Book review: “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World”

This book can be summarized in the entire character of Mr. Burns:

“Is this still a coven of capitalism where evil money can acquire a patina of virtue?”

I picked up this book at because I wanted to take a good whack at all the mess that is constantly going on in Washington and political halls around the nation. The title was provocative: Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, and it felt like it could potentially have some meat on it, rather than just a tirade from political left or right field. In particular, I liked that the author seemed to be pointing away from superficial solutions from either the right or left, that all these supposed do-gooders either, at best, didn’t understand the consequences of their misguided policies, or, at worst, had ulterior motives (which I think is unavoidable, but there you have it).

Was this just socialism lite?

But after reading the first chapter or so, I began to doubt whether I was really on the same page as the author. What I had anticipated would be a takedown of elites, whether they were in business, politics, law, or any other field, was actually just an attack on market-based solutions. Clever he didn’t add that to the title. I firmly believe in market-based solutions. I’m naturally inclined to want lower taxes, and I think that it helps the little guy. The less government intervention the better. But I’m not all laissez-faire. I think the government, as a representative of the people, acts in stewardship to keep a free playing field. Even Hayek, one of the propounders of the free market, acknowledged that too much power in the hands of a few capitalists is just as bad as too much power in the hands of a few politicians:

[Paraphrased] Monopolies are just as bad concentrations of power as big government. Big corporations wield enormous power, and in the end give way to totalitarian governments just like socialist states do. Monopolies aren’t inevitable, and usually arise not from competitive forces, but from government sponsorship of existing businesses.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, right? But he seemed to not be addressing the other side of the coin: concentrations of power in the government. It was all hating on the market. I was getting vamped up for a searing review, how this was just another leftist pining for a socialist utopia. If he didn’t balance his argument, provide some actual meat to his argument rather than a few sob stories and demonizing individuals in business, and propose some solid solutions to the problem, I wasn’t buying it. Like Theodore Roosevelt said, Complaining about a problem without proposing any solutions is called whining.

I was ready to pass of the book as so much Marxist propaganda, because he does seem to divide the world hopeless into winners and losers, a zero-sum game:

All social relationships center on the struggle for power, which is won or lost depending on the ownership of property. You are either a member of the group that has power and property, or one of those trying to seize it. There is no room for division of labor, a natural hierarchy of talent, or cooperation among groups at different rungs of the social ladder. There are only winners and losers. Those at the bottom of the ladder must claw their way to the top, and pull down the people over them.

What really irked me was when he targeted Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People for it’s tenet of seeking win-win solutions, or the third way: the idea that in social interactions, the best way to solve problems is to try to find a solution where all sides can benefit. Giridharadas believes such ideas to be completely ephemeral, a ruse by the wealthy insisting that they benefit from any change in society:

In an ideal version of these endeavors, the winner could enjoy an enticing combination of making money, doing good, feeling virtuous, working on hard and stimulating problems, feeling her impact, reducing suffering, spreading justice, exoticizing a resume, traveling the world, and gaining a catchy cocktail-party spiel.

Granted, while the people he described want to make me vomit, I couldn’t take his criticism of a book I thought was very valuable. Then even worse, he tried to paint Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind as one of these corporate goons, someone who had sacrificed their original ideas of social justice for a watered-down version of market solutions. He quotes Haidt:

People our age grew up expecting that the point of civic engagement is to be active, so we can make the government fix civil rights or something– we’ve got to make the government do something. And young people have grown up never seeing the government do anything except turn the lights off now and then. And so their activism is not going ot be to get the government to do things. It’s going to be to invent some app, some way of solving problems separately. And that’s going to work.

Then he castigates Haidt as essentially selling his soul to corporate: That a scholar like Haidt could compare inventing an app to the civil rights movement [gives you an idea of what we’re up against]. Giridharadas so far was losing me, because he was critiquing people I find have valuable argument, and not leaving me with anything of substance ot replace it with.

The worst part is, he seems to paint elites as entirely unable to contribute positively to solutions, just by virtue of them being elites. Any efforts are going to be blinded by their inherent prejudices. He quotes Oscar Wilde’s critique of the elites of England in his own day as being representative of modern-day capitalists in America:

Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are those trying to do most good.

Wait, there is something here

But then, there were other times when I couldn’t agree more with Giridharadas, where he would express a concern here or there that I’ve had before. Or he’d add nuance to his argument that wasn’t there before. I just had to wait a bit for it. The first thing that got me was he presented some actually feasible solutions, and ones that I’ve advocated for: addressing the new monopolies, which have more recently been revealing the darker sides to power:

The [financial] sector could be arranged in other ways, including tighting regulations on trading, higher taxes on financiers, stronger labor protections to protect workers from layoffs and pension raiding by private equity owners, and incentives favoring job investment over mere speculation. Such measures could help to solve the underlying problem by preventing the capture of gains from growing productivity.

The modern monopolies: Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple– all the tech-ey ones– need to be challenged. Giridharadas really takes a swing at these guys, because they paint themselves as the little guy fighting off systems of injustice, without even realizing that they’re the ones causing the problems. We need another trust-busting Theodore Roosevelt-type to do something about these large concentrations of power. Whenever a new type of game-changing technology is introduced, it breeds chances to take advantage of the weak. Take Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle where he exposed the practices of the food industry, who were chopping all sorts of unsavory bits into your food. The Pure Food and Drug Act helped to ensure those flagrant abuses didn’t happen. Regulation is a necessary and good thing against the brute forces of the market. Any such hopes of the market regulating itself is trusting the fox with the chicken coop, sorry not sorry. And we’re just beginning to understand the scope of the evils the new tech platforms have been breeding: surveillance, selling data, addictive behaviors, and polarization of society to name a few.

Image result for boss baby gif

The romantic flair in me too– combined with a little practical side of me– groans at the invasive nature of business into multiple walks of life. I’ve seen it enter my religion in the form of “key indicators” and measurements of success, and its tawdry gimics show up in kids shows (Boss Baby), in research (e.g. stakeholder theory being taught to basic scientists and the push to commercialize ideas), and in work life (sickeningly shallow motivational posters and quotes). I like Giridharadas’s assessment here: In our age, many domains lack confidence in their own methodologies and are often desperate to inject business thinking into their work. We need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and rely on our own unique ways of doing things. Getting back to my personal distaste of business practices and ideas in religion, I was reminded of Denver Snuffer’s critique of Mormonism in this regard. Snuffer outlines in Passing the Heavenly Gift how the Church increasingly relied on ideas from the business world to straighten itself out after it nearly went bankrupt when the federal government confiscated its property for the practice of polygamy. It became just a part of the structure of the Church:

The church’s goal of being well informed before making decisions has been accomplished by using the business marketing techniques of opinion polling and focus group meetings to test reactions to proposed church actions or policies. Correlation was adopted as a way to control the bureaucracy, but was extended to control teaching. Now, before an idea is taught, it is first tested using scientific means developed to market products.

So, after that long tangent, yes Giridharadas, business as a solution for everything = bad.

Giridharadas also includes well-grounded philosophical arguments. For being on the liberal side of the spectrum, he does have a conservative outlook on human nature, relying extensively on Hobbes. Hobbes’ believed that the natural condition of mankind is a state of war where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Individuals are engaged in a “war against all.” The modern market, when completely unregulated, is just a new version of the state of war. Humanity is reduced to survival of the fittest. Giridharadas uses Hobbes’ justification for a strong central government:

What connects these various notions is a fantasy of living free of government. These rich and powerful men engage in what writer Kevin Roose has called “anarchist cheerleading,” in keeping with their carefully crafted message as rebels against the authorities… But a long line of thinkers has told us that the powerful tend to be the big winners from the creation of blank-slate, rule-free worlds…

Hobbes believed that structurelessness wasn’t all it cracked up to be [by the way, compare this with Hayek’s idea that organization equals power], especially for the weak. The powerful Leviathan for which he advocated is often treated as shorthand for monarchy or authoritarianism. But in fact what Hobbes is suggesting was that the choice is not between authority and liberty, but between authority of one sort and authority of another. Someone always rules; the question is who. In a world without a Leviathan, which is to say a strong state capable of making and enforcing universal rules, people will be ruled by thousands of miniature Leviathans closer to home– by the feudal lords on whose soil they work and against whom they have few defenses; by powerful, whimsical, unaccountable princes.

I wonder if Giridharadas would be offended being compared to Jonathan Haidt, because he seems to also not easily pegged as someone entirely from the left or right? Hobbes’ argument for a strong central government is one that the founding Fathers were familiar with, which is why they invested it with certain powers. Again, I feel the answer is somewhere in the middle.

Finally, Giridharadas includes a fascinating discussion of networks as the new feature of today’s monopolies. Their nature as a network is used as evidence of how democratic they are, when in reality they leave room for the formation of new oligarchies:

The Ubers and Airbnbs and Facebooks and Googles of the world are at once radically democratic and dangerously oligarchic. Facebook emancipates people in Algerian basements to write whatever they want, for all the world to see. Airbnb allows anyone to rent a room out of their home. Uber allows anyone going through financial hardship to download the app and, without much hassle, get started making money. These platforms push power to the edges– power once controlled by media companies, hotel chains, and taxi unions. But networks tend toward extreme concentrations as well. It is no fun if half of your high school friends are on the other social network, so Facebook becomes a de facto monopoly. A core tenet of network theory is that the bigger the network, the more juice it will be able to squeeze for every new connection. Networks then, are those rare beasts that get healthier, tougher, and faster the fatter they become.

Giridharadas hits on a point that perhaps is lost on conservatives, because they feel like they’re being accused. The idea is that there is a difference between direct forms of oppression (which are definitely fewer today) and systemic forms of oppression. Systems are more than the sums of their parts. A system can potentially have unfair results even if each individual from their vantage point is being fair and reasonable. Many of these are unconscious, unobserved facts of behavior that doesn’t make someone good or bad: it makes them human, because we all suffer from it. One great example mentioned in the book is in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, people more easily perceived “anguish, mourning, remorse,” and other “uniquely human” emotions in people of the same race as them than in people of other hues. I fully agree that we should seek to address these issues, but with a warning that, just as systemic issues are difficult to observe directly, predicting how the system will respond to change is going to be even more difficult and can have disastrous consequences if not done with care. With our hyped out politics today with tendencies towards extremes, I wouldn’t want anyone touching any dials on the system.

The Darker Side to Philanthropy

Giridharadas hits a home run when he challenges head-on the greatest apologist for modern capitalism: Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie believed that inequality was an inevitable consequence of the capitalist system, but that it was a good thing, the inevitable cost of genuine progress . He writes in his famous essay Wealth:

The conditions of human life have not only been changed, but revolutionized… The contrast between the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer with us today measure the change which has come with civilization. This change however is not to be deplored, but welcome as highly beneficial.

At first, as a believer in markets, I could live with this. I had a few things I could throw back. First, there was Prager University’s video by John Tamny on why “Income Inequality is Good.” Tamny argues that the rich people are the “test drivers” of new technologies that make life better. He uses as an example cell phones. Back in the day a “brick phone” would cost you $4000, but a fancy new smart phone today will cost you a fraction of that. It wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have rich people to buy that $4000 phone in the first place. So income inequality can’t be all that bad, right?

In addition, I would also pull out C. S. Lewis’s critique of the misuse of the word democracy in Screwtape Proposes a Toast: a kind of bottom-looking-up pride, envy incarnate. Screwtape says:

You are using the word only as an incantation; if you like, purely for its selling power. It is a name they venerate. And of course it is connected with the political ideal that men should be equally treated. You then make a stealthy transition in their minds from this political ideal to a factual belief that all men are equal. As a result you can use the word democracy to sanction in his thought the most degrading of human feelings. You can get him to practice, not only without shame but with a positive glow of self-approval, conduct which, if undefended by the magic word, would be universally derided. The feeling I mean is of course that which prompts a man to say I’m as good as you.

But Giridharadas adds something. He doesn’t agree with Carnegies conclusion: he says that the rich, in their climb to the top, cause the problems they seek to alleviate once they get there. His best example is Purdue Pharma, the people who brought you OxyContin. By pushing it relentlessly on doctors (marketing directly to them with questionable means, see John Oliver’s video on this here), lying about its consequences, and fighting any legislation against its regulation when bad things started popping up, they almost single-handedly caused today’s opioid crisis. Examples abound of examples in industry where CEOs and business leaders rationalize away morally questionable decisions. And these are the people we task to solve the problems? Capitalists justify their bad behavior on the climb up because, well, they will be nice and give of their wealth once they are at the top.

But Giridharadas doesn’t buy that either. He uses another novel argument I hadn’t heard: that big philanthropy is undemocratic. Undemocratic? What do you mean? It gets to that quote from Hayek again, about the concentration of power. When you start donating money on that scale, you are making decisions for large swathes of society. You decide what gets prioritized. And those decisions are made behind closed doors now, and not determined by the people whom it affects.

It made me think of a recent critique by historian Rutger Bregman at Davos this year. He said, Industry has to stop talking about philanthropy and start talking about taxes… That’s it. Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit in my opinion. My reflex response was to kick and scream. But now, with Giridharadas’s insights on how big philanthropy is an undemocratic process, I feel much more sympathetic. This is a legitimate critique. A real one, a bad one.

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