Friday, 1 February 2019

The Fallacy of Billionaire Philanthropy

Henry Mance in The FT 

Imagine you are young and idealistic. You want to make the world a better place. You also want your skills to have real impact. You could do worse than spend a few years at McKinsey or JPMorgan, right?  


Wrong, says Anand Giridharadas. The 37-year-old American writer wants to kill the idea that businesses, business people and business concepts are uniquely suited to solving the world’s social ills.  

His suspicions began as a McKinsey consultant in the 2000s. “I’m not saying the whole thing’s a fraud,” he says. “[But] if you’re there because you’ve been told that it is the only prep school for solving other problems, it’s not true!” 

Giridharadas’s scepticism deepened as he watched how philanthropy and profit have merged over the past decade. Silicon Valley billionaires now argue that apps can achieve more than elected governments. Executives evangelise about social investing and triple bottom lines. 

Giridharadas argues that such efforts purport to change the world — but actually keep it the same. His new book Winners Take All points out that the rich are obsessed by social “purpose”, at the very time they are hoarding opportunities. Framing problems as “win-win” excuses the rich from making real sacrifices. They have rigged the system as much through this idea as by any law.  

“I’m from a privileged background,” admits Giridharadas. “This is a book that grew out of familiarity.” His parents were first-generation immigrants from India: his father became a partner at McKinsey; his mother a homemaker and ceramicist. After studying at Michigan, Oxford and Harvard, Giridharadas watched his activist friends work for consultancies and banks, buying into the idea that it’s possible “to do good and to do well”. He became frustrated. He understood Donald Trump’s appeal as a politician who, for all his faults, recognised that many problems are “win-lose”.  

 Giridharadas, steeped in the elite culture he is critiquing, feared his book would make him unpopular. Thanks to Trump and Brexit, he now reports the opposite reaction. He has become the insiders’ favourite outsider. Larry Summers, former US Treasury secretary, called his book “required reading”; Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Marc Benioff (Salesforce founder) and Jack Dorsey (Twitter) have praised it. Giridharadas now occasionally texts Benioff on which philanthropic initiatives to support.  

What I’m trying to do is convince the public to stop outsourcing the changing of the world to plutocratic elites 

 “Most of what I’m trying to do is to convince the general public to stop outsourcing the changing of the world to plutocratic elites,” he says. But another aim is to encourage a few enlightened billionaires “to be traitors to their class” and support structural change. 

We are meeting in Tate Britain partly because the gallery is quiet and airy, but also because it illustrates one of the problems that exercises Giridharadas. Like many cultural institutions, Tate has received donations from the Sackler family, whose fortune comes from the drugs that caused the US opioid epidemic. Some argue that it’s better for people such as the Sacklers to spend their wealth on philanthropy than pleasure.  

Wrong again, says Giridharadas. “If they’d bought yachts, they would have been brought to justice by journalists and regulators and criminal investigators way faster,” he says.  

He wants us to stand up to abusive companies, instead of taking crumbs that they “give back”. “Why should an institution like [Tate] lend its prestige to people like that? I don’t think anyone here would care if this museum had three less rooms or had to give away 10 per cent of its art. Why are we all so afraid?” 

Giridharadas seems like a man who has rarely been afraid. He is eloquent and confident, as befits someone whose two TED talks have more than a million views each. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, “famously one of the most racially integrated American suburbs”. When he was seven, his family found that “the adrenalin rush of being an immigrant had kind of crashed”, so they moved to Paris.  

There they realised “the ways in which America is unique”. In the US you could become American: neighbours took you to shopping malls, or gave you cheesecake recipes. In France his parents “were guests, and would always be guests”. 

After Giridharadas returned to the US, there were times when racists told him to “go home” and years when, as a writer, he struggled to afford health insurance. Overall, though, his life has been a validation of the American dream. “I’ve been very critical of many things about America, but I think I always criticise from a place of understanding the specialness of America,” he says.  

He realised as a 17-year-old intern at The New York Times that he wanted to be a journalist. But Jill Abramson, later its editor, told him to go out into the world and see what other people hadn’t. He finished his degree and looked for a job that would take him to India. India was “probably the country I most disliked in the world”. “It’s a common psychodrama among immigrant families — the first thing you know about India is your parents chose to get out of it,” he says. “But at some point in my mind that flipped around — of course I should go there.”  

What sort of company would take a 21-year-old graduate in the history of political thought to India? McKinsey, of course. “Within days, I was in a city I’d never been to, advising a pharmaceutical company, an industry I knew nothing about, on designing its leadership development system.” 

This is bullshit that is so big and so powerful that it sneaks through undetected, like an odourless gas 

The pharma company still went with his recommendations. “Only small bullshit gets called out,” he laughs. “This is bullshit that is so big and so powerful that it sneaks through undetected, like an odourless gas. I really thought it was crazy.” He lasted barely a year at McKinsey. Would he recommend that people work there? “No, I would recommend that many that are there leave.”  

But when Giridharadas then began working as a reporter for the International Herald Tribune in India, he celebrated the arc of technology and globalisation — “Microcredit’s going to empower all these people, apps are going to come in, women are going to get educated,” as he recalls it. He wrote India Calling, a book about the country’s rise. 

Back in the US, he wrote another non-fiction book, The True American, about a Muslim man shot by a white supremacist after 9/11. Then he spent several years as a fellow at the Aspen Institute, where the great and the good talk about the world’s problems, and he became truly restless about inequality.  

In 2015, he was asked to give a speech at Aspen on the theme of forgiveness. Instead, he decided to talk about capitalism’s “extreme winners and extreme losers” — and to call out Aspen itself. “We here in Aspen are in a bit of a tight spot,” he told his audience. “Our deliberations about what to do about this extreme winning and losing are sponsored by the extreme winners. This community was formed by stalwarts of American capitalism; today we sit in spaces named after Pepsi (as in the beverage) and Koch (as in the brothers) . . . we are deeply enmeshed and invested in the establishment and systems we are supposed to question.” The speech went on to form the basis of his book. 

How do ideas emerge? Do they mushroom overnight or crystallise over years? Giridharadas’s thinking was fuelled by the work of Thomas Piketty. He seized on a sentence in the French economist’s 2013 Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which said that rising inequality relied, “perhaps primarily, on the effectiveness of the apparatus of justification”. 

“Authors often leave breadcrumbs for future writers,” he says. “I just thought, that’s the breadcrumb he’s leaving.” Winners Take All has some wonderful examples of how the rich justify inequalities — by providing superficial, apolitical solutions. There’s the craze for power poses, which are purported to make women feel stronger in public. There’s Even, an app that addressed the problem of insecure work by charging people $260 a year to help smooth their fluctuating income. (It now charges a more modest $96.) 

Giridharadas’s most effective critique is of those at the very top. The Sacklers are one set of villains. Social-impact investors are another. Larry Fink, head of the world’s biggest asset manager BlackRock, said last year that every company he invested in would need to have a social purpose. He spoke to a UN meeting about sustainable development. Giridharadas argues that Fink’s statement was “a cover to not change”, so long as BlackRock held on to its shares in companies such as ExxonMobil. (Investors such as BlackRock argue holding shares gives them more influence.)  

Then there’s David Rubenstein, the private-equity billionaire who styles himself a “patriotic philanthropist” for supporting causes such as the repair of the Washington Monument. The US government could simply fund such things itself, Giridharadas argues, if Rubenstein and others hadn’t argued for the egregious carried-interest tax loophole since the Reagan years. “The very people who most benefited from that laissez-faire, leave-business-people-alone [approach] now come and say it’s so sad that government can’t fix this problem,” he says. “They created the vacuum!”

Some billionaires are willing to give away almost all their money, but Giridharadas argues that this matters little if they won’t give up their power. “Mark Zuckerberg is not willing to have his company broken up.”  

While Piketty’s big idea was a wealth tax, Giridharadas’s is that the elite — if it really wants to change the world — should get out of the way. Zuckerberg, for example, should allow antitrust regulation. “The best form of [corporate social responsibility] is to stop lobbying.” 

There are weaknesses in Giridharadas’s vision. Ezra Klein, the US commentator, has pointed out that US elites are probably more responsive today than ever. And business thinkers are aware that current efforts are not enough. Giridharadas quotes Michael Porter, the management theorist, complaining that companies are disconnected from local communities. John Elkington, who came up with the idea of the triple bottom line (social, environmental, financial), wrote last year that it was time for a “concept recall” — dismayed that it had become an accounting tool rather than a way to transform capitalism.  

Giridharadas champions government, but the shortcomings of the public sector are not myths. At the time of our conversation, the US government was in partial shutdown and the British government was choked by Brexit; neither seemed able to focus on challenges such as reducing carbon emissions.  

 We’re often in scenarios where people are talking about the minimum wage, none of whom has ever worried about paying a bill 

Though he advocates financial regulation, employee rights and the break-up of monopolies, Giridharadas spends little time on how to bring about these things. Would he stop employing consultants in government? He shies away from that, but argues that Wall Street types are currently “so over-indexed” — “we’re often in scenarios where a bunch of people are talking about the minimum wage, none of whom has ever worried about paying a bill”. 

He is excited by the “marriage of community organising and political training initiatives” that was crucial in the election last year of New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her ideas, he thinks, can appeal beyond the coasts: small businessmen in red states would support initiatives to crack down on tech monopolies. “They don’t like Amazon having [so many] lobbyists in Washington!” he says. 

Giridharadas is wary of becoming a court jester, a critic who entertains with uncomfortable truths but who fails to change behaviour. “There’s a big risk of that,” he says. He lives in a “coastal, New York, intelligentsia bubble”, and is married to Priya Parker, herself a successful author and conflict mediator. He is not, in other words, part of a working-class revolt. 

While society’s ills have tipped other writers into pessimism, Giridharadas is notable for his optimism about the west. Partly it’s his experience as a second-generation immigrant, partly it’s seeing the depth of government failures in India. “America’s attempting something incredibly hard right now,” he says, describing its transition “from a majority-white superpower to this postmodern, post-ethnic-majority country”.  

 Actually investing in your people’s ability to have decent lives that don’t make them pissed off every day is a really good bargain 

This is the “end of an era, not the end of a country”. Real change — to reduce inequalities and protect the planet — is not implausible. If America could get more people into college, there might soon be stronger popular support for fighting climate change. If Britain could spend more on helping those adversely affected by globalisation, it might avoid populist spasms like Brexit.  

“We fail to make these investments,” he says. “Actually investing in your people’s ability to have decent lives that don’t make them pissed off every day is a really good bargain.” The language of win-wins is so pervasive — occasionally even he can’t resist it. 

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