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What’s wrong with putting the rich in charge?

Author Anand Giridharadas on Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

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Anand Giridharadas - PHOTO BY MACKENZIE STROH
  • Photo by MACKENZIE STROH
  • Anand Giridharadas

Just before Anand Giridharadas took the stage at the Chicago Humanities Festival earlier this month, in the auditorium at the private and pricey Francis W. Parker School in upscale Lincoln Park, a giant "Thank You" to the Robert R. McCormick Foundation flashed up on the screen. It was followed, in smaller type, by thanks to 20 other sponsors: organizations like ITW, the MacArthur Foundation, Allstate, and Bank of America.

CHF, founded by investment banker and tax-free bond guru Richard J. Franke 30 years ago (when he was CEO of John Nuveen Company), aims to "connect people and ideas to cultivate a more informed, inspired, empathetic, and participatory society." Sometimes that gets challenging. The theme for this year's events is "Power."

Giridharadas is a former New York Times correspondent and columnist, now an editor-at-large at Time and a political analyst on MSNBC. Like many CHF speakers (and TED talkers—he's also been there), he's had a big idea, is hawking a book he just wrote about it, and has boiled it down to a handful of catchy, easily digested talking points. The book, Winners Take All, is an indictment of the kind of elite philanthropy practiced by all those sponsors and major donors to CHF's brand of noblesse oblige.

Its subtitle: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.

An accomplished speaker with an approachable presence and an aura of cool (the uniform: waxed jeans, black blazer over black tee, sneakers, and an impressive salt and pepper coif), Giridharadas, himself a onetime McKinsey consultant and Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute, is fully aware of the ironies here.

"It's hard in certain neighborhoods—maybe this one—to walk down the street without bumping into a millionaire or billionaire who has a foundation, who is giving back," he said. "These guys, with bracelets from Africa."

Giridharadas, who was born and raised in Cleveland by parents from India ("My father called us the original Cleveland Indians"), explained that his current book grew out of a "double-barreled observation" about America. It wasn't clear whether he meant to invoke the image of a shotgun, but he was definitely taking aim at the culture.

The first half of the observation, he said, was that "we live in an age of extraordinary generosity." This generosity isn't just confined to charitable giving. Everybody has a social mission ("Elon Musk is going to develop Mars in case Earth fails"), and for-profit businesses claim to be humanitarian enterprises. Go shopping, and you'll find that iPhone cases and tote bags are going to change the world. Young people are especially mission-driven, though they're likely to think they need to work on Wall Street first to learn how to make the change happen.

The second half of Giridharadas's observation was that although we've had an amazing amount of innovation in the last 40 years (lick something, put it in the mail, and get your genome back, for example), "we live in an age of staggering, growing inequality." Half the people don't have enough savings to weather a $400 emergency, he said, while "three billionaires control the same amount of wealth" as the entire bottom half of the population. The financial benefits of innovation have been "harvested [by] the very few."

For Giridharadas, the question became, "What's the relationship between the extraordinary elite helping and the extraordinary elite hoarding?"

And that led to other questions: "What if the extraordinary elite helping is part of how we maintain the extraordinary elite hoarding? What if the helping is the lubricant in the engine of the hoarding? What if the giving back is the wingman of the taking?"

In other words: "What if changing the world is a brilliant way of making sure that the public doesn't get so angry that it changes your world?"

To research this, Giridharadas spent several years interviewing some of the people practicing this "MarketWorld" generated ideology of "doing well by doing good"—visiting their foundations, attending their ski-resort conferences, riding their private jets (someone has to do it). He concluded that they've "Columbused" a large part of the social change effort, not only by deciding which things to fund but "most importantly, by changing our collective conversation about what change is and how it's achieved."

What that yields, Giridharadas said, is concepts like Sheryl Sandberg's "lean in": "Thousands of years of patriarchy as a posture problem. That's the kind of idea you get when we take the people who have the most to lose from real change and put them in charge of change. . . a fox's idea of justice for hens."

Real change in the social and political sphere, he said, is not going to be win/win.  v

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