Book Summary – Winners Take All (The Elite Charade of Changing the World)

The numbers Giridharadas provides bolster his thesis: Among Americans born in 1984, those from families at the top of the income ladder boast a 70% chance of achieving greater wealth than their parents. Yet Americans from families in low income brackets have just a 35% chance of outearning their parents. Meanwhile, wealthy American men outlive poor American men by 15 years – and American men of meager incomes can expect to live only as long as men from Pakistan and Sudan.

These harsh realities, Giridharadas writes, underscore the notion that the US economy is no longer a level playing field. Donald Trump won the presidency by playing up the idea that American elites had created a bogus prosperity that rewarded the few while ignoring the many. Trump successfully stoked everyday Americans’ anger, although his rage was directed not at elites like himself, but at Americans on the margins. In a classic fox-and-henhouse scenario, Trump convinced voters that his ideology had nothing to do with his own interests.

The Rise of “MarketWorld”

The growing socioeconomic divide in American society, the author writes, is aided and abetted by what he calls “MarketWorld”: a new generation of elites who speak persuasively about philanthropy and equality, and who seem to embrace the ideas of improving education and ending poverty. MarketWorld elites believe that the path to social justice lies in free markets, tech innovations and charitable giving, not through government regulation or systematic reform. In this way of thinking, the elites are best suited to oversee any moves toward social change. MarketWorld’s main players include tech companies such as Google and Facebook, the consulting firm McKinsey (interestingly, the author’s erstwhile employer) and political figures such as Bill and Hillary Clinton.

“Win-win” – the notion that businesses can benefit themselves and others, equally – is, according to Giridharadas, one of MarketWorld’s defining values. As outlined by Stephen Covey in his top-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, win-win is “a frame of mind and heart” as much as it is a set of actions. The win-win ethos values cooperation and the idea that all parties can walk away from every interaction feeling happy and satisfied. Even government and business need not work against one another:  Giridharadas quotes writer Greg Ferenstein as saying, “this new ideology believes that government is an investor in capitalism.”

Notably, the author writes, win-win believers find it unseemly to confront or criticize companies that engage in vulture capitalism or other ruthless tactics. The elites of MarketWorld demand to feel comfortable, as Emmett Carson learned when he moved to California to run the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. He was informed that the phrase “social justice” was a bit too accusatory, a little too win-lose. Carson, thus, began to say he was working for “fairness” instead – a description more palatable to the elites. What’s more, Carson learned that Silicon Valley’s tech titans often felt like victims or targets. They were only willing to act philanthropically as long as their own potential complicity in generating inequality was not a matter of discussion.

Giridharadas traces the win-win philosophy’s lineage back to the Age of Reason. Specifically, he views it as an outgrowth of Adam Smith’s ruminations about self-interest and the invisible hand of markets, though, as the author claims, “the new win-win-ism is arguably a far more radical theory than the ‘invisible hand.’” Smith argued that “the butcher, the brewer or the baker” served both society’s need for food and the individual’s own need to make a living. In Smith’s telling, entrepreneurs expanded the pie for everyone. Today, as the author points out, Smith’s theory has transformed into a near-worship of business as a force for social good. Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter labels private enterprises “the most powerful force for addressing the pressing issues we face.” Taking the theme even farther, Whole Foods Chief Executive John Mackey writes in his book Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, “Business is the ultimate positive-sum game, in which it is possible to create a Win for all the stakeholders of the business.” Adam Smith argued against over-regulation of business. The MarketWorlders argue that business, not government, holds the solution to all woes.

The gospel of MarketWorld,  Giridharadas goes on, is spread via a variety of conferences.  These events attract the affluent to Davos and Sun Valley and Aspen, to Burning Man and South by Southwest and TechCrunch Disrupt. The Summit at Sea, a six-day cruise attended by technologists, is a prime example. In one presentation on the ship, venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar shared a prediction that over the next two to three decades, life-extending technologies will shift “the very basis of our current civilization.” Left unsaid was the fact that only the wealthy will likely benefit from this new tech. As Bill Gates once noted, “It seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer.” Most elites don’t question how the spoils are divided, however. During his Summit at Sea presentation, Pishevar referred to taxi companies and unions as “cartels” – spinning a narrative in which VCs and billionaire entrepreneurs are heroic rebels. From this perspective, Silicon Valley VCs are underdogs, insurgents, victims of a corrupt culture – regardless of their immense wealth and influence.

And Giridharadas has a ready explanation for this paradoxically warped world view: “Because the globalists tend to hang out with other globalists, they are at risk of trapping themselves in an echo chamber.”

In making unpersuasive claims, the author elaborates, that he’s something of a modern-day freedom fighter, Pishevar isn’t alone. Uber, Lyft and Airbnb make similar claims. These companies and their supporters argue that they’re spreading wealth and reducing income inequality. The stories drivers tell of being fired by the platforms for small infractions belie this view. Undeterred, the leaders of MarketWorld continue to seek less oversight and regulation. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel has, for instance, suggested “seasteading” outposts where entrepreneurs can operate in international waters, unfettered by pesky governments.

Real Problems, Dubious Solutions

In Silicon Valley and similar locales, Giridharadas writes, many business models pay lip service to social missions and humanitarianism; but their effectiveness in combatting real-world problems remains questionable. Take the case of Justin Rosenstein. A programming wiz, Rosenstein helped launch Google Drive and co-created Gmail Chat. At Facebook, he helped create Pages and the “like” button. While still in his twenties, Rosenstein amassed a fortune worth tens of millions of dollars. Still, he chose to live modestly, driving a Honda Civic and sharing a home in San Francisco with like-minded creative types. In keeping with MarketWorld’s philosophy of making the world better, Rosenstein created Asana: a software start-up that aimed to boost worker-employer collaboration by improving productivity. Of course, the real problem in America isn’t that workers aren’t productive enough. Giridharadas has a better explanation: income inequality is driven by the reality that the rewards of rising productivity are hoarded by the elites; worker pay remains stagnant.

MarketWorld, the author writes, generates no shortage of dubious solutions to pressing social issues. As evidence for this thesis, he adduces the example of Even, a Silicon Valley start-up that aims to help working-class Americans with budgeting, provides another illuminating example of this phenomenon. Even claims to solve the problems posed by the uncertain incomes of gig-economy workers and other marginalized Americans by “paying” workers the same amount every week. In the case of a worker whose average income was $500 a week, Even would deposit $500 a week in the worker’s checking account. If that worker made $650 one week, Even would hold onto the extra $150. If the worker made just $400 the next week, Even would dip into the $150 surplus to deposit $500. Even’s target market was low-wage earners trying to cobble together livelihoods as part-time retail workers, delivery drivers or massage therapists. In a labor market characterized by weakened unions and paltry benefits, Even was something of a private version of a safety net – one that charged users $260 a year for its income-smoothing services.

Even’s workers, Giridharadas writes, were well-educated and well-intentioned, but their very business model underscores the elite’s unthinking fealty to MarketWorld: It ignored the bigger question of how American society might provide meaningful income for Americans who work hard but struggle to pay for medical care and student loans. Instead, Even and its founders focused on how to turn economic insecurity into a profitable business model. Giridharadas quotes Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker, who frets that, if Even is successful, it might further reduce political pressure to boost benefits or broaden the social safety net.

“Thought Leaders” Replace Public Intellectuals

Not surprisingly, an elite class that begrudges government oversight and constantly airs its grievances isn’t keen on criticism, Giridharadas writes, pointing to the rise of the “thought leader” as a symptom: the milquetoast intellectual who speaks truth to power so long as the powerful don’t feel threatened. Consider, he writes, the case of Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist from Harvard Business School who gained fame with her TED talk about “power poses.” Women could fight sexism and discrimination, Cuddy argued, by adopting assertive postures, with their feet at shoulder width, their hands defiantly on their hips. Cuddy famously mimicked Wonder Woman’s posture, claiming that an aggressive stance would create all sorts of salubrious chemical reactions in the brain. When fellow academics began critiquing some of Cuddy’s arguments about the links between posture and the brain’s hormone production, she softened her claims. Her TED audiences, the author writes, couldn’t have cared less: Cuddy had provided an upbeat and actionable story for female empowerment, and that’s what really mattered.

As a contrast figure, Giridharadas points to the all but vanished public intellectual. Public intellectuals, he claims, are acerbic and critical, questioning the status quo and existing power structures. Thought leaders are more benign, and they’ve learned to parrot MarketWorld’s values of free markets, limited regulation and the magic elixir of the profit motive. Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal were public intellectuals; Thomas J. Friedman and Niall Ferguson are thought leaders. With university faculties shrinking and US newsrooms dwindling, there are fewer safe havens for public intellectuals. In this changing intellectual landscape, profit-minded intellectuals have adapted. For many scholars, the author writes, making a living now means tailoring their messages to the tastes of MarketWorld.

A Year of Backlash

For Giridharadas, the tunnel vision of many of elite goes a along way in explaining two momentuous political shifts of the political landscape: the election of Donald Trump as US president and Brexit. Even if the denizens of MarketWorld didn’t notice, he writes, everyday people have grown increasingly restless and resentful in recent years. This bitterness and mistrust played out in dramatic fashion in 2016, when British citizens voted in favor of Brexit and Americans elected Donald Trump. These results were a clear backlash against the unelected elites with their pricey conferences and visions of borderless trade and free-flowing capital. Rather than learn from the rebuke, however, much of the elite explained it away. Niall Ferguson, the Harvard historian and well-compensated thought leader, called the votes a sign that places and patriotism still mattered in politics. Lawrence Summers, the former Harvard University president, said the elections harkened a new era of “responsible nationalism” over “reflexive internationalism.”

Giridharadas goes on relating how after the Brexit vote and before his wife’s defeat, Bill Clinton took the stage at his Global Clinton Initiative and lamented the “visceral us-and-them mentality” taking hold of voters on both sides of the Atlantic. Clinton himself remained the very picture of the MarketWorld elite – globalist, technocratic, embracing free markets and open borders. So did the CEOs and international royalty who took the stage at Clinton’s confab. However, as the globalists lamented the short-sighted votes of the little people, the disconnect in MarketWorld became obvious: Politics requires candidates to test their ideas in a competitive marketplace. MarketWorld, on the other hand, allows its denizens to develop and pursue their theories in an intellectual bubble.

MarketWorld, according to Giridharadas, has also found itself hamstrung by its love affair with searching for solutions to social problems in India and Brazil. Poverty in West Virginia and Mississippi is less appealing. By focusing on transnationalism and ignoring domestic problems, Hillary Clinton looked aloof – even if her platform was more likely to benefit the working class than Trump’s. Bill Clinton later acknowledged that he could have done more to help working Americans adapt to the economic shockwaves unleashed by globalization. For instance, as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement he championed, Clinton says he could have insisted on tariffs that would have created a safety net for displaced workers. Here, Giridharadas rebukes the former president for his ongoing reluctance to call for dramatic change to American capitalism, criticize the elites who have profited from the rigged system, or even acknowledge the legitimate rage felt by many struggling Americans.

Convincing as Giridharadas’s analysis may be, in some ways, Giridharadas takes aim at an easy target. Of course, Uber and Airbnb aren’t really going to make the masses richer. Obviously, the self-serving rhetoric of Silicon Valley and other corporate hubs glosses over the harsher truth of business in a cutthroat marketplace. But, as Girdharadas aptly conveys, the legend is in danger of becoming reality. At confabs from Davos to Aspen, elites have parroted their version of the world so often that many have begun to accept it as truth. This critique offers a contrarian view.