Billionaires Are the Lethal Monkey on the Back of the American Public
“I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible … except by getting off his back.” —Leo Tolstoy
This week on “Scheer Intelligence,” Anand Giridharadas, whose latest book is “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” discusses “how rich people and philanthropists and others are engaged in this well-meaning attempt to make the world better … but upholding through their actions an indecent system.” He describes this as a system in which the market and its needs come before the needs of the people, a system that allows the rich and powerful to be seen as philanthropic rather than the malignant force they represent. They would be, as Tolstoy opined, the guy on the American back, choking our society and destroying our economy.
They do so in the name of the distorted libertarian ideology that they use to subvert the American experiment in democracy, by denying the legitimacy of government intervention into the economy on the side of fairness and justice, including decent working conditions, fair wages, regulation of the economy and the right to form unions to represent workers and fight for their interests.
His conclusion: Don’t look to the superrich corporate elite for the solution—they’re the problem. As Giridharadas puts it, for the rich and powerful, “Success depends on extraction. … Making the American dream accessible … will actually require the powerful being pulled down a peg … seeing some of their resources diminish in order for us to do right for most of us.”
Giridharadas is a former journalist for The New York Times. He has given talks on the main stage of TED and at Harvard, Yale, the Aspen Institute, Google and many other prestigious campuses and institutions.
Listen to the interview and read the transcript below:
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s Anand Giridharadas, a brilliant writer. And his new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World–to my mind, this is an inside view of a new ruling class. I don’t think I’m exaggerating. It’s a world that–you have all the watering holes, the TED conferences, the Aspen, everywhere else; you’ve been there, you’ve been there as a journalist for The New York Times for about 12, 15 years. You studied at some elite institutions, you worked at the Aspen Institute. And what we meet in this book are people who are into a great exercise of delusion, that they can make out like bandits and still be Robin Hood. Is that not the deal?
Anand Giridharadas: Absolutely. And I think the problem with the Robin Hood comparison is only the idea that Robin Hood was kind of stealing from the rich to give to the poor. But the people I write about are essentially interested in helping–in an age of inequality, they want to help those left out of the American Dream in any way they can. Except by getting off their backs. Except by paying them more. Except by paying their fair share of taxes, except by submitting to the kind of regulations that would actually help regular people not live with volatile incomes, and hours that shift week-to-week, and an inability to see kind of a long-time horizon. I became interested in how many rich people and philanthropists and others were engaged in this well-meaning attempt to make the world better–and often being very decent people themselves, trying to make the world better–but upholding, through their actions, an indecent system.
RS: But let me defend the Robin Hood thing. What I was saying is, it’s ironic, because it’s the opposite; they’re not taking from the rich and giving to the poor, they’re not settling injustice; they’re in fact involved in a great delusion and a cop-out. They’re conning us. And you start with a quote from Tolstoy, ah–
AG: I can read it for you right now. “I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible….except by getting off his back.”
RS: I do want to encourage people to read this book. But that quote kind of says it all. What you have opened up here is an elite, the elite culture; not an elite, this is our ruling class. This is the billionaire class, the people who work for them, the people they can buy off; co-option is a sort of major theme of this book. The real enemy, in their eyes, is any sharpened sense of class conflict in America. And yet the reality of America, certainly for the last 40 years, is really sharp division of class for most ordinary people and a, what, top five, one percent, one hundredth of one percent, however you define it.
AG: Rich people have pulled off an amazing game. And I think we have to, at some level, marvel at the genius of it, even if we deplore the consequences. And the game is this: in the analogy I’m about to set up, you know, the public at large are hens in a henhouse. Actually, the henhouse once had a guard, and the guard was a good guard. Not perfect, but was guarding the henhouse just fine. And the fox came along; fox is, you know, big companies, wealthy people, philanthropists, billionaires, people who have a vested interest in a society in which government is less active, and more happens in the private sector, and the private sector is left alone. And this fox came along and bit the guard in the leg. And the guard starts bleeding and stumbling and kind of drifting from the scene, unable to guard the henhouse. And with the henhouse now unguarded, thanks to the fox’s timely bite, the fox materializes and says, “This henhouse needs a guard. And here I am. Here I am; I will guard this henhouse.” And I think that’s–the expression “the fox guarding the henhouse” is an old one, but I think in this particular case there’s a backstory. The fox is also the reason the henhouse doesn’t have its proper guard, and then turns around to offer itself as the guard. And I think that is the–you know, we have been in this country on the receiving end of a 30- to 40-year campaign of government being “othered,” being shamed, having Americans convinced that the government is the enemy of their freedom. It has been an extremely successful campaign. And what it has done is, you know, it’s not just Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and Britain and others who denigrated government. But this idea was also absorbed as secondhand smoke on the left half of the equation, whether it’s Tony Blair in Britain or Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in the United States, who fought for a very different set of policies than their republican brethren, but who absorbed in some way the idea of a society in which the market and its needs come first. You have Bill Clinton saying “the era of big government is over,” an astonishing statement from the head of government from a liberal party. You had Barack Obama creating the office of social innovation in the White House, his first new office that he created, and its founding charter on the web said “top down programs from Washington don’t work anymore.” And again, an astonishing statement, and frankly an untrue one. We have been told that government doesn’t work. Many of us have bought into it; even people on the left, who retain those traditional goals of the left of bettering the lives of the meekest among us, now operate within a framework of market fundamentalism that is hard for us to see. And, like fish caught in water who don’t know anything about water, many of us don’t even know that we’re living in a time of market fundamentalism, and therefore think that, OK, well, maybe the only way to make the world better is to start some kind of social enterprise that will sell poor people a product to make themselves less poor. Maybe the only way to smooth people’s volatile incomes is to invent an app for them. Maybe the only way to have a decent healthcare system in America is for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to work on companies that would extend people’s lives forever. And I’m interested in the way in which injustice is prosecuted through silence. Because what all of that depends on is talking about those things at the expense of talking about other, more legitimate, more public, democratic, and inclusive ways of actually changing the world.
RS: It’s interesting, hearing your description of the book. Because frankly, I don’t think you’re doing it justice. And what it captures, a culture of betrayal, of co-option, of the con. And when I read your book, the power of this book is that you know these people. You’ve been at the conferences, you’ve heard the bull. And it’s incredible. So the guy who destroys unions and taxi drivers, and be able to make a living ferrying people around in his Uber, has this grand idea that he’s actually a great social rebel. And it’s true of everyone there. And what you’ve gotten hold of here is the modern culture of the ruling class of America, and of the world, actually. And their ability to deceive themselves, their ability to co-opt some of the finest minds. And in order to co-opt modern people, you have to talk the language of concern for the other, right? You know, you have to come on as a highly civilized person while you’re raping the world.
AG: It’s “rule by helping.” At the early stages of writing this book, I came across a phrase that immediately gave me my mission with a clarity that I’d lacked before. And it was a phrase in Thomas Piketty’s book about Capital in the Twenty-First Century. And he has this line about whether or not this kind of extreme inequality is sustainable or not, depends not only on what he calls the repressive apparatus, but also on the apparatus of justification. We all know we live in a time of extreme inequality. We all know that the American dream, which used to allow 90 percent of Americans to earn more than their parents had, has now become a crapshoot dream, where 50 percent of Americans actually fall below where their parents did. We know that something is broken, we know that the system is rigged. And the apparatus of justification is the only way to understand how that can be sustained. How can most Americans be shut off from the American dream and tolerate it and take it? Well, because if they are convinced by elites that the elites are on the case, the check is in the mail, the ambulance is on the way. And so what I tried to do in this book, this is actually not a book of arguments. It’s a book of reporting, and it’s a book of investigation, and it’s a book of embedding. And my investigation is not of the kind of documents and money trails; it’s an investigation of the souls of rich people, who are trying to do something good while also trying to avoid anything bad being done to them. Who are trying to change the world, while trying to avoid their world having to change. Who are trying to give a little bit, without anyone interfering with their right to take. And what I found as I spent time in this world is, as I said, a lot of decent people are upholding an indecent system. And they do that because of rationalization; they do that because of compartmentalization. A lot of them feel that, well, you make money over here in the Andrew Carnegie tradition, you make it as ruthlessly as you need to, then you give it back as generously as you can. And you compartmentalize; you do investment banking or hedge funding in a way that perhaps leads to an economic crisis that has many people suffering and out in the street. And then you take the spoils of that and you give to a charter school that maybe helps the same community that you helped be foreclosed on. But you always help, generally, on a smaller scale than the harm you caused. And I’ve really tried to get under these people’s skin, I’ve tried to get them to tell me the truth about how they saw the world. Because I’ll tell you this. One of the things that actually frustrated me, has always frustrated me, is that people always write about inequality and injustice from the point of view of those on the wrong end of the power equation. Most writing about poverty is about the poor; most writing about inequality is about the poor; most writing about various forms of injustice is about the people upon whom the injustice is visited. And it occurred to me at one point, you know, we need to be writing about the architects of the house, not just the people who happen to be living in it. Because these are engineered outcomes. And so I became interested in actually telling the story of the people who have helped to make the world this way, who have helped to decide what ideas are viable and what are radical. I became interested in being in the rooms where they were, and trying to genuinely see the world as they saw it.
RS: Where I disagree with you is about what you’ve found. These are bad people. I’m sorry. They’re not well-intentioned. They’re the guy that Tolstoy was referring to; they’re on the backs of other people, the people are suffering, and they’re getting their pounds of flesh out of those people. And yes, they would like it if those people were happy having them on their back, but they’re not going to get off their back. And I just want to take one example of that. You discuss Goldman Sachs, one of your first people is somebody at Georgetown, she wants to lead a life of idealism and somehow gets influenced by Goldman Sachs, and all that. I think her name is Hillary Cohen. And you follow her too, and it’s really a challenge that all young people face now: can they lead meaningful lives. And I was thinking of the other Hillary, that you kind of mention with Goldman Sachs, and her speeches. And the thing that was so offensive about her speeches was not that she gave them to Goldman Sachs and took the speaking fees and everything–which you discuss in your book, the co-option of the fees and the money. What was really awful was when we got to finally read those speeches–she did not have one sentence of criticism of Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs, or the other bankers that were in the room. On the contrary, she said, “We need you people to come to Washington and fix this problem.” And that’s what your book is really all about, is expecting the people who created the problem, who figured out all the lousy collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps, who do all the scams, who build cartels so there’s no real competition, who destroy labor unions–you got, you know, a whole list here. And then we expect these people, when they get their billions of dollars, to somehow restore sanity and decency and justice to the system. And that’s never going to happen. And that’s the con job.
AG: I think you’re on to something in terms of the idea that there’s a malice, in many cases, in refusing to get off the back. And I think we could take the example of Goldman Sachs; there’s a spectrum, and I think a lot of the folks in finance are very, very clear, if you get them privately–they’re very clear, they understand their business model depends on stripping value out of middle- and working-class people’s lives. They understand that their bonus is someone else’s raided pension. They get it. They know that. And I agree with you, that’s bad. And I think a lot of those people are engaged in activity that is morally indefensible. When I say these are decent people, I’m getting at something deeper, which is, I think we are all endowed with the power to make our lives feel right to us. I don’t think a lot of people go to sleep thinking they’re bad people. I think most people think they’re trying to do the best they can. And I think we therefore, you know, the way you framed the Goldman thing, the only pushback I would have is I think when we think about these people as evil people scheming in a room to screw others, we’re actually not very effective in reining them in, because we’re not understanding their real motivations. And I think the real motivation is, I think a lot of these people are deluded by a story that rapacious finance, and leaving them alone, creates jobs and creates opportunity for price discovery and all these things. I don’t think that is always a kind of BS narrative people are making up; I actually think you got to take these people at their word in order to defeat them. You have to understand how deeply they believe in some of these cons to actually dismantle the cons. And I think actually one of the mistakes a lot of people make when they’re trying to go up against folks like this, is actually not taking them seriously. When Mark Zuckerberg says he’s not about money, he’s about building the tool–I actually think there’s some amount of truth in that. I’m not saying he’s not motivated by money, but I actually think he’s a lot more dangerous because he’s deeply motivated by building the tool. And he’s so maniacal about building the tool, and owning the algorithms of human civilization. I think greed we can deal with; a guy who wants to control what he wants to control, and has such intrinsic pleasure in building those algorithms and building that infrastructure, is actually more dangerous. I don’t think you can actually check power when you don’t understand what it is motivated by.
RS: OK, let’s take Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. There’s a lot of issues about privacy and invading people’s privacy and so forth, and he claims that he’s concerned about it. He has a business model that is totally built on destroying privacy. And that’s why you have targeted advertising, that’s why he’s made all this money. You can’t separate the profit-making from what the essential model, the business model, is. Amazon, for instance, Jeff Bezos; he can talk a good game at any conference, but the fact is, it’s based on paying people miserable wages. It’s the old efficiency expert in the warehouse saying, you gotta move faster! And no, you can’t have a union, and no, you can’t have rights. You have to be a robot here, or we’ll replace you with an actual robot. And so the business model that they have, whether it’s Peter Thiel and his operations and so forth, they depend first of all on developing a monopoly, so there is a restraint of trade that shouldn’t have been allowed in the first place. Right? And secondly, on exploiting people, whether it’s the people assembling iPhones in China, or anywhere else. And that’s why they won’t get off the back of these people. I take your point–they talk a great game. And there’s a lot of very persuasive people that they can hire to give lectures that tell them they’re on the right track. But I, I have to believe that at Goldman Sachs, when they sold those lousy mortgages and packages, they did look under the lid once in a while and knew it was a lot of crap, and they were deceiving people. They have to know that they’re responsible.
AG: Oh, absolutely, and that’s of course the reason that Goldman Sachs was able to escape the worst of that itself, even while it was selling some of those products to clients, and eventually paid a major fine to the Department of Justice for what it did. I think the important point here is that much of what the leading businesses do in America today depends on dumping a certain amount of harm into our common life. Whether that means you employ people at your Home Depot or Wal-Mart, and you employ people in a way that keeps them precarious, not paying them enough or not employing them in a stable enough way that they can make a life. Whether that’s a Silicon Valley company that says workers are kind of micro-entrepreneurs, but really basically just means you don’t believe in labor protections for them. Whether that’s companies like GE and Priceline, which avoid taxes in many years by coming up with very clever schemes to move money around the world, and therefore deprive us of resources that we could have to invest in education and other things. Whether it’s people who fight for private jets to have a tax break, and for us not to have maternity leave as a society instead, with some of the resources that we could put to that. So one of the hard truths that I tried to speak in this book is that what a lot of rich people are unwilling to acknowledge, but what a certain number of them are willing to acknowledge, is that their very success depends on extraction. And that making America work again for most Americans, making the American dream accessible again for most Americans, will require more than tweaking the engine, will require more than some win-wins. Will actually require the powerful being pulled down a peg on a number of issues, sacrificing, actually seeing some of their resources diminished in order for us to do right by most of us. And that’s painful, but that’s what it’s going to take to move from the age of thousands of private initiatives to what I believe must inevitably follow this age, which is an age of reform.
RS: I’m talking to Anand Giridharadas, and the book is called “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.” And there’s a lot in it; we’ll get into it after we take a quick break, and we’ll be back. [omission] I’m back with Anand Giridharadas, and I defy anyone to read this book and not be appalled at what has happened to our claim on democracy. You have a culture that’s based on inequality, it’s based on–you know, what is Apple or Google? These are monopolies, right? They’ve developed cartel arrangements, they prevent unionization. And then when you have somebody like Gates, says he wants to save American education–yes, a part of him does. He had great parents, he’s a decent guy, I suppose; I liked him personally. But the fact of the matter is, he doesn’t want education in American high schools, say in Oakland, where the Gates Foundation did have a big impact, and I think hurt the schools. He doesn’t want young people to know about the unions and the struggles, and you know, how we ended slavery; it wasn’t just some nice president said something. And he doesn’t want to empower poor people to organize or to question or challenge for their rights; he doesn’t want lessons about the exploiters. And yet these people claim they’re saving our educational system, and what they’re doing is designing it so they can get a workforce that they can exploit. And that won’t question their power. Is that not the case?
AG: I think it is the case that, as you say, private individuals are assuming and asserting a level of power over public institutions and public questions that is simply incompatible with democracy. What is the point of one person, one vote? Why do we bother to go to the lengths we do to enforce that, if we create this huge other sphere where rich people have all the votes and we have none, and that other sphere actually controls public things like public schools? It’s just a level of power, first of all, that no one should have, regardless of how they use it. Second, there’s the question that you’re raising of how they use it. And there’s no question–I found when I spent time with these folks that when rich people take over social change, they don’t, you know, run the restaurant like the previous owners. They impose on it their biases, their needs, their no-go zones, their pet ideas. And so what you often see is that, essentially, the kinds of ideas of progress that might come at the winner’s expense get talked about less or not at all. And the kinds of ideas that would help people in some modest way, at zero cost to the winners, get talked up. And over time, this contributes to an enormous distortion where, in our conversations about how to make the world better, we end up surrounded by win-win ideas that modestly help while protecting the opportunity of the privileged to stay on top. And ideas that actually involve the sacrifice of power for the greater good are shut out, shamed, and deemed radical and vague.
RS: I’m talking to Anand Giridharadas, and he has written a–maybe, in some ways, the most important book of our time. And the reason I say it’s so important is because it is a charade that most of us don’t grasp. And the only part I’m quibbling with, and it really is only a quibble–you seem to want to treat these people as if they have some soul, some decency. And I’m with the pope on this one, I think this is a rapacious capitalism that is disguised as something softer, but is absolutely brutal.
AG: Yeah, I don’t think we deeply disagree, I just think that it’s very possible for human beings to do very awful things while feeling like they’re good people and believing they’re doing the right thing. And I think that’s actually where a lot of human darkness comes from, it’s where a lot of the worst things that have happened in history come from. People who weren’t cynical, who were actually naive and idealistic in a really awful way.
RS: OK, so let’s take this word, cynical. And again, I’m not taking anything away from this book, because I think the speeches that you were present at, the–I should explain to people, the thing that makes this such an incredible book is it’s a great piece of reporting, OK? We’re not, unfortunately I haven’t been conveying that enough here. It’s not a theoretical exposition, it’s not a didactic argument; this is journalism at its best. And it’s letting people talk, it’s listening to them. And our author, Anand Giridharadas, is present. You actually worked at the Aspen Institute; you were at many, you were a TED speaker; these people liked you. They welcomed you. And you could have easily taken the money and run, right? You’re one of the people you describe–what do you call them, thought leaders? Who are just bought off. And you decided to not go that route. I mean, you have an amazing scene where they’re listening to Edward Snowden on some Transatlantic communication; he was also listened to at the TED Talk and so forth. And at one point, they think hey, he’s one of us. And he tries to set them correct, no, I’m not out to rip people off, I’m out to help their freedom.
AG: I went on a cruise ship called Summit at Sea for 3,000 or so entrepreneurs who believe they are changing the world. I was interested in what happens when you have this kind of density of people who are convinced that they’re making the world a better place, and that growing their businesses is how you make the world better, and you make the world better by growing their businesses. This total idea of the win-win. And one of the events was the talk by Edward Snowden via videoconference from Russia. Chris Sacca, a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley who’s been very, very successful, was his interlocutor. So Chris kind of stood on stage looking up at this big screen asking Edward Snowden questions. And this hasn’t really been reported ever, so it’s kind of new in the book. And the scene where Snowden is talking and explaining this kind of powerful vision of why he did what he did–he kind of gave an explanation of it that I hadn’t heard before, which is that he is convinced that the opportunity to dissent, to call out something untrue in a society, that that act requires a certain freedom to think thoughts, exchange ideas with others that are not visible to the government. If we live in a world in which every communication is surveilled and interdicted, potentially interdicted by government, we’re going to live in a world in which change becomes very hard to make. Because as soon as someone has a truly heretical idea, they’ll be neutered; if not in the United States, then certainly in many countries. It was a very interesting vision, and as he started describing, well, the way I’m going to do that is I’m going to build all these tools that would allow dissidents to actually operate more freely. A communication tool so you can message without getting caught, a Facebook “like” tool so you can socially network without losing your privacy, some kind of tokenized identity so you can make clear to different websites that you’re the same person without revealing which person you are–various things. Snowden was describing the creation of all these things because he wanted to live in a world in which dissent of the kind that he made is possible, in which it’s possible to go up against power and not be interrupted in that quest; that’s his motivation, his goal. And what was so fascinating to me, given the cultural collision between this man who deeply believed, whether you like him or not, in sacrifice and in taking a risk for what he felt to be the greater good, who believed in fighting the power structure–he was standing there talking to these 3,000, or you know, however many were in the room–kind of entrepreneur types, whose biggest goal is to, like, make $1 billion in a way that serves humanity. And it’s like they couldn’t process him; they couldn’t process his set of motivations. And so Chris Sacca says, wow, you sound like you’re designing a lot of tools that, they sound like apps, or startup–do you want to build a startup? I mean, there’s a lot of people here who would like to be your investor. Snowden just looked at him, puzzled, like–what are you talking about? I’m talking about freedom and heresy and truth, and being a dissident, and how a society corrects itself from manifest injustices through allowing people who have an uncomfortable truth to tell it. And you’re talking about startups? And it was just this wonderful collision between someone who believes in real changes, and these people who kind of believe in the pseudo-change that lines their own pockets.
RS: There’s a lot of people who kind of criticize what’s going on, and who these people are. And we fall for their malarkey because we really don’t witness what they say to each other in more private spaces. And this book, the great strength of it is you actually tell us; you have the transcripts, you have the conversations, you have the body language. And most important, you show how, OK, here I’ll accept your “good people” thing. You introduce us to people that start out with aspirations to be decent. And it’s very quickly sacrificed, bargained away. And to be able to capture that–because most of us, you know, we suppress it in ourselves, right? We all lead compromised lives. And what your book really connects is that act of compromising, selling out, to the big problems that we have. It’s why you’re willing to go along with the smashing of unions, or unnecessary wars, or not taxing the super wealthy, or having lousy schools. It’s really a very important thesis about why we’re in such trouble. It’s not just that there are some bad actors. It’s that they control the action. They were able to effectively move government aside and come up with a market-based solution to our problems that has failed us miserably, and they have profited, and the rest of the people–you have statistics on the stagnation of wages that are appalling. And how much they have been able to get in the last 40 years, and you can’t all blame it on Ronald Reagan; it runs through Clinton, and the first President Bush, and Obama, and it’s not all Trump. The book ends with a story–or not Trump and Reagan, I mean that’s not the key thing.
AG: I think of Donald Trump as a pimple on a boil on a diseased body politic. He’s a very attention-getting pimple, but if anybody thinks that popping that pimple is going to get rid of the problem, I think we’re failing to understand that you don’t get a Donald Trump as president of a country as good and great as this one, without a lot of things being wrong as preconditions. It is very important that the removal of Donald Trump from office, or the impeachment of Donald Trump, or whatever it is that people want to do with Donald Trump, not be the only focus of those who want to make America actually better. And not simply “great again” in this narrow and fake way that he promises, but to actually bring the American dream back into the reach of most Americans. That’s going to require not just deposing Donald Trump, but frankly, deposing the conditions that led to Donald Trump; deposing the era of fake change itself, and ushering in, as I say, an age of reform, where we fix our problems at the root, for all of us, through the extraordinary democratic institutions that we are lucky enough to live under.
RS: Anand Giridharadas, and the book is called Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. And I want to thank you for joining us today on this edition of Scheer Intelligence.
AG: Thank you so much.
RS: Our producers are Joshua Scheer and Isabel Carreon. Our engineers are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. And we got an able assistance from NPR in New York City, and we broadcast from KCRW. Thanks for joining us, see you next week.