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Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Last summer, at a social dinner in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to meet Anand Giridharadas, the former New York Times columnist and author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. As he explained the message of his book, I became intrigued. For years, I have viewed the staggering economic inequality in the U.S. with fear and anxiety. I have watched the widening gap turn into a chasm, serving to illustrate just how broken the U.S. system has become.

Anand seemed curiously eager for me to read the book, but I didn’t fully grasp why until I picked up a copy and read to page 205 – where there is a single mention of my name. He takes a subtle shot, including me in a group of elites who sanctimoniously apply band-aids to problems while ignoring that, in our self-interest, we are the ones who allowed the system to fail in the first place. And that’s the part I hadn’t previously considered.

His book makes a valid case that elites have participated in allowing the U.S. system to break down, while government and its high-powered advisers reinforced the income gap in many Western democracies. And to make things worse, these same elites are advocating “market solutions” to fix social issues around the world while they have utterly failed to fix the inequality in their own backyard. The result, Anand writes, has been the creation of what essayist C.Z. Nnaemeka calls the “unexotic underclass,” people who are neither rich enough to be global elites, nor poor enough to get the elites’ attention.

No argument there. One need only look at the facts.

Since the 1980s, the incomes of the top 0.001 percent of Americans have increased seven-fold, while the incomes of the lowest-earning half of the population have barely budged. Giridharadas points to trends that have contributed to the widening gulf between rich and poor, including cuts to public education, the dismantling of unions, outsourcing labor offshore, the continued belief in trickle-down economics, and much more.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, the average person remains 30 percent poorer. And the undeniable truth is that the only people who have done well since 2008 are the ones who caused the crisis in the first place. It’s no wonder people are seething with rage and have taken out their anger by supporting and voting for populist politicians from all parts of the spectrum, in democracies around the world. History has always shown this as the inevitable outcome of severe inequality and disenfranchisement.

Anand certainly does a great job illuminating the apparent hypocrisy of some elite philanthropists. As Giridharadas writes, “This book is an attempt to understand the connection between . . . the extraordinary helping and the extraordinary hoarding.” But I have several issues with his book as well. He exhibits a tendency to paint everything black and white in order to make his case. Having met so many philanthropic types over the years, I know there are in fact people who truly care and are passionate about giving away their money and bringing about sustainable change. A quick cast of the net would capture myriad examples of philanthropists who are intent on doing good, quietly backing projects that take innovative entrepreneurial approaches to large-scale social challenges.

Moreover, the benefits of all that philanthropic giving and change of corporate culture are evident and provable. Throwing rhetorical grenades in every direction is far from helpful.

More importantly, Anand doesn’t offer any solutions to the systemic problems that plague America. “Where do we go from here? Somewhere other than where we have been going, led by people other than the people that have been leading us,” he tells us. To me that reads as a cop out.

But I don’t entirely fault him for not providing concrete solutions. If history has taught us anything, the systemic change needed when societies go to the mat over inequality doesn’t come without some serious social disorder. And I am being diplomatic here. When a political system is broken as badly as it is today, when big money interests can spend billions on a single election, when truth is no longer relevant and  tribal affiliation causes citizens to vote against their own interests, then how will we fix the underlying causes?

Here is the irony: Anand seems to expect politicians to fix a system that either benefits or enslaves them. He will wait a long time.

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