Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas

★★ Recommended if you’re angry at liberal elites and want to lean into that anger with some anecdotes and an uncomplicated narrative

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Winners Take All tells the story of how a new elite of market-oriented, globe-trotting philanthropists have convinced themselves and the rest of us that they’re acting in our best interests, while in fact they’ve created a broken civil society and hoarded all the wealth and power for themselves.

The Facts on the Ground

Before I get to my take on the book, let me attempt to lay out my view of the facts on the ground that provide the context for Giridharadas’s narrative. I think it’s important to establish our common ground first, because in practice I agree with many of the problems and most of the prescriptions in the book, but I have major issues with the way the narrative is constructed. I believe these facts are mostly compatible with Giridharadas’s, though the emphasis is different since he focuses entirely on the negative.

We have seen the benefits of civil liberties, trade, and free enterprise, paired with the social welfare state, have a massive positive impact on human well-being over the past two centuries:

  • Global life expectancy has risen from under 30 years to over 70, and child mortality has decreased from about 44% to 4%. The share of the population living in extreme poverty has dropped from over 95% to 10%, and every day of the 21st century we’ve woken up to 180,000 fewer people living in extreme poverty. Global literacy rates have risen from 12% to 85%, and most of the gender gap in school attendance has been closed on every continent. We still have many problems to deal with, but for most people on earth, things are much, much better than they were 50, 100, or 200 years ago.
  • These gains have depended on a combination of markets and government. Markets are an efficient tool for producing many types of goods and services. They contribute to growing wealth and productivity, though alone they will not achieve all our goals, nor will they necessarily allocate resources equitably. They must be paired with public infrastructure and services, social welfare systems, and rules set by government to help protect the public and ensure market prices build in social costs. Government provides for these purposes. Neither markets nor government alone could have accomplished such enormous increases in human well-being.

While our primary goals must be absolute reduction in poverty & improvement in well-being on a global scale, distribution (inequality within or across societies) and rate of growth (flattening out vs accelerating growth) are important.

  • The massive reduction in poverty on a global scale over the past 50 years has not been evenly distributed. In particular, while 900 million Chinese people are not currently living in extreme poverty thanks to economic growth since 1990, and over 1 billion more around the world, not everyone has seen their income grow at the same rate.
  • US median household income, while still significantly higher than any other large country, has not grown as fast as countries like the UK, France, or the Nordics. Many potential reasons for this have been suggested.
  • The average income of US middle income groups after taxes and transfers has grown 46% in real terms over the past 50 years — nothing to sneeze at, but less than the 79% growth of the lowest quintile or the 103% growth of the highest quintile. It feels like the middle class is getting outpaced, which potentially stokes resentment of both the poor (including immigrants) and the rich.
  • There has been a rapidly increasing accumulation of wealth at the very top, almost entirely in the top 0.1%. This is the result of very long-term macroeconomic trends, as documented by Piketty, and is returning us to the wealth distribution we saw in the US (and England, and France) prior to the capital shocks of the World Wars. The US, which has created the most valuable businesses in the world (8 of the top 10, vs 0 for Europe), and which redistributes less than most peer countries (despite more progressive taxation) has seen the largest effect, but is not alone in experiencing this trend.

In light of all this, we need solutions that focus specifically on improving the well-being of the poor and middle-class, we need to ensure that US policies don’t lose sight of the US worker in favor of global averages (nor ignore the global poor), and we have an opportunity to reign in far more of the wealth accumulation by the top 0.1% and reallocate that money for the public good. (Oh, and we want to do all of that without curtailing the improvements in life for the global poor.) I think Giridharadas and I would agree on most of these policy prescriptions:

  • We should raise the tax burden on the top 0.1%. I don’t know what the perfect rate is, but Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal of 70% seems like a good starting point to me, though I think it should cut in at a lower income level than $10M.
  • Even better, let’s institute a wealth tax like Elizabeth Warren’s proposal, despite the implementation challenges. Again, I think $50M is too high a level a lower threshold, but it will do to start.
  • We should refocus government spending to make it more redistributive, including trying to resolve our growing intergenerational wealth disparities
  • We should do a better job measuring and promoting economic mobility, where we lag peer countries badly, including increasing public school effectiveness (via increased funding and every other means)
  • We should institute universal paid family leave and fund universal pre-K (or figure out how to subsidize it effectively for those who can’t afford it currently)
  • We should do all of this without exploding our debt (which will cripple us in the long-term) or unduly constraining economic growth (which restricts our future opportunity and shifts more of the gains from labor to capital).

One more trend to highlight: amid the return to the wealth distribution of the gilded age, we’ve also seen a return to the philanthropic disposal of large fortunes that we saw with Carnegie or Rockefeller.

  • While 80% of charitable giving is done by individuals, and the rate of giving overall hasn’t increased (it’s about the same 2% of GDP it was in 1971), some large foundations like the Gates Foundation are getting a lot of visibility, both for their size and operating model.
  • There are legitimate questions about their accountability, transparency, ability to focus attention, and what level of public oversight or discussion is appropriate.

The Book

Winners Take All threads some of these trends together into a polemic about how a market-oriented, globalist, philanthropic elite is to blame for our inequality problems. Giridharadas says that “in the very era in which these elites have done so much to help, they have continued to hoard the overwhelming share of progress, the average American’s life has scarcely improved, and virtually all of the nation’s institutions, with the exception of the military, have lost the public’s trust.” There is absolutely truth to this story.

Giridharadas goes further, saying the elites have convinced themselves and others “that that their plan to ‘do well by doing good’ is an adequate answer to an age of exclusion,” resulting in a kind of “elite-led, market-friendly, winner-safe social change.” In fact, when well-intentioned elites “put themselves in the vanguard of social change,” it accomplishes the opposite effect: “it takes the edge off of some of the public’s anger at being excluded from progress,” and therefore “it not only fails to make things better, but also serves to keep things as they are.” On net, while “there is no question that the outpouring of elite-led social change in our era does great good and soothes pain and saves lives,” charitable enterprises like the Gates Foundation or the Clinton Global Initiative do more harm than good. They may funnel billions of dollars into causes like women’s and children’s health, fighting infectious diseases, African-American college education, etc. But they unintentionally undermine public action, and they allow elites to feel good about themselves by taking these “voluntary half-measures” instead of other more transformational ones.

This is a good point as well, and one I hadn’t entertained before reading Winners Take All. We’d do well to have a discussion about the interaction between philanthropy and public action, the potential for the former to undermine the latter, and if it does, what changes should be made. However, Giridharadas doesn’t actually present any evidence that philanthropy undermines public action, and neither does his main source on the subject, Stanford sociologists Horvath and Powell. (I read their book chapter that Giridharadas cites, and while it raises some important questions, it simply presents hypotheses about the risks of disruptive philanthropy. It also does a total hit job on Bill Gates, quoting him egregiously out of context in order to — I can only imagine willfully — misrepresent him. You can find the full speech here. This seriously undermines my confidence in Horvath and Powell to be intellectually honest elsewhere.)

Assertions & Anecdotes over Evidence

This is one of many places where Winners Take All skips out on building a reasoned argument from evidence, instead choosing to rely on a series of anecdotes and assertions. Anecdotes may demonstrate existence, but it’s questionable to leap from a few anecdotes to infer general trends. Plenty of the assertions don’t stand up to scrutiny.

For example, central to Giridharadas’s argument is the claim that “government has truly scaled back,” starting with Reagan, and that philanthropy has stepped in to “commandeer” its role. But US government has in fact grown significantly over this period, driven by public social spending, which has increased 64% as a share of GDP since 1979. Meanwhile, philanthropy has been stable at around 2% of GDP for the past 50 years. These are inconvenient facts for Winners Take All, and it’s a shame that instead of attempting to deal with them, Giridharadas just assumes alternate facts.

Giridharadas also asserts that elites engage in “seeking lower taxes” for themselves and that it’s taboo to say that they need to pay higher taxes. “What if the elites simply need to part with more of their money in order for every American to have, say, a semi-decent public school?” he asks. But tax policy is not an elites/others divide, it’s a partisan one.

Polls show that “Democrats are basically all in agreement on taxes, with higher income Democrats being maybe even a little more left-wing than lower-income ones” (per Vox). Moreover, there is no evidence presented that liberal elites, and in particular, the philanthropists he objects to, do attempt to keep their own taxes low—let alone that they see their philanthropy as a replacement for progressive taxation. Bill Gates says “I need to pay higher taxes.” Warren Buffett has written “My friends and I have been coddled long enough… raise rates immediately” on the top 0.3%. George Soros and hundreds of other wealthy Americans signed a letter saying “Don’t cut our taxes… oppose any legislation that further exacerbates inequality.” Michael Bloomberg has opposed “lowering the tax rate paid by those of us in the top bracket,” citing public schools and “wage stagnation coupled with growing wealth inequality.” Bill Clinton raised taxes on the top 1% while lowering it for the bottom 25%, and Hillary Clinton called for higher tax rates on the wealthy.

An intellectually curious attempt to understand what’s happening here would grapple with these challenges instead of dodging them, but Giridharadas seems entirely disinterested in facts that might complicate his narrative.

Straw men over Complexity

Giridharadas also liberally makes use of that favorite tool of polemicists: arguing against straw men. This is done by either characterizing extreme positions as representative of elites generally, or by twisting certain statements to paint them as far more extreme than they are. I’m sure there’s someone out there who would take each of the positions that Giridharadas argues against, but that doesn’t mean they need to be taken seriously or are representative of any sizable population.

  • I’ve never heard anyone say that entrepreneurship is “synonymous with humanitarianism,” that “social change should be pursued principally through the free market and voluntary action,” or that business skills are “the solution to virtually everything.”
  • Who argues that we ought to “call participatory democracy a failure, and to declare these other, private forms of change-making the new way forward”?
  • Hardly anyone would object to the premise that “there will always be situations in which people’s preferences and needs do not overlap, and in fact conflict.”
  • A corporation saying, “By linking people to information, capital and markets, we have helped millions to create lasting prosperity for their families and communities” is not the same as claiming that “people are poor because of the absence of these linkages, not because of caste, race, land, hoarding, wages, labor conditions, and plunder; not because of anything anyone did — or is doing — to anyone else; not because of reversible decisions societies have taken.”
  • Airbnb’s promotion of the (true) fact that people can produce income by renting out unused rooms is not the same as claiming that “the way you alleviate housing suffering is by allowing people to share their homes.”
  • The claim that we should build a “partnership involving all levels of government, the private sector, and non-government organizations” is not the same as claiming “the only answer is to pursue social change outside of traditional public forums, with the political representatives of mankind as one input among several, and corporations having the big say in whether they would sponsor a given initiative or not.”

I don’t think he’s being intentionally disingenuous; nor do I think this is simply hyperbole, since his arguments depend on these straw men. I think he really believes that he is accurately characterizing representative elite views. Perhaps this is why, after strenuously claiming so many times that it’s anathema to bring up any of this stuff in the tech or business worlds, he was so genuinely surprised to be invited to speak at Google (and to a very receptive audience).

It’s a lot easier to stoke up resentment if you misleadingly paint a large group of people as extremists.

Grievance over Solutions

This is but one of many ways that Giridharadas strikes me as especially Trumpian in his methods. As he says, “Trump tapped into a ‘widespread intuition that elites were phonily claiming to be doing what was best for most Americans’ and ‘whipping it into frenzied anger.’” Whereas Trump directed that anger at the bogeymen of the right — immigrants, liberal tech titans, the media — Giridharadas does exactly the same thing, but directs the anger at the bogeymen of the left — business, liberal tech titans, and globalists. Like Trump, he starts with the argument that the middle-class is left behind, and constructs a deeply negative, grievance-laden worldview, where elites in smoky rooms pull the levers of power. It’s a story of decline from the Good Ol’ Days when America was great, although it’s never clear when exactly that was and what was different about wealth and power then. It’s obsessed not with finding solutions to our problems, but with the “hunt for perpetrators” and finding someone to blame. Instead of Trump’s poor rapists and terrorists from Latin America, Giridharadas’s immigrants are “Saudi, Russian, and Nigerian absentee princelings” who have “overrun” London and “pushed up rents without contributing much to the economy or tax base or the communities they lived in.” Either way, you’ve got someone you don’t like to focus your anger on.

What does Giridharadas recommend for solutions? Not much. “Where do we go from here?” he asks. The answer: “somewhere other than where we have been going…” Okay. He says the country requires “transformational reform.” But what transformation? Make repairing government “our foremost national priority,” he says. Engage in “collective problem-solving.” Sounds great! What does that mean? As Trump showed in 2016, it’s easy to throw blame about if you’re not on the hook for actual solutions. Giridharadas suggests at various points that higher taxes, paid family leave, better public schools, and health care reform would be positives. But this is small bore stuff that nearly all liberals, elite or not, support, and they won’t solve the problem of middle-class wages that Winners Take All starts with. As for the philanthropists and socially-conscious entrepreneurs, there are no suggestions as to what they should do instead of trying to do good.

Conclusion

We should always and everywhere be skeptical of concentrated power, including by those who mean well. We should certainly focus more on inequality, and not poverty alone. We should not turn a blind eye to what happens during the amassing of fortunes and assume that after-the-fact charity absolves one of misdeeds and selfishness along the way.

But the world is more complicated than Giridharadas would like to think, and we shouldn’t get distracted by simplistic dichotomies. He quotes Pope Francis calling for poverty to be “radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality,” which Francis called “the root of social ills.” One can agree with this while also recognizing that there’s a lot of room between the “absolute autonomy of markets” and “only government can be part of the solution.” I certainly agree with Martin Luther King, Jr, who said we should “laud philanthropy while not ignoring ‘the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.’”

By telling an overly simplistic story, by identifying a single group to blame and painting them with a broad brush, Giridharadas distracts us from our actual problems—and especially from finding solutions. By claiming that “the engines of progress that got us where we are today” are entirely government, by painting business as the problem rather than a component of (though not the entire) solution, by misidentifying philanthropists and socially conscious entrepreneurs as creating the problem instead of focusing on how they can be part of a solution, we’re actually less likely to solve our problems. We can and should tax the wealthy more, but if we blithely buy into a story that all of our problems are rooted in wealth hoarding, we won’t actually address issues like middle-income wage growth—which doesn’t seem to be a factor of tax system progressivity or public spending.

There are many intellectually rigorous takes on the challenges Winners Take All seeks to address, Piketty’s Capital being one. Unfortunately, Giridharadas chooses to play the thought leader to Piketty’s intellectual. In this case, we really do need more of the intellectual.