reforming it.

Why is that not good enough?

Fake change is change that doesn’t fundamentally change anything. I make a distinction between that and the kind of change that changes things at the level of the system, at the level of the root universally, and I call that “real change.”

If you think about public schools in this country, real change would be ending the manifest cruelty of funding public schools according to the homes in the neighborhood where the kids live. When the elites step into the education-reform area, they invariably don’t pursue the equalization of public school funding. They pursue “let’s build one charter school.” It’s fake change because it leaves undisturbed the thing that those very helpers have reason to know is the root of the problem.

I once heard an educator say, “I have nothing against charity, but it’s not a substitute for justice.” Would you agree with that? Or do you go further?

Generosity is not a substitute for justice. A lot of what happens in our time is generosity masquerading as justice. The problem is generosity is a win, win. Right? I can make my money at Goldman Sachs, live in Greenwich, hoard public school resources for my community and give a little back. I can stand on a mountain of injustice and seem generous to the world.

Often the way generosity is prosecuted is part of a system of avoiding justice. There’s a way in which the act of generosity is not just a drop in the bucket but aiding and abetting the maintenance of a system that is causing the very problem the help seeks to solve.

How has the culture of money that we’ve been immersed in for decades transformed the way we think about philanthropy?

We live in a culture in which the ideas and values of money have conquered every space so that everything has to justify itself in the language of money. Increasingly we have this problem of reclassifying social problems as market problems, so you have this idea of the win-win, which originates in market exchange in the accurate idea that if you have ice cream and I have money and we want to exchange those things, that actually is a win-win.

The problem is that the win-win notion has been skin-grafted onto the pursuit of social change, so that now if you’re interested in an issue like the empowerment of women, you’re told that that, too, needs to be done in the form of a win-win, which basically means that a lot of things are off the table. Social policy that would help women, that would empower women, but that would be expensive or that would impose burdens on the companies that employ women, or that would ask billionaires to pay more for daycare tax credits—those kind of things are off the table. Instead we’ll help women in a win-win way by telling them to “lean in,” which basically means telling them to solve sexism on their own dime.

So can capitalism be changed for the better?

It’s about making sure capital is not supreme, making sure it’s not the only thing at the top—dethroning it, not eliminating it. The easy response is to say, “Oh, this guy’s calling for the Soviet Union,” but I’m not. If you travel, you know that there’s actually a lot of different types of capitalism all around the world. Germany’s capitalist, France is capitalist, Norway’s got some capitalism going, Sweden’s got some capitalism going. Capitalism’s not the fundamental law of the land in all of those places, but none of those places are without a vigorous business sector. None of those places are without companies. None of those places are without investors.

The reality is many of them get much better outcomes when it comes to social indicators and the ability of average people to live a decent life, and we should be curious about that.

So what is your solution here? What should people who mean well and who have money, do?

We are on the cusp of an age of reform in American life, much as we had 100 years ago, where we are going to transition from an age defined by private wealth grabbing and philanthropy and rich people saving us, to an age defined by reformist crusades and the building of public infrastructure and the solving of our biggest shared problems together.

An age of reform may involve very serious wealth taxes and inheritance taxes, crackdowns on all the global maneuvering and tax avoidance. I believe in an America in which rich people frankly have less to give away. However, I’m also a realist and I understand that this money exists now, and many of those people want to do something good and not just buy a yacht, and I salute them for that.

I would say they should think about shifting their giving in two ways. It is possible also to give up, and when you do your giving, think about the kind of giving that puts your own privilege at risk—that actually reduces your power, not just your bank account.

The second is from crowding government out to crowding government in. Business people love to talk about scale. You know what has a lot of scale? The goddamn government.

What is the alternative if we don’t change?

There is plenty of evidence that we are sleepwalking into the lion’s den, and we have been warned. The question for us now is whether we’re willing to actually fix our society at the root for everybody and rebuild the American Dream for most people, because if we don’t, I’m not sure where this goes.

See all of Michelle Celarier’s monthly columns here.

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