In 2015, the journalist Anand Giridharadas was a fellow at the Aspen Institute, a confab of moneyed “thought leaders” where TED-style discourse dominates: ostensibly nonpolitical, often counterintuitive, but never too polemical. In his own speech that year, Giridharadas broke with protocol, accusing his audience of perpetuating the very social problems they thought they were solving through philanthropy. He described what he called the Aspen Consensus: “The winners of our age must be challenged to do more good, but never, ever tell them to do less harm.” The response, he said, was mixed. One private-equity figure called him an “asshole” that evening, but another investor said he’d voiced the struggle of her life. David Brooks, in a New York Times column, called the speech “courageous.” That lecture grew into Winners Take All, Giridharadas’s new jeremiad against philanthropy as we know it. He weaves together scenes at billionaires’ gatherings, profiles of insiders who struggle with ethical conflicts, and a broader history of how America’s wealth inequality and philanthropy grew in tandem.
How did you find yourself in this world of philanthropists and “thought leaders?”
A friend nominated me for the Aspen fellowship. I went through an interview, then I got a call late one night, in early 2011, basically saying, “You’ll meet four times over two years for a week each. You’ll sit in a room with 20 other people, discuss Plato and Aristotle and Gandhi, we’ll talk about our lives, and it will be an advice circle, all very private.” It was generally businesspeople and entrepreneurs who want to make a difference, to shift from just making money to giving back. Every year they invite two or three people who don’t fit that profile, to spice it up slightly — journalists, artists, people designed to be a little renegade-y.
It seems that this experience made you even renegadier. Were you immediately radicalized?
I would love to tell you I figured it out within two minutes, but these things are seductive. It was a drip-drip-drip-drip of moments where you thought, “Wait a second, why are we sitting in the Koch building? Why is this event funded by Monsanto, and by Pepsi, which seems to be changing the world by fattening kids? Why is Goldman Sachs a sponsor of our annual summer retreat?” The reality of the world outside kept getting worse and worse, and the people in the fellowship, and the sponsors, seemed to be the very people sucking most of the juice of progress. What I started to realize was that giving had become the wingman of taking. Generosity had become the wingman of injustice. “Changing the world” had become the wingman of rigging the system.
You quote a great line from Thomas Piketty: he says, “the durability of this system depends on the effectiveness of its apparatus of justification.”
Yes! I read that line in a moment where I was thinking, “What is this book?” The apparatus of justification, that’s what this all is! I’ve never been back to Aspen since I finished the fellowship. I’ve been told, in many subtle ways, that I’m not welcome back. No one is more easily offended than the person who thinks they are changing the world. Because they think, “I could be burning this money or spending it on a yacht.” There’s a simple critique that says, “All this philanthropy is a drop in the bucket,” and I think they would all agree to that. But my critique goes way farther than that: ‘This is a drop in the bucket that is upholding the problem.” The idea that their kindness is how a bad system is maintained — it hurts them in a way that’s hard to overstate.
There have been other books, some quite good, attacking the rhetoric of “conscious capitalism,” but they tend to be aimed at lefties. You seem to be trying to persuade a general audience.
I am, by temperament, a flamethrower, but my editor helped me understand that if you don’t tell this through the stories of people struggling with this, you’re not going to get behind enemy lines. My first draft was more like me throwing rocks at this world. My editor said, “First of all, that’s a fight you’re not going to win. Second of all, there are people in these worlds who think you’re right. Tell us their stories.”
What did you learn by interviewing them?
They educated me on how complicated some of this stuff was. Amy Cuddy, the social psychologist I wrote about, helped me understand that for many thinkers like her who want to speak to the plutocratic confabs, yeah, you can just keep it real, and give one talk there and never come back again. But if you’re someone like her, a real feminist who has a lot to say, maybe it is valuable to stay in there. I still think the people she’s speaking to are using her, but she was very real with me about how she calibrates it.
Starting with the most egregious offenders in your book: The Sackler family donate millions of dollars to art museums and universities, but they were also deeply culpable in causing the opioid crisis, lying about the dangers of Oxycontin.
Right. The CDC now estimates that 200,000 people have died in the opioid epidemic. Just think about that for a minute. Those are genocide numbers! Not only have they not gone to jail, their names are in the Brooklyn Museum.
So what’s the relationship between the harm and the philanthropy?
I think we are all busy and fragmented and tired. We make sense of the world through very small shards of information, and when we think of a Sackler or a Zuckerberg or an Elon Musk, there are a couple words that come into our heads, then we move on. So what people like the Sacklers do is use giving to make sure the initial, shallow perception that you and I have, that journalists and regulators and potential prosecutors may have, is, “Oh yeah, that’s that family that gives to the arts.”
Are there subtler examples of harm done by philanthropists?
Mark Zuckerberg talks all the time about changing the world. He seldom calls Facebook a company — he calls it a “community.” They do these things like trying to figure out how to fly drones over Africa and beam free internet to people. And in various other ways, they talk about themselves as building the new commons of the 20th century. What all that does is create this moral glow. And under the haze created by that glow, they’re able to create a probable monopoly that has harmed the most sacred thing in America, which is our electoral process, while gutting the other most sacred thing in America, our free press. And they do it under the cover of changing the world. If JP Morgan tried to pull off what I just described, they wouldn’t be able to. Why? Because we’d all be like, “‘Why is a bank deciding what our press should be like? Why is a bank redoing our election system? Why is a bank the only bank in America?”
It was interesting to read in your book that foundations created by Rockefeller and Carnegie were initially considered outrageous and undemocratic. Now they’re considered beyond reproach: “How can you criticize people for giving their money away?”
And people on the left will criticize other people on the left for making the same criticisms Theodore Roosevelt made 100 years ago. But look at Andrew Carnegie’s essay “Wealth”. We’re now living in a world created by the intellectual framework he laid out: extreme taking, followed by and justified by extreme giving. We’re living in a world in which the government feels it would be an unwarranted extension of its sovereignty to ensure that the minimum wage is a living wage. But at least before the new tax law, we spent $60 billion a year subsidizing charitable deductions. If we didn’t give them that tax break, it could pay a wage subsidy, it could give us all a lower tax rate, whatever.
A friend in the tech industry told me once that he thought politics were pointless, because you can get “more juice for your squeeze” by trying to change the world in other ways. How would you have responded?
It’s a fairly common perspective!
You’re baiting me. I’m trying to be a nice person, though. Tending to the public welfare is not an efficiency problem. The work of governing a society is tending to everybody. It’s figuring out universal rules and norms and programs that express the value of the whole and take care of the common welfare. That is an inherently, and rightfully, and beautifully inefficient process. Corporations get more “juice from the squeeze” because corporations don’t solve very complicated problems. God bless ’em, but making Pepsi or manufacturing a car seat is an easy problem. Governing 350 million people is an extraordinary thing that we have discredited in this age of markets. The right has discredited it head-on, explicitly, intentionally, but the left has passively assented to its discrediting.
By the way, I would say most places in Europe don’t live in Carnegie’s world. If Mark Zuckerberg went to Europe and said, “I’m changing the world,” everybody would look at him like, “What are you talking about?” So I mostly wrote the book to discredit them as world-changers; if the public just sees through it, it will take away a lot of their power. I just wanted to take a lot of the weird valence off the word “thought-leader,” to make it a joke, so that no one ever uses it again in an un-ironic way.
We’d all be indebted. But what would come after that?
I think we need to return to politics as the place we go to change the world. Next time you see a problem, think about what a public, universal, institutional, and democratic solution would be. But now let’s get more practical. For one, I think society should take on the college tuition or the college debt of anybody who chooses to do public-sector work. There could also be public housing for people who work in the public sector. New York could say, “If you want to build this big building, you’ve got to build some affordable housing and reserve some of it for people who are teachers and council-members, maybe even some activists.”
How do you think the philanthropists have contributed to the Trump era?
I think well-meaning liberals, which include most of the people I’m writing about, paved the way for Donald Trump. By promulgating pseudo-change all these years, they staved off actual reform. It is certainly possible to imagine that if we’d actually reformed trade and education and gone after the opioid crisis, Trump would not have been president. Also, philanthropists gave Donald Trump a lot of his language. He’s the ultimate phony billionaire-savior. A lot of his maneuvers are intellectual moves that took root long ago among this plutocratic-giver class: “I alone can fix it.” For decades, these people have said they have some special ability because of their private-sector skill.
Romney ran on the promise of being America’s CEO.
I’ve been hearing that language for a long time. Same with the idea that billionaires can fight for the common man’s interest because they are above it all. Like Trump says, “I don’t need the money” — that’s a Bloomberg idea. Even Trump’s veneration of the entrepreneur, and his despising of government — these philanthropists have laid the track. And not just right-wing people; well-meaning liberals have slowly participated in this denigration of government’s effectiveness. So when I see Donald Trump, I see a man who has ridden the coattails of a lot of rich liberals.