When journalist Anand Giridharadas became a Henry Crown fellow at the Aspen Institute several years ago, he was initially excited to rub elbows with some of the world’s emerging philanthropy-minded capitalists. These were successful entrepreneurs ostensibly interested in using their wealth and knowledge to build a better world. “It’s all about taking stock at some midpoint of life and career and thinking about how can you do better,” he says of the fellowship mission.
But after couple of years–the group met four times over a two year period for about a week per session–Giridharadas began to notice, and dislike, some contradictions. Much of Aspen’s entire ecosystem of seminars, festivals, retreats, and funding was underwritten by people or companies that seemed to have made huge trade-offs in their path to riches, and might be practicing philanthropy as a perception-improving and influence-welding device. (That list includes Charles and David Koch, Monsanto, Pepsi, Goldman Sachs, and the Resnick family, which has made a fortune growing water-intensive almonds in drought-stricken California.)
So in mid-2015, Giridharadas gave a talk at an Aspen forum calling out the hypocrisy of the “Aspen Consensus.” “[It] says, ‘Do more good’–not ‘Do less harm,'” he told the crowd, which included many of the institute’s major supporters. The talk went viral in philanthropy circles and can still be read on Medium. It’s since become the basis of a new book, Winners Take All, which explores, as the catchy subtitle notes, what Giridharadas calls “the elite charade of changing the world.”
“We live in a time of extraordinary elite generosity. More money is being given away than ever in history,” he says. “And yet we also live in an age that has been absolutely punishing for perhaps the majority of middle and working class Americans.”
Giridharadas argues that’s because the people acting as the most generous made their cash in ways that have caused economic hardships for the working class, in part by discouraging government regulation or taxation of their industries. At the same time, the major gifts of so-called philanthro-capitalists perpetuates the idea that governments don’t need to overhaul broken social programs because the super-rich can fund or think up new ways to act as saviors.
“It actually takes a lot of rigging and engineering to have as much progress as we’ve had and not improve the bottom line of 117 million people in your society. That’s not a natural phenomenon. That is a heavily engineered phenomenon,” he says, referring to a statistic about the number of Americans shut out from economic growth in recent decades. “What I found was that the extraordinary generosity of our time was not merely failing to fix the cruelty. It wasn’t merely not doing enough, fast enough. It was actually part and parcel of what allowed the cruelty to occur and go on.”
To make its case, Winners Take All profiles several of the corporate, nonprofit, and political players who have grown, maintained, or in some way supported the current unbalanced charity system. The goal, he says, was to figure out who was truly aware of the total cost of their actions, and how intentional they were about perpetuating inequality under the guise of advancement, and how they justified that.
The book shares the story of Hilary Cohen, a Georgetown graduate whose youthful idealism led her to a join the global management company McKinsey. Giridharadas also once worked briefly as a consultant for that company in Mumbai, and spends a lot of time explaining how such places sell young graduates on the idea that they will have the reach and client base to make an impact, even if the work turns out to be far more “humdrum, not world-saving.” In one way, the caliber of clients creates a pressure-cooker atmosphere that encourages workaholism, even if much of that work is on optimizing mundane and dull parts of company portfolios.
There’s also a tendency within such firms to prize slick answers that lead to continued billable work over closely dissecting how various problems might be interconnected. The supposed trade-off, he writes, is that workers “are entering the world of money in order to master the tools needed to help those it has forsaken.” In reality, “that may be useful for helping a tire company shave costs or a solar panel maker select a promising market for global expansion, but it didn’t deserve its status as a cure-all across all domains.” At McKinsey, Cohen grew disillusioned and increasingly concerned: She’s since left, but at one point her clients included Barack Obama, who was designing his own foundation through that same system to revive democracy.
Another subject is Bill Clinton, who appears to have shifted his bottom-up style of change-making (the government) for a top-down privately financed one (The Clinton Global Initiative), even as his wife was running against Donald Trump for president. “Even if it’s a partnership among public agencies and rich guys, rich guys have a seat on the initiative and are in the driver’s seat and they’re funding it,” Giridharadas says. “They’re not going to fund things that crack down on tax havens or tighten labor laws or do anything else. They’re going to gravitate to forms of change that don’t threaten them.”
On the complete other side of the change-making spectrum, Giridharadas takes a limo ride with Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation. While the nonprofit funder’s entire mission revolves around eliminating inequality and social injustice–particularly among the low-income and people of color–Walker seems to recognize an inherent irony: The Ford fortune was made through aggressive business practices, which marginalized workers on their lines.
“It’s all about how he navigates the major taboo that governs philanthropy, which is: We will give away the money, if you don’t ask us how the money was made,” Giridharadas says. “Darren Walker chooses to violate the taboo.” In recent years, Walker has been extremely vocal about philanthropy’s privilege problem—the industry’s top gatekeepers live well enough to be out-of-touch with beneficiaries’ needs and develop their own biases and blind spots.
Walker also represents a new kind of philanthropic force for trying to intermingle broader socially good concepts at a previously tone-deaf major company: In late 2016, Walker joined PepsiCo’s board of directors, a move that reportedly boosted his annual salary from nearly $790,000 at Ford to over a million dollars. As The New York Times reported, his goal there is seemingly to keep the company honest in its ingredient sourcing practices, marketing practices, and public health stance. But Giridharadas seems skeptical about that. “It’s better I’m in the tent than out of it. That’s an argument you hear a lot,” he says. “When good people try to change these systems, it’s not always clear to me whether they change the system or the system changes them.”
All told, Giridharadas considers the entire system of philanthropic posturing and donations “almost like a bribe to the public’s moral intuition.” Big donations have the power to shift our perception of people or companies—they can literally change search results and the news cycle. “It also creates in the aggregate all these private solutions that reduce the pressure on government to solve a lot of these problems for everyone. They create a feeling that help is on the way. The ambulance is coming. The check is in the mail.”
That’s how billionaires like Bill Gates end up leading educational reform, albeit with mixed results. But it’s also how many companies in Silicon Valley try to define their own for-profit global missions, which is the rhetoric that Facebook and Google trot out when facing public backlash: When you’re a service that trumpets how you make humanity feel more connected, or offer search as a benevolent path to knowledge, people might seem less outraged that your tool was used to disrupt an election or might enable continuing government censorship in China.
“What often happens is that at the end of the spectrum there is this belief that these guys are just natural emancipators of man through doing what they do. And therefore journalists, or regulators, or senators and congressmen, or any kind of civil society messing with them, imposing on them, asking them for transparency to make things more accountable, is just interfering in their effort to make the world a better place.”
In fact, the author makes clear that America’s obsession with this manufactured businessman-as-savior archetype may have inevitably enabled the rise of Trump. Lots of ordinary people felt for a long time that the system was rigged and they were not getting ahead. “He articulated a deep tenet of philanthro-capitalism, which is that the people who broke things are the best qualified to fix them. The arsonists are the best firefighters,” Giridharadas says. “I don’t like the fact that [voters] did that, but I deeply get it.”
Giridharadas doesn’t offer any easy solutions for how to fix that, other than hoping that Winners Take All brings more scrutiny about ideas and contributions from anyone associated with modern charitable-hero making terms like “thought leader,” “win-win,” “doing well by going good,” and “conscious capitalism.” “To put it another way, I think a lot of it is like trickle down economics with a cherry on top,” he says. “Ultimately it makes the case for government doing less, the private sector doing more, more money going into the hands of rich people to give it away, while leaving them alone to emancipate mankind. It’s Reaganomics with much better PR.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the correct number of Americans shut out from economic growth is 117 million.