Courtney E. Martin: Hello, welcome to City Arts & Lectures. I’m Courtney Martin. I’m a journalist and I am a frequent traveler in what our speaker calls “market world,” TED, Aspen Institute, that kind of thing. And his book spoke so deeply to me because it named things that I had experienced, but hadn’t quite wrapped words around, which I think is the sign of the best kind of writing.
He is the Editor-at-Large at Time, a New York Times bestselling author, the master of the acerbic tweet, a truth teller, a rabble rouser. Please welcome to the stage, Anand Giridharadas.
Anand Giridharadas: How are you?
Courtney E. Martin: Hi friend.
Anand Giridharadas: Hello, San Francisco. Wow. That was so much stronger than in LA yesterday.
Courtney E. Martin: Surprising.
Anand Giridharadas: Playing these places off each other.
Courtney E. Martin: Yeah, exactly. Pit us against each other. So I’m guessing that most of the people in this crowd are familiar with the book “Winners Take All,” his most recent, yes. It is a bold take down of what you call “the elite charade of changing the world,” which we are going to go deep into.
But I sort of wanted to start a little bit earlier, because one of the things I find so compelling about the book is your willingness to tell truth and to tell truth in rooms and in, you know, publications where you have friends, and you have people that you have personal relationships with, because I think it’s a powerful example of ethical behavior, at this moment where there’s sometimes a lack thereof in the world. Yes.
So are you down to go back to the early days?
Anand Giridharadas: Go wherever you want to go.
Courtney E. Martin: Okay. So you grew up in a bunch of different places, moved around a bit, including some important trips back to your parents’ homeland of India. As you were growing up, do you have any seminal memories of the first time you saw people speaking truth to power and you were sort of like taken aback and like, “I want to do that?”
Anand Giridharadas: That’s a great question. I think just when you mention India, one of the things that comes to me is actually realizing an environment in which I would go back as a child, the child of immigrants, going back to your parents’ country, and it felt like in India as an outsider, there were a lot of what, to me, seemed like very evident truths that no one could say.
And I think that’s true about every place, every institution, every country. It’s just different. Every age.
Courtney E. Martin: What you’ve called a consensus.
Anand Giridharadas: A kind of consensus that you don’t realize is a consensus. And you know, there were just, as an outsider, very strange things as a child in India about people’s kind of tolerance for other people’s abject existences.
That was just not, there was a kind of consensus, a genteel consensus, to not talk about that. Um, and so I think that’s been one theme of my life, is actually an attentiveness to what’s the obvious thing that nobody’s saying? And I think, you know. People often ask me after this book, like, “so you gonna write another book about philanthropy?”
And it’s so funny cause like, no, A, I would never do that, and B, the thread of my life and my writing is not philanthropy, is not, or India, it’s that. It’s what’s the thing that is true in this room that no one can say is true in this room? It feels like that’s why you keep these moody, weird creatures called writers around.
And one example of speaking truth to power that I remember, was I went to a school in Washington DC that very early on figured that China was going to be the next superpower. And this school went long on China, so the Chinese language classes, Chinese history, and this is like in the 90s.
So somehow the Chinese government was interested in some, you know, influential private school in Washington building up China. And so they built this partnership with the Chinese government and like the Chinese Premier’s wife, I think maybe the Premier’s wife, Madame Zhou, I think her name was, she came to the school. And it was a Quaker school and it was all about truth.
Courtney E. Martin: I love the Quakers.
Anand Giridharadas: The truth. It was all about equality. It was all about justice. It was all about the light within people. And the Chinese government’s not so Quaker. And yet here we were in these auditoriums, and the Premier’s wife was going–and no one said a thing.
At my school, everybody said a thing about everything, except that was somehow, it was such a prestigious thing. And everybody kind of knew to not say a thing. And I had this teacher, he’s no longer with us, he’s one of the great teachers I ever had, named Neil Tonkin, an English teacher, and he, we came into English class after this Premier’s wife’s visit, came in the afternoon, and he just looked at us. We’re like 17 years old. He looked at us and he said, “that was a fucking disgrace. Class is dismissed.”
And I never forgot that my whole life. Because that too, was teaching. He was the only person who told the truth that day in this school that had this elaborate cathedral of values that it was completely willing to violate to get a Chinese Premier’s wife’s visit. And I just remember that teacher telling that very concise truth.
Courtney E. Martin: Were there any repercussions for him that you remember?
Anand Giridharadas: No.
Courtney E. Martin: No.
Anand Giridharadas: That was, because deep down he was the only one who was true to the school spirit that day, everybody knew that. That’s the thing, when you, and it’s true of my book also–when you do speak those kinds of truths, you’re never actually as lonely as people may imagine. Because the thing about these truths is, a lot of people know them.
Courtney E. Martin: Right.
Anand Giridharadas: But they are paid to not say them. They are kind of fragmented into different pieces of different people know different parts of the truth. Often younger people know the truth. Women know the truth. People of color know the truth.
And when someone comes along with a TV show or a movie or a book and says the collective thing that everybody has agreed to not say, there’s suddenly a lot of people who are like, “um, yeah.” and one of the things I found in my book is it is so much easier, metaphorically speaking, to retweet something than to tweet something.
Courtney E. Martin: Yeah.
Anand Giridharadas: If you are–I found this so much in the particular experience and journey of my book. If you’re a 25 year old person at a foundation or at Facebook or whatever. Facebook is essentially a foundation. Creating community.
You know, it’s really hard to go into the boss’s office or the boss’s boss’s boss’s office and say, “Hey, I think we may be a fraud. Just a thought. I was, you know, the weekend, I was in a canoe.” You guys do a lot of that kind of stuff out here, right? We just take the subway. And so, you know, “I was in a canoe, and I felt like maybe the whole thing we’re doing is bad.” You can’t do that. There’s a lot for a 25 year old to…
But what a 25 year old in that situation can absolutely do, is say, “hey boss,” you know, and I know so many stories of this happening. “I heard about this book over the weekend. By the way, I do not agree with a lot of what I heard. But we should probably just have some kind of discussion of it as a company, just to get out in front of the issue.”
And in that way, giving the 25 year old a text allows them to just point to it and protect themselves. And so I think, to me, that feels like the value of that kind of truth speaking, which is actually about giving the latent truths within other people a chance to rise to the fore, be verbalized, and kind of coagulate between and among different people.
Courtney E. Martin: Right. Well, I wasn’t gonna go here yet, but since you went here, I do want, I really wanted to ask you about this–not so much the 25 year olds, but I was thinking about that your book has had such huge success. It has become, you know, a sort of touch point for this moment of like philanthropy going through a bunch of self-examination and soul searching. And it’s very obvious, it’s very public.
And as I’ve watched that conversation unfold, sometimes I’m watching who’s tweeting about your book, and I’m thinking, I feel like that person is like a central culprit in the analysis of market worlds. And I wonder about kind of the, you know, the quote, you know, the phrase virtue signaling.
Like, have you been frustrated at times to feel like there are people who are sort of claiming to be woke through their appearance of liking the book or being exposed to it, but not actually changing the practices at their companies?
Anand Giridharadas: Of course. You know, like there, there’s no one more ready for that eventuality than me, because that’s like the whole thing of the book in a way, how they did that to other things. And yet, I would say, we can’t know where this moment’s going to go yet. So it is the case–and I want to give credit where it’s due.
I really expected a tsunami of resistance to this that frankly did not materialize in the way that I imagined. And what instead has happened, as you say, is there’s a bunch of people, and it’s billionaires, but it’s also the 25 year old at Facebook, and it’s senior people at Goldman Sachs, and it’s a whole bunch of people in the broad world that I indict.
This is not only a book about philanthropy, it’s a book about a variety of elite spaces in which the richest and most powerful people protect their wealth and power, but also protect their monopoly on the future, by seeming to be the saviors of the problems they have caused or are complicit in causing.
And I have been surprised by the number of people within these spaces, the number of people you know, as unindicted co-conspirators, who have plead out to some of the indictment.
But to your point, I don’t know that anybody in the world has shut down their Double Dutch with an Irish Sandwich tax maneuver because of my book, and I highly doubt it. I don’t know that anybody has paid anybody $5 more an hour because of my book, and I highly doubt it.
I don’t know that anybody has actually made the connection that I ask business people to ask those who work in the do gooding parts of a business, which are growing, to make a phone call to their colleagues in the Washington office of the business that wear nicer suits than them and lobby for things. That by virtue of going into public policy, often have a bigger negative effect on the society than the do gooding thing that they’re doing.
I know of like a guy at a pharmaceutical company who was inspired by the book to make that phone call. I’m not sure that company changed and I’m not sure anybody else made that phone call.
What I do know, is the book has led to grappling. But grappling can be virtue signaling, as you say, and grappling can lead to real things. I think what made me happiest is, as a writer, I’m someone who believes that simply airing things has power in itself. I have to believe that.
And there were little examples along the way, just things I heard from other people, where even people… You know, I found out two days before the book came out, I wrote an essay in the New York Times, an excerpt about fake change. Describing a lot of these kind of efforts. Fake change is change that the powerful can kind of get on board with. And I, you know, it’s like lean in instead of maternity leave. Or charter schools instead of…
I mean, the lean in thing is just so, I have to say it, like here in the world capital of lean in. I mean, you know, patriarchy is just like a posture problem. It’s just, it’s an angle of recline issue. Women were incorrectly reclining. Um, and if women could just get their reclining act together, patriarchy would melt away, thousands of years. Um, so thank you Cheryl.
And so I described things like that, and I think you could take any issue in America where you could have a real justice solution, and then you could figure out what the lean in is for that. Charter schools instead of equally and adequately funded public schools for everybody. Uh, a FinTech app to help people smooth their income versus like a higher minimum wage so people just have good income.
And so I wrote about these kind of real change versus these light facsimiles of change. Change lite, fake change. And I found out later that the head of a foundation, corporate foundation, that represents some of the worst made money in America. If we were to take a poll on which money in America is the worst made fortune, and we all put it up on a screen, I’m sure this company would come in the top five.
And they have some foundation of course, because of the aforementioned malfeasance. And I hear that simply seeing this op-ed before the book’s even out, the head of this foundation sends an email to her team saying, “read this essay and be prepared to come in Monday morning to discuss whether we are fake change and whether what we do is fake change.”
Now, is that virtue signaling? Probably, knowing that company. Is it going to lead anywhere? Probably not, knowing that company. But to me there was some hope in the idea that on that Monday morning there would be some grappling. And the real specific hope I have is that there are some people in that meeting on Monday morning who are totally down with everything I say, but don’t have power in that meeting.
And I think the real thing that I can do, and I’ve been trying to do, is to actually covertly supply ammunition in a war that is already going on within a lot of organizations.
Courtney E. Martin: That’s really powerful.
Anand Giridharadas: People are clapping because they’re in the dark, you know, some of the people don’t, their bosses may be here, but.
Courtney E. Martin: And is that, when you were writing the book, and when you think about your role as a journalist, is that, is the grappling the goal, is that part of what you think of success as, is like creating enough of a conversation that people really have to grapple with something?
Anand Giridharadas: Yeah. I guess I just think there are–you know, Upton Sinclair had this great line about, it’s hard for a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.
Courtney E. Martin: Right.
Anand Giridharadas: Which is, you know, if you had to take like 10 quotes to a desert island to understand humanity, like that’d be a good one. I guess you wouldn’t really need to understand humanity if you’re on an island.
Courtney E. Martin: Yeah, I’m trying to imagine what you’d do with your ten quotes.
Anand Giridharadas: That’s like a Tom Friedman metaphor. I didn’t fully think it through. Um, so you just got a free Tom Friedman column. Um, is that guy still around?
Courtney E. Martin: I don’t know.
Anand Giridharadas: Yeah. No, but he was right. The world is flat, guys. No one’s angry. Everything’s perfect. Um, that was great.
Courtney E. Martin: So, you’re in the desert alone with your quotes. And then what happens?
Anand Giridharadas: Right. Thanks for getting me back on track. I have so many thoughts about Tom Friedman. Sorry, feelings is the right word.
And I think what feels to me like a good role for a writer is to promote the kind of grappling with the things that people are paid–and paid is broadly defined–paid not to be able to say.
You know, there’s also, it’s not just payment, it’s also like, after 9/11, I think we would all now agree, there were a bunch of things about excessive security measures that were just really hard to say unless you were really, really brave.
Right? The people pretty far on the left didn’t say anything super different from people pretty far on the right for certain periods, on certain issues. Surveillance, torture, other things. And, you know, it turns out that the crazy people who said stuff then are like now the thing that 80% of people would believe to be true. And so there is that role of just trying to say the thing that one day everybody will believe. Michael Lewis, who I think I saw I is going to be here or was here–.
Courtney E. Martin: He just was, yeah.
Anand Giridharadas: He has this line that I love, which is that writers are people who often feel the world has fundamentally misperceived something.
And I like that word misperceived. Cause it’s not about being wrong–everybody has an opinion these days. But it’s about misperceiving. It’s about helping people see in a different way. The stuff they’re seeing is the same stuff they were seeing before, but what you can do is maybe give them a new way of seeing it by putting things together, by reconfiguring language, by reporting, by going out and, heaven forbid, talking to people, immersing yourself in worlds.
Courtney E. Martin: But let’s, I want to complicate this idea of that Upton Sinclair quote with you, because you are not paid by a foundation or you know, a nonprofit organization or you know, any of these other entities, but you were part of a very tight and clear web of what you call, you know, thought leadership, which you take on in the book, which is giving TED Talks, having, you know, your Aspen Institute fellowship.
So in a way, even though they weren’t paying your salary per se, like there were very economic, like basic economic implications of you taking on these entities, right? And I’m sure a lot of people in this room know, but the book’s first seeds were planted when you were a fellow at Aspen, you know, in the beautiful shadow of maroon bells in this fellowship program.
You were supposed to get on the stage and give a speech. And everyone’s kind of drinking the Kool-aid and you essentially stood up and said like “there’s shit in the Kool-aid, and we, you know, we are all complicit and we need to face this.” Um, which was a really brave thing to do.
I mean, and you know, bravery is relative. We both know there are like incredibly brave people in the world fighting much harder fights every day. But I just want to like point out that it’s not that there were not potential economic or reputational implications for you speaking that truth to power.
So in that Aspen moment, when you sort of took on the Aspen consensus, you know, what went on for you before you decided to do that? Like did you have a conversation with someone? Did you think about this English teacher? Like what actually…?
Anand Giridharadas: It was unlikely divine intervention. What happened was, I was in this Aspen fellowship whose purpose in general was to take 20ish business leaders per year and put them through this fellowship so they–and deepen them, make them read Plato and Aristotle. It should have been a sign that we also read Jack Welch. Always a dead giveaway actually. Um, and go on this journey where we could think about how to solve the world’s most intractable problems.
And because 20 business people in a room is obviously human Ambien, they would put one or two non-business people in every class.
Courtney E. Martin: Okay, I was gonna say, how did you get in there?
Anand Giridharadas: An activist, a writer. So I was like the Indian spice of my class.
Courtney E. Martin: Which they probably never did again, by the way. You like, definitely broke that.
Anand Giridharadas: I actually checked this year, and it’s like everybody’s title is CEO in the new class. They learned their lesson. And it was a great experience actually. Like it’s like anything where you kind of bond with a group of people. These are like your squad and you share with them. And it’s really a great experience. It was actually the larger Aspen world that was kind of more troubling, because you’d be having these discussions about how to make the world a better place in the Koch seminar building named after the brothers, not the beverage.
But Pepsi was there also as a sponsor of the Aspen Ideas Festival. You know, it was the pairing with Monsanto, the other sponsor. Goldman Sachs was a sponsor. Paid money for us to be, you know, bank-splained to at a luncheon. And it just started to become really clear, and it was, to be honest, it was not at all just me.
There was kind of like a back row of, you know, and it was like a lot of the journalists, it was a lot of these people that they shouldn’t have let in. It was like the Wall Street Journal reporter and me and you know, some other people in the back, the artists, saying like, “why is that woman Dina Powell from Goldman Sachs explaining how they’re changing the world when they literally just caused the financial crisis?” Like, isn’t there like a five year just like…
Courtney E. Martin: So, a little shame.
Anand Giridharadas: You can do your banking, but just don’t bank-splain about poverty for like five years after you cause an explosion of it. That’s my, in my family, we were raised to always give it a rest when we caused a financial crisis.
Courtney E. Martin: A little shame, little shame.
Anand Giridharadas: Yeah, or a little modesty. Her lack of shame ended up getting her a job in the Trump administration. And so. She’ll be fine, trust me.
Courtney E. Martin: She’ll be fine. Point being, I’m often in those rooms, there’s always that table, but they don’t usually stand up on the stage and say that. They usually like drink their whiskeys late at night.
Anand Giridharadas: This is where we get to divine intervention. So they asked me to give a talk, which was not uncommon. People took turns giving talks, showing their documentary, whatever. And I was, they asked me to give a talk that I’d already given about my book about a hate crime, and I called them and I said, “I’m going to do something a little different.” And they were like, that’s fine. Emphasis on little.
And so I started drafting this talk. And I did have a lot of fear about it. And it was actually, to be honest, it was not something, I mean, I’ve now done three years of reporting on it. I had not at that time. This, writing this speech was the first I had really written on this topic, which is unusual. But I had a couple extra weeks where I was not committed to doing anything particular. So I took time to write the speech, which I don’t normally do.
And when I was doubting doing it the middle of that summer, Pope Francis–I am not a religious person. I am as skeptical of religion as you’ll find in a person. Pope Francis came out with this, I don’t know, encyclical or whatever they hell they do over there, um, about, uh, capitalism. I don’t know if it’s the environment one or the one that was straight up about inequality and capitalism. He did two. And they’re both, you can get, you can get the box set.
And I remember thinking, “who am I to be afraid of giving some speech to some billionaires and millionaires in Aspen? This guy’s probably going to get killed for saying this stuff. There is a massive infrastructure in the world that is designed to prevent anybody like him from ever getting to that job and saying stuff like this. And he’s doing it.” Right? And you remember when he, for him, now he’s become a little bit, you know, less bold than we may have imagined. But in that moment, in 2015, the guy was saying things you’d never heard anybody with that much power say.
Right? He was like, Barack Obama in a white robe in 2008, you know. And so it felt like, it just gave me this little bit of juice to like, I mean, who are you to be afraid, you should do it too. Pull a Pope Francis.
And it really helped me in the way that people just sometimes, you know, you get that kind of inspiration. And I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. And I drafted, I drafted, I drafted.
I showed it to my wife, who is a conflict resolution facilitator and by training conflict averse, which may be related. And you know, she thought some things, she kept saying, “yeah, well you can make that line a little more hearable.” And I was like, “I don’t want to make it more hearable. Get out of here.” And then she would leave the room and I’d be like, “I should probably make that line more hearable.” Hearable’s a big word for her.
Courtney E. Martin: I was going to say, hearable, I don’t even know that word.
Anand Giridharadas: It’s a great word. She’s like, you know, you want to be heard on that line.
Courtney E. Martin: Do you want to be right, or do you want to be effective? Like you actually wanted to change.
Anand Giridharadas: And I’m never sure about that one, but she helped me. And I got up in front of this room, about 400 people. Um, you know, maybe like an eighth of whom had gotten there in a jet. And it was a remarkable moment because, as I said earlier, I was saying to this group of people who thought they were coming to Aspen to make the world a better place, even though in so many ways, the institutions and networks they are part of were the reason we have these problems, the reasons we were living in this age of inequality.
We had people in the room from the big tech companies that were at that moment, we now know, selling American democracy out to avoid a little bit of extra regulatory scrutiny and allowing the Russians to kind of besmirch our democracy. You know, it was the financial institutions that we know were not only grabbing more money and power and pressuring companies to, you know, cut pension obligations, et cetera, and lobbying in Washington. And they were then gathering at Aspen to talk about equality and justice.
But what was so fascinating was right after I gave the speech, it was like people stood–I got a standing ovation, but people–with like full of icy stares. And then later that night I was at the hotel bar and this guy comes up to me, private equity guy, and he shakes my hand and he says, “you’re an asshole.” And…
Courtney E. Martin: And that’s it?
Anand Giridharadas: That was it. I think I may have left the conversation, I don’t remember. Um, not his fault that it was so short. And I think what was so interesting about that moment and all that has happened because of that moment, a moment I did not really plan, a moment I did not think that much about, a moment I did not think was the seed of a book. It was really like I was writing a talk for a room. Is that even in that room, this was a truth three inches below everybody’s vocal chords. This was not something no one had ever heard before, thought before, felt before. The finance people, the tech people, it doesn’t work–.
If you say something, I mean, if I come back and I just started telling you about penguin mating in Antarctica, you’re just like, okay, that’s, I don’t know anything about that. Like this is not that.
Courtney E. Martin: I know a lot about that actually.
Anand Giridharadas: You actually probably do know a lot about that.
Courtney E. Martin: No I don’t.
Anand Giridharadas: That’s one kind of true calling, where you’re just offering people like something where they’re starting from zero. This is the thing where you’re literally just bumping something up in an audience from here to here, and you’re making it collectively sayable out loud. And the fact that it inspired passion in people, anger in people, all of the feelings.
The fact that a billionaire in the room came up to me two minutes after I got off the stage and said, “thank you for voicing what’s been the struggle of my whole life. Every time people thank me for my philanthropy, I just think of the cigarette company that provided so much of that resources.” Um, and on and on and on. It made me realize that there was really something there, and that something became the seed of “Winners Take All.”
Courtney E. Martin: That’s very powerful. Let’s talk about that guy with the cigarette company. Cause I think this is one of the…
Anand Giridharadas: Woman.
Courtney E. Martin: Oh it was a woman. Interesting.
Anand Giridharadas: Women have cigarette companies too.
Courtney E. Martin: She was really leaning in, she was leaning in and smoking a lot.
Anand Giridharadas: It was a while ago, so it was like her family.
Courtney E. Martin: But I think one of the–and I actually want to quote something you wrote on this for the Aspen speech, which I thought was so beautiful.
You said that part of what you’re trying to say to the elite, which you include yourself in, at least in the Aspen speech is, quote, “we are not who we think we are. A hard thing to hear, but a creative thing to hear.”
And I think one of the experiences that, as I talk to people about the book, that they have as they read the book, and it does feel like that thing that came from their throat. But then there’s the sort of the shame and paralysis sets in of sort of, okay, now what do I do with this, now that I have heard these words that should have come out of my mouth spoken by someone else?
So tell me about the creative part. Like what do you see as once people go through that emotional catharsis as sort of reckoning and grappling? I know you don’t like to be prescriptive, but what do you see people actually doing after the grappling that’s creative?
Anand Giridharadas: It’s very interesting. You know, I resist solutions not because I don’t think the world needs them, but because I think they should come from the people reading the book, living in their worlds.
That’s your part of the story. And, but it’s a thing that people challenge me on: how come there’s not a 10 point plan in the book? And I sort of say to them like, “what other books do you read? Like, which good book has ever had a 10 point plan at the end of it? Does your Baldwin have a 10 point plan? Maybe someone wrote it in, in your used book you bought, but you know, like, I don’t, I’ve never read a phenomenal book that had a 10 point plan.”
Right? Um, apologies if you’ve written a book with a 10 point plan in it. Um, you never know in San Francisco. But, you know, there was a moment where my editor is a, you know, legend of an editor in his seventies, not at all from the modern solutionist world, like a lefty from the 60s, and at the end he was like, “I think you need a solutions chapter.”
And I’m like, “Oh my God.” Like this market culture has conquered everything. They got Jonathan Siegel at Knopf. If they got him, this has totally saturated everything. He thinks I need a solutions chapter? The guy who edited Gay Talese thinks I need a solutions chapter? I’m like the Gay Talese nephew over there.
So, I have a personal editor also who edits my books before I submit them. And I asked her, “what do I do?” And she said, “just tell him you’re going to do a solution chapter, but you want the solutions to be so good that you’re going to withhold that and work on it extra. So you’re gonna submit the rest of the book, you’re going to work extra hard on the solutions chapter, and then just never send it in.”
And I was like, that seems like a really weird plan. Like that seems like he would totally remember there’s like a missing chapter. And she’s like, she had worked for that publishing company before. She’s like, “there’s no way he will remember. Just do what I’m saying.” So I was like, okay. So I did that. And then I think what I did was, I did send a different, I sent an epilogue.
Courtney E. Martin: I was going to say, there’s some like…
Anand Giridharadas: I made no mention of the solutions chapter, but I found this Italian political philosopher named Chiara Cordelli at the University of Chicago who is brilliant. And I saw her on a panel and I asked her at this panel, “can I have breakfast with you tomorrow? I got to finish this book fast. So I’m not going to learn about your whole life. I can’t learn about your whole life. The chapter has got to be you and me having breakfast, we gotta make that narratively fascinating. We gotta make it work.”
And we sit and have breakfast. And she’s a political philosopher talking at breakfast, so it’s like, the density risk is very high. Um, but she’s Italian, so it had a color to it. And I ended with her words, not my own, which is very rare to do with, you know, to not have the last word in something like this, but her words are better than mine.
And so I gave the last word to her and I sent him the thing. And John edits with pencil, that’s how you know how you’re doing. Just pencil–doesn’t tell you too much. You just, you see it in the pencil. And I get the manuscript back. And all he writes at the end of the whole book, the whole three year journey is, “thank God for Chiara Cordelli.” So that was, I think, his way of being like, “I remembered you owed me a solutions chapter. I’m not an idiot.”
Courtney E. Martin: Thank God for that breakfast.
Anand Giridharadas: “But you’re absolved, but you’re absolved.” Um, and what I want people–that was a long way of answering your question, and I’ve not even answered it yet–but what I want people to do is to first sit with the problem, but not just sit with the problem. I have a solution that is a meta-solution. It’s just not a 10 point plan.
The meta-solution is very simple. On our biggest shared problems, to change where we go, to change the world. We are right now as a culture tending towards a certain kind of solution when we think about our biggest shared problems. “Ah, women are lagging behind on empowerment? Lean in, charter schools, those kinds of things.
People are poor in Appalachia? What app could help? You want to get involved in helping Africa? You should go to JP Morgan, otherwise, how will you learn about what people in Africa need?” I mean, you laugh, but like, you know, this actually happens all the time.
And I think once we say, okay, that is discredited. I don’t mean to discredit that to be a mean person. I think about it as a kind of constructive discrediting. That my dream is for the next time you heard the word “win-win,” for you to laugh rather than nod. The next time you hear “doing well by doing good,” I want you to laugh rather than nod. The next time you hear about some guy like Bill McGlashan talking about impact investing, while at home, he’s rigging college admissions for his son, I want you to laugh instead of nod. Next time Bono gets involved in anything that is not music, I want you to laugh instead of nod. So there’s a constructive discrediting.
But then I am not leaving anybody bereft. I hope not. Because we have, actually–the thing I want us to go to is a thing we already have. And a thing we’ve been doing a lot longer than we’ve been doing this other thing. Which is democracy. And we have actually betrayed a very robust way of changing the world that we have fully available to us right now.
And you can’t use Trump and Mitch McConnell as alibis. They control two government entities. We have 90,000 government entities in this country. Right? On issues–you take one issue that I think has such an impact on people’s lives, that I’ve, in community after community, I’ve been in 10 states in the last three weeks. Every community I went to, this is an issue.
The instability of the work week, right? People’s hours changing day to day. Even more informally, bosses saying you can go home four hours early, which doesn’t mean you got the day off, it means you get four hours less pay because demand fluctuates. Not your fault. People’s schedules changing for Monday, getting notice on a Sunday, this kind of thing, right? It is an issue in every part of this country. It is an issue that leads to income volatility, leads to payday lending, leads to all kinds of issues.
And you know what? You can’t blame Donald Trump. It’s very convenient to blame Donald Trump. Every city, every municipality, every state, every village in this country has the power to make rules about that. And you know, what’s really embarrassing for a lot of us in this room? That the most liberal places in this country have often not done any more than the reddest places on an issue like that.
Every city in America could right now make a law that you can’t change schedules without a month notice. Every city in America. You’ve got these cities that liberals control 90% of the city. Kind of interesting that their rules around the work week are not different from like Idaho’s. Right?
So while we were going and doing these apps. While we were going to JP Morgan in the hope that we would learn skills so that one day after getting all those bracelets from those Africa trips, we would actually go to Africa for a longer period and save it. They’re so tired of being saved by JP Morgan kids.
While we were doing Tom’s shoes and donating to nonprofits through our footwear, there was this whole vast field of possibility that we neglected. And you can’t blame Republicans in Congress. Because unless you have tried at your city level, unless you’ve tried at your state level, unless you’ve tried to be a lower court judge that actually makes decisions about incarcerating people or not, we have neglected this entire sphere.
We had 50, 55% of graduates in recent years at the top colleges going into consulting and finance. These are not even, that’s not business. These are two micro-terroirs within the business world, right? Imagine the cost of that. Imagine all the things people didn’t go into. Imagine all the public service jobs people did. And by the way, I think we need to make public service a more viable option for people.
One immediate thing we should do, I believe–because these things are structural also, a lot of people have debt. I think if you go into public service, you become a public school teacher, you go into the civil service, different public service jobs. We could maybe even define it as some kind of civil society jobs. I think the society should eat your debt. You walk away debt free.
And if you want to go make money at Morgan Stanley, that’s great. Let’s just double the tuition for the people who want to go make–I’m not saying that maliciously. Your expected earnings are–and there’s ways to do this with percentages, there are different proposals out there.
If your goal is to go to college to make as much money as possible, I guess that’s an acceptable goal. It’s a little bit of a sad goal. Um, but it’s a goal that, you know, will remain legal. But I don’t think we need to treat those people tuition-wise the same as people who want to use going to college to create real change for people on the scale of millions. I just don’t think we need to treat them the same.
Courtney E. Martin: I want to go back to this point about democracy though, because you know, I hear you describe in the JP Morgan expert on Africa, which I have called the reductive seduction of other people’s problems. Like if you don’t know what’s actually going on with other people, it’s very easy to think you understand how to solve it.
Like that’s one piece of the puzzle, but democracy is actually really messy and complicated, right? Like, I’m thinking about the people in this audience who work on, you know, labor organizing, who work on policy change within criminal justice. It’s not that that is not a noble place to think about putting more of our energy than the reductive seduction of other people’s problems area.
But do you feel sometimes like you over-simplify how hard democracy is to get right?
Anand Giridharadas: When have I ever said it’s easy? It’s not supposed to be easy, right? I mean, democracy is easy in North Korea. The People’s Democratic Republic of North, you know. Like if your democracy is easy, you might not be free.
Courtney E. Martin: Right.
Anand Giridharadas: You know, Barack Obama, you know, after years of being a little too cozy with a lot of the tech people out here, and you know, confusing Reid Hoffman for someone to get advice from about anything. Um, you know, towards the end of his presidency, I think it was at a South by Southwest thing, maybe, you know, he was challenged on exactly this point.
Like, well, government’s like so complicated and inefficient, and we in the tech sector…He’s like, “yeah, it’s because you’re not solving problems that matter.” I mean like putting antlers on a photo of someone and making their nose a little more upturned into a cat nose–I’m not saying that’s not an important problem, but like social security is just a way more important problem.
And in our culture, the veneration of people who do the antler cat nose thing relative to the people who have basically eliminated a certain kind of indecency, permanently eliminated a certain kind of indecency in American life through a program like social security, which still, it’s not perfect and there’s holes, but is a remarkable human achievement, right? Is just really unfair.
And so government’s not supposed to be easy. But also it’s the negotiation of 300 million people’s desires. Why should it be easy? But also this notion that working at the level of the system in what I kind of called over here, is harder, is itself the propaganda of the business market world elite. Okay.
And this is one of the things, Chiara Cordelli made as such an eloquent point. She said, these people in what I call market world have a concept of agency that makes no sense. And here’s why.
She said, “you know, it’s very interesting. When they want to work over here in the political system, not just do the micro thing they can do on Monday morning. When they want to work here, because they want to repeal Glass-Steagall. When they want to, you know, fight Obamacare’s 30 hours a week number. When they want to keep the minimum wage low. When they want to ensure that, uh, we don’t make Medicare for All happen. When they want to ensure that our trade deal with Mexico that was being negotiated does not allow calorie, in fact requires that the Mexicans can’t put calorie counts on our junk food, so that they don’t know what they’re getting. When they want those types of things, the corporate world, the spreadsheet people, the PowerPoint people somehow are very deft at navigating the system.”
You never hear, when that’s what they want, “oh, but political change is so hard.” It’s really true. Like you never like, “Oh man, we don’t have, you know, here’s some stuff we can do tomorrow, but that political stuff,” you never hear that. They are gung ho. They know what numbers to call. They have lobbying offices ready. They do AstroTurf campaigns. They hired David Plouffe, people like that. And they’re ready to roll. And they are very good at working the system. They understand politics. Uber understands politics when it’s necessary. Google understands politics when it’s necessary.
Then, and this is the point Chiara makes, when it’s the opposite set of issues–let’s raise the minimum wage, or restore Glass-Steagall, or ensure that every company that employed someone 30 hours a week has to give them healthcare, or do Medicare for All. When the issues point that way, that’s when you start hearing this narrative of, “gosh, public policy is so hard. Who could understand that world? Here’s a small doable thing we can do on Monday morning. Here’s a small pilot. It’s better when you just pilot things and then you scale up.”
They love scale. You know what has a lot of scale? The fucking government. That’s the whole idea of the government. Scale. The original scaled up project. And I just think when she said that to me, it felt like such a blazingly true thing. They totally know how to work the system when they want to make the system work for them. But when it comes to unwinding those very same things, they just want to do the small, scalable, public-private partnership over here. And so to me, the motives are pretty clear.
Courtney E. Martin: Yeah. I’m gonna ask one more question, then we’re going to the audience, so be thinking about what your questions are here.
Um, one of the original questions that you posed in Aspen that I think is just so powerful and is something I’ve thought a lot about in my own work is you said, “we talk a lot here about giving more. We don’t talk about taking less.”
And I think it’s like, it’s such a profound question of how do we convince people to want to take less? Because it, in so many ways, I can think of, you know, some behavioral economist sitting here with us saying like, “that’s never going to happen. People do what’s in their self interest.”
I think we would probably both agree that wealth, particularly wealth hoarding, is spiritually corrosive to kids and to human beings. So you could argue, take less because you’re going to be less spiritually uh, you know, struggling.
But I mean, have you, as you’ve seen the response to this book, like, do you feel like you’ve gained insight into how you can actually motivate people to take less?
Anand Giridharadas: Um, I think what I was saying in the speech was, you all talk about this kind of private do gooding you do, but you don’t talk about taking less. But I do not think the remedy for that problem is them reading a book and then starting to take less.
I think the remedy is fierce laws enacted by a democracy to restrain their taking. What I do think throughout history happens, is that you do get some values changes as a result of law. Right? And you may get people who then justify the new order.
So today–you can bet some factory owners, back in the day, were pretty pissed that those children’s small fingers that they got to employ were being taken away from them. You can imagine that there was some really angry factory owners, right?
You’re never going to persuade most of them, would be my guess. You just had to do that. We had to do that. We had to make a collective choice on behalf of our children, and we had to run roughshod over people who had every reason to want them in those factories. But today, the result of that law and that regime is, I think we would have a pretty broad consensus in the society that it’s better that we don’t put children in factories. Right.
Um, I think you could probably say the same thing about women’s suffrage. I think it wouldn’t be very hard to find men, you know, in 1910, a lot of men, who thought, “not a good idea to let the ladies have their thoughts become votes.” Um, there are definitely men like that in America today, but I think that change in the regime has drastically reduced that number of men. And also there was some amount of moral-suasion of men, of course, because men had to vote to allow women to vote.
Um, but I think my personal sense of where we go from here is we have to, the only answer to a winners take all world, in my view, is a world in which the winners take less. And the only way in which the winners are going to take less is if they are allowed to take less. And that is as simple as higher tax rates on wealth and capital gains and income.
I don’t know which proposals and whose proposals are the best proposals, but when you’re thinking about things like AOC’s 70% marginal rate, Elizabeth Warren’s very thought through–like anything she does would not be thought through–wealth tax. When you think about the fact that her wealth tax is attractive to 51% of Republicans. There is a new conversation happening in this country.
I just spent, as I told you, 10 days in many red parts of the country reporting on Bernie Sanders for Time magazine, talking to a lot of voters. And what I saw at a lot of these rallies, is a lot of like beefy white guys in camo. It’s kind of amazing how photo real the camo is getting, by the way. None of that drawing stuff.
Um, and these beefy guys from the middle of the country who are really–they may not be down with Bernie’s views on abortion. They may not be down with his views on LGBT. You got like the little claps.
But when he says billionaires have hijacked this country? When he says three families own more than the bottom half, all of that stuff? Those guys who look to me like they may have had some Republican tendencies at some point in their life, and who are not down with a bunch of the Bernie agenda, or the Warren agenda, or whatever–they are down with the idea that this country at some point stopped working for people like them and probably, maybe beyond their view, never worked for a bunch of other people that they’re less aware of. And they are ready for someone to speak a kind of truth that doesn’t just repeat the old “we can all rise together, we can all win together.”
But they actually understand the great taboo of the last 40 years, which is that some people actually have to be pulled down, brought out of power, for justice to be done for most of us. And the shattering of that taboo today is, to me, one of the most important developments.
Courtney E. Martin: So we’re going to go to the audience. I will remind you all that a question ends with a question mark. And there are probably a lot of people who’d love to get their voices into this conversation in this room. So please just honor as many voices as possible getting their say by really asking a question. There are mics.
Anand Giridharadas: Wouldn’t it be scary if the lights came up and there was actually nobody there?
Courtney E. Martin: Yeah. That would have been very scary.
City Arts & Lectures: This first question is coming from the very back of the orchestra at your right.
Audience Member 1: Nice, I got the mic. Hi. Um, my name’s Sadie and I’m about to graduate from undergrad in like three weeks.
Anand Giridharadas: Congratulations.
Audience Member 1: Thank you. Oh God, don’t clap. Um, so thinking about your perspectives on like career choice for young people or like where people should put their energy if they want to change the world. You talk about kind of this contrast between philanthropy or like private sector do good versus like democracy and government.
But with the caveat that I haven’t read your book, what do you think about like the civil society sector, like the UN, these questions about more global facing justice, where potentially working on labor issues in the US you might not be able to affect kind of the lives of the most poor people in the world, that kind of global justice perspective? What do you think?
Anand Giridharadas: Yeah, that’s a great question. Look, I, this is a big country with 330 million people. Um, a lot of people are going to do lot of different things. And my view is not that nobody should do this and nobody should do that. I think of a lot of what I’m saying is, you know, when you’re standing up and you put all your weight on one foot, right, and you can just shift your weight to the other foot. You’re still standing. You haven’t even moved. The weight has just gone to the other foot.
I think right now we are, in the last 40 years, we’ve been living in the stadium that Ronald Reagan built. Ideologically, culturally. I think if you lived between the early 1930s and the late 1970s you lived in the stadium that FDR built ideology, culturally. There was a left side of that stadium, there was a right side of that stadium. If you were on the left side of it, you wanted more government, you were on the right, you wanted less, but people on the right side of the stadium in FDR’s time supported 90% marginal tax rates and created the EPA. That’s what it meant to live in someone else’s stadium.
I think we’ve now been living in Reagan’s stadium for a while, and that means that–well, we know what it means if you’re on the right living in Reagan’s stadium, it’s a good time for you. Um, if you’re in the left living in Reagan’s stadium, if you’re Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, it means you retain these traditional goals of the left, but you hire Goldman Sachs people to execute them. You capitulate to certain realities, not because you love it, because you understand the age.
And so I think what we need in America is to build a new stadium, not just pass the ball to the other side of the field. And the question then becomes whether you want to work as a young person in philanthropy, whether you want to work in politics, whether you want to work in civil society, in business. What are things you could do within the system, out of the system, telling the truth, biting your tongue and rising to the top and flipping the whole thing? There’s a lot of different ways to make differences.
But if you’re persuaded that what we need’s a new stadium, a new paradigm, a new sense of reality, we need to kind of end the age of capital, not just the age of Trump, then I would just say, think about what that means and think about your best way of doing that.
It may be, I’m not an absolutist. I think there are ways to work at Facebook as an individual that would make the world better. And I think they would involve like leaking things to journalists maybe. And, you know, my DMs are open. And also making certain arguments at meetings or whatever. Like I think there’s a lot of different–history shows that it’s insiders, it’s outsiders.
I mean, FDR is one of the richest people to ever be president. That guy screwed rich people better than anybody ever been in the White House. So you never know what the right platform is. I think what I see and feel regret about often, is that people go into these systems, particularly when they’re young, seduced by this story that they can make change by apprenticing on the inside. And then they never leave the track, or they never say that thing in the meeting that they told themselves they would say.
So if you want to play the outside game and go into government or civil society, great. If you wanna play the inside game and work in you know, a company or foundation or the UN or whatever, and your bargain with yourself is, if I get there, I’m going to speak the truth, just set a calendar alert for yourself and remind yourself to speak that truth.
Courtney E. Martin: And also don’t you think this is one of the misreadings of your work? Is thinking that there is a sector that is pure, right? As much as you have faith in democracy, it’s not because you think democracy is not deeply complicated. So whether you go into philanthropy, whether you work at the UN, whether, wherever you are, if there’s more than two people involved, you will face ethical complexities that you need to grapple with, right?
Anand Giridharadas: Correct. The only thing that makes government different is its moral legitimacy, that it actually belongs to us all. And there’s an accountability mechanism. It may be worse at any given moment in time. Hello… Then you know, I mean, there are many moments in time in which the best foundation is obviously better run and more effective than the government.
The difference is the government is like your family. Like when your family is dysfunctional at Thanksgiving, you don’t go sit in McDonald’s by yourself. Hopefully. Maybe in like November, 2016 you did. Hopefully, hopefully you’re coming back home now. And when your family’s dysfunctional, you got to make your family better. Right?
And I don’t think that’s true of foundations and companies. When they don’t work, like good riddance. But our public institutions are us.
Courtney E. Martin: Yeah. Thank you. I love, you’re getting the sky-high hand clap out there. That’s like, you made it. All right. So where else are we?
City Arts & Lectures: This is from the back of the orchestra in the center.
Audience Member 2: Hi. So $30 million was donated recently to UCSF to research the causes of homelessness. And that just struck me as exactly what you’re talking about tonight and in your book, and I just wondered what your opinions on that were.
Anand Giridharadas: Yeah, I mean, it’s very interesting. So both the program and then the reaction to it were interesting to me and raised questions for me. Both the programs and the criticism of the programs, interestingly.
So, you have this effort by Mark Benioff, $30 million to the university to study the root causes. And then a bunch of people, you know, I think probably not experts in the field, but just people out there, were like, the dominant meme was like, “or you could just dot, dot, dot.” Which is kind of clever, right. And the assumption was like, why don’t you just buy people homes?
But then other people started pointing out, in San Francisco that would be about like 50 homes. And I think you had 7,499 homeless people by last count. And I think 75 billionaires in the largest, in this area.
I think what bothers me about the initiative on the other hand… So I think in the pushback of like, you could just buy people things– that actually to me is not helpful, because this is a system problem. And if you bought those homes, you’d still have the system problem.
I think what I worry about in terms of the initiative is, my guess is there’s a lot of people who already know what the root causes of homelessness are. And my guess is they’ve struggled to get money and funding and voice. And so again, I don’t know if this is gonna happen or not, but an effort that would amplify them and, like give those people jet fuel would seem more valuable to me than reinventing the wheel, which so often happens with these things.
But the thing I would really be excited about would be that kind of investment, philanthropically, that was aimed specifically to force government into taking over and solving this problem. Right? And again, I don’t know if that would be where this tends, but it almost never does now.
If you look at the example of Head Start, there was a very different culture around giving a hundred years ago, 70 years ago, where you didn’t have this notion that things had to be kept private. So Head Start started as a Rockefeller-backed research project at the University of Iowa child welfare station, testing a theory that if you took poor kids from quote-unquote bad stock–which is how people thought back then–and you actually gave them a better environment, do the kids get better?
And they thought back then they wouldn’t, cause bad stock. Turns out the only bad stock is vegetable stock. But they, you know, proved that if you intervened, of course kids get better.
So once they prove that philanthropically–I think what those people would do today, if it was like Jeff Bezos, they would then just create like the Bezos Academy all over this country. Right?
What they did, was they then like made the government take that on and pushed the government and lobbied the government to take that on. Lyndon Johnson signed it, and you know how many kids were in the first class of Head Start? Half a million.
Anybody in this room in Head Start? Oh my God, that’s the most San Francisco thing I’ve ever seen. Wow. Wow. Meritocracy at work. Meritocracy at work. Um, that’s kind of statistically…
Courtney E. Martin: I also don’t think people know if they were in Head Start, to be fair, right?
Anand Giridharadas: That’s interesting.
Courtney E. Martin: Um, I mean, there’s a way in which Head Start is so well adopted into like communities that it’s not always labeled Head Start, so I think some of you were in Head Start.
Anand Giridharadas: And so if there was a program, for example, that would lead to changing the tax rates in this city and taxing those billionaires more, or fixing housing policy, et cetera, et cetera, $30 million to catalyze public action, to me, it would be a good investment, right? But that is a very few and far between cultural tendency now in the age of the, you know, of the heroic entrepreneurial solution.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the center of the balcony.
Audience Member 3: Thank you. Um, I have not read your book, but if I’m hearing you correctly, it sounds like a lot of your, uh, complaint is about capitalism as much as it is about a non-functioning democracy. Part B of the question is, could you give us some examples of how you apply the tenants of your thesis in the book to your own life personally?
Anand Giridharadas: Yeah, I mean, I think, first of all, um, well I think the capitalism thing, first of all is not, I wouldn’t quite say that. I think we think in America it’s capitalism or gulags, and there’s a lot of capitalisms out there. And a lot of other countries of capitalism that don’t degrade human beings in its name. And so I think we could have a lot of capitalisms out there in this country without degrading people. Um, and we need to get over this fantasy that if you have a national health system, you become Venezuela.
Um, in terms of my own life, I think the biggest thing is, um, going back to the Aspen conversation, particularly now, every day, you know, there’s an opportunity for me to say a thing that will kind of close a door or piss the wrong people off, be specific versus not. Um, to kind of, you know, everybody’s fine going after the Sacklers, from the Oxy epidemic. But you know, there’s people who are more loved, um, who fund a lot more people, like the Gates’s, or others who have a lot more defenders.
And one very tangible thing that I know I just probably–highest frequency answer to your question, several times a day, I have a choice to like, say that thing or not, go after the thing or not. And one of the things I’ve tried to do–I do feel the cost of saying some of the things has gone up with the attention to this book. And I just try to hold myself to this discipline of every time I get to that choice, like always going harder and not going softer.
Cause I’ve watched so many people go the other way. I’ve watched–I think it’s a real tendency in journalism, in writing, to just get through some amount of success closer to these worlds where you get bought off by them. And I am scared of that and I, just as a matter of personal practice, work incredibly hard to hold myself to account.
I will also say that, as someone who is out there saying something that is specific and argumentative, I also try to make sure that I’m not closing myself off to rethinking things. So for example, just cause I have these thoughts about billionaires, when I go on the road with Bernie, it doesn’t mean that I’m like, everything Bernie says is great. I am giving Bernie the same treatment that I gave the billionaires. And I think that’s hard for people to understand. Like if you don’t like the billionaires, you’ve got to like Bernie.
But the reality is it’s all the same thing. It’s all people are complicated and people are navigating these structures. And my training is to just remember that I’m not a, you know, I’m not a billionaire critic. That’s not my job. I’m a writer. And this is a thing that I saw and I said, and now there’s other things to see and say, and to just keep holding myself to doing this.
Courtney E. Martin: Have you, just a quick follow up, have you felt conflicted about speaking engagements, invitations that you’ve gotten since then? Cause that, you know, you critique thought leadership, but also a lot of the money that comes through that thought leadership world is obviously not particularly pure.
Anand Giridharadas: Yes. And I try to essentially not take things where I don’t believe in the people and what they’re doing. Um, that’s a lot of what you know, I think a lot of what I feel has happened with this market world group is that they’ve got people like us at all the ends. They own every media outlet now, right? They own like every university center, which is another place of support. Then they got the speaking engagements. They got the conference circuit.
So at one level you want to avoid all of it. At another level, like, where do you write? Where do you live? Where do you, what institute are you in? Um, and so that’s something I think about a lot, and I try to avoid it and I try, you know, but it’s like incredibly hard, just the same way it was like hard to avoid the Medicis in Florence, you know? And I think we have like a lot more Medicis who in many ways are a lot more all-encompassing than they did back in Florence.
And it makes it incredibly complicated and it’s a, I think, a very flawed, um, endeavor every day to like try to be in Florence and be unaffected by the Medicis.
Courtney E. Martin: Yeah. More questions.
City Arts & Lectures: This is from the very front.
Audience Member 4: Hi Anand, you opened your conversation with Courtney lifting up the lives of young people, women, and people of color as truth speakers, and for all of the reasons why systems tell these three archetypes to shh, uh, you chose to lift them up.
My question to you is, what are your words of wisdom to young people, to women, to people of color in this day and age where systems are here and aren’t being broken and aren’t dissolving any time soon? Do you advise them to play within and change from that point of view? Or stay on the outside and continue to call out what needs to be changed?
Anand Giridharadas: That’s a really great question. You know, I think one thing that I have seen, by virtue of the different people who reach out to me, that maybe people in those spaces don’t quite realize, is just how many allies they have, right? It’s hard to actually get a head count on the number of allies at your office about the secret belief system that you have, right? Precisely because it’s secret.
And my estimation is in a lot of these spaces, including, I would say at places like Facebook, I mean, I have in certain days gotten like mean emails or messages from people at the very top of a company like Facebook. And like, one or two or three people–maybe while I’m tweeting about it, let’s say.
And then one or two or three people who work in the bowels of Facebook, maybe for that very same person, are messaging me with thoughts about Facebook that are worse than the ones I have. Right? And I don’t think those people all know each other and are connected to each other.
And so one thing I would just say is, as a matter of kind of estimation, uh, I think we saw this with the women in the Google walkout, right? It’s not like those women don’t believe in Google. It’s not like they’re, they’re not Occupy. But it turns out there was a lot of people who had ideas about power that were not Larry and Sergei’s view of power. And I think that’s surprised maybe even them, the number of people who had their back.
Um, you know, you had this line about the tendency that many of us have to overestimate the risk of speaking truth to power. I think that’s another thing. I’m not telling you to do anything reckless, but I do think it’s easy to overestimate. You know, if you take my example of all these parts of companies that are CSR, clean water, sustainability, you know, these are big growing parts of companies.
And my specific idea of, hey, get involved in a conversation about your Washington office, your lobbyists that your company hires, and like, are you doing clean water for Coca-Cola over here, but are they slipping things into a trade bill with Mexico that make water worse on a global scale on like 10x the good initiative you’re doing?
I actually do not think, in my experience–I’m not saying it never happens. I actually don’t think people necessarily get fired for raising questions like that. I think in our imagination, people get fired for asking questions like that, but it’s actually kind of a pain for companies to fire people for things like that. I mean, it’s not that they’re virtuous, it’s just that like that would probably be a lot more headache than just giving you a talking to.
And I think there’s just a lot more possibilities that like, I don’t know why the word Nancy Pelosi is coming to me right now, but I think that’s someone who’s like, I just saw her walk into this Time 100 event. And she walked in. It was the highest security event just to get into that event. Right. So if you were in that event, you were safe. Okay, you were safe. There were a lot of VIP people there, and no one had security. Nancy Pelosi walks in with a fucking Roman phalanx around her. Why? Because she understands to use the power you have. Right?
She doesn’t have the power to set a three branch agenda right now. She doesn’t have a lot of power. But she has a power to like decide how big her security detail is and how she looks walking. I’m serious. I mean, I really find it hard to believe that there was a security need for what she had around her at that thing.
And I thought it was so brilliant. I really thought it was brilliant. A power she had at that moment as a woman in that job and a job that a lot of people don’t associate with women, that she’s breaking people into seeing her, was like having 10 men in–it was like, she walked into that thing like Beyonce would walk into that thing, you know.
Courtney E. Martin: Thinking about the Met Gala last night, like that outfit.
Anand Giridharadas: And it’s like a really small thing. And so Nancy Pelosi may seem remote, but whatever job you have, there’s also like a lot of unconventional forms of power. Right? If there’s like creating a happy hour among friends at all the different tech companies, about people who really like, you know, some book that’s counter-cultural or some movie that challenges tech or whatever, like that actually may be a very powerful organizing tool for accelerating those coups within the world.
It’s like, think about all the kind of weapons of the weak stuff, the kinds of forms of power that actually allow you to be subversive when no one quite realizes what’s going on, like walking into a party like Nancy Pelosi.
Courtney E. Martin: And, Anand is referencing that I had hosted a group after reading his book, an amazing group of kind of Oakland activists, organizers, people in philanthropy to discuss it. And one of the things we came away from that dinner saying was, white people in particular, and certainly white men, have to stop overestimating their risks of speaking truth to power, of losing jobs, of, you know, challenging people.
Um, and I think that’s one of the gifts of this book. You know, everyone like thinks they’re middle-class when you do surveys. And I think similarly, everyone thinks they’re economically insecure, which is actually not true. Many of us have incredible safety nets and networks that will make sure we’re not bereft if we lose jobs, et cetera. So even if the worst case scenario were to happen, you know, many of us overestimate the risks for ourselves.
And I think that’s one of the prompts of this book is to say like, don’t overestimate the risk of you individually speaking truth to power. Even if you’re like an upper middle class, you know, not a billionaire, not someone who wields that kind of power, but a certain kind of power. To your point.
Um, another, I think we have time for like one more question.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is from the center of the balcony.
Anand Giridharadas: I love whoever’s doing those announcements of where the question is. It’s very well done.
Courtney E. Martin: It’s very hard to…
Anand Giridharadas: You should have your own radio show.
Audience Member 5: Hi. Uh, thank you so much for coming in. I’ve rarely seen so few San Franciscans on their phones.
Courtney E. Martin: That’s a good thing.
Audience Member 5: I, my name is Leah, I’m from Berlin. I’m half German, half American. I recently moved here to work. Uh, I was relocated back here for a US-based, a tech company, and I work in PR. And I really believed in this company. And we’re so mission driven, and I was so excited to be here and it’s frankly been quite disenchanting.
Um, and I wanted to ask you–this whole mission driven thing that we have here–Airbnb, Uber, all these companies have these big missions. Do you believe these companies were actually founded on these missions and then kind of went awry and lost touch and wanted to make money too quickly? Or do you think the mission is just kind of made up to make people happier at work and make money faster?
Anand Giridharadas: As someone who works in PR for one of these companies, what do you think? You gotta remember, I’m a reporter.
Audience Member 5: Honestly, I’m conflicted. I’m so conflicted and I, I’m happy that I’m here today.
Anand Giridharadas: What company do you work for?
Audience Member 5: Ooh, can I…
Anand Giridharadas: You’re half German, half American and you just moved back. We’re going to be able to find you. Just kidding. Um, forget I said that.
Um, it’s a great, it’s a great question. Um, I think there’s probably both, you know.
But what I have found out here in the, I think the kind of companies you’re describing, is some number of people who I think were genuinely idealistic. I think may still actually be genuinely idealistic. I actually–and maybe I’m the only person in this room who would think so, or maybe not–I actually would bet that money is not an enormous part of Mark Zuckerberg’s motivation. I don’t know, but my read of him as a person–and this, by the way, does not reassure me about him at all. I don’t think Mao was super motivated to have a lot of money either, and that did not leave us safe in that case either.
You know, the desire to execute some messianic vision of community that has no space for pushback or accountability, and that is willing to railroad anything in its way, you know, is often in history, inextricably tied up with genuine idealism. So I think that’s one flavor you do see here.
And I think particularly Facebook, you know, Google, I would say the same thing. I’m not saying they don’t like their planes and stuff, but I think part of what makes them actually dangerous is the sincerity. I do not think it is like the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women program, where–are you clapping for Goldman Sachs?
I don’t think it was the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women program where like the 10,000 women and Goldman both know that that’s not really what Goldman’s about, but it’s important for everybody to do that. Um, for marketing and PR. Right? Like those kinds of programs at some institutions are literally run out of the PR office, which is a clue.
I think here, you do have some of these truly mission driven things. But to answer part A is like, we’re not safe, just cause they’re mission driven. We’re safe when they actually understand what it means to live in a society of laws and to submit to regulation and press scrutiny, not sue reporters at the Guardian or wherever who are investigating you, et cetera.
Then I think there’s others. I would think of Uber, Airbnb, where it feels like there was maybe some kernel of that kind of motivation. Um, you know, you can see with something like Airbnb, there is an idea of a world in which people can go to each other’s homes and it’s, you know, they’ve solved a real thing in the world that is important.
But you can see how, as it evolves, very quickly there are concepts that are invented. Um, and yes, I feel your disenchantment because PR is a part of how they execute those concepts, make us all believe the concepts, where you start hearing Uber talk about micro-entrepreneurship. And what micro-entrepreneurship really means is we don’t want to be subject to the minimum wage. And that is not actual idealism. That is cynicism masquerading as idealism.
You know, or Airbnb claiming that racial discrimination on its platform, when the California housing discrimination authority came after them, “we’re just a platform and the racism of Californians to other Californians is between them.” Well the Hilton couldn’t say that. Hilton couldn’t say, “I don’t know who that guy at the front desk was. He just didn’t like black people. That’s on him. It’s not on Hilton.”
But somehow if you’re Airbnb and there’s a system wide issue of one racial group like barely being able to make bookings on your platform, that’s okay, cause it’s just a phone book. Um, those feel like idealism that gets so barnacled with cynicism that the idealism is hard to see.
And the final thing I’ll say about that is, you know, I think it is so important to retake language as part of this conversation that we’ve been having tonight. It’s not just money and hard power that have brought about this age of inequality, the age of capital, the age in which someone like Mark Zuckerberg can be portrayed as a slayer of diseases when his company is itself a plague.
It’s the conquest of language, and it is us succumbing. You know, Orwell–I think we are very well warned against the government takeover of language, Orwell warned us against that. We’re very on the lookout for that in America. But in America actually, that’s not, never really been, I mean, in the national security stuff, you have some of that, but enhanced interrogation.
But to me, where that really happens in our culture is the private sector. It is the private sector that has stolen language, that has tried to turn, you know, half of Uber drivers in certain cities not making a minimum wage into this heroic liberation of entrepreneurship. That has tried to turn Facebook, a company that’s abusing your privacy in order to compromise your democracy, into a community. Right? We have to take back language, and we have–to do that, by the way, we have to read. Read, read, and train our mind to read. And not just read tweets or read books.
Courtney E. Martin: And actually read the books. I feel like so many people are like, “I haven’t actually read the book.” Read the book. It’s really worth reading.
I wanna ask you one last question, um, which is, you know, as you said, your next project is not on philanthropy. And I can completely understand why. But you’ve become this person who, you know, tells the emperor he’s got no clothes. So like, who’s the next emperor? What is the, who do you have your eye on these days?
Anand Giridharadas: I think the thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about, and I’m going to be very vague about it, but hopefully in a specific way, um. The thing that I’m thinking about the emperor having–that’s a great way to put it. I’m not, I haven’t thought about it for this project that I’m in very, very early stage of exploring.
I think there are certain lies we are all telling ourselves in this country right now about what it’s going to take to actually successfully make the massive identity transition that America is going to need to make over the next 30 to 40 years as it becomes a majority minority country. Essentially as it becomes, I think, the first super power in history to be essentially a biopsy of humanity.
And I think both people on the left and the right are lying to themselves in different ways about the fact that we’re just going to wait and see what happens. When in fact, I think this requires a heroic effort of all of us to make this work. A kind of mobilization of culture of the kind that we’ve never seen.
So I’m thinking about right now, what is it going to take to actually make sure that we don’t keep generating anger. Keep generating resentment. Keep having Donald Trumps. The next time we may get a Donald Trump, it may be someone who can read.
We, I mean, we are so lucky. You don’t think of yourself as fortunate when you see Donald Trump, but we literally got one of the most–never has so much malice been filtered through so much incompetence. It’s true. The guy has achieved 2 or 3% of what he wanted to do. If you actually imagine what America would look like if he’d achieved 10 or 15 or 20%, it’s cataclysmic.
And we could get, if the raw material of anger in this country remains what it is, the resentment, people feeling, men feeling like they don’t know who to be in an equal world, white people feeling like they don’t know who to be in an equal world. If we don’t deal with that, I think we are in for an incredibly bumpy ride. And next time around, you know, a literate, handsome, slender demagogue who’s a lot more dangerous in this one.
Courtney E. Martin: A little bit less orange perhaps.
Anand Giridharadas: Yeah. Anything but orange.
Courtney E. Martin: Okay. I think your English teacher, Neil Tonkin,
would be deeply proud of the man you’ve become, and we’re all so grateful to you for the truth telling you do. Thank you for being here tonight.
Anand Giridharadas: Thank you all so much.