The Global Elite’s Efforts to Change the World

Winners Take All, Anand Giridharadas
Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas Photo credit: Knopf and PopTech / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0

It is an accepted axiom of modern life that disruptive change is all around us. Almost every aspect of our lives has been altered irrevocably in recent years.

In this process there have been winners and losers, just as in every other great social upheaval. This time, however, the consequences have been even more profound, leading in large measure to the social dislocation, anger, and fear we see today.

Part of the reason is that the disrupters, who created so much of the change, and got rich doing it, now claim to be the only ones able to solve the problems they created. This, says Anand Giridharadas in his attention-grabbing new book, Winners Take All, is a little like the arsonist insisting on heading the fire brigade.

In this WhoWhatWhy podcast, Giridharadas explains to Jeff Schechtman the damage that has been caused over the past 30 to 40 years of citizens construing government as their enemy. In so doing, they have unwittingly undermined the very public institutions that have traditionally moderated and sometimes even democratized change.

What that means in practical terms, Giridharadas says, is that innovators are doing things in private that publicly we don’t know how to police.

Using cryptocurrency as an example, Giridharadas says, “We have no idea how to tax that stuff, we have no idea how to find that stuff. Look at all the ways in which wealthy people use tax havens and tax shelters…”

Giridharadas maintains that, for most of US history, democratic government and capitalism have worked together relatively successfully to create a thriving mixed economy built on a foundation of a strong democracy.

That collaboration has gone off the rails over the last few decades, he says. Now, in his words, we need to pivot from an age of “fake change” to an age of genuine reform, in which we rebuild our vital public institutions to be able to keep step with a changing world.

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the program. I’m Jeff Schechtman. It is an accepted axiom of modern life that disruptive change is all around us. Almost every aspect of our lives has felt some or all of this change. It’s equally true that what were once the traditional institutions of government and public policy, that moderated and even sometimes democratized that change, no longer exist. This too is part of the disruption. In this process, there have been winners and losers, just as there have been during every great social and scientific upheaval, the last, perhaps, being the industrial revolution over a century ago. This time, however, partly because of the nature of change, the speed of communication, the complexity of technology, globalism, and overall distrust, the consequences have been even more profound.
It’s all led to a large measure of social upheaval, anger, and fear that we see today. Perhaps the progenitors of change have been too young or too naïve to understand the consequences of their action, and those that did understand have been too blinded by greed. It’s a combination that has shaken the country to its very core, and which made Trump possible. We’re going to talk about this today with my guest, Anand Giridharadas. He was a foreign correspondent and columnist for the New York Times. He’s also written for the Atlantic, the New Republic, and the New Yorker. He’s an Aspen Institute Fellow and political analyst for MSNBC. He teaches journalism at NYU, and has received numerous awards and honors. It is my pleasure to welcome Anand Giridharadas to talk about his new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Anand, thanks so much for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Anand Giridharadas: It’s great to be back with you. It’s been seven years, and I’ve missed you.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s great to have you here, and certainly a lot has happened since. Two of the things that have happened, and I think arguably two of the underlying premises of Winners Take All, is that we have, first of all, outsourced change in some fundamental ways, and we have outsourced it to millionaires and billionaires, and that we’ve also outsourced philanthropy and problem-solving to the private sector, and that these two things have had, while well-meaning, a kind of corrosive effect. Talk about that first.
Anand Giridharadas: I often think about what has happened between wealthy corporations and individuals, government, and the rest of us with the following story. Imagine you’ve got a henhouse. Jeff, you and I are the henhouse. We are just hens in the henhouse, people trying to go about their lives, the American people. The henhouse had a guard for a very long time, and that was the government. When things went wrong, or someone needed to be protected from someone else, the guard did a reasonably good job. Certainly not perfect, certainly with flaws, but the guard protected the henhouse. In the last 30 or 40 years, an interesting thing happened. A fox came along and bit the guard in the leg. That fox is wealthy corporations and people who have discredited government for the last 30 or 40 years.
“Government is the problem. Government’s the enemy. Get government out of our lives. Let corporations play more and more of a role in our public life.” The fox bites the guard. The guard’s bleeding and stumbling away from the scene, and now the fox says to the hens, “Oh, this is such a shame. You have no guard, and you have all these problems. Maybe you should get me as your guard.” That is, I think, the story of how rich people have taken over social change and the changing of the world. We all know that metaphor, the fox in the henhouse, but I try to give it a back story, which is that the very people who got government out of our lives made government less effective, told us in our culture that government was an enemy instead of the common institutions we share to make life better for each other. Those people have now turned back on the scene and rebranded themselves as the firefighters of the arson they committed.
Jeff Schechtman: Another part of that, though, seems to be, beyond the mantra against government, which as you say, for 40 years has grown and grown and grown, is that that guard, to continue the metaphor, the guard has gotten kind of old, and the change, and all the things that have been going on, have happened at a faster and faster and faster pace, and the guard simply got so old that he couldn’t keep up.
Anand Giridharadas: I think there’s a truth in that, but I would say, given that this period has been the period of austerity and pulling back, and under-funding government, it’s hard to blame government for falling behind and not being able to keep up with the changes of the modern world when we’ve been assaulting and beating and kicking it the whole time. That said, I think you are right that even if we had not been bludgeoning government, this has been a brutal and head-spinning 30 or 40 years, just the kinds of change exactly like we had 100 years ago that have rewired our national economy and global economies.
Globalization, automation, the internet, the genetics revolution, just the rise of India and China alone, and the earthquakes that they’ve caused for everybody in the world, and on and on and on, and then just internal changes, racial and demographic change in this country, the rise of women over the last 30 or 40 years. We have been through a lot in the last 40 years, and I think it’s fair to say, you make a fair point, that our common institutions and our government has not kept up with the leading edge of change, and what that means in practical terms is, people are doing things privately in this society that publicly, we don’t really know how to police. Look any further than Mark Zuckerberg. Look at all these people with cryptocurrency. We have no idea how to tax that stuff. We have no idea how to find that stuff.
Look at all the ways in which wealthy people use tax havens and tax shelters, and the double Dutch with an Irish sandwich (sic), and other techniques to avoid paying taxes. A very large number of American corporations don’t pay corporate income tax in any given year. I think you could make a case that private endeavor and private striving has outstripped public capacity, and we are at a moment where we are ripe for a realignment. That’s one of the things I talk about in Winners Take All, is the need to pivot from an age of what I call fake change to an age of genuine reform, where we actually rebuild and restore our public institutions to be able to keep step with the world we now live in.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s interesting, because government, in many ways, has been like the old line companies that have been disrupted. I mean, what’s happened to government, in addition to the pushback against it, is like what happened to Kodak, or US Steel, or Ma Bell. The disruption has simply displaced those old line institutions, government being one of them.
Anand Giridharadas: I mean, I see what you’re getting at, but I think we don’t give government a lot of credit. There would be no Facebook if the government wasn’t doing a million unsung things to allow that to be possible. Do you understand how good the courts need to be, and how confident people need to be in contract enforcement, and how well the SEC needs to work, and the fact that these companies don’t have to worry about people going underground and cutting their fiber in the middle of the night? There’s a lot of things that actually work incredibly well in this society that allow all these private things to be possible, and what seems really ungrateful is when these private endeavors behave like prodigal children who grow up and have no gratitude for what was done and what is being done every day. It’s not dramatic, or flashy, or exciting, but that is the chassis on top of which a Goldman Sachs or a Facebook, or any of these other things, sits.
Jeff Schechtman: In many ways, it’s kind of an age-old battle between government and capitalism that we’re seeing play out.
Anand Giridharadas: Yes. Here’s how I frame it. I think democracy and capitalism, or government and capitalism, is a healthy adversarial relationship. When you’re in a courtroom, and you have an adversarial proceeding, hopefully you’re not going to kill the other person. You’re having an adversarial proceeding in a court, and the idea is you try to get to someplace that’s the optimal solution, and in different eras of our history, those two elements of democracy and capitalism have worked relatively more successfully together, and relatively less successfully together.
I think what happened in the last 30, 40 years is forces in the business world, and some people trace it to the Powell memo, by Lewis Powell when he was an advocate for business, before he went on the Supreme Court, but there was this move within the business world to depart from that tradition of what Jacob Hacker and others called the mixed economy, where you have thriving capitalism built on a foundation of a thriving democracy, and to actually start to develop a relationship of mutually assured destruction with democracy, and government suddenly was recast as not being the platform on which healthy and laudable private endeavor happened.
It became the enemy of healthy and laudable private endeavor, and you see that turn. I mean, the way Eisenhower talked about government was just very different than the way Ronald Reagan talked about it, and by the time you get to a Bill Clinton, you see that even in the Democratic Party, there had been a passive absorption, almost a secondhand smoke, of the idea that government’s not awful, in the case of a Democrat like Bill Clinton, but to be roused as infrequently as possible. I think part of what I wanted to understand in reporting this book over the last three years is, how is it that rich people have come to believe that they are the saviors from an age of inequality that they are also the architects of?
Jeff Schechtman: It also goes to the fundamental idea of what the changes have been, dramatic as they’ve been. In science and in technology, and in society in general, all of these changes have been pushed, in many ways, by individuals, by companies, and it’s a question of who actually is in charge of that change. Who’s responsible for it? Where did that change come from? There was a time when it came from government, and it even came from mass movements. That’s changed as well.
Anand Giridharadas: What I tried to do for Winners Take All is to spend time with people, elites who are attempting to change the world in this new way that has taken hold, which is this kind of top down, market-based, doing well by good do-gooding, and what I’ve found is that it’s often very decent people who are sincere about making a difference, who are trying to do the best they can, but when people of privilege and of means step into the work of change, they change change, and they redefine it. It’s not always conscious, but the winners of our age redefine change in ways that are unthreatening to them. On every issue that you and I could riff about here, you could imagine a thoroughgoing change that might be threatening to the winner’s interests, and you could imagine a like facsimile of change that would go easier on them. Let’s take the issue of empowering women.
In theory, a lot of people, and certainly almost all do-gooding elites, would tell you that they’re in favor of empowering women. “Let’s absolutely do that,” right? But if you look at the evidence, the evidence is that the thing that really empowers women in other countries, many European countries, is family policies. Maternity leave, it’s family leave, it’s childcare tax credits or universal day care, things that actually, at a universal level, make it easier for everybody to play all their roles, in a family, as a worker, whatever. Now, as you know, that’s going to be expensive for the winners of our time. That’s the kind of thing that costs billions and billions of dollars. What the winners do when they take over change, and shape the discourse around change, they don’t say, “Well, guess we can’t do anything about empowering women.” They kind of make a counter-offer, and the counter-offer they make is something that would seem to gesture at empowering women, but would not cost them anything.
Something like Lean In, and Lean In circles, or mentorship gatherings for women, become very fashionable and popular. Why? Because it’s a way of seeming like you are on the side of empowering women, but it’s free for the winners. You’re just basically telling women to solve the problem of their own shutting out. There was a really interesting piece the other day in Quartz Magazine that talks about the fact that much of the career advice that women receive is a form of gaslighting, if you really think about it, a form of psychological abuse, because it is telling women to smile more, lean in more, be more assertive. It’s telling women to solve as individuals problems that are actually the society’s imposing on them, and it’s trying to trick them into thinking these are personal flaws instead of systemic worries. That’s what I worry about when the winners take over change. They defang change because they don’t want its teeth to bite them.
Jeff Schechtman: How much of that, though, comes from a conscious decision to do exactly what you’re saying, to make sure that it doesn’t come back to bite them and create a backlash for them, and how much of it comes from the fact that given the world that these people live in, given the kind of management class that they are part of, that this is simply their natural instinct to solve problems in this way? That’s what they’ve been taught to do since the beginning.
Anand Giridharadas: Correct. I think that’s a very insightful question. I would say there’s a full spectrum, but I think it is absolutely true that a large number of the people that I reported on and spent time with, and tried to understand for this book, are, as you describe, they tend to solve problems this way because this is how they think about problems. When you’re privileged, you don’t tend to think about problems as being gross justice violations. You don’t tend to think about problems in terms of the language of power. You tend to think about problems more as engineering issues. “Turn up that dial. Turn down that dial. Maybe tighten that a little bit.” You tend to think about it as things with technocratic fixes, because you’re a technocrat. As one of the people I write about in the book, who works for George Soros, said, “You know, if everybody in the car speaks English, the solution is going to be in English.” The winners of our age, particularly those who grew out of the entrepreneurial and business world, have a common language in which they think about problems.
Those tend to not involve power and justice and the abuse of authority, but rather tweaking and fixing and scaling, and so simply by virtue of their intellectual orientation, some of this recasting of problems happens, or recasting of problems in a way that strips them of perpetration, strips them of anyone having ever done anything wrong, and actually turns them into these technocratic fixes that you can fix without hurting the winners. That said, there’s another end of the spectrum. I talk about this as the spectrum from naïve to shrewd. If the naives are just trying to do the best they can, but blindered a little bit, there are also absolutely lots of folks in this era, elites, who have figured out that you lubricate continued taking by giving, that you lubricate the opportunity to keep things the same by talking about change, that you lubricate the whole idea of wanting to siphon most of the gains of this economy for you and your friends by talking about impact, and social this, and social that.
I think if you spend time in the canyons of Wall Street, you’ll probably find a little bit more of the latter thing, of people are pretty straightforwardly motivated by greed, but understand that some amount of gesturing towards change talk helps the greed machine keep going smoothly. Again, this is a little bit of a stereotype, but if you go out to Silicon Valley, it does usually feel to me quite different. I don’t usually feel that I’m dealing with simple greed. I feel I’m dealing with people who are often quite sincere in their desire to make the world a better place, and are maniacal and utterly blind to anybody’s vision but their own, and therefore will not be questioned by journalists, will not be deterred by government, will not be allow the public good to enter into their calculations, because they are so confident that simply by being left alone in a cave, they’re going to make the world a better place.
Jeff Schechtman: How is that different from previous generations of elites, those that may have been the moneyed class in the past? The Rockefellers, families that grew up with money, that were second, third, fourth generation, how is that different from the elites we see today that, in many cases, particularly if we talk about Silicon Valley, didn’t start out as elites, they started out as rebels? They started out as going against the status quo, against big institutions. They became millionaires and billionaires, and then they took on this elite attitude.
Anand Giridharadas: It’s a great question. When I think about the winners of the age that I have spent time writing about, I would say there’s one important element of continuity with the past, and one important element of change that I would highlight. The continuity is that the people on top of a social order are not necessarily your best choice for reformers. In some ways, that’s an obvious idea, but it’s clearly not obvious enough, because every charter school has super rich people on the board of it, trying to think about how poor kids should be educated, but I think it is the normal reflex of people with a lot to lose to be self-preservational, and it is the normal reflex of people who are on top of a social order to not want it to be changed, and so in some ways, the argument I’m making is these people aren’t special.
They’re normal rich people, and that’s fine. Power to them, but we should not be endowing them or imagining in them some special power to fight for others, because they’re just rich people protecting themselves, which is what rich people do. If you think about … I don’t know if you watch the show, but Downton Abbey, that world of feudal landed gentry in England, or any number of other period movies you can think about, those aren’t bad people. The Lord and Lady Grantham figure, they aren’t bad people. They’re very nice people. They’re not ungenerous. Whenever you’d have an episode where a serf on the edge of the manor rents the land, or has the land and farms the land, would have a problem, they would help out, or they’d be understanding, or whatever. They were nice people.
They were generous, but they would never support any effort to change the power structure of where they lived so that they wouldn’t be the people with all the land, and all these people wouldn’t be renting space on their farm. In other words, they were willing to help people in any way possible, except by risking the entire social order that kept them being Lord and Lady Grantham. All I’m saying in this book is that that’s a normal reflex for rich people, and we shouldn’t at all trust rich people to be the revolutionaries against the social order that is everything they value. What I do think is new in our time, the discontinuity, is I think an idea has taken hold in our time that actually innovates on, and almost turns upside down, the whole Adam Smith theory of the invisible hand, and trickle-down, which flowed from that, which is that leave rich people alone, because if they just “do them,” positive benefits will flow down to society.
That’s kind of been the paradigm since the early urban commercial societies of Europe, in Adam Smith’s theories and others’. I think we are actually living in the middle of a new theory that is not that theory, that actually goes further and says, “No, rich people should not just ‘do them,’ and build their coal factory and buy their yachts, and we’ll just benefit incidentally. No, rich people are so good at life, they are so good at making decisions, they’re so good at thinking, they’re so good at evaluating information, they’re so amazing with those spreadsheets, their PowerPoint skills are so top-notch, that they should actually assume control of the reform of the world.” They have this book a few years ago, in 2008, 10 years ago, right as the financial crisis was gathering steam, called Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World.
I write in the book, “A lot of people would be forgiven that month for thinking the rich were ruining the world,” but this book made a case. It wasn’t the trickle-down, Adam Smith, invisible hand case. It wasn’t just like, “Leave them alone and good things will happen.” It was like, “These people are hyper-agents,” the book called them. “These people are specially capable of fixing education, fixing social mobility,” and that is the interesting idea that has happened in our time that I think is just devastatingly wrong. Not only the idea of trickle-down has been hugely discredited. The idea that letting these people roam free would help us all clearly didn’t happen, and now it’s like we’ve doubled down on it and said, “Now, actually we believe that putting the people with the most to lose from change in charge of change, is the only way to make change.” It’s one of the most preposterous and successful ideas of the modern world.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s a function of elitist education, and this idea of the managerial class, I suppose, that we talked about earlier.
Anand Giridharadas: It is. I started the book not with a plutocrat, but with a young woman in her senior year at Georgetown, making her decisions about what to do in life, because that’s where it all starts, right? It’s when you’re 21 or 22, you have talent, you have this education. Which way do you go? How do you invest the life? I talked about how this woman, like so many young people today that I meet on campuses, that I’m sure you meet, want to change the world, want to make a difference. That’s a really dominant striving in their imagination, and yet, what happens to Hilary Cohen over the course of four years at Georgetown, and particularly that final year, is she gets sucked in by this story that if you really want to change the world, not help 20 people or 30 people, you really want to make real change, transformational change, you want to change the lives of millions of people? Well, you got to work at McKinsey or Goldman Sachs first.
Some of your listeners may think, “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” but this idea has totally dominated, and come to dominate, the campus culture, and the recruitment culture, and the internship culture, on many elite college campuses, such that Hilary Cohen eventually felt like if she didn’t go to a place like Goldman or McKinsey … She had an internship at Goldman, and eventually she went to work at McKinsey. She felt that if she didn’t do that, she would almost be shortchanging these people she wanted to help in her life down the road, because she wouldn’t have the chops to help them. You’re absolutely right that a part of how the age of extreme inequality has been sustained and upheld is through the co-opting of young people full of idealism, and their drafting into a management track instead of a social justice track, an activist track.
Hilary Cohen could have gone to law school and filed lawsuits against things. She could have devoted herself to getting 10 million people registered to vote who aren’t currently voting. She could have worked on any of a number of issues that, in my view, are all very valuable to the kind of society we have. The fact that she was pulled in that particular way, and that so many others like her have … In some years, half of the graduates at these elite colleges go to banks, consulting firms, and a couple Silicon Valley employers … is a major part of how we have upheld this extreme inequality, and this age, frankly, of unsustainable rollicking anger.
Jeff Schechtman: Given that history tells us that power never cedes itself easily, and given how entrenched this elite power is that we’ve been talking about, why is there any reason to think that anything short of real revolution will change this?
Anand Giridharadas: Well, it depends how you define revolution. I mean, I certainly hope we don’t need to have violence in our streets to get a more just society. The reality is, what it would take to do a lot of this is not crazy, and it’s not rocket science. It just requires a willingness to do it, and I think we need a political revolution in this country. We don’t need a violent revolution, but we probably do need a political revolution. Getting the money out of politics would be a political revolution. Frankly, reining in the philanthropic world because you actually end up having companies forced to pay people properly, and forced to submit to regulation, and forced to pay their taxes so that they don’t have billions and billions and billions of dollars to give away after fleecing the society and causing social problems, that would be a political revolution.
I think thinking about ways to allow and help young people pursue public service and the public good rather than have to work in the private sector, thinking about how to maybe forgive their tuition if they do public serving work or things like that, that would be, frankly, a revolution, if we could reorient how young people invest their talents in a big way. Actually figuring out how to empower women and families to not face grueling choices between their professional ambitions and dreams and their desire to grow families, that would be a political revolution. But also, none of those things that I describe, none of them are absent from the world. You could find one or more or 10 or 20 societies in the world that do most of the things I just mentioned. I think what we have to decide is, do we want to continue … We’re not on a good path. Does anybody in America think we’re on a good path? The people who voted for Donald Trump clearly didn’t think we’re on a good path. That’s why they voted for Donald Trump.
The people who didn’t vote for Donald Trump clearly don’t think we’re on a good path because Donald Trump’s our president. So we kind of agree that things are not going well, and when things are not going well, you have to be bolder, and you have to work harder to think about what change is, but also, you have to be learning to look within. I wrote this book because I partly want to convince the general public to stop letting billionaires change the world for you, but I also wrote it because I believe elites can be better, and I believe that many people, a sizable minority, in my experience, of people within these elite circles know that they are standing on a house of cards, and they want to figure out how to get to a different place. And I actually feel quite confident that President Trump, in my mind, is not the first we have seen of fake change. To me, President Trump is a culmination of a generation of fake change, and my hope is that the end of the Trump presidency will also be the end of the era of fake change, and the spark of an age of genuine reform.
Jeff Schechtman: Anand Giridharadas. His book is Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Anand, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Anand Giridharadas: Thank you, and see you in seven years.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you, and thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast, and all the work we do, by going to

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