March 13, 2019

Reading : Winners Take All

Within the first chapter of this book I had texted a dozen people asking if they're read it and asking them to read it if they hadn't.  While there's a lot to this book, it really comes down to bringing to the surface a few fundamental principles that make both logical and moral sense, and that have been buried deep in a society weighted by profit and technology.  What I appreciated most is that by examining what those in highest power are doing to harm others and what they could be doing to decrease harm, we're able to see our own respective power and consider what does it really take to be mindful of others?

Giridharadas focuses on the philanthropic efforts of the corporate elite.  He shows how the wealthiest entrepreneurs and venture capitalists rationalize their business practices to themselves and to the public at large.  The people at the top present their businesses as the best avenue to help people at the bottom.  They start charitable foundations and argue that their financial, intellectual and social resources offer the means to develop new technologies and networks to better the lives of the most vulnerable.

But by presenting themselves as agents of positive change for those in need, the people with most power:

1) offer solutions and ignore that they themselves have created the problems.  They try to help in response to problems instead of doing no harm in the first place. Philanthropic efforts divert attention from the fact that these corporations create the very inequities that they are purporting to eliminate.  Giridharadas argues that "generosity is not a substitute for injustice." If you create wealth at the expense of others' basic needs, you can't make up for that by giving to charity later.  You are the reason the need for charity exists.   

2) give back instead of taking less.  The elite, many of whom have good intentions to do good for people with less, aren't willing to do it in a way that requires true sacrifice on their part.  They do what it takes to acquire wealth for themselves, then give it to others.  This enables them to ignore real solutions that would weaken the power of the elite (higher taxation, labor movements, regulations to protect the working class).  People assume that they can make change by giving disadvantaged people opportunities, instead of trying to eliminate the baseline inequality that has caused such disadvantage, such a gap between the top and bottom.  This inequity has arisen from a profits-first culture, and changing it requires a redistribution of wealth that the elite will always reject.

3) Instead, they offer solutions that increase power for the already powerful and weaken the already disadvantaged.  People in power argue that by acquiring more and more wealth and opportunity for themselves, they are actually increasing wealth and opportunity for everyone.
The opposite has been shown to be trueAs those in power are enjoying longer and wealthier lives, wages for the middle class have plateaued, and life expectancy and health outcomes are declining disproportionately among the lowest classes.

4) Ultimately take agency away from those they want to help.  To say that the best way to help the least fortunate is in the hands of the most fortunate deprives people of the validity of their experience, and of the voice to change an already limited path.

In all these ways, the philanthropy of the elite is not just ineffective; it's also harmful because it allows the problems to continue and worsen.  As much as those at the top want to believe it, it's just not possible to have so much power and wealth concentrated in this narrow sliver of society and still have social equality in America.  As you add more to those who already have more, those who have less will suffer.

I love this book not just because it reveals the harm of extreme profit-driven business, but because it challenges every person to examine what we do on a daily basis, and how to be better.  It's easy to read it and think, that sucks that the top one percent is like that, but really what are we to do about it? But I think that Giridharadas is asking the same of us that he's asking of the elite: examine how much we take, and take less.  Examine how much we do harm, and harm less.  Do it to a degree of sacrifice and discomfort, not at the sake of your own basic needs, but for the sake of someone else's basic needs.

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