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September 7, 2018

Editor's Choice: Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 10:00 AM – Filed under: Big Ideas & New Perspectives, Current Events & Public Affairs

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Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas, Knopf, 304 pages, Hardcover, August 2018, ISBN 9780451493248

Taiwanese electronics manufacturing giant Foxconn announced last week that it would be donating $100 million to the University of Wisconsin. There are a few conditions—perhaps catches—to their generosity. “To receive the full $100 million from Foxconn,” reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “UW must raise another $100 million in private gifts over the next two years as part of a broader, $3.2 billion fundraising campaign dubbed All Ways Forward.”

Meanwhile, Foxconn itself is currently slated to receive $4.1 billion in public subsidies from the state of Wisconsin and other local municipalities in exchange for building a factory in the southeastern portion of the state. It is, as the Guardian stated bluntly, “the latest giveaway in a series of corporate welfare cheques cut for highly profitable tech companies and the largest to a foreign firm ever in the US.”

The exponential increase in corporate welfare (at a time that social welfare programs are continuously under attack) bespeaks a larger shift in society toward private approaches to the public good, and of “the business world’s growing influence over social change.”  Rather than funding higher education to a greater degree, our state government thought it better to funnel public money to a large corporation that could partner with the university to develop the new technologies it can then put to use back in its factory to create jobs. This kind of arrangement is an embodiment of what Anand Giridharadas, in his new book Winners Take All, calls a “MarketWorld” approach. In MarketWorld, the currently ascendant values of the marketplace have become seen as analogous with American values. The public, democratic approach to change has come to be seen as less effective than the power of business to solve our socio-economic problems, than the plutocrats and the charities they endow to help those left behind by technological, business progress.

This is also not an entirely new idea or development. Giridharadas writes of the history of charitable giving and philanthropy, and how it took on a new, uniquely American character as the so-called “robber barons” accumulated and concentrated wealth in their gilded age. Whereas “[a] marked feature of American giving before the age of big philanthropy was the helping of the many by the many,” of citizens pooling together resources in associations and mutual benefit societies, the concentration of wealth in the gilded age led to individual fortunes so great that they couldn’t be given away fast enough. Criticism focused on how the new philanthropy not only laundered cruelly earned money but also converted it into influence over a democratic society. In fact, President Theodore Roosevelt chastised their efforts, saying, “No amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate for the misconduct in acquiring them.”

MarketWorld’s version of social change promises not only the self-preservation of those at the top, but self-aggrandizement. It embodies a belief that one can address societal ills while preserving the system that brought them about, the system on which their great individual wealth was built. Rather than allowing workers to organize or paying them a fair wage, people like Andrew Carnegie persuaded us that progress could only result from allowing individuals like him, individuals with a special talent in business, to accumulate as much wealth as they could, and then dispense the excess to social causes, to open libraries and museums, hospital wings and university centers.

Giridharadas argues that MarketWorld’s new version of this win-win-ism is actually more dangerous than the older theory of social Darwinism and Adam Smith’s idea of “the invisible hand” that posited that self interest and free markets would lead to benefits for all.

 

The old idea merely implies that capitalists should not be excessively regulated, lest the by-products of their greed not reach the poor. The new idea goes further, in suggesting that capitalists are more capable than any government could be of solving underdogs’ problems.

 

But there are some in MarketWorld, like Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation, that offer a different view. He echoes Martin Luther King’s “call to laud philanthropy while not ignoring ‘the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.’”

This type of nuanced awareness is especially important today, because while Roosevelt and the policies of the progressive era evened out the gilded age’s inequality, income disparity has coming roaring back. Giridharadas writes:

 

A successful society is a progress machine. It takes in the raw material of innovations and produces broad human advancement. America’s machine is broken. When the fruits of change have fallen on the United States in recent decades, the very fortunate have basketed almost all of them. For instance, the average pretax income of the top tenth of Americans has doubled since 1980, that of the top 1 percent has more than tripled, and that of the top 0.001 percent has risen more than sevenfold—even as the average pretax income of the bottom half of Americans has stayed almost precisely the same.

 

The common outlook in MarketWorld today is that the U.S. government, “arguably the most powerful institution in human history,” is incapable of solving the very socio-economic fall-out its policies created. 

 

Building a continental highway network or waging a New Deal was easy, according to this view. But today’s problems were too hard for the government.

 

A perfect example of this specious way of thinking is former chairman and chief executive of Citigroup turned donor Sanford Weill, who expressed the belief that rich individuals like him had to step up because the government isn’t up to the task—that it’s too broke and incompetent to address these challenges. Of course, that same government was not too broke or too incompetent when, in 2008, it bailed out CitiGroup and other “too big too fail banks” to save the economy from almost certain collapse. As documented in Borrowed Time, Citigroup itself received $45 billion in such assistance. Meanwhile, Big Pharma has made large swaths of the country Dopesick, and the tech giants that sit atop the economy are turning into virtual Silicon States that are encroaching even more upon the public domain.

 

Nowhere is the idea of entrepreneurship-as-humanitarianism more entrenched than in Silicon Valley, where company founders regularly speak of themselves as liberators of mankind and of their technologies as intrinsically utopian.

 

Rather than changing the way business is done, and who its benefits accrue to, we live in a cult of entrepreneurship, rabid in our belief that starting a business is the best way to change the world for the better. All while the treatment and position of the employee, the individual, improves very little. We see this lack of true progress every day in news stories celebrating Jeff Bezos' extreme wealth and his occasional philanthropy contrasted with investigations revealing the physically demanding and often dangerous conditions of Amazon employees.

 

The new barons of technology were the Rockefellers and Carnegies of our time, amassing giant fortunes, building the infrastructure of a new age, and often claiming to operate in the service of civilization itself. … Yet there was no denying that … these technologists were also partly responsible for prying inequality as unsustainably wide as it had gotten.

 

Giridharadas also exposes the way in which Silicon Valley VCs and entrepreneurs have become treated like modern day gurus, “their commercial utterances treated like ideas,” spinning their way toward greater wealth by justifying their tactics for excluding employees from profiting from their successes.

 

For example, a baron wishing to withhold benefits from workers might reframe that desire as a prediction about a future in which every human being is a solo entrepreneur. A social media billionaire keen to profit from the higher advertising revenue that video posts draw, compared to text ones, might recast that interest—and his rewriting of the powerful algorithms he owns to get what he wants—as a prediction that “I just think that we’re going to be in a world a few years from now where the vast majority of the content that people consume online will be video.” (New York magazine skewered Mr. Zuckerberg after he issues that prediction at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona: “The Vast Majority of Web Content Will Be Video, Says Man Who Can Unilaterally Make Such a Decision.”)

 

And it gets more serious the higher their ambitions get. For instance, a lot of the super wealthy in Silicon Valley are working on “the problem” of death—in my mind a feature, not a bug—and human longevity. But who will benefit from such innovations?

 

Longer lives for rich people were just something that happened to be coming down the pipe. Not so much a better health care system for all.

 

The technologies themselves are not “inherently feudal nor inherently democratic” Giridharadas says, and offers one of the digital pamphlets at a meeting on “platform cooperativism” at the Goethe Institute in New York to illustrate:

 

For all the wonders the Internet brings us, it is dominated by an economics of monopoly, extraction, and surveillance. Ordinary users retain little control over their personal data, and the digital workplace is creeping into every corner of workers’ lives. Online platforms often exploit and exacerbate existing inequalities in society, even while promising to be the great equalizers. Could the Internet be owned and governed differently?

 

“To talk like this,” asserts Giridharadas, “is to flirt with the actual, and not rhetorical, changing of the world.” But rarely in the way we are told our lives might benefit.

It’s not just business leaders and millionaires involved in the currently ascendant realm of thought leadership that the author takes to task. The interrogation of who is responsible for change falls also in the territory of the considerate, critically-thinking scholars and journalists whose books we, 800-CEO-READ, sell and promote time and time again. That is why the most challenging, and mind-changing, chapter is that on “The Critic and the Thought Leader.” Giridharadasis' analysis is critical of many of our friends, which is exactly why I hope Winners Take All is read widely by them.

There has been, as Giridharadas sees it, a slow drift from the public intellectual who challenged power structures in society to that of private thought leaders who benefit from it because of the large sums of money they make speaking to corporations and writing books for those same audiences. Giridharadas challenges the echo chamber of thought leadership, taking on the likes of Adam Grant, Charles Duhigg, Simon Sinek, and many others.

Charles Duhigg, a New York Times investigative reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for revealing Apple’s “business tricks for managing foreign plants, paying and dodging taxes, and claiming patents,” now writes books about how businesses and individuals can make the world a better place because, in his words, “nobody wants to read a book about how much things suck, right?”

Giridharadas also questions Sinek, and then interrogates the answer for us:

 

The world of ideas “is just another industry,” he said after a moment. “There’s good product, and there’s bad product.” The question is whether a republic can thrive when ideas are thought of as an industry, and the prevailing incentives so heavily favor bad product. Is this how we want ideas to be generated? And are the elites who embrace and sponsor such ideas the people we want arranging out future?  

 

Amy Cuddy offers a particularly open and honest glimpse into the dilemma of responsibility. Cuddy is a feminist scholar who had been studying structural, systemic issues for twenty years, but found widespread appeal only when she changed her focus to the self-empowerment of the individual through physical power poses rather than addressing inequality systemically in the workplace. Cuddy grapples with these hard questions in an intellectual and sincere way, and is a great guide to the conflict of whether to effect a larger change by reaching the larger audiences MarketWorld offers, or challenge that world with more nuance and lose the audience. Giridharadas asks us to consider,

 

What happens to a society when there is not one Amy Cuddy but thousands of thought leaders, each making their private bargains, pulling punches in order to be asked back, abiding certain silences? What is the cumulative effect of all of these omissions?

 

As our politics have become more a spectator sport than participatory process, conferences like TED have “turned thought leaders into our most heard philosophers,” and “put many on the payroll of companies and plutocrats as their means of making a living.” And Giridharadas is not immune to such criticism himself. He has “given not one, but two TED talks.” He worked at McKinsey, and was named a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute. But he, like Darren Walker, found himself questioning the ethos of MarketWorld even as he participated in it.

 

Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation has broken what in his circles were important taboos: Inspire the rich to do more good, but never ever tell them to do less harm; inspire them to give back, but never, ever tell them to take less; inspire them to join the solution, but never, ever accuse them of being part of the problem.

 

Giridharadas uses the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, who we met in Dopesick, to embody the problem. “In the hubs of power and influence in America and around the world,” writes the author, “it was difficult to avoid the generous legacy of the Sacklers.” Meanwhile, their fortune was made to a large extent recently on the sales of OxyContin, which is credited with beginning the modern opioid epidemic.

 

The august institutions that benefited from the Sackler’s largesse have shown little interest in demanding that they atone for the role they might have played in fomenting a national crisis. The generosity tended to be in places where influential people gathered, whereas the injustice tended to happen out of view, in places like McDowell County, [West Virginia] whose storytelling apparatus had little chance of competing with a headline about a gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The generosity was in the millions; the injustice had helped build a $14 billion fortune. According to the New Yorker, “two hundred thousand Americans have died from overdoses related to OxyContin and other prescription opioids” since 1999.

 

“Generosity,” he writes, “is not the same as justice.”

And that is a statement, and a measuring rod, we all can and should carry forward from this book. As I do, I turn my attention back to my own state of Wisconsin, and wonder. What if, instead of giving $4.1 billion of public money to a private multinational corporation, we funded our public universities more generously, supporting something like UW’s All Ways Forward campaign?

Our current governor, Scott Walker, rose to power in part by promising he’d refuse the subsidies the federal government would provide to build a high-speed rail service between Milwaukee and Madison. He would later opt out of expanding Medicare in Wisconsin as a part of the Affordable Care Act, and the federal funds that would have come with that. The idea that public funds for public benefit like infrastructure and health care are a waste of taxpayer dollars, while spending $4.1 billion in those same taxpayer dollars to lure a company with a history of questionable labor practices that makes a product that helps keep us addicted to the screens they manufacture, is the MarketWorld ethos gone mad. This in a state that pioneered many of the good governance principles that were exported to the rest of the country.

I believe that helping businesses do better by their customers and communities—and even the world—is unquestionably a good goal, for the very fact that the world is dominated by big business and corporate interests, even if the effort is done in a way that insures financial profit. I also believe the Charles Duhiggs and Amy Cuddys of the world are helping make that happen, and analysts such as Anand Giridharadas can help them consider all aspects of their influence. But, I more believe, as Ayanna Pressley recently stated in her campaign for Congress, “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.” Right now, the people in pain couldn't be further away from power, and that disparity needs to be part of the conversation and the solution.

Regardless of the work we do, we are all citizens involved in an ongoing experiment in self-governance, and that is the most important work of all. I hope we can find a way to make that happen. Applying a critical eye to MarketWorld and its benefactors and beneficiaries, as Giridharadas has done with Winners Take All, is an important step to exposing the circuitous ways that money and the people who have it get to define and feed ‘the system’ while also creating an illusion of equality or benefit when in truth the system itself is gravely suspect.

 


 

About Dylan Schleicher


Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books, and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.