First came the books describing just how much worse economic inequality had become over the past 20 years, with all the dramatic political implications now impossible to ignore. Then there were the tomes about globalization (including my own, I admit), detailing the West’s unfettered pursuit of neoliberal policies that abetted all this unfairness.
Well, prepare for a new genre: books gently and politely skewering the corporate titans who claim to be solving such problems. It’s an elite that, rather than pushing for systemic change, only reinforces our lopsided economic reality — all while hobnobbing on the conference circuit and trafficking in platitudes.
Anand Giridharadas, a former columnist for The New York Times, spoke about this phenomenon at an Aspen Institute conference in 2015, and he takes his ideas further in his entertaining and gripping new book, “Winners Take All.” As the Democratic Party struggles to figure out its future and global demagogy thrives, it’s worth considering where we went wrong and how best to save the world from the dangerous turn it has taken. It’s now very clear that globalization, technology and market liberalization did not bring their promised benefits — at least not for the vast majority of Americans and those in advanced countries around the world.
For those at the helm, the philanthropic plutocrats and aspiring “change agents” who believe they are helping but are actually making things worse, it’s time for a reckoning with their role in this spiraling dilemma. I suggest they might want to read a copy of this book while in the Hamptons this summer.
In a series of chapters centered on different individuals who are part of this rarefied class, Giridharadas exposes the rationalizations of the 0.001 percent who actually believe they are making the world a better place. The Sacklers helped create the opioid crisis but give money to important causes. The chief executive of Cinnabon thinks that being transparent about the fat and sugar she peddles offsets the harm her company creates. It’s a land of PowerPoint presentations and cuddly good intentions.
Giridharadas calls this prevailing ethos “MarketWorld,” made up of people who want “to do well and do good.” He beautifully catches the language of Aspen, Davos and the recently extant Clinton Global Initiative, which will doubtless reappear in the newly born Bloomberg initiative. It’s a world of feel-good clichés like “win-win” and “make a difference.” The rote conversations of this crowd were on recent display at the Public Theater, in the beginning of the second act of the Bruce Norris play “The Low Road.” As Giridharadas describes the ethos of MarketWorld, it’s made up of people like former President Bill Clinton who saw the anger bubbling up but proved unable to “call out elites for their sins: or call for power’s redistribution and fundamental systemic change; or suggest that plutocrats might have to surrender precious things for others to have a mere shot of transcending indecency.”
Like the dieter who would rather do anything to lose weight than actually eat less, this business elite would save the world through social impact investing, entrepreneurship, sustainable capitalism, philanthro-capitalism, artificial intelligence, market-driven solutions. They would fund a million of these buzzwordy programs rather than fundamentally question the rules of the game — or even alter their own behavior to reduce the harm of the existing distorted, inefficient and unfair rules. Doing the right thing — and moving away from their win-win mentality — would involve real sacrifice; instead, it’s easier to focus on their pet projects and initiatives. As Giridharadas puts it, people wanted to do “virtuous side projects instead of doing their day jobs more honorably.”
In order to really have an economy with the greatest opportunity for all, the kind of economy they seem to champion, the MarketWorlders would have to pay high levels of corporate and personal income tax, offer decent wages to their workers, allow unions, fund public schools (instead of pet charter projects) and support some form of single payer health care and campaign finance reform. One simply can’t arrive at a more economically equal reality when the rungs of the ladder are so far apart.
At Davos and the other international conclaves where the muckety-mucks celebrate the new economic world they have helped create, which has rewarded them so amply, corporate leaders move seamlessly from sessions discussing the risks of climate change, growing inequality and financial instability, to dinners at which they praise tax cuts for billionaires and corporations and applaud proposals for deregulation. They conveniently don’t mention the increases in taxes on a majority of those in the middle, the Republican moves to eliminate health insurance for some 13 million in a country where life expectancy is already in decline, the increase in pollution, the risk of another financial crisis, the ever increasing evidence of moral turpitude — whether it’s Wells Fargo cheating its customers or Volkswagen cheating on its emission tests. Cognitive dissonance is intrinsic to MarketWorld.
Giridharadas rightly argues that this misallocation of resources creates a grave opportunity cost. The money and time the MarketWorlders spend fixing the edges of our fraying social order could be used to push for real change. This is especially so in the political battles in which the country is currently engaged, where a majority of the Supreme Court and members of Congress seem hellbent on rewriting the rules of the American economy and political system in ways that will exacerbate economic disparities, increase monopoly power, and decrease access to health care and women’s reproductive rights.
Moreover, the ideology of the MarketWorlders has spread and just espousing it has come to seem like a solution instead of the distraction that it is. Giridharadas shows how this is done. One category of enabler he describes is the cringeworthy “thought-leader,” who nudges plutocrats to think more about the poor but never actually challenges them, thus stroking them and allowing them to feel their MarketWorld approaches are acceptable rather than the cop-outs they are. Another recent book, the historian Nancy MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains,” provides a salutary lesson on the dangerous ways a self-serving ideology can spread.
Giridharadas embedded himself in the world he writes about, much as the journalist David Callahan (who edits the Inside Philanthropy website) did for his recent book, “The Givers: Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age.” And like Callahan, Giridharadas is careful not to offend. He writes on two levels — seemingly tactful and subtle — but ultimately he presents a devastating portrait of a whole class, one easier to satirize than to reform.
Perhaps recognizing the intractability and complexity of the fix we are in, Giridharadas sidesteps prescriptions by giving the book’s last words to a political scientist, Chiara Cordelli. “This right to speak for others,” Cordelli says, “is simply illegitimate when exercised by a powerful citizen.” Although a more definitive conclusion would have been welcome, Cordelli does point to the real lesson of the book: Democracy and high levels of inequality of the kind that have come to characterize the United States are simply incompatible. Very rich people will always use money to maintain their political and economic power. But now we have another group: the unwitting enablers. Despite believing they are working for a better world, they are at most chipping away at the margins, making slight course corrections, while the system goes on as it is, uninterrupted. The subtitle of the book says it all: “The Elite Charade of Changing the World.”