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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Winners Take All’ — The dangers of ‘doing well by doing good’

Instead of waiting to see where Zuckerberg and his fellow billionaires decide to bestow their riches next, how about we advocate to eliminate the myriad tax tricks so that there is more tax revenue to support public education.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

By Anand Giridharadas

Alfred  A. Knopf, 2018

281 pages $26

My nonfiction reading of the past two years has gotten me closer to understanding how we got to Donald Trump. Among the standouts: 2008’s “Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War” by Joe Bageant, an entertaining, prescient read. (Only one chapter, which ridicules liberals for overstating the dangers of gun violence since the Columbine massacre was just an anomaly, is heartbreakingly outdated.) I also read, like millions of others, the memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” in which the author’s one-in-a-million experience of skyrocketing to success made it a depressing reminder of how rare the American Dream is these days. 

“Uneasy Street” examines the attitudes of the top 10 percent of income-earners and asset-holders who insulate themselves from the woes of the middle class by insisting they are part of it. I’d place “The New Aristocracy,” the cover story in the Atlantic’s June 2018 edition, and William Dereseiwicz’ “On Political Correctness” from the March 6 edition of the American Scholar in the same category of refreshing self-examination.

And so to the book at hand today. Have you ever, like Virginia Woolf, read something fresh and gasped, “But this is what I’ve always thought, and felt and known!” That’s how I felt reading “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” by Anand Giridharadas.

As a former Peace Corps volunteer who’s still trying to figure out how to save the world, I have sniffed out philanthropy’s full-on embrace, in the past decade or so, of a market-based approach to solving problems. As Giridharadas fleshes out in accessible, persuasive and pleasant-to-read prose, today’s solutions must be win-wins for all or they’ll be nonstarters. To give, one must also get. Self-sacrifice in the service of our common wealth, it seems, is so 1960s and, from the looks of things, it’s not ready for a revival.

Anand Giridharadas. Photo: Thatcher Cook

We live in “MarketWorld” now. Consider the trajectory of our own part-time Richmond resident, former Gov. Deval Patrick, who left public office to run Bain Capital’s “Double Impact” program, a synonym of “win-win” if I ever heard one. That program “partners with companies that offer products, services of business models that can create positive social impact at scale.” Its strategy “is designed to deliver both competitive financial returns and measurable social and environmental good.” See? Win-win! Pats on the back all around. As Patrick himself put it in an interview with Be the Change, “Why would you trade return for impact if you don’t have to?”

Giridharadas mentions Bain Capital only in passing, but the language quoted above could have been taken from any of dozens of other companies, funds and fellowships whose employees and “thought leaders” he lists in the book.

The problem is not that these entities aren’t doing anything good; they often are. (Bain has invested in, for instance, sustainable restaurants and composting businesses.) Giridharadas’ main thesis is this: Those in the highest echelons of the private sector “are seeking to alter the public conversation about which social issues matter, set an agenda for how they matter, and specify who is the preferred provider of services to address these issues without any engagement with the deliberative processes of civil society.”

This appropriation of our problems and means of solving them has the added benefit of helping elites with their guilt and reputations, says Giridharadas. “Those at greatest risk of being resented in an age of inequality are thereby recast as our saviors from an age of inequality.”

In some cases, it’s straight-up fox guarding the henhouse. The Sackler family, the people behind Purdue Pharma, inventors and aggressive marketers of OxyContin, unironically build medical schools in their own name. (In the news today: A subsidiary of Purdue is seeking to patent a drug to help the addicts they created get off of heroin. Now there’s some win-win cojones.)

In what is perhaps the most consequential turn of events, MarketWorld’s leaders have been recruiting the next generation to think of charity in their terms.

With ubiquitous images of human folly all around us—drowned Syrian boys, plastic-filled oceans, health effects of obesity, etc., etc.—the smartest American college graduates have added improving the state of the world to their list of career ambitions. These young people are aggressively courted and picked up by the Double Impact programs of the world.

Giridharadas interviews several of them, who have great faith in their own new ideas. He says of one young woman, “She asked herself what she could do, but not what people in her universe might already have done.” Quaint notions of collective action and collective pain—in other words, the ways in which we won voting and other civil rights, among myriad other communal benefits—are nowhere on their radar. (There’s never been a greater distance between the folks on the ground and those in the skyscrapers. As a survival tactic, I imagine, MarketWorld draws a clear distinction between “poverty,” which is an unfortunate condition that implicates no one, and “inequality,” which makes one think of greed and how we’ve failed to live up to that phrase about all being created equal in our founding documents. Guess which one, between poverty and inequality, MarketWorld likes to emphasize?)

Notwithstanding the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there’s still no real alternative to our profit-driven economy. As Giridharadas says, capitalism has no “ideological opponent of similar stature and influence,” which is why “it is hard to escape the market’s vocabulary, values, and assumptions.”

Ambitious consulting firms like McKinsey’s, Giridharadas’ former employer, pitch their companies as the place to address every problem. Thus Harvard grad Sally Do-Gooder, who, a generation ago, might have started a nonprofit, has become Sally Number-Cruncher at Goldman Sachs’ Impact Investing.

In this way, she gets the best of all worlds. She will “enjoy an enticing combination of making money, doing good, feeling virtuous, working on hard and stimulating problems, feeling her impact, reducing suffering, spreading justice, exoticizing a résumé, traveling the world, and gaining a catchy cocktail-party spiel.”

In 1892, Andrew Carnegie was able to deflect blame for busting the Carnegie Steel union, a melee that resulted in numerous fatalities, because he’d recently set forth his hugely influential philosophy on wealthy people, in which he argued that they ought to give it all away. He famously said, “I should consider it a disgrace to die a rich man.” He did die rich, of course, and also with his name on a university, a concert hall, trusts, institutes and corporations, among many others. (He actually died at Shadowbrook, which was then the second largest private home in the country, on the site of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health.)

As Carnegie himself might argue today, who better to address climate change, or employee miseries due to Starbucks’ “dynamic scheduling” system, than the kings who brought us those things? A better world is just one time-management app, one brilliant entrepreneur, one $40 million bequest away. MarketWorlders share a bottomless belief that business has, as Giridharadas puts it, “elusive knowledge about solving problems that no one else has access to.”

Most of this book rings true, but this aspect rings truest. We turn to the kingpins for answers, which, in some cases, they are comically helpless to provide—think of Mark Zuckerberg’s confusion during recent Senate hearings when it dawned on him that the world expected him to fix it. In his mind, he’s still just a college kid messing around in his dorm room.

Instead of waiting to see where Zuckerberg and his fellow billionaires decide to bestow their riches next, how about we advocate to eliminate the myriad tax tricks wealthy organizations and individuals employ to pile up more stock market winnings, so that there is more tax revenue to support public education, and foreign aid? I can’t imagine that idea gaining traction. It’s far too win-losey.

“If the logic of our time,” says Giridharadas, “had applied to the facts of an earlier age, someone would have put out a report suggesting that ending slavery was great for reducing the trade deficit.”

But I’ll end on a sweet note. Feeling despondent about the lessons of “Winners Take All,” what a pleasure it was to meet Ella. Ella’s a recent Harvard graduate, accomplished violinist, and all-around ambitious young woman. A prime candidate for MarketWorld, in other words. In fact, she told me she had to resist pressure to join it. She said companies had lain it on thick when she was looking at what to do after graduation, and that she’d had to “dig deep” to find something right for her. She did, and now she is pleased to be the newest volunteer at Gould Farm in Monterey, where she will work for the next year. Welcome, Ella! We are glad to have you here.


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