The Thriving World, the Wilting World, and You
I gave the following speech at the Aspen Institute’s Action Forum, on July 29, 2015, in Aspen. The talk — on generosity versus justice — was to my fellow fellows in the Aspen Global Leadership Network. As a result, it contains some obscure jokes and references. After it popped up in David Brooks’s New York Times column and stirred an outpouring of discussion, sympathetic and critical, I decided to post the prepared text here on Medium. The video is also available here and below. Discuss!
First of all, a warm welcome to the Goldman Sachs Ten Billion Women lunch. Some of you will remember our very successful 10,000 Women lunch a few years ago. We have hugely scaled up since then. In fact, there are now more women receiving mentorship from Goldman than there are actually women on earth.
Just kidding. This is the opposite of a Goldman Sachs lunch — not least because there will be no lunch.
It is delicious to be back in Aspen. The last time we were here, one year ago, on the final morning of this forum, my wife, Priya, sent me out of our room with a shopping list of four items: two of those items were burritos, and two of those items were pregnancy tests. I returned and asked which she wanted first. She said the burrito, which told me what the test soon confirmed: that we were having a baby. Today, one year later, four-month-old Orion, named for the stars above, is the closest I’ll ever get to a successful action pledge.
I was asked to speak to you today about forgiveness, based on a book I wrote. As I considered what I wanted to say to this community that Priya and I cherish, the topic meandered. But it has stayed true in one sense: after I have spoken, I will need your forgiveness.
Because my subject today is not easy. I want to reflect on where we stand as a community on some of the injustices of our time. I want to suggest that we may not always be the leaders we think we are.
Four years and eight days ago, I read in the newspaper an astonishing story. A man in Texas, a white supremacist named Mark Stroman, had been executed the night before. (So far, so Texas.) But in the white supremacist’s final days, one of his victims, a Muslim immigrant named Raisuddin Bhuiyan, had been fighting to save the life of this man who shot him in the face in the feverish aftermath of 9/11.
I was intrigued and before long, totally hooked. I went on a journey of reporting this story and writing a book about it, “The True American,” that at its heart was about how my country was slowly dividing into two parallel societies — a republic of dreams, and a republic of fears.
After Raisuddin was shot, his life was in tatters. But he remained in America, fought hard and became whole again. And once he had managed to secure the American Dream for which he had come, he reached the conclusion that he had accessed that dream in a way that many native-born Americans could not. And he came to see that the man who shot him was on the other side of that line of fortune, born to a mother who told him she wished she’d aborted him, having cycled through the dismal schools and prisons that ruin so many young American men. And so Raisuddin, in the name of his faith and of his newfound American citizenship, forgave his erstwhile attacker — and then, remarkably, took the State of Texas and its governor to court, to try to prevent them from putting Stroman to death.
Reporting this story was for me a radicalizing experience, an awakening. It brought to vivid, pungent life what we all read about every morning as a defining story of our time — that America, and so many other societies today, has a grave inequality problem; that so many places in this disruptive, revolutionary moment we live in are partitioned lands of thriving here and wilting there.
The world, especially the developing world, has hugely reduced poverty in recent decades. Yet we plainly live in a new Gilded Age, in which extraordinary changes in our economies and technologies have created, as revolutionary times always do, extreme winners and extreme losers.
Some of us — probably many of us in this room — have the feeling of living in one of the most extraordinary times in human history; many others around the world have yet to see those times benefit them in any tangible way; and still others are watching their lives get worse day by day — sometimes, perhaps, so that ours can get better.
We are a community branded as leaders living through this revolutionary moment, living through this extreme winning and extreme losing. It falls on us to ask the tough questions about it.
But we here in Aspen are in a bit of a tight spot.
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); our discussion of Martin Luther King and Omelas is sponsored by folks like Accenture, David Rubenstein and someone named Pom; we are deeply enmeshed and invested in the establishment and systems we are supposed to question. And yet we are a community of leaders that claims to seek justice. These identities are tricky to reconcile.
Today I want to challenge how we reconcile them. There is no consensus on anything here, as any seminar participant knows. But I believe that many of our discussions operate within what I will call the “Aspen Consensus,” which, like the “Washington Consensus” or “Beijing Consensus,” describes a nest of shared assumptions within which diverse ideas hatch. The “Aspen Consensus” demarcates what we mostly agree not to question, even as we question so much. And though I call it the Aspen Consensus, it is in many ways the prevailing ethic among the winners of our age worldwide, across business, government and even nonprofits.
The Aspen Consensus, in a nutshell, is this: the winners of our age must be challenged to do more good. But never, ever tell them to do less harm.
The Aspen Consensus holds that capitalism’s rough edges must be sanded and its surplus fruit shared, but the underlying system must never be questioned.
The Aspen Consensus says, “Give back,” which is of course a compassionate and noble thing. But, amid the $20 million second homes and $4,000 parkas of Aspen, it is gauche to observe that giving back is also a Band-Aid that winners stick onto the system that has privileged them, in the conscious or subconscious hope that it will forestall major surgery to that system — surgery that might threaten their privileges.
The Aspen Consensus, I believe, tries to market the idea of generosity as a substitute for the idea of justice. It says: make money in all the usual ways, and then give some back through a foundation, or factor in social impact, or add a second or third bottom line to your analysis, or give a left sock to the poor for every right sock you sell.
The Aspen Consensus says, “Do more good” — not “Do less harm.”
I want to sow the seed of a difficult conversation today about this Aspen Consensus. Because I love this community, and I fear for all of us — myself very much included — that we may not be as virtuous as we think we are, that history may not be as kind to us as we hope it will, that in the final analysis our role in the inequities of our age may not be remembered well.
This may sound strange at first, because the winners of our disruptive age are arguably as concerned about the plight of the losers as any elite in human history. But the question I’m raising is about what the winners propose to do in response. And I believe the winners’ response, certainly not always but still too often, is to soften the blows of the system but to preserve the system at any cost. This response is problematic. It keeps the winners too safe. It allows far too many of us to evade hard questions about our role in contributing to the disease we also seek to treat.
So let us step outside the safe, pleasant Aspen Consensus for a moment. Let us talk honestly about some of the harm the winners of our age commit while doing well for themselves, before compensating for it by also doing good.
First, the winners have benefited in the last few decades from a massive re-concentration of wealth by the upper echelons of society globally. The rich didn’t suddenly get better at algebra. The world economy changed, yes. And as it did, the rich fought for policies that helped them stack up, protect and bequeath the money: resisting taxes on inheritances and financial transactions, fighting for carried interest to be taxed differently from income, insisting on a sacred right to conceal money in trusts, shell companies and weird islands. This hoarding does not merely correlate with the have-nots’ struggles. It is in a certain sense a cause, because that is the money that would be going to schools, to vocational training, to infrastructure building, to social insurance, to financial aid. We know this because there are societies where a lot more of this money is taken from the most fortunate, and it results pretty straightforwardly in less cruelty for the least fortunate.
Second, the winners of our age are huge beneficiaries of the generation-long effort by the corporate world to offload risk and volatility from the balance sheet, often transferring them onto workers. The growing rationalization of the business world in recent decades, abetted by the development of management as a science, led to greater focus, increased efficiencies, rising valuations — and bitter realities for workers. The car-service Uber gets a lot of bad press for denying responsibility for its workers’ lives, health, desire for career growth. Yet more and more of the world’s workforce resembles Uber drivers, who shoulder risk for the companies they serve, while no one bears their risk. The contract worker is the future in this supposedly disruptive new age, and she is forced to work volatile hours that change week to week, drop her child off at extreme daycare at 3 a.m., juggle an income that bounces around willy-nilly, knowing that if anything happens to her, the employer owes her nothing.
Third, the winners of our age have benefited hugely from their institutions’ growing remoteness from any community. The increasing globalization and virtualization of business has insulated the privileged from the effect they have on others’ lives, with devastating consequences. In the old days, if a company CEO suddenly dumped the defined-benefits pension, you knew who to go see to complain. Today it may be an unseen private-equity fund that lobbies for the change. In the mortgage meltdown, there were so many layers of abstraction between traders and the actual things they were trading, that few smelled a rat. Businesses’ tax-averse profits ricochet through Bermuda, then cross the Atlantic for what’s called a “double Irish with a Dutch sandwich.” Some of the leading companies of our age pay negligible taxes, belonging as they do a little bit everywhere and nowhere in particular. The ultimate virtualization has occurred in finance, where banks, which once saw themselves as servants of real-economy firms, decided that finance was an end in itself — and chose idle speculation, rather than aiding the creation of tangible economic value, as their raison d’etre.
Now, a significant minority of us here don’t work in business. Yet even in other sectors, we’re living in an age in which the assumptions and values of business are more influential than they ought to be. Our culture has turned businessmen and -women into philosophers, revolutionaries, social activists, saviors of the poor. We are at risk of forgetting other languages of human progress: of morality, of democracy, of solidarity, of decency, of justice.
Sometimes we succumb to the seductive Davos dogma that the business approach is the only thing that can change the world, in the face of so much historical evidence to the contrary.
And so when the winners of our age answer the problem of inequality and injustice, all too often they answer it within the logic and frameworks of business and markets. We talk a lot about giving back, profit-sharing, win-wins, social-impact investing, triple bottom lines (which, by the way, are something my four-month-old son has).
Sometimes I wonder whether these various forms of giving back have become to our era what the papal indulgence was to the Middle Ages: a relatively inexpensive way of getting oneself seemingly on the right of justice, without having to alter the fundamentals of one’s life.
Because when you give back, when you have a side foundation, a side CSR project, a side social-impact fund, you gain an exemption from more rigorous scrutiny. You helped 100 poor kids in the ghetto learn how to code. The indulgence spares you from questions about the larger systems and structures you sustain that benefit you and punish others: weak banking regulations and labor laws, zoning rules that happen to keep the poor far from your neighborhood, porous safety nets, the enduring and unrepaired legacies of slavery and racial supremacy and caste systems.
These systems and structures have victims, and we here are at risk, I think, of confusing generosity toward those victims with justice for those victims. For generosity is a win-win, but justice often is not. The winners of our age don’t enjoy the idea that some of them might actually have to lose, to sacrifice, for justice to be done. In Aspen you don’t hear a lot of ideas involving the privileged and powerful actually being in the wrong, and needing to surrender their status and position for the sake of justice.
We talk a lot here about giving more. We don’t talk about taking less.
We talk a lot here about what we should be doing more of. We don’t talk about what we should be doing less of.
I think sometimes that our Aspen Consensus has an underdeveloped sense of human darkness. There is risk in too much positivity. Sometimes to do right by people, you must begin by naming who is in the wrong.
So let’s just come out and say the thing you’re never supposed to say in Aspen: that many of the winners of our age are active, vigorous contributors to the problems they bravely seek to solve. And for the greater good to prevail on any number of issues, some people will have to lose — to actually do less harm, and not merely more good.
We know that enlightened capital didn’t get rid of the slave trade. Impact investing didn’t abolish child labor and put fire escapes on tenement factories. Drug makers didn’t stop slipping antifreeze into medicine as part of a CSR initiative. In each of these cases, the interests of the many had to defeat the interests of the recalcitrant few.
Look, I know this speech won’t make me popular at the bar tonight. But this, for me, is an act of stepping into the arena — something our wonderful teacher-moderators challenged us to do.
I know many of you agree with me already, because we have bonded for years over a shared feeling that something in this extraordinary community didn’t feel quite right. There are many others who, instead of criticizing as I do, are living rejections of this Aspen Consensus — quitting lucrative lives, risking everything, to fight the system. You awe me: you who battle for gay rights in India, who live ardently among the rural poor in South Africa, who risk assassination or worse to report news of corruption.
I am not speaking to you tonight, and I know there are many of you. I am speaking to those who, like me, may feel caught between the ideals championed by this Institute and the self-protective instinct that is always the reflex of people with much to lose.
I am as guilty as anyone. I am part of the wave of gentrification and displacement in Brooklyn, one of the most rapidly gentrifying places in America. Any success I’ve had can be traced to my excellent choice in parents and their ability to afford incredibly expensive private schools. I like good wine. I use Uber — a lot. I once stole playing cards from a private plane. I want my new son to have everything I can give him, even though I know that this is the beginning of the inequality I loathe.
I often wonder if what I do — writing — is capable of making any difference.
When I entered this fellowship, I was so taken with that summons to make a difference. But, to be honest, I have also always had a complicated relationship to this place.
I have heard too many of us talking of how only after the IPO or the next few million will we feel our kids have security. These inflated notions of what it takes to “make a living” and “support a family” are the beginning of so much neglect of our larger human family.
I walk into too many rooms named for people and companies that don’t mean well for the world, and then in those rooms we talk and talk about making the world better.
I struggled in particular with the project. I couldn’t figure out what bothered me about it for the longest time. I wasn’t very good at coming up with one or getting it done.
And I realized, through conversation with fellows in similar dilemmas, what my problem was. Many people, including some being featured later tonight, are engaged in truly extraordinary and commendable projects. We are at our best when our projects take the system head on. But I wrestled with what I perceived to be the idea behind the project, of creating generous side endeavors rather than fighting to reform, bite by bite, the hands that feed us. I felt the project distracted us from the real question: is your regular life — not your side project — on the right side of justice?
Ask yourself: Does the world need more food companies donating playgrounds to children, or rather reformed food companies that don’t profit from fattening children?
Does the world need more Chinese tycoons engaging in philanthropy in China, or rather more honest and less corrupt Chinese tycoons?
Does the world need Goldman Sachs partners mentoring women or giving money to poor kids’ schools, or rather Goldman partners gambling everything to say: the way business is done at my firm isn’t what it should be, and I will fight to make Goldman a steward rather than a vampire squid of resources, even if that costs me my job?
I am reminded here of the final words of our Omelas reading: “They seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”
Sometimes, I find myself wondering what we’re actually doing here in Aspen. Are we here to change the system, or be changed by it? Are we using our collective strength to challenge the powerful, or are we helping to make an unjust, unpalatable system feel a little more digestible?
And yet I still come, year after year. Why? Because there is something amazing about this community. And because I have the feeling that we could be even more than we have been: genuine stewards of this chaotic, revolutionary moment in world affairs.
But if we are to play that role, I think we need to consider a fundamental shift in orientation in this community: from working within the system, to honestly questioning where that system fails people; from the unthreatening idea of doing good by doing well, to the braver notion of doing good by threatening our opportunity to do well.
This community has meant so much to me and to Priya. It always will. I am filled with hope, as I leave you here today, that we will find a way to become what has rarely existed in history: an establishment organization that questions the establishment, a society of traitors to our class, of people who choose to spend the capital of their privilege on questioning, and repairing, the system that minted the privilege.
Or we can just go on playing and winning at the same old game, and giving a little back. But I have a feeling this community, summoning the genuine spirit of leadership, could muster the gall to reimagine the game itself.
Forgive me. And thank you.