Former New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas is the author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.” Joining hosts Sherryl Kuhlman and Sandi M. Hunt on SiriusXM’s Dollars and Change radio show, he argues that the global elite say they are working to “change the world” but in fact are preserving the status quo. He offers a strong challenge to the current system and thoughts on how to change the power structures that maintain the status quo.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
What is interesting about your approach is that you are, on one hand, optimistic about possibilities, but on the other hand, very critical about some of the complexities in the way a lot of the elite, and a lot of us, are approaching our ability and responsibility to make the world a better place. So, what is the “elite charade of changing the world”?
The elite charade is what we see all around us–rich and powerful people, business people. People who made their money in business some time ago, and have billions of dollars to give away, social entrepreneurs, impact investors, and various others going around telling everybody that they’re out here changing the world. That rhetoric is everywhere these days, “they’re changing the world, making it a better place.” You hear in Silicon Valley, “they’re disrupting things.” “They’re building community.” “Mark Zuckerberg’s building community.” Never mind that he actually was the first CEO of American history to compromise a federal election.
You have people on Wall Street, who caused the financial crisis, costing millions their homes and livelihoods. Reinventing themselves, as the 10,000 Women Program, empowering women. The Literacy Program, helping people be more financially literate. You have all these rich people saying that they’re helping, giving money back, doing all these little programs, while they are building, maintaining, operating, supervising, and clinging to a set of social arrangements that predictably are intended to destroy the American dream for most people, and benefit only the people on top.
The data bears this out. The bottom half of Americans have not, on average, gotten a raise since 1979. The reality of social mobility is it’s a thing that we read about, but it’s not a thing that actually happens in America.
The business world, and a lot of business discourse, is a kind of emptily, uplifting, hopeful discourse. Business people love to talk in this way of, “Well, let’s just talk about what we can do. Let’s just talk about solutions.” Part of what I tried to do in this book is say, “No, you don’t get away with that. Because the reason you all want to talk about solutions, and be uplifting, is you don’t want to talk about complicity.”
The reality is that the business class and the super elite of this country, have rigged America to make it impossible for most people to live the life of their potential and dreams. Until we change that by putting the business world back in its place, we’re not going to get anywhere.
Why do you think this is the case? Do you think it is a lack of perspective, and true understanding about the impact? They’re making unintended consequences in these unconscious bias norms? Or, do you think it is a conscious, “I’m going to say these things, but do these things”?
I think there’s a spectrum from the naive to the cunning. I think the naive end of the spectrum is something you see in Silicon Valley a lot, which is people who are genuinely convinced that they are the liberators of mankind through the algorithms and code and platforms that they have written and built. So when I go to Google or when I go to Facebook, I am aware of being in the presence of people who have a digital messiah complex.
They feel like they have found the promised land that is going to liberate us all. If we can just give them all the power, not tax them, not regulate them, let them build monopolies, let them do whatever they want, let them compromise our elections, they can make the world a better place. We’re asked to ignore all the evidence, that in fact they’re destroying the news business. They’re building monopolies that asphyxiate the rest of the real economy. That there’s no retail anymore on our streets, because of what they’re doing and their abusive market power.
I don’t think they are fooled by their own dogma that they’re changing the world. I think Goldman Sachs knows exactly what it’s doing. I think it’s motivated entirely by money. I don’t think Goldman Sachs is about making the world a better place, whatever its ads may say. But, I think in that case they understand that a certain amount of giving back, talking about helping people, is a lubricant in the engine of continued taking. Then there’s a lot of people who fall in between, on that spectrum.
How do we tell the difference as consumers and participants in this world, whether it’s where we bank, social media tools, brands we buy from? Your point that it is a necessary lubricant – that, in many ways green-washing, pink-washing, impact-washing is what consumers today want. How do we tell the real from the fake, in your opinion? What things should we be looking for? What measurements should be taken and reported?
I don’t want to put this on consumers. I think this is too demanding a job for a consumer to do. You’re deciding whether to put your savings in Wells Fargo or Chase. I mean, am I really expecting someone working three jobs in the middle of Louisiana to go do a month of research on those banks? And what role they may have had in the Panama papers? What they lobby for in Washington? I don’t think that that’s practical.
What we need to do, and the reason we actually have a government, is to regulate these banks, so they can’t do the kinds of things that we’re talking about. It’s much better to just have banks not able to speculate in the ways that cause a financial crisis than to ask millions of Americans to do their homework in their private time to figure out which banks have been naughty and which banks have been nice. That is the job of a government.
How do we start chipping away at getting some solutions going?
I think we have to overcome our urge, particularly in the business world, for insta-solutions. I believe we have a problem in this country of capital hegemony, and capital supremacy. The people who own capital, the investor class, the people who run businesses, have a supremacy over the rest of the real economy, and the rest of the people of this country. That is not something that is amenable to a solution tomorrow.
We need to think about whether we’re persuaded by my argument, and the arguments of others, that we have these problems. If so, we have to think about what it means to dethrone the owners of money from the ruling class of American life.
In the founding creed of this country, we are a country of government by, for, and of the people. We’ve ceased to be that. We are now a country, in which, those of money buy political influence and outcomes. Those with money decide who can run for office, and who cannot. In which, those of money increasingly dominate the social sector, and decide what programs get funded, and what don’t. In which, people with money decide what wars we fight, and what our foreign policy is on many issues.
So we need to look at ourselves, and actually think about, not solutions, but something deeper than solutions. Which is uprooting a supremacy, and uprooting a hegemony.
To be very honest with you, business people getting a little more woke, is not going to be the main driver of that. The main driver is going to be the people. The people actually realizing how they have been duped.
What should the people do?
Vote for people who put the money power in check. Vote for someone who is talking about these issues of money and power concentration.
There are voters out there who believe that this country is rigged against them, that things need to change fundamentally, and who are open to new ideas about the proper place of business in American life.
Where do people turn? What do you encourage folks to read? What questions should they be asking? How, in a very time crunched away, are they able to understand these complex issues in a way to be informed voters, and make decisions that vote for the world they want?
I will say as a journalist, and this is a somewhat self-interested thing to say for my industry, but people don’t read enough. When I go on an airplane, and if I have a seat in the back, I walk all the way down and see 250 people playing Candy Crush. I’m actually very serious here.
A nation full of people playing Candy Crush when they have a little free time, is a nation asking to be ruled. If I am a would-be dictator, all I want is a population that is addicted to Candy Crush.
So, we need to read, as a country again. We have the best media institutions in the world. Don’t wait for your Twitter and Facebook feeds to send you something viral. The viral things are not all you need to know. You need to know about what’s happening in Estonia. You need to know what’s happening with voter suppression in Georgia, after the big election that you may have focused on. You need to be a witness to your society, and a citizen. People who don’t know what’s going on are asking to be ruled.
We talk to students all the time, located at a business school. What’s our action step? Do we encourage more students to read a lot? Do we advocate around the issues of power a little bit more? What can we do here at a business school around this issue?
Let’s have some real talk. I think a lot of this ideology that has led to extreme capitalism, and business in the stock market doing well, while regular people suffer, is an ideology incubated at business schools.
The reality of the MBA is that it is very good at teaching people how to be more effective business people. It’s very good at teaching people how to be more efficient, be good managers, et cetera. But at the heart of the MBA, as I understand it, is a studied context blindness. It’s about doing what you need to do as a manager, as a CEO.
It’s about not asking those bigger questions like, “Well, if we shift the dynamic scheduling in our coffee shop chain, and people now only get their schedule for Monday on Sunday nights. Sometimes it’s 11:00 AM, and sometimes it’s 9:00 AM, so what does a single mom do for daycare? If she doesn’t know until Sunday night what time she’s going to have to be at work, what kind of daycares would she go to? What kind of daycares would take a kid at 3:00 in the morning, if that’s what ends up being required for her three hour commute? Oh, well that’s probably not going to be a very safe daycare. Is that really worth the 3% savings on my costs based on my wage bill?”
Business people educated in MBAs, generally in my experience, don’t ask questions like that.
There’s some small movement in that area, but you’re right, they’re few and far between.
If you look at all these companies that have done so well in our time, instead of having a sense of gratitude, they still employ tax avoidance measures.
I have a part in the book where I talked to Michael Porter of Harvard Business School, about how a lot of the great techniques of business have overshot. They help businesses grow and be more efficient, but they overshot to a place where businesses now think they need to evade taxes, avoid regulation, lobby against the public interest, be monopolies, and screw workers at every cost.
I think business schools need to actually look within very deeply. Most of the people I know who have MBAs are not bad people at all. They’re deliberately narrow. They don’t talk. They don’t see context. They don’t see societies. They don’t see power differentials.
Understanding the importance of the context, I think, is absolutely right. I came into business school with a different set of understandings, precisely because I had learned the context in other areas first. Then try to figure out how business was a tool, and where it failed. I think there’s often so much of a focus on getting the business skills, the business principles. Which have been pretty focused on, “how do you get the most money back to your shareholders?” That’s not going to take us very far.
I think what needs to happen at business schools is, frankly, people need to read novels. Because this whole new discourse is about power and understanding how power works.
A lot of people in the business world don’t understand power. In my book, I write about an executive at the company that produces Cinnabons. She says, “Well, we’re transparent with people about the fact that Cinnabons are high calories and a lot of sugar, so let them make the choices they make.” Well, you’re missing a bunch of things here. You’re missing the fact that there are food deserts in this country. You’re missing the fact that you get to put your stores in those places. You’re exploiting the fact that people don’t have a lot of other choices.
Products like sugar have had favorable treatment under the government, because of political lobbying. So to just say, “Well, we tell the people and let them decide,” is to ignore structures, and ignore power. I think what I’m trying to get people to do is actually acquire a lens of power as they think about these decisions.
There are several ways to do it. One is through politics, getting people elected who are willing to stand up and make some of these hard decisions that will minimize the power of the corporations.
The other way, and I think it’s challenging, is to think about how you can infiltrate business with more of this awareness. We talk to a lot of entrepreneurs and some big corporations, and none of them are pure and perfect. But I think there are some that are more aware of these issues than others, and are trying to address them in some ways. But still they’re within this context of an environment that really advocates for power.
I often get this question from folks in the business world. Which is basically, “if I’m unhappy with the moral fiber of my company, should I quit, or should I stay and change things from the inside?” Which is an age old dilemma. But I think one of the things I observed, is that people ask that question. They then choose to stay in their companies, but they don’t really challenge anything.
So the way I think about it is, if it’s important to you to not be compromised, and you don’t want to make a big thing, just get another job. Do something else. If you’re going to stay, to avoid being complicit, you have to use your voice. Challenge things.
Posted: December 18, 2018