As a journalist and iconoclast, Anand Giridharadas has been stirring up the status quo lately by confronting one of the great economic disparities of the 21st Century. “The extraordinary elite helpfulness of our time is how we maintain the extraordinary elite hoarding of our time,” he says, summing up a central theme of his bestselling book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.
Giridharadas, who spoke at the From Day One conference in Brooklyn last week, raises provocative questions about esteemed individuals and organizations: the billionaires, philanthropies and Fortune 500 companies that claim to be making the world a better place. But are they fighting for equality and justice, he asks, or just trying to make the best of a system that’s rigged against the same people the benefactors purport to help? Or worse: to obscure their own role in the system?
Giridharadas, a Time editor-at-large interviewed at the conference by fellow Time editor Lucas Wittmann, sees our current state of society and business as one marked by drastic extremes. “We live in a time of extraordinary generosity,” he acknowledges, embodied by a prevalent commitment by billionaires toward giving, as well as major new philanthropies and businesses that devote enormous budgets to corporate social responsibility (CSR) and often mobilize their workforces toward community service.
At the same time we witness this display of largesse, however, we live in a state of rampant wealth and income inequality. Winners Take All points out that Americans born in 1984 have been siphoned into two groups: those from the top of the family-income ladder, with a 70% chance of doing better than their parents, and those close to the bottom, who are pushing against a 35% chance of exceeding their parents’ economic status.
That split is extraordinary, says Giridharadas, given the technological revolutions of the last three decades, including the internet, wireless, genomics and artificial intelligence. “It takes a tremendous amount of rigging and walling off for that much innovation to fail to translate into progress for that many people,” he says.
In fact, after much research, Giridharadas now sees those two trends—extreme generosity and drastic inequality—as two sides of the same coin. According to this theory, the rise of billionaire foundations, CSR departments and CEOs on the boards of nonprofits are ways for the winners of the capitalist economy to subtly keep their hands on the tiller of social change to make sure it doesn’t upset fundamental power equations.
The alternative would be political change, via legislation to provide more concrete benefits to the have-nots. Example: while more and more companies offer paid family leave, the U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t guarantee it by law. Instead of real, across-the-board programs that would address economic inequality, the so-called winners “have managed to defang change, to push these facsimiles of change that have managed to change very little,” Giridharadas said.
There’s a lot to be learned from history here, he said. America has come a long way from the days of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. When those prototypes of one-percenters first attempted philanthropy, America was wary. At the start of the 20th century, when Rockefeller tried to create the first foundation, Congress raised obstacles, Giridharadas said. Political leaders were wary over the exertion of power through giving, as well as the prospect of reputation-laundering through philanthropy.
The skepticism wore away over time, allowing philanthropy to grow to a $400 billion industry in the U.S. But times are a-changing. “There is a reckoning happening, in which we are starting to reclaim a bit of that intelligent skepticism from a hundred years ago,” Giridharadas said.
Fair enough, but what should people do if their work in Corporate America involves the very thing he’s questioning? Think beyond your pay grade, he suggests, as some tech workers have notably done lately.
The first thing to do, Giridharadas recommends, is get up to speed on what your company’s footprint in Washington looks like. Companies spend many millions a year on government lobbying. Those D.C. colleagues, said Giridharadas, may be “overruling the good effect you’re having on the world, maybe by the factor of a thousand.” A company may be “virtue signaling” about one thing and creating a mess somewhere else. Employees should push for their right to know what issues are being lobbied and seek an annual report how much is being spent to do it.
Meanwhile, billionaire spending doesn’t need to stop cold turkey. There’s a space for philanthropy in places like foreign aid—like the Gates Foundation’s work on malaria—and experimentation and innovation, where government typically moves slowly.
While the present power imbalance feels daunting, even for those on the inside, Giridharadas sees evidence that society can change when he looks at historical reform movements like women’s suffrage, social security, and child-labor laws. The question he asks is: “Do we have what it takes to do what is next, which is to usher in the age of reform? “
Emily Ludolph is a senior editor at 99U and an alum of TED Conferences and Vassar College. She has published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, Narratively, Artsy, 99U, Quartz, and Design Observer