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QUESTIONING THE KINGS

Here’s what’s wrong with letting wealthy people solve the world’s problems

Anand Giridharadas.
Reuters/Sergio Flores
Did we invite that guy?
  • Ephrat Livni
By Ephrat Livni

Senior reporter, law & politics, DC.

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Giving money to charity sounds like a pretty good, simple, unimpeachable proposition. But it’s not. Philanthropy is rich with moral contradictions, as Anand Giridharadas explains in his bestselling 2018 book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

The good deeds of the wealthy, the Time magazine editor-at-large argues, are sometimes made possible by ill-gotten gains in the marketplace. So charitable giving often only distracts us from considering the true mission of most businesses, which is to maximize profits at whatever cost to society. 

Take, for example, the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, maker of the opioid OxyContin. The Sacklers have long been known for their generous funding of numerous cultural institutions around the world. But recently, their legacy of generosity has been eroded by accusations that Purdue Pharma played a role in fueling the American opioid epidemic. On March 26, the family trust announced it would halt all giving after the National Portrait Gallery and Tate galleries in London, as well as the Guggenheim Museum in New York, said they would no longer take its donations.

That’s as it should be, in Giridharadas’s view: The company’s profits ought not be used to shore up the family’s good name.

In an interview in late March, Giridharadas tells me that while much giving does genuine good, in certain cases, we’d be better off societally if some of the wealthy, like the Sacklers for example, didn’t give their money away and simply bought up all the yachts, say. Then, at least, we’d stop believing in the myth that businesses are working in the public interest, and that corporations can be “change makers” who do well by doing good. And maybe justice would come faster because we wouldn’t be blinded by their alleged kindness.

It’s a myth that Giridharadas once believed, too. He admits that it took him years to realize what was wrong with the culture’s loving embrace of corporations and their language, and that he is implicated in the accusations he makes. It took him gaining access to an elite inner circle of very rich people who want to change the world with business solutions, bonding and becoming friends with them, to truly understand the perversity of our predicament.

The project

In 2011, Giridharadas was awarded a Henry Crown Fellowship at the prestigious Aspen Institute. The program, named after Chicago billionaire industrialist and philanthropist Henry Crown, chooses a class of about 20 “entrepreneurial leaders” for the fellowship each year, promising to help them brainstorm solutions to improve the world.

Giridharadas is a writer, not an entrepreneur. But he was curious and accepted the opportunity. For a time, he marveled at the chance to cultivate a “moral education” alongside promising businesspeople with good intentions, and to sometimes fly in their private jets. They met in Colorado and read Plato, Martin Luther King, and former General Electric CEO and chairman Jack Welch. Giridharadas quips that this combination of authors should have signaled to him from the start that something was amiss. But he enjoyed the meetings, getting to know people with different political leanings and preoccupations. “This was a really lovely group of 21 people,” he says.

Yet Giridharadas noticed some disconcerting contradictions between the group’s stated aspirations and its realities. The corporations and people that have sponsored the Aspen Institute—Pepsi, Monsanto, the Koch brothers, Goldman Sachs, for example—are also arguably involved in projects that undermine equality and justice and exploit the weak. He began to suspect that all the talk of “win-win solutions” was cover for something more sinister; that what the wealthy were really saying is that the only change they tolerate is when it’s advantageous to them.

Then it came time for the fellows to choose a project, and Giridharadas began to have more doubts. Every fellow must propose and plan a venture that solves some problem in the world. It involves spreadsheets and budgets and raising funds and setting the kind of goals that Giridharadas didn’t really understand. He traffics in the world of ideas, after all, and he didn’t exactly see products as the ideal mechanism for positive social change.

This struggle alerted Giridhiradas to a greater issue at play. All the focus on business solutions presumes that taking a marketplace approach to social issues is wise. He began to question that presumption even as he noticed that it was echoed everywhere—among politicians, and even among friends of his who were once activists. Yet to Giridharadas, it was not that obvious anymore that the same corporations focused on turning profits are best equipped to decide what the public needs and how to provide it, or that their CEOs know what’s right for society and should be revered as “thought leaders.”

The problem came into sharp relief in 2013 at a fellows meeting. During lunch, sponsored by Goldman Sachs, representatives of the financial institution trumpeted all they’d done for female entrepreneurs through their global 10,000 Women initiative. During the question session, Giridharadas remarked, “I find it strange that no one here has mentioned Goldman’s role in the financial crisis.” He’d finally had had enough of “robber barons lecturing on social justice,” he says. His criticism was well-received by some in the room.

But Giridharadas wasn’t looking to become a revolutionary. So it took two more years before he finally voiced his critique of the system sponsoring this moral education and inadvertently discovered the project he was meant to do.

The epiphany

In 2015, Giridharadas was asked to speak at the Aspen Institute. He was asked to discuss his 2014 book, The True American, a story about crime and punishment in Texas. It was a book about two Americas and it radicalized him. As he sat down to think about what he’d say, he realized that he wanted to help his audience understand their role in this inequality.

Shortly before he was to give his address, Giridharadas had a kind of revelation based on Pope Francis’s discussions of poverty. “I’m not religious,” he explains. “Still, if the fucking pope can use his platform to investigate inequality when there are so many prudential reasons to not do that, with so much to risk, then surely little old me in my little old way could too.”

Giridharadas screwed up his courage and gave a speech that challenged his audience. He explained:

But we here in Aspen are in a bit of a tight spot. Our deliberations about what to do about this extreme winning and losing are sponsored by the extreme winners. This community was formed by stalwarts of American capitalism; today we sit in spaces named after Pepsi (as in the beverage) and Koch (as in the brothers); our discussion of Martin Luther King and Omelas is sponsored by folks like Accenture, David Rubenstein and someone named Pom; we are deeply enmeshed and invested in the establishment and systems we are supposed to question. And yet we are a community of leaders that claims to seek justice. These identities are tricky to reconcile.

He argued that the rich broach no criticism while expecting to be praised for the good they do; that their charity was a way to seem just without ever having to actually change their business operations, transformations that might obviate the need for so much charity. “Capitalism’s rough edges must be sanded and its surplus fruit shared, but the underlying system must NEVER be questioned,” he said.

The speech was controversial, earning Giridharadas both praise and rebukes. David Brooks covered it in The New York Times, writing, “I was attending the Aspen Action Forum, a gathering of young business and NGO leaders selected because of their work for social change. My friend and Times colleague Anand Giridharadas delivered a courageous and provocative keynote address that ruffled some feathers, earned a standing ovation and has had people talking ever since.”

Dear friends

For two years following the speech, Giridharadas delved even deeper into the philanthropic world. He met with activists and fundraisers and billionaires and thought leaders, attended conferences purporting to solve the world’s problems, and studied the language used at these events and in the culture. Arguably, the experience transformed the reporter from an observer into something more akin to a critic and activist, culminating in Winners Take All.

Giridharadas calls the book a “letter to friends” because he is close to many of the people who exposed him to the dangers of the capitalist mindset. It’s a polite indictment, but still scathing, a call for more thought (and perhaps less action, or more mindful action) that implicates everyone, not just wealthy philanthropists. Giridharadas writes:

For people to question this view is not to deny the good it is capable of doing any more than to question monarchy is to say that kings always botch up the economy. It is to say that even the best he can do is not good enough, because of how it is done: the insulation, the chancing of everything on the king’s continued beneficence, the capacity of royal mistakes to alter lives they should not be touching…To question their supremacy is very simply to doubt the proposition that what is best for the world just so happens to be what the rich and powerful think it is.

Though he never submitted a project for the Henry Crown fellowship, Winners Take All is a business venture that is already helping to change the world. It’s a bestseller, and it’s got people talking. People in government have told Giridharadas they were waiting for just such a clear articulation of the current cultural predicament. He has been invited to charitable institutions where the work has been assigned reading. Billionaires like Marc Benioff read it and tweet about it and the book gets them thinking. Foundation board members mull his critique. Tech companies invite Giridharadas to speak. Insiders with misgivings thank him for expressing the problems they’ve wrestled with privately.

All of this also means there’s some danger that Giridharadas’ message, like everything else in capitalism, could be consumed by the system; that he’ll be the guy to quote while business continues as usual. But it does seem as if Winners Take All is prompting a reckoning, and providing a vocabulary for discussing issues that plague us yet had no name. Giridharadas says it’s giving ammunition to people who want to fight for another kind of change, one that doesn’t rely on the whims and desires of the wealthiest among us.

A new age

What Giridharadas discovered, slowly and almost accidentally, is that there are strict limits to the kind of solutions that powerful “change makers” will entertain. They don’t want to pay higher wages or taxes or make better products or sell only what’s really needed. But they do want to be appreciated all the time, which not only harms society but makes their giving suspect.

And his claim is borne out, for example, by Jeff Bezos’s recent behavior. Last June, the Amazon founder and richest man in the world—who has been widely criticized for underpaying workers—resisted a tax on major businesses in Seattle that would fund affordable housing, threatening to cease construction on new building in the company’s hometown. The city walked back the tax. Then Bezos announced in September that he would pledge $2 billion to supporting organizations that address homelessness and preschool education. In this way, the founder gets to deduct his charitable donation, shirk paying additional business taxes, and come out looking like a generous fellow and responsible citizen.

He wins. Society loses.

Winners Take All argues that the winners in capitalist culture, those who derive their power from wealth gained through exploitation, should not be entrusted with the work of solving social ills. It does not advocate for the end of philanthropy per se, just questions cultural presumptions. It also does not offer solutions other than to say that systemic issues need systemic change, and not philanthropic Band-Aids.

Giridharadas contends that solutions to our social woes abound. There are plenty of smart people with solutions—academics and politicians, for example. They weren’t being heard, however, because everyone is so enamored with biz-speak and thought leadership and “bullshit culture” that discredits true change agents.

Now, he believes that we’re at a cultural pivot point, on the cusp of a time of reforms. Change is afoot. A 30- to 40-year narrative of business people as social geniuses and entrepreneurs as gods is crashing because US president Donald Trump has “flamboyantly discredited” the idea that a businessman might be especially equipped to run government, the writer says. Though it may seem counterintuitive, Giridharadas feels “incredibly hopeful” right now. “There is a new conversation that feels like the birth pangs of a new age.”  

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Giridharadas believes the wealthy should not give. He was in fact referring specifically to the Sackler family based on Purdue Pharma’s role in the rise of opioid use in the US. The story did not previously note the publication date of his previous book and to convey his specific considerations prior to giving the 2015 speech at the Aspen Institute.     

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