Notes on 'Winners Take All' by Anand Giridharadas

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World was published in 2018 and investigates how the global elite's efforts to change the world preserve the status quo and obscure their role in causing the problems they later seek to solve. In this post, I attempt to summarize his core argument.

March 3, 2020 - 8 minute read -
personal books

Anand Giridharadas is a reporter and writer who has, in the past couple of years, been speaking about the culture of the United States in a way that has resonated strongly with me. His book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, examines how the billionaire class has perpetuated a worldview that puts the winners of an economy–themselves–in charge of its fixing its social problems, which ultimately serves to further entrench their own power and money.

His investigation into the people and worldview that preserve the power of the wealthiest of our society makes a lot of sense, challenges a many of the beliefs of the systems that I (and many of my friends) have been taught as a graduates of the University of Chicago and employees of large corporations, and puts into words many of my own misgivings about the narratives of changing the world that I’ve grown up with.

The Premise:

How can we explain the following two seemingly contradictory realities?

  1. There is more inequality in the U.S. than ever before.

    • Since 1980, the average pretax income has doubled for Americans in the top 10%, more than tripled for those in the top 1%, and increased over sevenfold for those in the top .001%.1
    • From 1989 to 2016, the share of wealth held by the top 1% rose from 30% to 39%, while the share of wealth held by the bottom 90% fell from 33% to 23%.2
    • In 2017, the three richest Americans held more wealth than the bottom 50% of the country.3
  2. There is more generosity in the U.S. than ever before.

    • In 2018, Americans gave $427 billion dollars to charity – $292 billion from individuals, $76 billion from foundations, $40 billion from bequests, and $20 billion from corporations.4
    • 3/4 of global philanthropic foundations have been established in the last 25 years, with 60% of its wealth concentrated in the U.S.5
    • The urge to do good has also spread to the realm of investing: in 2018, $12 trillion was invested in socially responsible “impact investment” funds (about 26% of all assets in the U.S. under professional management), up 38% from two years ago.6

The Thesis:

Large corporations and billionaires have spread a “win-win” ideology that proports that those with the most power and money – those who have been successful in growing businesses – should be at the forefront of solving the world’s problems in a way that benefits both those at the top and those at the bottom. This culture, which Giridharadas calls “MarketWorld,” has the following implications (selected quotations are from Winners Take All):

  1. Plutocrats have changed the way that Americans think about change. We no longer look to the government for progress; instead, we look to privately-funded organizations such as the Aspen Institute, Davos, and Summit at Sea, to solve the world’s most challenging problems. We are essentially putting our future in the hands of an unelected, unnacountable group of rich business leaders meeting in private rooms.

In the journey from Adam Smith’s theory to that of the win-win, the entrepreneur is transformed from an incidental booster of the common good to a unique figure specially capable of tending to it. Business goes from being a sector with positive social benefits to being the principal vessel for human betterment. “Business acting as business, not as charitable donors, are the most powerful force for addressing the pressing issues we face,” the Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter declared in one formulation of the idea. “Business is the ultimate positive-sum game, in which it is possible to create a Win for all the stakeholders of the business,” John Mackey, the chief executive of Whole Foods Market, and Raj Sisodia write in a book that has become a bible of the win-win-faith, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business.

  1. Billionaires and large corporations are able to stomp out ideas that may be beneficial for the country as a whole but aren’t beneficial for their own profits, such as affordable health care, guaranteeed paid maternity leave, government funding for child care, criminal justice reform, and higher taxes on the wealthy.

    • Google, Amazon, and Facebook spent $48 million in lobbying against antitrust and data regulations in 2018.7
    • The biggest lobbying group for the pharmaceutical industry spent $27.5 million on lobbying activities in 2018.8
    • For further reading on this, see Dark Money (2018) by Jane Mayer, which takes an in-depth look at the influence of money in the American political system.

It is fine for winners to see their own success as inextricable from that of the others. But there will always be situations in which people’s preferences and needs do not overlap, and in fact conflict. And what happens to the losers then? Who is to protect their interests? What if the elites simply need to part with more of their money in order for every American to have, say, a semi-decent public school?

  1. While they fight against tighter regulations, billionaires and large companies enact their own version of change-making initiatives that is profit-friends, which gives them credit in a way that they wouldn’t have if they just paid more in taxes. They are able to use the goodwill generated from donating large sums of money to stay in power and hide their unethical actions.

    • The Sackler family donated millions to the art world while they marketed their product OxyContin, the drug behind the opioid epidemic.9
    • Mark Zuckerberg has pledged billions to address social problems while his company Facebook compromised a presidential election.10 11
    • Jeff Bezos donated $33 million in 2017 to help 1,000 Dreamers go to college while his company Amazon employed hundreds of thousands of temporary workers with low wages and no benefits.12

To question the doing-well-by-doing-good globalists is not to doubt their intentions or results. Rather, it is to say that even when all those things are factored in, something is not quite right in believing they are the ones best positioned to effect meaningful change. To question their supremacy is very simply to doubt the proposition that what is best for the world just so happens to be what the rich and powerful think it is. It is to say you don’t want to confine your imagination of how the world might be to what can be done with their support. It is to say that a world marked more and more by private greed and the private provision of public goods is a world that doesn’t trust the people, in their collective capacity, to imagine another kind of society into being.

Further Reading and Listening

This guy is seriously prolific…you can find hours and hours of him talking about his ideas online. If you have time, I would recommend watching the interview with Anand below by the Dutch broadcaster VPRO. It’s relatively long for a YouTube video (31:49), but the time flies by.

I think his podcast with Ezra Klein, recorded only a couple of days after his book was published, is one of his best interviews. It’s also interesting to watch him change way he frames his talking points to suit the context he speaks in: he talks differently to Google employees who work for one of the biggest winners of the 21st century, than to attendees of the House of Beautiful Business, which is one of the elite gatherings that he takes down in his book.

There’s also an episode of Patriot Act by Hasan Minaj inspired by him, for some light & fun viewing.

There are a lot of counterarguments to make against this argument, and I’m aware I’ve haven’t addressed any in this post. Check out some of his speaking engagements, where I think he argues his points well when challenged.

I’ll end with this quote from the book:

Not every bad thing that happens in the world is your fault if you fail to stop it. However, citizens of a democracy are collectively responsible for what their society foreseeably and persistently allows; they have a special duty toward those it systematically fails; and this burden falls most heavily on those out amply rewarded by the same, ultimately arbitrary set of arrangements.

  1. “How Business Titans, Pop Stars, and Royals Hide Their Wealth”, by Scott Shane, Spencer Woodman, and Michael Forsythe (New York Times, November 7, 2017) 

  2. “A Guide to Statistics on Historical Trends in Income Inequality”, by Chad Stone, Danilo Trisi, Arloc Sherman, and Jennifer Beltrán (The Center on Budget Policy Priorities, updated January 13, 2020) 

  3. “The 3 Richest Americans Hold More Wealth Than Bottom 50% Of The Country, Study Finds”, by Noah Kirsh (Forbes, November 9, 2017) 

  4. Charitable Giving Statistics, National Philanthropic Trust 

  5. “Is Big Philanthropy Democracy Deferred? Global Study Shows the Power of the Ultra-Rich”, by Erin Rubin (Nonprofit Quarterly, April 27, 2018) 

  6. “Sizing the Impact Investing Market” (The Global Impact Investing Network, April 1, 2019) 

  7. “Google, Amazon, and Facebook all spent record amounts last year lobbying the US government”, by Rani Molla (Vox, January 23, 2019) 

  8. “Big Pharma spends record millions on lobbying amid pressure to lower drug prices”, by Susan Scutti (CNN, January 24, 2019) 

  9. “The Sackler family made their fortune in opioids — and museums are rejecting their donations”, by Kelsey Piper (Vox, May 15, 2019) 

  10. “The trouble with charitable billionaires”, by Carl Rhodes and Peter Bloom (The Guardian, May 24, 2018) 

  11. “The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, explained with a simple diagram”, by Alvin Chang (Vox, Updated May 2, 2018) 

  12. “Jeff Bezos, Amazon and Why ‘Charity’ Is the Wrong Solution”, by Ed Burmila (RollingStone, February 14, 2018)