‘We’re all passengers in a billionaire hijacking’ says the critic who has the world’s richest people buzzing

Anand Giridharadas.

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Anand Giridharadas.
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Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

  • Anand Giridharadas is an author and professor whose book “Winners Take All” is a scathing critique of the way elites treat philanthropy.
  • He said Western elites have cloaked themselves in “changing the world” to protect their interests and reduce the efficacy of democratic change.
  • He’s critical of Davos, corporate proclamations of solving societal problems, and Howard Schultz and Michael Bloomberg as presidential candidates.
  • The only way destabilizing inequality can be meaningfully addressed in the United States needs to come from public policy, he said, with increased taxes on the wealthiest of prime importance.
  • This article is part of Business Insider’s ongoing series on Better Capitalism.

By 2015, Anand Giridharadas felt that the world he was inhabiting was built on a charade.

As an Aspen Institute fellow for five years and a former McKinsey analyst, he lived and worked among a collection of elites who believed their exchange of ideas, philanthropy, and so-called conscious capitalism could “save the world.” But it began to feel like “MarketWorld,” a term he coined for the bubble where it’s accepted that the private sector can fix anything with enough money.

He decided he would be transparent with the rest of the Aspen crowd, and gave a speech where he declared that, “we may not always be the leaders we think we are,” which brought a mixture of praise and outrage.

Giridharadas has written for the New York Times and taught journalism at New York University, and late last year, he published his book “Winners Take All.” It’s a thorough but nuanced takedown of MarketWorld that declares companies should work to do less harm, but that systemic changes must come from policy changes. Giridharadas’s thesis is therefore not only a cultural critique but a political one, with a progressive lens.

The book is currently in a second wave of popularity in the wake of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos, Switzerland, where it came up in conversation, and with the official start of the 2020 presidential race.

Giridharadas spoke with Business Insider about Davos, the idea of “better capitalism,” why he’s so avidly against Howard Schultz and Michael Bloomberg as presidential candidates, and why he wants Americans to take back their country from billionaires.

The following transcript was edited for length and clarity.

Richard Feloni: What does Davos stand for in your view? Do you have any particular thoughts on this year’s, specifically?

Anand Giridharadas: I think Davos is a family reunion for the plutocrats that broke the modern West. I’ve never been to it, so I’m a cultural critic looking from a distance, but it seems to me to be a gathering of people who think that they are changing the world when they are exactly what needs changing. A gathering of people who use the idea of making a difference as a kind of lubricant in the engine of making a killing, of people who promote generosity as a cheap substitute for justice.

And what was so great about Davos this year is that the mask slipped. Normally, they’re able to go there and pull off their Bono impact investing, ESG something, give-one-get-one something, social impact, social this, social that – anything but actual social justice. And it works. And this time, in great measure because there has been this rising chorus of critics – I’m one out of many. Way more prominently, you have AOC [Alexandria Ocasio Cortez] out there, Elizabeth Warren out there, staking really bold positions about how to actually change the world, how to actually fight structural inequality. And a lot of these guys, when actually pushed about those specific proposals -I don’t know if you saw the Gates and Blair clips about me…

Feloni: Good plugs for your book!

Giridharadas: Kind of amazing. It became clear that changing the world isn’t quite what it seems, and that changing the world is actually a way for them to – I don’t want to use the word “cock block,” which I feel isn’t appropriate for Business Insider, but there’s no other equivalent word …

What became clear when they shot down AOC’s proposals or when they insinuate I’m a communist or laugh off my critique, “change the world” has become a way for them to shoot down and remove from serious consideration ideas that would threaten their power of privilege. And so then what Davos is becomes clearer, which is that it is a way of getting together, using the world’s problems as a convening mechanism, to form a cartel against real change.

The genius thing that these people understand, that maybe prior generations of plutocrats didn’t, is you don’t fight public pressure for people-friendly change by shooting mine workers and busting unions in the light of day. They do that secretly. But what you actually do is you fight back by claiming to be one of those people. You claim to be a revolutionary yourself. You claim to be fighting for the people yourself. And your relatively modest do-gooding provides your credibility that pays for itself many, many times over.

Companies shouldn’t be small governments

Feloni: You have people like Larry Fink from BlackRock saying how every company needs to align around a purpose beyond profits. What executives will often tell me is, look, whether it’s customers or potential employees, this is what they want. How do you see social initiatives coming from companies that actually do something good, even if they’re done cynically?

Giridharadas: I want to resist getting into motivation because when you say what kind of place is it coming from, like in their hearts, first of all, I don’t know. My guess is the Toms shoes guy is not trying to make as much money as possible and distract us from something, and that he thinks he has found a way to help people in the best way that he knows how. My guess is when Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan operates in some of the same communities that Toms shoes has made something in, they’re coming from a very different motivation set.

But what I’m arguing is it doesn’t really matter because what both represent is an effort to solve necessarily public problems privately, and therefore, what both represent is an attempt to reclassify problems. And if you think back historically to problems like in the early part of the 20th century, a lot of kids, instead of being in school, worked in factories. Obviously that is now illegal, and I think most people would agree that was progress. I don’t think you could have solved that issue by having some factory owners be more conscious capitalists. You either as a society allow children to work instead of be invested with knowledge or you don’t. That is a necessarily public choice.

Similarly, when you think about racial segregation, I think you and I would agree it would be weird if your approach to segregation in the 1940s in Alabama was to say, “Well, let’s create some points of light. Let’s create some white-owned restaurants that don’t mind having black people, and we’ll celebrate that, and we’ll give them a certification, and we’ll put them on magazines and on change-the-world lists. Let’s celebrate the good.” I think that would actually rub you and me the wrong way. I mean, on the surface, what’s wrong with that? But it feels like a weird response to a problem that is necessarily systemic.

It’s like saying, “OK, well, let’s have better healthcare companies that compete against Oxycontin and are more responsible in how they prescribe.” Again, I think you and I would agree that that’s just not going to work given the kind of problem the opioid crisis is, given the dynamics of addiction, the ways in which pharma companies have political power, the way the whole doctor-sales rep process is so rigged. Having just better, nicer, conscious capitalism to compete against the others, it’s just not going to work.

Feloni: I’m thinking of a conversation I had with Jay Coen Gilbert, and he’s one of the cofounders, of B ­Lab – I know you spoke with Andrew [Kassoy, another B Lab cofounder] – and something I learned is Coen Gilbert does see what he’s doing as trying to create momentum that leads to governments taking action. That’s whether it was individual states passing benefit corporation legislation or Elizabeth Warren citing them in her essay where she announced drafting the Accountable Capitalism Act, which would extend and enact a lot of what Coen Gilbert wants on a federal level.

Read more: The United States is undergoing a second Gilded Age, and it shows the same struggle has defined America for 150 years

So even if we can agree that these are problems that need to be solved publicly, if you have someone like Coen Gilbert with B Lab or you have someone in a position of power in a corporation, what are they supposed to do when the field is already set up in a way that’s basically the second Gilded Age and corporations are stronger than democracy at this point?

Giridharadas: I think the B Corp example is fascinating, and I think that Elizabeth Warren proposal next to it is a great development. The B Lab thing on its own is part of this feeling that’s very influential in our time, which is, as Andrew Kassoy explained to me in the book, “making good easier.” A lot of CSR, corporate social responsibility, impact this and that, it’s all about let’s create more mechanisms and modalities and even just social praise for companies to get more approval when they do good. And I think that’s great and I think there’s a powerful demonstration effect, but I think again, what you need in the moment that we happen to be in, it behooves us just as much if not more on making it harder to do something bad. It seems to me that making 5,000 or 10,000, or even 20,000 companies do good, better, or certify themselves as doing better, pales in comparison to the effect that you’d have making it illegal to ruin the climate, making it illegal to employ people in ways that drive them into hunger when they work 40-hour weeks.

Feloni: Is there a way, though, that you could see an initiative in the private sphere as a positive development if it even brings an issue into the conversation, so that public action can then take place?

Giridharadas: I think what has happened with B Lab is actually the ideal case that I advocate for, which is a small, private experiment not remaining private, but they have fought to change laws at the state level, to first just making it possible to be good and then Elizabeth Warren can take that and run with it. This is exactly what I would hope would happen. I actually wish that more things would follow that model of something that where you really start with something that’s private that filters into public policy.

Feloni: I went to Detroit and did a profile on Dan Gilbert, and it to me is an extreme example of where the country is right now. He’s invested over $5 billion into the city, which is just, it’s pretty crazy how a billionaire has that much influence over a major American city. But what also happened at that point was that you had years of both the state and city governments completely failing the people. What does that say to you about the US, in a situation where the public sector failed a city and then a billionaire becomes the main source of capital flowing in?

Giridharadas: Let me answer it this way. Look, I think private giving can be incubation for public action. There can be a case for private philanthropy in a place where public systems aren’t working; however, those things should be directed towards strengthening public capacity. Whereas, in New Orleans, you ended up with the lack of public capacity and a surplus of philanthropy created a system where there’s only charter schools now, there’s no public schools in the whole city. That’s not a great model. A model where you start privately, like where [Andrew] Carnegie built libraries privately in order to turn them into public libraries and create a habit of public libraries around this country, and on a scale that not even he could have afforded. Those are two very different approaches.

Don’t elect another billionaire

Feloni: I saw your commentary on Schultz running. And I mean whether it’s Howard Schultz or potentially Bloomberg down the line, why are you so passionately against them?

Giridharadas: Bloomberg suggested that Warren’s wealth tax may be unconstitutional and then it’s basically Venezuela. I just want to say these old billionaire, encrusted oligarchs are really showing their terror. I really feel like I am winning the conversation, and AOC is winning this conversation, and Elizabeth Warren is winning this conversation, and Edgar Villanueva, who wrote “Decolonizing Wealth,” is winning this conversation, and thousands of people who are talking about this in different ways. And these guys are terrified.

When you hear old white guy billionaires telling you a wealth tax is Venezuelan, or Howard Schultz saying twice in 24 hours that two ideas emerging from offices of women of color in Congress are un-American, these are billionaires who understand that the politics have changed America.

For the first time in my lifetime, we’re talking about whether billionaires should be able to be here, and I think my message to these guys is, you are free to go. Taxes, all these policies that we’re talking about, these policies are just the rules of the road of a society. We can set whatever rules we want consistent with the law in the Constitution. And then everybody has a free choice about whether these laws and everything else this country offers as a package works for them or not. And if you don’t like the tax rates, you’re allowed to go. If you think it’s confiscatory to have a 3% wealth tax, you’re absolutely free to go.

I’m willing to play poker with any of these billionaires because I think they’re all bluffing. I don’t think any of them are going to leave. I don’t think any of them will leave. Mike Bloomberg’s going to move to Singapore? America’s an extraordinary country. I’m here for the long haul and I suspect that Mike Bloomberg’s here for the long haul too.

So we might as well actually rebuild this country using a tiny fraction of those resources that those people have been lucky enough to get because we have, all together, built an extraordinary country. And these guys are, honestly, asking, begging, to be overthrown and they need to wake up to the moment they’re in.

These ideas should only be scary to a few

Feloni: What would the ideal system in America look like to you, including the role of corporations? Is this idea of “better capitalism” we have even a valid goal to you?

Giridharadas: If we did some of the things that I’m talking about, America would become what most people imagine it is. It wouldn’t become some alien thing that we don’t recognize. It would actually become the country we think we live in but don’t. It would become a place where, to a somewhat greater extent, people ended up where they did based on their effort, not their circumstances of birth. It would end up a place where it’s actually easier to run companies because you don’t have to pay people’s health care, and navigate all this crazy stuff around scheduling people because you just won’t be allowed to do that to begin with. In the America that I’m talking about, we would have women and African­ Americans and others who historically have been shut out of power actually share in the nation’s power, decision making, and wealth. In the America that I’m talking about, we’d go from leading the planet off a cliff to leading the planet away from that cliff.

The kind of change I’m talking about sounds scary to people, but it should only really sound scary to a very few people, who have been profiting from an unfair system. They are scared that people now realize that America actually doesn’t have to be run for billionaires’ benefit. What is actually un-American, to use Howard Schultz’s term, is an America run for the few. That’s not the promise on which this country was founded.

Feloni: So it’s a billionaire co-­opting of the American dream?

Giridharadas: I think we’re all passengers in a billionaire hijacking. We were all drugged on the plane, and these guys are now terrified in the cockpit because they’re realizing that in the back there we just woke up.