When the Market Is Our Only Language
Anand Giridharadas is a journalist and writer. He is a former columnist and foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a visiting scholar at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. He is the author of India Calling, The True American, and Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.
Krista Tippett, host: Americans revere the creation of wealth. Anand Giridharadas wants us to examine this and how it shapes our life together. He knows, from the inside, the web of Wall Street and Silicon Valley; think tanks, foundations, and convenings from TED to the Aspen Institute; and book and speaking circuits and media that confer power. I had interviewed Anand before and wanted to draw out the generative aspect of a confrontational and thought-provoking message he’s now bringing about the implicit moral equations behind a notion like “win-win” and the moral compromises in cultural consensus we’ve reached, without reflecting on it, about what and who can save us.
Anand Giridharadas: I actually think we’re now at a place where we are ripe, much as we were 100 years ago, when we were in the first Gilded Age, and you had these great inequalities and great new technologies and a lot of dislocated people and a lot of anger and a lot of philanthropy. What that gave way to was an age of reform. I think we are ripe for a new age of reform in American life, where these basic questions of, what is the relationship between work and health care? How do we do social mobility in an age of the gig economy and iPhones? What is our relationship to place as companies and as workers? These are some big questions that, in some ways, are almost spiritual questions about the economy and about our society.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Anand Giridharadas is a journalist and author, and he’s been a foreign correspondent and columnist for The New York Times. His new book is Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.
Ms. Tippett: As you know, because you’ve been on the show before, I don’t always, but I usually start with some question about the spiritual or religious background of someone’s childhood. We did speak about that once before. I asked you that straight-on question, and you spoke about — well, for one thing, your Indian-American family of long lineage of Hindu practice, and you’re the generation where that bond of affiliation is loosening. You talked about having a kind of civic spirituality, though, that has to do with your belief and trust that there are greater possibilities for what occurs between people than we perhaps know and than we perhaps always achieve but that we can do more together than we do.
One of the things I kept thinking about as I was reading your book and as I’m getting ready to talk to you is that language of civic spirituality and how there’s a civic spirituality of American culture that’s very close or that has elements in it and that is related to what you’re writing about. There is a faith in the market and a deep respect for the creation of wealth and the influence that comes with that.
Mr. Giridharadas: I think these are two faiths. This is a story, in some ways, about these two rival faiths. It’s faith in what we do alone versus a faith in what we do together. I was just thinking, as you were saying that, that I think I could tell a second spiritual background story that’s actually much more real to me and more important to me, which is my family’s immigrant narrative. A lot of this book, for me, is working out — my family, a lot of immigrant families end up having this unconscious “you pull yourself up; there’s no one helping you; you did it all by yourself” narrative. A lot of my journey has actually been unlearning that.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and that’s a merger of an immigrant story with the American story.
Mr. Giridharadas: Correct. It’s a very particular interpretation that leaves out a lot of details.
Ms. Tippett: The book Winners Take All is a book of reportage. What I’m interested in, and what I want us to trace and go into here is the arc of your wrestling of what you’re writing about now. Also, full disclosure, you and I know each other and have actually had some meaty discussions not about the book, but about some of these subjects that we both care about and that are alive in the world.
The origin story of this battle cry — and I do feel, actually, like Winners Take All is kind of a battle cry — is your time as a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute. What year was it that?
Mr. Giridharadas: 2015.
Ms. Tippett: I just want to say that that is an incredibly powerful speech. It’s online on YouTube. It’s called “The Thriving World, the Wilting World, and You.” Was that the title you gave it?
Mr. Giridharadas: If I remember it, I was just walking into the room right before to do a mic check, and they’re like, “Does it have a title?” And I was like, “I don’t think it has a title.” And then I was like, let’s do “The Thriving World, the Wilting World, and You.” They’re like, “OK, we’ll just put that in the schedule.” The whole speech was a surprise that no one knew anything about.
Ms. Tippett: You start out by saying that you’ve been invited to speak about the theme of forgiveness, which was one of the threads in the previous book you’d written. But you began by saying to this room full of people, many of whom you knew well and cared about, that you weren’t going to speak about forgiveness in that way they perhaps expected. You said, “After I have spoken, I will need your forgiveness.” You said, “I want to reflect with you on where we stand” — that was also really notable to me, that you were speaking as a member of that community — “as a community, on some of the injustices of our time.”
Let’s just talk through some of the major themes of that, which I’ll float into where you are today on this. You talked about the “Aspen consensus.” That is really bigger than just what happens in Aspen.
Mr. Giridharadas: When I was in the fellowship, I was drawn into, as many other people were, this idea that we were coming together to do good, and that there were privileged people, rich and powerful people, coming together to help and make change and make a difference.
Ms. Tippett: It was a really an exciting experience, right?
Mr. Giridharadas: Mm-hmm. You sat with 21 people in this room, and you discussed Plato and Gandhi and also Jack Welch, which was a bit of a problematic sign in retrospect. You talked very sincerely about what was going on in the world today, how could you make a difference, how could you start a project to help. All of that seemed great. But, of course, I had started to realize as I got deeper into that Aspen world that it was also a world where Pepsi and Monsanto sponsored things, and the Koch brothers sponsored things, and Goldman Sachs sponsored our reunions. You started to realize that it wasn’t necessarily clear that this enterprise we were a part of was truly about world betterment. And I basically became very interested in the silences, what we were not allowed to talk about or what we, just by custom, didn’t talk about when we came together to talk about making the world better. So the Aspen consensus was: You can tell the rich and powerful in our age to do more good, but you can never tell them to do less harm. You can tell them to give more, but you can’t tell them to take less. You can tell them to share the spoils of extreme capitalism, but you can’t tell them to renovate capitalism.
Ms. Tippett: Question extreme capitalism.
Mr. Giridharadas: Correct. It seemed to me that what we were doing in coming together in this way was genuinely trying to help, genuinely talking about these problems, genuinely creating action and programs and thousands of little initiatives to help people. But in some deeper way, the whole thing, actually, I started to realize, was a conservative exercise in protecting the system that kept us on top.
Ms. Tippett: You shine a light on language that we’ve all heard so much these days, language that, on a superficial hearing, sounds good: “Doing good by giving back.” But then you peel away — that, also, is an idea of generosity that is a substitute for the idea of justice.
Mr. Giridharadas: I think your picking up on the language point is so important. This is as unequal a time as America has been in 100 years. It’s evidently as angry a time as it’s been in a long time. It’s as democratically dysfunctional a time as it’s been. And a lot of how we got there, in my view, is through seemingly innocuous language, language that found ways to smooth over real problems so that we didn’t address them and so that they festered and festered and festered. It’s language like the “win-win,” which sounds great, but in some deep way is actually about rich people saying, the only acceptable forms of social change are the forms of social change that also kick something back upstairs — language like “doing well by doing good,” which, again, is like, “The only conditions under which I’m willing to do good is under which I would also do well.”
You really have this rising figure in our time, the “thought leader,” who is the winner-friendly thinker, the thinker who trims some of their diagnoses and prescriptions and looks at the world and what to do about it in ways that justify the winner’s position on top. Those people get a certain kind of patronage and sponsorship and acclamation from the winners.
Sometimes, on the darker corners of the internet, it’s imagined that rich people are all sitting in a room making these horrible, evil schemes. And part of what I found was that a lot of these folks are incredibly decent and upholding an incredibly indecent system. And the way you get from one side of the river to the other, from those decent people to the indecent system, is the bridge of faulty assumptions and weird myths and bad ideas that have managed to really rise to the fore and conquer a lot of our culture.
Ms. Tippett: Even as you say, one of the things you said in Aspen that day — I think this was in Aspen that day — that one of the things you worried about that you would like people in the room to think about is that, at this nexus of wealth and power and giving back, there is an underdeveloped sense of human darkness. I’d really like for you to spin that out for me. I think you’re talking about both the limitations of our sense of the potential for darkness in ourselves, as well as in others.
Mr. Giridharadas: One of the things that started to fill me with unease in these spaces was what felt like an empty positivity. That positivity essentially takes the view that any kind of social problem is an inefficiency problem. Or we haven’t turned the dials quite right, and if we just turned them a little differently or figured out how to maybe assign those teachers to this school or maybe — just tweaks; if we just tweaked things and fixed things and scaled things and made things a little more efficient, we could get to the Promised Land.
When I say there’s a missing sense of human darkness, that kind of view, although it’s true for many kinds of problems in the world, it fails to describe a lot of problems in the world, which are problems of people having power that is unearned or using power unfairly and blocking other people’s chance to live a full and decent life. You can’t talk about the struggles that women have to be full and equal members of society without talking about what men do. If you insist on talking about that in a positive, win-win way, you’re tying one hand and four fingers on the other hand behind your back.
Ms. Tippett: I also think that when you talk about an openness to the complexity of this human darkness, you’re not just talking about things men do; you’re talking about things men do that they have had no idea they were doing. So, would have had trouble — and you can translate this in every area — understanding that as a piece of darkness.
Mr. Giridharadas: Absolutely. I see this so clearly in Silicon Valley, which, in many ways, when I spend time out there, what strikes me is, I meet people out there who, I think, truly believe and wake up every day trying to make the world better and truly think that they are doing so and that they’re sitting on tools and capabilities that could allow them to liberate humanity faster than anybody on earth. But because they are so confident in that, there’s an assumption that the tools they’re building will always make things better. The more people are connected, the more people are online, the more people are on Facebook, the more, the more, the more — it will always be better.
There’s a failure to understand that the same tools that will empower people to be online can very easily be used by the Chinese government to prevent people from speaking their mind in a way that actually makes it harder, rather than easier, to do so. That happens all the time in history.
Ms. Tippett: When you connect human beings, you get the fullness of human beings. You get the primal, trollish places in our psyches, and you get our creativity and our magnanimity.
Mr. Giridharadas: Correct. None of which is to say these tools are all bad. But if you don’t have a sense of human darkness —
Ms. Tippett: Which, I just want to say — let’s just call it being realistic about how complicated we are. It’s just a reality base about the human condition.
Mr. Giridharadas: Totally, but I think it’s very interesting that a lot of people, particularly in the Valley — there’s this thing of dropping out of college because one of the reasons these folks drop out is, they feel they have the technical knowledge they need to get started. And part of what they’re dropping out of, in many cases, is the liberal arts education that is precisely designed to give you these kinds of frameworks to understand things like, history is cyclical, and good things have bad effects, and things go ways that you couldn’t anticipate, and just this normal understanding of how the human condition, as you put it, works.
When you have people with that much power over humanity, that much power to decide more and more how children learn and how commerce works and how power functions, and they basically have a naïve, childlike understanding that any tool that they invent will inherently make things better, you go to a very dark place.
[music: “First Encounters” by Victor Bermon]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with journalist Anand Giridharadas.
Ms. Tippett: This positivity has a long American lineage, and I think, particularly, an inheritance of the latter half of the 20th century. It’s the mentality that gave us the idea of the end of history, which, whatever people thought of that book, really was kind of the way we acted as if — until September 11, 2001. There was this wake-up call that history hadn’t gone away. And you just reviewed Francis Fukuyama’s new book in The New York Times Book Review.
Mr. Giridharadas: Yeah, I did.
Ms. Tippett: To go back to this other long lineage that’s longer than this one, our faith in the market as an engine for that positivity, for that “greater, better, more, we’ll fix it” that does lie ahead if we just keep doing our thing. You talked about your immigrant family story of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. To me, that’s just an American story. I grew up in a small town in central Oklahoma, and I had the classic — my father came from nothing — “dirt poor” was a literal description — and was a very proudly self-made man. That is such an iconic American idea and idea of ourself. Also inside that is that wealth is a measure of hard work, and it’s worthy of respect.
Mr. Giridharadas: I almost think what you’re describing is — and it actually almost goes beyond the specifics of the market versus government, which is, I think we’re almost talking about two parallel and rival spiritual orientations in America. There’s a spiritual orientation that celebrates what we each do alone, and there’s a rival orientation that celebrates what we do together. I think these are both very strong parts of our culture, and they map a little bit or a lot onto this idea of the celebration of a heroic soloist, capitalist, pull-yourselves-up-by-the-bootstraps story.
But that’s never been the only story. We’ve also always had this story of movements. It wasn’t individuals who got rid of the King of England. The most important things we’ve done in this culture have also been together. I think these two tendencies, what we do alone and what we do together, have always vied for primacy in American life. They’ve, at different moments, for much of the 20th century, had a certain healthy tension. And I think right now the relationship between them is very unhealthy. It’s become a relationship of mutual annihilation, instead of a relationship of adversarial cooperation.
I think we need to get back to a place where we understand both and celebrate both the very real heritage we have in this country of doing things alone and of doing things together, and the relationship that those things have, because at our best, we do things together in a way that allows people to do things alone. And people do things alone in a way that creates the opportunities to do things together. These things don’t have to be at war with each other, but they are absolutely at war today.
Ms. Tippett: One of the things that’s been on my mind recently that I’m trying to think through, and I’d like to think through with you and see how you approach this, is that part of the problem and part of the difference between now and the mid-20th century is that — and I don’t want to say we don’t have a moral center of gravity — we don’t have a vocabulary of morality or worth or value, except for the creation of wealth. I’m going to use a wealth analogy: We are really impoverished.
Mr. Giridharadas: I would think about this almost as the second hat problem, which is, I think if you were to go back a little bit in time and think about businesspeople in 1950 or whenever, they would always have — in addition to their businessman hat, they’d have a second hat. That hat may just be “strong community member” and “T-ball coach” and “volunteer for the Rotary Club” and whatever. But that second hat was often a spiritual hat. They were in the church. They went to see other people in that church every week. They had a parallel set of values that were in some ways reinforcing of or in tension with the first hat.
I think what’s happened in the business world is, a lot of the people with wealth and power and real decision-making authority over how our society goes don’t have a second hat anymore. They don’t have some other set of values that competes with their business values.
Ms. Tippett: I think that what you’re describing that happened in the business world — the geological layer below that is a story of a real shift in our society. We’re not going to go back to those hats. Society has changed. We have secularized. But I think that what rushed in, in the place of moral imagination, were economic values and economic metrics. And that’s not big enough. It’s not good enough.
Mr. Giridharadas: I think that’s exactly right. However, I don’t think that means that there can’t be other second hats. We have to invent them.
Ms. Tippett: We haven’t developed them yet. We’re in this moment where, I think, the void and the consequences of the void, in fact, what rushes into the void is very apparent. That’s what you’re describing.
Mr. Giridharadas: I think we should dwell for a moment on why that is because as much as I am critical in the book of the market being the spiritual tradition to fill that void, I also understand the appeal of it from a slightly different point of view, which is, when I was a foreign correspondent in India, I watched as the market gushed into this very old culture and a culture in which so many things had prevented people from making their own destiny and realizing their dreams and escaping the niche of their father and grandfather and mother and grandmother. I watched as the market came in and cleaned out a lot of those cobwebs and actually valued people according to their talents instead of their caste; and valued women according to their ability to be a bank teller not according to their genitals or gender identity or what their mother thought they should do.
That was an incredibly powerful thing to witness. I wrote a whole book about that. I have seen the power of the market. The agnosticism of the market, when it comes to who you are and your background, is a very powerful thing. So I actually come to this with an understanding borne of a different experience about why that is appealing to people. But I think when it becomes the only language, when it becomes the only way of thinking about the right thing to do, it leaves us with a very impoverished sense of how to live together. It’s good for creating wealth and creating things and building things, but it’s not a guide. It’s not a useful vocabulary for living together.
[music: “55” by Balmorhea]
Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more with Anand Giridharadas. We’re putting all kinds of great extras these days into our podcast feed — lots of poetry, music, and a new feature “Living the Questions.” You can get it all as soon as it’s released when you subscribe to On Being on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with author and journalist, Anand Giridharadas, speaking about the confrontational, thought-provoking, and generative themes of his book Winners Take All. He’s questioning the moral calculus by which we trust the market to save us and ask the wealthy to give back but not to do less harm.
Ms. Tippett: I think it was in your interview with Ezra Klein, which I thought was such a great conversation. You said that you were meant to send your editor an afterword to the book with prescriptions. And I agree with you on this, that our fixation on the prescription and the solution and the plan and doing that immediately is part of the problem. But I know people must be asking you this, and I want to know: How are you thinking about that conversation you’re hearing as you’re now out there?
Mr. Giridharadas: My attitude to solutionism flows from my sense of what being a writer is and my sense of the fact that this is a big society where a lot of people have different roles, and I don’t need me to play all the roles. In fact, I have no desire to do that. I think what a writer can do with the provocation of a book like this is to force a conversation that maybe people would prefer to avoid in certain circles; or to elevate to discussion things that are lurking in people’s hearts but not quite said out loud; or to take things people say in private to you, the writer, and put them out in public so that then people can say, “Yeah, I kind of agree with that” and have conversations within their communities or within their organizations that they wouldn’t easily have without it. It’s a lot easier to metaphorically retweet something than to tweet something yourself. Part of what a book like this does is, it just gives that 25-year-old at Facebook who’s actually deeply uncomfortable with Facebook’s power and behavior a way to say, “Hey, have you seen that book? I mean, I don’t agree with all of it, but that’s kind of interesting…”
Ms. Tippett: Are people like that talking to you?
Mr. Giridharadas: Yes. I’m getting messages every day, email, all confidential, all the time, telling me, “Actually, you have no idea how bad it is.” I feel the struggle. People are telling me of their struggles within these organizations. I’ve become this confession booth for all kinds of people who are decent people, who know themselves to be part of indecent systems, and who want to do better but are not sure whether to, in the words of that old Albert Hirschman book, “exit, voice, or loyalty.” Do you leave? Do you stay? Do you fight? Do you speak up? Do you bite your tongue until you’re in a senior position? All those things.
Part of what I think a writer can do is name unnamable things or things that are awkward to talk about. I hope no one ever just calls something a win-win again without having a sense of irony around it. And next time you hear someone say, “Our company is doing well by doing good,” and if there’s a small little pea under the mattress when you hear that saying, “There’s something kind of weird there” — that would, for me, feel like an achievement, because I actually think a lot of how you get decent people upholding an indecent system is culture, is vocabulary, is values. If you can start to warp those or twist them around, I actually think you can get somewhere.
Ms. Tippett: You do name some really basic contradictions and, in fact, morally repugnant contradictions that are right at the heart of our society and very close to home. One example that you often cite, which, frankly, I had never quite thought of it in exactly this way before, is that rather than talking about the tax structure, you have wealthy people and philanthropists and companies funding a charter school but not taking on the underlying issue, the underlying fact that the public school in a wealthy neighborhood is going to be better funded than the public school in a poor neighborhood, and that we all accept that.
Mr. Giridharadas: I was just in Ohio. The public schools in the city of Akron get $10,000 a year, that’s the per-pupil spending in Akron. There’s another district in Ohio where the per-pupil spending is $31,000 a year. Maybe one of your listeners can explain that to a six-year-old child; I know I would be unable to. I’d find it very hard to explain to a child why they have to get one-third as much educational resource as someone else because mommy and daddy’s house is less expensive. Those are the kinds of things that we all sort of tolerate.
Ms. Tippett: Right, and I think that also goes back to these values we hold without understanding we hold them, that somehow — this American thing: Where there is greater wealth, people have worked hard. Somehow, they’ve deserved it; there’s honor in that.
Mr. Giridharadas: They didn’t just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They invented boots.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right.
Mr. Giridharadas: In this moment in time, there’s a chasm between the core of the American self-image and the reality of who we are. I think that story of mobility and rising to your level is a deeply, widely held story. The simple fact of the matter is, that story is less true in the United States of America than in almost any other rich country. The thing we think we are off the charts on, we are off the charts, but the wrong end of the chart. In America, your parents’ income has the greatest predictive power over your income of any of the other rich countries. So at the very heart of America in this moment today is, we are not who we think we are, which is what I said to the Aspen Institute: We are not who we think we are. That is always a hard thing to hear, but it’s also a creative thing to hear because what I’m not saying is, “You’ve got to live up to my values.” What I’m suggesting is, “We’ve got to live up to our values.”
Ms. Tippett: You need to have some discernment. That’s the muscle we’ve lost, that moral discernment, moral imagination.
Mr. Giridharadas: I was reading this book The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz, a 1953 Polish intellectual lamenting how his generation of classmates and peers had gone from being freedom-loving thinkers to giving in to Stalinism just because it was convenient, and that’s where the jobs were, and that’s where the connections were. He watched all these people lay down for Stalinism — which is a pretty serious thing, to accuse all your friends of succumbing to Stalinism. On the other hand, he called the book “a debate with those of my friends who were yielding, little by little, to the magic influence of the new faith.”
I read that, and I thought, you can write a criticism, a profound and fierce criticism of people among whom are many of your friends, and you can lament their giving in to the magic influence of this new, new faith, but you can do it in a way that’s a debate with your friends. The idea is for people to sit with these questions of: What is my relationship to the system? What is my relationship to inequality and the injustices in this country? Am I actually working on the right side to solve these problems? Am I enabling these problems by day and then tinkering with them by night? Is my regular job, as opposed to my side hustle, on the side of justice? All of these things. What’s been so amazing to me is actually the openness of a lot of the people — the kinds of people I implicate in the book — the remarkable openness to looking at these questions.
[music: “An Albatross and a Half” by Brent Arnold]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with the journalist Anand Giridharadas.
Ms. Tippett: In the talk you gave in Aspen in 2015 — as I say, you were there as a person living these questions too. You said, “I love this community” — you were speaking of that community of, sorry, thought leaders, [laughs] activists, philanthropists, business leaders — “and I fear for all of us, myself first and foremost, that we may not be as virtuous as we think we are. History may not be as kind to us as we hope it will. Our role in the inequities of our age may not be remembered well.” You also spoke poignantly, I think, about — you live in Brooklyn. You have worked for McKinsey. You’ve given great TED talks. You make money writing books and on the speaker circuit. You also talked about, in your world of peers and friends, these inflated notions people have that still do feel existential, of what it takes to make a living, support a family. How has this investigation and this conversation you’re part of now, what is it sparking in you that perhaps you didn’t expect when you began? How are you working with it?
Mr. Giridharadas: It’s a great question. I say in the acknowledgements, the best way to know about a problem is to be a part of it. As someone who writes and thinks for a living, I have definitely not been successful in avoiding it, nor have I had the courage or stomach to avoid it at all times. I’ve tried to live my life well, but for all the reasons you say, it’s very complicated to avoid, just the same way it was complicated for painters in Florence in a certain age to avoid the Medicis. I think what the investigation has left me with is thinking about, even as a writer, how do I make sure that I am using my power, however limited it is, to interrogate systems and ask the questions you’re not supposed to be asking, instead of doing the kind of journalism or thinking or speaking that merely props up power.
But it also shows up for me every day in thinking about, am I using my voice to say inconvenient things that might cause me to lose friends or social capital, to put it in those market terms, but that are part of maybe pushing us, in some small way, to where we need to get as a society?
Ms. Tippett: Maybe this is a good place for us to talk about journalism’s complicity in this.
Mr. Giridharadas: Let’s do it.
Ms. Tippett: Because the media you and I love also is part of this consensus, of strengthening it.
Mr. Giridharadas: Everybody is part of the common culture we share. This is the problem.
Ms. Tippett: Yes, but journalism has a very specific power to shine a light on and —
Mr. Giridharadas: Correct. But Krista, that’s not just — I fully agree with you, but I have to say, it’s also every private school in America that now has to raise endowments and has a mission of service and makes kids do 50 hours of community service, but basically has 18 millionaires on the board and is totally in fealty to wealthy donors. It’s every university that is courting the next $30 million science center donation and puts whatever those people want ahead of its educational mission. It is absolutely the media, which tells uncritical stories about people giving back without asking hard questions about how they take. I don’t think we can attack prosaic things like the level of inequality or the level of, even, societal anger without going to a deeper place of uprooting a culture in which money is the fundamental currency of value.
Ms. Tippett: Right. The business pages of newspapers, which are so much bigger than they used to be, are in some ways the most interesting pages of newspapers because we’ve given in — this is a reflection of that, but also, as I feel, a solidifier of that — that business is really the most real lens on life.
Mr. Giridharadas: There’s a sense that I heard so much in reporting the book, that business is how you make things different now. In every age, it’s something else. Maybe at one point it was the Catholic Church and at another point it was seafaring to far-off colonies. But now, in our age, it’s business.
Ms. Tippett: And it was nuclear arms; it was weapons — negotiators 40 years ago.
Mr. Giridharadas: Correct. You don’t get to pick the locus of power in your age. It just is what it is, and you have to try to make things better within that. A lot of the people that I write about basically are agnostic or even cynical about where the locus of power is in our time. They just assume it’s in business. And so, what they’re going to do is just do the best they can to make change that way.
But of course, what that obscures is that it’s also a very convenient thing to cling to because it’s a way of making change that doesn’t ask you to sacrifice in any way, which has traditionally been at the heart of any kind of spiritual or moral tradition, the idea that sometimes you have to deny yourself for the good of others. And this business religion, where it’s unique is it promises deliverance from the very idea of sacrifice. It promises that you can have your cake and eat it too, that you can make a killing and make a difference, and you can help people and help yourself. What an appealing fantasy. I just think one of the fascinating things that probably has affected American journalism and the rest of our society is the Andrew Carnegie bargain, which he set out in his “Gospel of Wealth” tract, which is, essentially, “If we give away a lot, don’t ask how the money was made.” I think in some ways, American journalism, but also just American culture, has agreed to play by the Carnegie rule.
Ms. Tippett: Well, we’ve also never told the story that way. We just point at Carnegie libraries and this legacy of Carnegie libraries, among other things. We don’t tell the full story or reflect on the full story. You said this in Aspen, and it’s very much through the book: “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.” When it comes to our children and how much we want for them — and this gets to the issues of schools — this is where this stuff gets really messy. I wonder how you continue to wrestle with that.
Mr. Giridharadas: One of the things that I thought a lot about, living in Brooklyn, this very parent-heavy environment, is — one of the things I tried to do in the book is actually to make people think about inequality in new ways and using new language. One of those frames is to actually think about it as who gets to own the future when the future rains on us, and who harvests the rainwater of the future. I think there’s a lot of future that falls on us. It’s just, some people collect most of it.
Another way to think about inequality is the line you draw between your love for your own children and your love for everybody else’s children. At one level, it seems obvious that you love your own children. But actually, if you think about what makes this society as decent as it is and the achievements that we’ve built to get here, we actually don’t value our children to the infinity point. We all love our children. But we all, generally, embrace a bunch of rules that set a cap on just doing best by our children and also makes sure we do right by other people’s children. That means paying your taxes. You pay your taxes because we understand you can’t just give it all to your children. We’ve got to take care of everybody’s. We nourish common institutions and systems and welfare and various programs that we may not use and our children may not use but that we think should be part of a system and available to someone else’s children.
I think one way to think about where we are in America now is that our love for our own children is far outstripping our concern for other people’s children. And whether it’s my own child or you and yours, no one’s ever going to take that away from you. But I think the question of a healthy society is, where do you draw that line so that there is place in your heart not only for your own children but for everybody’s?
Ms. Tippett: And something that’s so ironic about this, which is just representative of the mess we’re in culturally, politically now, is that the hardest edge of the inequity and the hypocrisy that you’re describing falls on people for whom even what you just said would be — people who are just trying to make sure their children have something to eat, so don’t even have that equation to wrestle with. And you’re very clear that this phenomenon, this consensus is absolutely a problem of the left as the right, whatever that means. But is this conversation you’re having, is it happening across — I hate these ways of dividing up reality, and in some way, they’re looser, but they’re what we have — this red/blue divide and this urban/rural divide.
Mr. Giridharadas: I will tell you something from my experience that I think is actually very surprising, certainly surprising to me. As I’ve been working on the book for three years, I’ve traveled a bunch around the country, and all kinds of people you meet, whether it’s in a cab or you’re out in a restaurant or wherever — you run into people, and people ask you what you do. “What do you do?” And whenever it’s come to “I’m a writer. I’m working on a book.” “What’s your book?” — if it goes that far, one of the things I’ve found is, people instinctively — when I say, “Well, I’m writing a book about rich and powerful people who say they’re changing the world but really are consolidating their own wealth and power,” I have found that people in the hinterland, in the heartland of this country, instinctively understand that faster and more readily than people in New York and San Francisco. And people in “red” places — that didn’t strike them as a lefty argument. I think that strikes them as something deeply resonant with their experience of the last 30 or 40 years. I actually think there’s a bulging consensus of 60, 70, 80 percent of Americans who believe, in one form or another, that this country needs transformational reform, that it is not at a tweaking moment, that it is not at a dial-turning moment.
Now, there’s obviously huge disagreement on what the transformational reform is, and much of what people want is opposite. But I actually still think it’s very significant that we have, I think, a consensus for deep system reform. For 30 or 40 years, we have been living under this idea that what happens privately — 1,000 flowers blooming, companies growing, and these little initiatives — that that kind of incremental approach to bettering our society would save us. And I actually think we’re now at a place where we are ripe, much as we were 100 years ago, when we were in the first Gilded Age, and you had these great inequalities and great new technologies and a lot of dislocated people and a lot of anger and a lot of philanthropy. What that gave way to was an age of reform. I think we are ripe for a new age of reform in American life, where these basic questions of, what is the relationship between work and healthcare? How do we do social mobility in an age of the gig economy and iPhones? What is our relationship to place as companies and as workers? These are some big questions that, in some ways, are almost spiritual questions about the economy and about our society.
Part of the drum that I’ve been beating, as much as, personally, I would love to see Donald Trump gone, is, I think Trump needs to be the end of something bigger, which is an end of the veneration of money, an end of the faith in billionaire saviors, an end of the trusting that the people who cause problems are the best at fixing them, and actually could be the spark of a moment and an age where we actually solve problems together again, through deep reform at the root, for everybody.
[music: “Happy Symmetry” by Robin Kelly, Ruth Barrett, and Bella Saer]
Ms. Tippett: Anand Giridharadas has been a foreign correspondent and columnist for The New York Times. He’s a visiting scholar at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. His books include India Calling, The True American, and Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, Sue Phillips, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, and Katie Gordon.
[music: “2025” by Huma-Huma]
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