Winners Take All – Anand Giridharadas

 27-11-2018

Dear Partners in thought,

I would like to talk to you about “Winners Take All” from Anand Giridharadas, a book focused on “the elite charade of changing the world” as stressed by its sub-title. Although not presented as such, this book is de facto an insider’s investigation on how the global elite efforts “to change the world” through setting up their own programs, charities, foundations and the likes actually change nothing or not much and preserve the status quo, obscuring, according to AG, their role in causing the problems they later seek to solve. This book is about the global elite, the power of money, the desire to change the world that may be motivated by a range of noble and also selfish reasons, the increasing societal divide and the rise of populism triggered by a backlash against this elite and their galaxy in spite of their many efforts to change the world in ways that some like AG find less than sincere. It makes readers reflect more deeply about the “do gooding” of the global elite that has naturally been always well received in modern times but might be for some a smokescreen to hide the original sins of social inequality globally. If anything this book is a great basis for a needed debate.

AG, whom I discovered on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria’s weekly GPS (one of my favorite shows for its overall set-up, the quality of Fareed’s insights and the high caliber of his guests) last September, is teaching journalism at NYU and is a contributor on the main stage of TED. A recipient of the Pointer Fellowship at Yale and of the New York Library’s Helen Bernstein Award, he was a foreign correspondant for the New York Times from 2005 to 2016 and has written for the New Yorker and The New Republic. An Aspen Institute Fellow and an analyst for MSNBC, he started his career as an analyst at McKinsey which his bright mind, sharp thinking and 21st century “bright new world speak” easily shows.

AG draws a very contrasting view of our world to set the stage for his book. America (the book is US-centred) leads medicine, genetic and biomedical advancements while the average American health remains relatively poor compared to that of peers in the Western world and life expectancy actually declines in some years. America creates new learning ways via video and internet while children test more poorly in reading than in 1992. America becomes “European” in the quality of its food yet obesity and related conditions keep rising. Everybody can access a wider tech toolset to becoming entrepreneurs yet there are markedly much fewer of them than in the 1980s. In spite of Amazon and its online bookstore and Google having coded 25 million books, illiteracy stays the same and less and less Americans read a book a year. AG feels that in spite of all the tech-driven societal advancements America’s “progress machine” allowing people to better their lives have benefitted only a very fortunate minority that was already socially on top with the average pre-tax income of the top tenth nearly doubling since 1980 (seven times for the top 0.001 percent) whereas the bottom half of Americans or 117 m individuals stayed the same, at times mirroring conditions known in the poorest emerging countries (like for life expectancy of poor American males) in spite of 35 years of breathtaking changes mostly led by a continuing tech revolution. In simple terms, the picture shows the 10 percent group owning 90 percent of the wealth. AG provides a long list of similar conclusions which has led many millions of Americans, on the left and right, feeling that the game has been rigged for a very long time, leading to a constant condemnation of the system, a blow to the American dream and the rise of different streams of populism.

AG’s focus is thus on the elite who have decided to take ownership of and manage societal inequality issues using their business approach and while being the beneficiaries of the system they have created. They want to do good to correct the wrongs that they often engineered however unwittingly in the pursuit of their lives and activities. AG goes on a journey into this elite world, notably tech entrepreneurs who amassed fortunes and see a world changing role for themselves, exploring their rationale, and the do gooding galaxy of individuals who created a life for themselves assisting these aspiring existential game-changers.

The common theme of all the exchanges which AG had with various figures for his book is that they are indeed “grappling with powerful myths” that have promoted a unique power concentration in our times, allowing “the elite’s private, partial and self-promotional deeds to pass for real change and leading many “decent winners” believing that doing well by doing good was an adequate solution in an age of exclusion, making them feel better in terms of protecting their own privileges while averting more meaningful change to the status quo.

AG starts telling us about Hilary Cohen a Houston born and raised 2014 graduate from Georgetown at a time when she had to decide what to do after college, looking at management consulting, the rabbinate and the non-profit world. Hilary is representative of the young elite American college students stirred by a desire to “change things” though this time through capitalism and market solutions rather than government, creating a new approach to solving social inequality. Investment committees and driven entrepreneurship start mattering more than sheer democratically-flavored social and political actions of older days. Business encourages this trend awarding scholarships to these elite students to make them focus on “doing good” while “doing well”. One example is Georgetown’s Baker Scholarship named after the founder of Citbank and de facto maker of Harvard Business School and targeted at liberal arts students which Hilary obtains in her senior year. The era of “social” everything dawns on elite campuses: social innovation, social business, social enterprise and of course social and impact investing. Business language starts permeating the sphere of social change with “fostering innovation and providing unique skill sets”, “engaging global leaders to drive social change at scale” or “leveraging the power of capital, data, technology and innovation to improve people’s lives”, all messages that resonate with students like Hilary and equipping them for their new life missions. When Hilary receives an offer to join McKinsey, arguably the leading strategy consulting firm in the world, she does not know what to do in spite of the firm’s strong social message, wondering if she really would fulfil her desire to “doing good” by working on the problems of McKinsey’s corporate clients.

In finally taking that job, Hilary joins what AG calls MarketWorld, which is an ascendant power elite that is defined by concurrent drives to do well and to do good and focused on free market and voluntary action to solve societal issues. MarketWorld that recruits among the best is a combination of “enlightened business people and their collaborators in the universes of charity, academia, media, government and think tanks”. Their thinkers become “thought leaders” and they have their own language and territories, the latter being the famed global elite conferences around the world such as Davos (The World Economic Forum) or Aspen (The Aspen Institute), promoting the culture and state of mind that make them a global network and a community. To MarketWorld social change is not antagonistic to their needs and should be supervised by the winners of capitalism making the biggest winners of the status quo playing a leading role in the latter’s reform. Going back to Hilary, she realises very quickly that while she learns effective tools to solve corporate problems, these tools are not all obvious cure-alls across domains. She starts doubting if that social message, however noble, was not actually a way for top firms’ recruiters to capitalise on the trend for social betterment among elite students. In an ironical twist AG stressed that not content to replace government as the main agent of social change, MarketWorld advises it on how to run countries better as demonstrated by Obama’s closeness to Mckinseyites and his predecessor’s passion for Goldman Sachs alumni. The fact that these business agents of change, notably in the financial sector, having optimised everything and created fewer jobs through automation, layoffs, offshoring and dynamic scheduling while reaping great spoils for themselves along the way did not prevent them from being the self-appointed agents of social change and be accepted as such simply because they could solve problems well. Hilary, her doubts about really being groomed to change the world increasing (was she not a bit naive one might ask) ended up working in the McKinsey team Obama hired to work on his plans for a foundation, a fact that both silenced and conjured her doubts on business and social change. In the end even tough she was conflicted (though still admitting her role at McKinsey also carried prestige and lifestyle that she was not oblivious to), the work was exciting at many levels and she joined the Obama Foundation full-time allowing her to focus more squarely on doing good, even if in a very business-like way given the foundations…of the Foundation.

We then discover a number of MarketWorld examples in action. The common feature shared by all these MarketWorlders, to different degrees, is their belief that business itself is an important agent for good and societal change. Even if one could argue that the inventors and subsequent developers of the PC and internet did change the world, business as a direct force of societal change may not be a universal value in our times beyond making lives of users of products and services more efficient and pleasurable. AG introduces us to Dallas-based Stacey Asher and the world of business executives in top segments, like in her case hedge fund management, who have an epiphany (she in an orphanage in Africa) and decide to go and do good – again the business way, setting up a charity-like hedge fund to help the needy, she in the realm of fantasy sports where football teams are now stocks with proceeds going to the winners’ favourite charities. We then read about Justin Rosenstein, not even thirty, already a Silicon Valley star, having helped start Google Drive and being the co-inventor of the Gmail chat before inventing the dreadful “Like” button on Facebook (he may not be sure about his exact legacy on the latter). Justin who lived very modestly and was deeply spiritual and keen on “values” did not know what to do with his Valley wealth (though he still lives in a California-flavored communal residence) and decided to set up a new company that would connect people through work collaboration software to companies like Uber, Airbnb and Dropbox, thus “doing good” and changing people’s and workers’ experiences if not lives . We then discover Emmett Carson, a young African American who came from the Southside of Chicago focused on “social justice” a terminology too close to “win-losey” for the Valley where he had moved to advise tech entrepreneurs on the matter that he retitled his focus as being on “fairness”, which was better accepted. In doing so Carson understood that “if no one questioned the entrepreneurs’ fortunes and their personal status quo, they were willing to help” so they could also change the world in ways that had their buy- ins.

Here AG makes us discover the beauty of the “win-win” (the fourth commandment or habit of Stephen Covey’s opus named “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and how they should think) promoted by “philantrocapitalists”. Win-Winism, that is rooted in Adam Smith’s social benefits of selfishness, is the mantra of the wealthy do-gooders and brings with it things like social enterprises, social venture capital, impact investing, benefit corporations, double and triple bottom lines, shared value theories of business’s enlightened self-interest, give one-get one products and the likes, all centred on what is good for the winners is good for everyone else. Win-win is also about about giving as it makes you happier and “being selfish and giving”. Win-win looks to be about having its cake and eating it too, more than once, the latest internally minded-win-win having been “Getting Syrians back to work – a win- win for host countries and the refugees”. And all of this against a backdrop of painlessness and promise that what has been very good for me will certainly be good for you who may not have drawn the right set of cards.

We then get a glimpse of one of those elite do gooding gatherings which is the Summit at Sea on a cruise ship and get introduced to a few attendees (many women entrepreneurs among those he describes) and their thought leaders who all seem focused on making sure business itself can bring the most impact and change in the lives of millions in the world. To be sure these gatherings may have the feel of sects as they all vocally and safely express that message, all looking alike in their profiles and win-win aspirations. The Summit at Sea cruise is about having “cascading effects on humanity”, “making friends who are going to impact your pocket books” and while “the boat is not about getting drunk and getting naked. Well it’s sort of about that but it’s also about social justice”. Then AG presents Pishevar a veteran Valley venture capitalist who would have trained Uber’s founder Travis Kalanick in the art of LA clubbing (indeed picking clubbing clothes for him, the bio detail being rather odd) but would see himself as a key architect in the prolongation of life (living longer and healthier of course) right at the corner of the next few years, encouraging all not to take risks (very un-business-like) physically at least so they stay alive to experience the new age. Pishevar and other like him insist they are “rebels” disrupting what is not well in everybody’s life, again stressing the key role of business in win-win changes to alter distant individual conditions while preserving the bigger societal one. As such the two companies he backed, Uber and Airbnb, are shown as disrupters of “monopolies” and providers of other choices for all, even though they ran into myriads of problems with their stakeholders prompting radical changes and a less messianic approach. These live examples are part of a never- ending succession of stories dealing with the do well-do good crowd of entrepreneurs and their thought leaders who give words and ways to the do gooding win-win elite and their galaxies.

The chapter on “thought leaders” is quite interesting as it deals with a core group of the MarketWorld galaxy. AG offers an enlightening comparison of the older, critical though demised public intellectuals like Yin & Yang and now deceased Gore Vidal and Bill Buckley vs. the newer, systemically non-disruptive but fashionable thought leaders like Yin & Yang Thomas L. Friedman and Niall Ferguson. Basically these thought leaders who come from academia or various softer corners of business provide views, usually non-threatening to the status quo built by their elite followers and backers, on how to better lives and also the world. AG provides us a real tour of the new “profession” and how many thought leaders gradually accepted to forget about their once critical approach of society to be part of the MarketWorld tour where they get paid handsomely to do speeches or talks (Niall Ferguson, the well known historian, who understood the power of communication more than most of his academic peers, makes USD 50,000 to 75,000 by speech or talk). Many thought leaders who command hefty fees for their talks happily paid by business attendees so they know how to live better lives, feel better about their success and change the world the win-win way, often start becoming such Market World beacons by stumbling into the limelight realising how easy MarketWorld participants will pay them for feel good stories devoid of culprits. All of them emphasise solutions to improve the system but not to change it due to the fact that attendees and backers are it. So the focus of the thought leaders is squarely on fighting poverty and not the less than backer-welcome “inequality”. Reading AG, one would feel that anybody can be a thought leader as long as one already publishes anything widely read and works through agents who sell their clients on the speaking and talking tours (note on the inside book cover: AG has also an agent which is happy to book him for “select” engagements).

We then travel through the worlds of investment banks and strategy consulting firms and their “protocols” which can be applied to “fight poverty” with McKinsey and Bain being leading examples of AG’s chapter heading that “arsonists do make the best firefighters” in our MarketWorld times. As a former “arsonist” myself, I would argue that the tools one learns at these elite firms are indeed very applicable to managing one’s life and likely to be quite relevant to addressing efficiently mega- issues such as reducing poverty. These McKinsey protocols (Read Ethan Rasiel’s illuminating “The McKinsey Mind”) are in the same vein as and a natural extension to what good colleges teach students so they can “think”, something I notice when observing my young strategy consulting associate daughter when managing her own life. AG points out that the leading advisers to corporate clients which have cemented our system and helped craft what has become a very “winners take all” field are often the ones joining and leading do-gooding platforms, these having usually been founded by billionaire philanthropists having created their wealth through market-astute and well-timed business endeavours. AG takes the example of the Soros Open Society Foundations and especially the Economic Advancement Foundation whose CEO was ex-McKinsey, Goldman Sachs and “extractor” Rio Tinto though had a peculiar Mongolian musicology scholar background in his early days. Taking the example of a Soros foundation is incidentally and unwittingly very interesting as George Soros is not just the 1992 British Pound killer but also someone who tried to change things for the better concretely in Hungary and throughout Central & Eastern Europe and is also subjected to direct and overt antisemitic rants from the likes of Victor Orban to Facebook’s now fired lobbying firm (read FT’s Rana Foroohar’s “Facebook puts profits before democracy” on 19th November). AG’s point however is that taking the master’s tools to dismantle his house is rather peculiar, even if one can see the value and efficiency of the tools that could be deployed for other goals than creating inequalitarian wealth in the first place.

We then go to the world of foundations to see that they were despised when the titans of the early 20th century, like Carnegie or Rockefeller, set them up as they were considered too obvious tools of the plutocrats of the day. Times changed and the many foundations funded by early and modern tycoons focused on improving the lives of many like The Ford foundation and are now seen as the tools of goodness in modern societies. We focus on Darren Walker, the President of the Ford Foundation, a gay African American poster child of the American dream come true, who wants to change his focus from the doing good to alleviate poverty to making his donors focus on the roots of inequality that led to poverty, wanting to force them to look at the origin of their wealth and what could be done to change the system rather than curing its ill developments. We know more about his high profile donors like the Tisches or Sacklers who are engaged in huge philanthropy but whose fortunes also relied in part upon cigarettes or addictive drugs (some key donors like Laurie Fisch being conflicted but not yet ready to be the odd one out to contest the “status quo”). As we follow Darren addressing his audience comprising mostly junior executives at private equity firm KKR, his new mantra does not register as they too prefer to focus on cementing the success of their early careers so they can, one would hope, donate later some of the proceeds of their privileged existence, following the earlier Andrew Carnegie who thought it was fine to maximise one’s financial rewards through business activities so one could then donate lavishly later rather than being less inequalitarian in the first place (Carnegie, who surprisingly was much in favour of steep inheritance tax as he wanted to promote donating most of one’s wealth when alive, could condone on one hand activities that would cut costs and jobs so his bottom line would be higher while making sure that the excess financial rewards resulting from these selfish capitalistic policies would be donated…).

In what I think is the most powerful and relevant part of his book (also as it touches upon the raison d’être of Desperate Measures), AG then leaves the “do gooding” arena and the sheer win-win mantra to focus on the global elite itself and its struggles as of 2016, especially post-Brexit and even before the unlikely Trump ascent, to understand and then deal with the populist outbreak globally. We focus on the Clinton Global Initiative that was launched in 2005 by Bill Clinton and was modelled on the Davos’s World Economic Forum albeit on a smaller scale but focused on world changing projects and sponsor/attendee commitments. In other words tangible deeds beyond just feel-good words. The CGI took place for 12 years during “UN Week” in New York, that is during the United Nations general assembly week when all the heads of state would congregate to the Big Apple. CGI quickly presented itself as the alternative to the public, governmental way of solving world problems right at the time of the colossal state flop exposed by the management of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Every year the center of gravity of UN Week shifted from the UN itself to CGI as it attracted all the private and public world decision-makers in a Bill Clinton-engineered drive from solving problems away from exclusive government, public service and collective action to the markets via partnerships (key word) among entities private and public. Over 12 years (the last one was in 2016 as Hillary was deemed to go to the White House) CGI inspired 3,600 commitments, improving 435 million lives in 180 countries (a statistic that AG stressed was not easily verifiable). A good example of the CGI business-focused approach on win-win is exemplified by the subject of women’s equality or gender diversity where panels were filled by corporate ladies and men at the expense of feminist intellectuals and fighters for the cause. In typical CGI fashion, a key topic like women’s equality would be packaged in a win-win approach as it was not just the right thing to do, but also the business-smart thing to do given its USD 28 trillion market opportunity.

This CGI gathering of the MarketWorld elite meeting with state leaders was described by Niall Ferguson, a regular, as the “tribe of the rootless cosmopolitans” representing the “the everywhere companies” facing the ire of the “somewhere people” in other words the “One world” vs. the “place”, illustrating a conflict not only involving the rich vs. the poor even if that division could also apply in the new confrontation. As of mid-2016 the focus of CGI attendees was on that new divide and how to manage if not to solve it. Their main initial reaction was that the key problem was that they might have done a bad job of selling “One World” and its open borders, globalisation, technical progress, trade, rule by data and indeed MarketWorld supremacy. To follow AG’s approach, it is is interesting to note that the debate had gradually moved from “doing good” and “how to” to the roots of poverty if not yet inequality as CGI attendees were not yet ready to challenge the system that led to populism and from which they benefitted.

Dani Rodrik from the Harvard Kennedy School, though working from an elitist beacon (and a cosmopolitan himself as being a Turkish-born American), started to say that globalisation should not jut be rescued from the populists but also from its cheerleaders, its new model having put democracy to work for the global economy instead of the other way around. Jonathan Haidt, from NYU’s Stern School of Business, stated that “the new cosmopolitan elite acted and talked in ways that insulted, alienated and energised fellow citizens particularly those having a predisposition to authoritarianism, adding that “globalists were utopians, believing in change” and “the future and that anything that divides people into separate groups or identities is bad; removing borders and divisions is good”. Clearly CGI attendees knew what the problems were but did not know how to address them lest they broke the system. This section of the book is quite key also in helping understand the great divide and the populist outbreak, which is triggered not by poverty but by identity even if the two are linked (incidentally one of the great criticisms one hears of the globally-minded win-win fixation of the elite is that it is focused on exotic, far away lands and not on deprived areas back at home to help fellow citizens).

One of the worries expressed by Bill Clinton himself was actually whether this populist anger against the elite (be it bi-coastal or urban, this across the West) would not lead to a form of elite secession that would leave the left outs even more behind. At the same time, AG reports his presence at a panel comprising market reformers Mauricio Macri, Matteo Renzi and Sadiq Kahn where the latter as Mayor of London, just post-June 2016 British Referendum on the EU, would note that London had voted massively Remain as expected for a prosperous place but that its superior economic status and well-being also benefitted the rest of the UK thus following the win-win scenario, this in spite of London being clearly today a cosmopolitan city for the privileged few be they professionals, investors and/or residents (including the absentee kind for the latter) as some of us know only too well. AG goes at length providing many examples of the disconnect between the globalists and their populist foes noting that global CEOs do not deal with local issues and do need votes, solving problems outside and beyond politics, particularly locally where identity and related issues matter to the residents. It is notable that while well-meaning CGI attendees were debating reacting to populism they did so within themselves in a safe environment with none of the populist propagandists or their followers present (one could argue that the presence of a Nigel Farage or a Marine Le Pen, all acutely vocal and perpetually electorally-focused, might not have resulted in a constructive debate).

AG spent some time on Bill Clinton and his last CGI valedictorian address in September 2016. He then made a passionate plea for people to make the right choices and opting for “bridges over walls” to reflect the CGI mantra, an admirable globalist dream though also itself intolerant of other dreams focused on identity and “the place” however baselessly politically hijacked today for short-term electoral purposes. In doing so Clinton framed the “choices” as not hearing the case for communities wanting to resist the globosphere and smeared at for favouring resentment and difference. Clinton would suffer as Hillary would lose to DT but also as his globalist concerns (so far from his Yale Law School days and early political career) were repudiated by an “America First” campaign or what he saw as the rising conflict between “inclusive cooperation” and “tribal nationalism”, even mentioning the shaping of a long and strange third world war that would actually be a global civil war of epic proportions. In an interesting wink to the lecture circuit and the thought leaders, Clinton stated that he had made (in late 2016) 649 paid speeches since leaving the White House and paid 50% in taxes while giving most of the rest to poor people who needed help, including some of his own family for their medical bills, adding that he took the money from rich people “and that unlike Robin Hood, I didn’t have to hold an arrow on ’em”. (Don’t we miss Bill and the optimistic 1990s?).

Going back to his very core topic, AG finally gave us an interesting viewpoint of an opponent of MarketWorld in the person of Chiara Cordelli, an Italian political philosopher at the University of Chicago who had co-authored “Philanthropy in Democratic Societies”. Chiarelli was attending a panel discussion hosted by a leading hedge fund philanthropist who was also willing to deal with the book’s critical views of modern day “philantrocapitalists”. One of the panellists was none other than Sanford Weil, the maker of Citigroup and the ardent repealer of the Glass-Steagall Act pre-financial cris, whom all who met him know his strong personality. Weil was never keen on government, preferring the private sector involvement, to sort out the ills of the world, this notwithstanding for some his role alongside others in triggering the great financial crisis that led to a massive state bailout of Citi and the banking sector, making now rich people like him having to “step in” as a do gooder as government was broke. Cordelli at some point replied to Weil that “the government is us”. Following the panel, Cordelli reflected on the role of the “very rich” and MarketWorld to address public problems which she saw was like “putting the accused in charge of the court system”. She objected to the fact that the global elite did not see see why so many people in the world needed there help in the first place and whether their actions contributed at all to that. She felt that MarketWorld’s actions, however effective, did not seem to compensate for any harm done, even if unwittingly. She saw a difference among culprits, the worst group marked by “direct complicity” being those having campaigned against inheritance tax, the tax avoiders and the creators of low wages and precarity so common in our gig economy while the better group comprised those who “lived decent lives and attempted to make lives slightly better through the market”. She saw in all these types of efforts not one single moral act with helping but two through a parallel act of acceptance of a system all winners benefitted from, making these elite characters look, in an arguable image, like the owner of a painting who later finds out it had been stolen and has an obligation to return it to its rightful owner, adding that by doing a relatively modest bit of good while doing nothing about the larger problem is akin to keep the painting. Trying to be balanced, she argues that “not every bad thing in the world is your fault if you fail to stop it” though that citizens of a democracy are collectively responsible for what their society allows and have a duty towards those it systematically fails, the burden falling more heavily on those most amply rewarded by the ultimately arbitrary set of societal arrangements. She sees the “winners” as bearing responsibility for the state of the institutions and for the effect they have on others’ lives as we are nothing without “society” (that also allows for a stable environment critically enabling business to thrive) that indeed protects the rights of all without any domination by others. She sees society as giving the “framework for hedge fund managers as well as violinists or tech entrepreneurs to exist” as they indeed can live in a civilisational and regulated infrastructure that is taken for granted. Her solution (a concept keen on MarketWorlders) rather than focusing exclusively on private initiative is to return to politics as the place where we go to shape the world, which MarketWorld might argue is already represented by the likes of Michael Bloomberg, the real mix of a billionaire, philanthropist and keen politician.

While some chapters might be superfluous or repetitive, the book makes for an entertaining read if somewhat tedious at times so grating the description of the elite characters, clearly done on purpose, can be repulsive as if leading the reader to go for revolutionary pitchforks. The book is very rich, almost too much if that were possible. It contains a deep mine of facts though sometimes making for an arduous reading in relation to fluidity. Looking at the core tenet of the book, I am not sure I buy the argument that wealthy people should not try to do good as it serves also their purpose of feeling better and maintaining the status quo and that the younger generations, even at elite universities, should not think about philanthropy even if crafted along a business minded path. It seems to me that the elite wanting to contribute or “to give back” is good in itself and that it is also fine if it helps them feeling better or maintaining the world as we know it. While I also believe in doing good via more democratic and government-related ways, this should not stop the business and entrepreneurial elite from helping improving things along the way even if they have far more benefitted from the system than others. Would we all be better off if the elite including the Bill Gates of this world and their foundations were not “engaged”? Would we be better off if we left the doing good to government only? And going to the core of the matter, would we better off without capitalism which has created these elites as well as its resulting inequalities and if yes what would AG offer us as a viable alternative route short of going the phalanstery way? I am afraid that we live in an imperfect, capitalist but improvable world that has the merit of working, admittedly more for some than others, and that alternatives are non- existent in practical terms. What if the Utopians were not the globalist MarketWorlders but those who are against the system however imperfect and inequalitarian though free enterprising we know? I believe we should fight to reduce poverty and inequality together within the system that we know as it has also the most positive features that we can hope for including freedom and innovation even though it indeed creates an elite that also over time can be self-perpetuating but which may also be a form of a lesser evil.

It is true that some very wealthy entrepreneurs may lose a sense of reality but that does not mean that they are all bad people. The fact that they wish to protect their gains and wish to appear as benevolent is only all too human. I believe that it is important to develop a nuanced approach to this topic of doing well while doing good. I would naturally see those wealthy entrepreneurs who think that business in itself brings goodness as delusional and trying to find shelters for their guilt or covers for their greed. Business by itself is about the bottom line and making entrepreneurs wealthy by serving the needs of customers who buy their goods and services. I see those who genuinely wish to develop a win-win outcome as well intended and see no reason why they should not, knowing it will require a social effort to do good and that business in itself is not enough to do good. I see wealthy entrepreneurs who set up independent foundations and part away with a substantial part of their wealths, the epitomes being Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, as the real leaders of the genuine win-win game through meaningful deeds to indeed change the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation being a game changer in that respect not only for its peer group but also for whole continents and human ailments. Today the top eight billionaires control as much wealth, six of them tech titans, as the bottom half of the world population so have the means to change lives and be impactful. Yet for one Bill Gates and his eponymous Foundation the current leader of the pack, Jeff Bezos, even if involved in charitable activities, pales in comparison in what he “gives back”, arguably preferring to change people’s lives by giving them a better on-line buying experience though by the same token not pretending to be a goodness game changer. Interestingly enough, Bill Gates, ever the gentleman tycoon, was strangely very laudatory of this book, while a potential “class” target of AG, and wrote a stellar support for it: “In Anand’s thought-provoking book his fresh perspective on solving complex societal problems is admirable. I appreciate his commitment and dedication to spreading social justice”. Bill Gates is definitely coming across as a good man (or, having read AG, could be he very cratfy after all?).

It is very hard to know what AG thinks and whether the book is an activist’s pamphlet or a mere account. At the very least his “critique” should be more clearly stated as reflecting an insider’s and not just an observer’s account, this not taking away that his rich book is a very enjoyable and thought-provoking read. If cynical one could be forgiven for wondering if AG did not find a clearly controversial subject so he could write an engagingly differentiated book on it fulfilling his destiny as a thought leader (even if potentially a risky venture given his critical focus), the very role he seems to castigate in his writings even though he is very part of MarketWorld himself. It should be a moot point as, even if he is indeed part of MarketWorld, he would be entitled to criticizing the current “system” though by the same token should then also offer systemic alternatives, even if likely utopian, focused on replacing capitalism as the roots of all evil. In all fairness, AG stresses the “Cordelli solution” as a possible start and somewhat back to basics way to deal with the societal issues at stake, which could also involve the joint partnership of politics and government taking back some of the lead with MarketWorld more in a critical and well-funded supporting role, which the latter could live with as not lethally system threatening and quite realistic not to mention self-preserving as more politically astute. To go back to an old book note, perhaps we need more RFKs and not just wealthy tech entrepreneurs to show up and take the lead.

Warmest regards,

Serge

 

Serge Desprat- 27th November, 2018 (Prague)

 

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