Book Review: Winners Take All

By Anand Giridharadas

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World
by Anand Giridharadas
Penguin Random House, 2018

“Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.” Such is the bar the Stanford Graduate School of Business holds for its students. Its 2018 MBA graduates began to change the world by earning a median starting salary of $142,000 (and a median signing bonus of $25,000), according to a year-end press release, through careers in technology, finance, and consulting. And “yet their career choices were not about chasing the money.” They were, instead, about “social impact” as much as they were about the prospect of making massive amounts of money, insofar as those goals have become one and the same in the 21st century.

So argues Anand Giridharadas in Winners Take All, a no-holds-barred critique of a new generation of predatory elites and their do-good-by-doing-well approach to social ills. Probing the lives of McKinsey consultants and “social innovators,” Silicon Valley venture capitalists and Davos-inspired thought leaders, business magnates turned philanthropists and former presidents turned globalists, Giridharadas argues that well-funded myths about social change have contributed to the emergence of a neo-gilded age, one in which the good intentions of today’s “winners” belie the wage stagnation, income inequality, and class immobility they themselves have wrought. It is none other than these same elites who have lobbied for privatization, deregulation, and tax breaks that have depleted public coffers, for instance, or who have rationalized layoffs, low wages, and uncertain working hours for the sake of optimization; who have argued in high-profile op-eds that the wicked problems of the 21st century are too complex for government to resolve, or who have co-opted the ideals of collectives, social movements, and political protest with the language of apps, networks, and markets. Take Even, a start-up that offers to smooth the incomes of those living “paycheck to paycheck” by charging a small fee for an app-based service that saves away wages on good months and supplements bad months with those savings. Not welfare, minimum wage, bargaining power, housing policy, or health care reform; Even is what the best and brightest are investing in today.

Changing the world, as Giridharadas reminds us, is a fundamentally public, political business. In eschewing those messy, hard-fought paths, those who have benefited from the largesse of the state have succeeded not in sharing that wealth but rather in pulling the ladder up behind them, generating change that only seems to move in place in their hands. Far from letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, the country’s elites have deployed the good as a formidable opponent of the just, equitable, and politically sustainable. And those elites are us, are Giridharadas — a public intellectual just as steeped in the world of the Aspen Institute, McKinsey, and speaker fees as those he indicts, as he acknowledges at the very end of his trenchant book — are me, a Stanford graduate student. We in the knowledge economy have too often allowed ourselves to substitute the public good for private goods in the ideas we promote, to forget trade-offs for win-wins, to replace the democratic will with the best intentions of those who swap PowerPoints behind the closed doors of boardrooms and invite-only conferences. The question is what we are going to do about it: make the world even more suited to our own ends, extracting wealth while heralding our own beneficence; or invest anew in the public foundation of all our wealth, knowledge, good will, and democracy — even, and perhaps especially, if it leaves us alone a little worse off.