Kicking off the 20th annual Social Enterprise Conference at Harvard, Anand Giridharadas was interviewed by Jason Furman, who now is a Professor of Practice at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Furman previously chaired the Council of Economic Advisers during the last three-and-a-half years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Furman began by asking why Giridharadas wrote his recent book, Winners Take All. Giridharadas, 37, said he was driven to write by his irritation at “watching my generation, many people, succumb to what felt like a fraudulent story.” He noted that he saw too many in his generation “getting derailed in their idealism.” The false story implies that “you can change the world by adding ‘impact’ to the front of whatever word that you are doing…You can change the world by taking money that people like the Sacklers made…and giving it to arts museums. Someone who lost a loved one to the opioid crisis may at least see a Rembrandt one day.”
At its core, his book is not about wealth or the economy or even the accumulation of wealth at the top, although it certainly covers those themes. “This is a book about culture,” Giridharadas insists, and it is “about how a cultural story was sold to a great many young people.”
Giridharadas hopes to displace that culture by reclaiming an older tradition, one that is about “movement, politics, policy and law. And in ways that don’t necessarily please and flatter power.”
According to the book, the dominant culture is that you “make as much money as you can in whatever way you can—preferably pay as little as possible and pay as little taxes as possible.” The result is that the wealthy have more wealth in their bank accounts, and the government has less.
Giridharadas focuses his attention on the rise of billionaire philanthropy, or what is sometimes called the “megadonor.” Some megadonors are easy to critique: there are people like the Sacklers who make money by causing a social problem. But even for those like Bill Gates, who earned their billions making useful, rather than socially destructive, products—there is still, Giridharadas observes, “a democratic problem.”
The most obvious way to see this is to look at what megadonors do not fund. For example, one of the most useful interventions that could be made to increase economic mobility would be to stop financing education based on property-tax values, a system that reinforces wealth and privilege because wealthy schools end up with more resources than poor ones. “There are lawyers who aim to end property tax-based education,” Giridharadas noted, but “I’ve never come across a plutocrat who funds those efforts.”
Or take tax evasion. “There are trillions of dollars off shore,” Giridharadas pointed out. “A lot of it is tax avoidance, [but] I don’t know a lot of plutocrats who ask: ‘why don’t we spend a billion to rein that in?’” He contended that reining in offshore assets “might get us a trillion,” which he quipped would be a “pretty good ROI [return on investment].”
“Power, justice, rights,” Giridharadas remarked, “all of the old words are missing. It is very difficult for those who benefit to dismantle those parts of the status quo that work for those people.”
One question from Furman asked Giridharadas to assess whether, even considering these limitations, it was better for plutocrats to donate than to not donate. Giridharadas wasn’t so certain. He observed that philanthropy helps the rich get away with bad behavior much longer than if they didn’t donate.
“It is reasonable to suggest that if Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have the glow of philanthropy…if we saw him the way we see a chemical industry executive, or a person who makes wheelchairs, or any other people who makes some useful thing, I think his opportunity to damage democracy would have been reduced,” he said. President Obama would never be seen on the same stage as a chemical industry executive, but Obama “would do events with Mark Zuckerberg. Mark Zuckerberg got a free pass. And did more damage.” Giridharadas concluded that if Zuckerberg “had bought a yacht” rather than donate to charity, “I actually think we would be better off.”
The same is true, Giridharadas contended, with the Sacklers: “If they hadn’t spent 20 years buying up museum wings, it is a reasonable probability that the government and journalists would have