Book Review: Winners Take All
It is quite possibly one of the most important books I’ve read in a while.
Anand Giridharadas has crafted a compelling investigation into current day class systems. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World is a book that slays the perception that the rich and elites are solving society’s greatest problems.
Giridharadas meticulously breaks down how the plutocratic class are perhaps the biggest part of the problem. Indeed, he suggests that they may be the biggest benefactors of the divide.
Citing example after example, Giridharadas’s book details how the 1% have cleverly crafted a system that continues to benefit them rather than society on the whole. He writes, “We must decide whether, in the name of ascendant values such as efficiency and scale, we are willing to allow democratic purpose to be usurped by private actors who often genuinely aspire to improve things but, first things first, seek to protect themselves.”
We need to look no further than the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) to corroborate the findings of Giridharadas. In a study published in late 2018 titled, “A Guide to Statistics on Historical Trends in Income Inequality,” the report authors state, “Data from a variety of sources contribute to this broad picture of strong growth and shared prosperity for the early postwar period, followed by slower growth and growing inequality since the 1970s.”
It is Giridharadas’s running theme throughout the book. Ever since the early 1970s, the “elites” have prospered whereas the 99% have not. Productivity, innovation and growth have occurred in spades, yet it is only a select few who have truly thrived. Income inequality in the US is, for example, a rather stark point not up for debate. See CBPP’s graphic below:
On the topic of output and efficiency, Giridharadas also points out, “In short, America doesn’t have a problem of lagging productivity so much as a problem of the gains from productivity being captured by the elites.”
Again, as CBPP points out, those gains have consistently gone to the so-called “elites.” See below:
Not so much a book on answers, Winners Take All is a book solely devoted to facts, insights and questions on the status quo. How did we get here, and why does it remain this way?
It made me question a few things in my own professional life. It made me question how “purpose-driven” some organizations are. It made me question what a charity is. And it forced me to think about certain conferences, events, think tanks and festivals. Are they part of the problem or are they trying to fix the problem? Is it both?
Giridharadas also takes a swipe at “thought leaders,” a term I have loathed for decades. He contrasts thought leaders with public intellectuals. Citing a comment from Tufts University professor Daniel Drezner, “Public intellectuals argue with each other in the pages of books and magazines; thought leaders give TED talks that leave little space for criticism or rebuttal and emphasize hopeful solutions over systemic change.”
In his disdain for thought leadership, Giridharadas argues that because they are not challenging the elites on systemic issues that plague our world, they instead cozy up, placate, become non-threatening and are indeed part of the problem. I found myself wondering if I—and so many of my friends—have unknowingly become thought leaders versus public intellectuals. He writes:
“The thought leader, when he or she strips politics from the issue, makes it about actionable tweaks rather than structural change, removing the perpetrators from the story.”
While I am not entirely certain all public figures who give a TED Talk or who speak at Davos or the Aspen Institute are instantly in the club of elites, I do buy the point that too many authors and speakers have watered down their message so as not to rock the elite boat itself. Perhaps there is a middle ground between the thought leader and public intellectual.
I was pleased to see Giridharadas reference Milton Friedman’s work, particularly his view that maximizing value to shareholders is the purpose of business. “The social responsibility of business is to increase profits,” as Friedman wrote in 1970. Missing in Giridharadas’s book was the link between Friedman and President Ronald Reagan. It was Friedman who became Reagan’s Economic Advisor and who—through the implementation of Reaganomics—set society on a path to a new bourgeoisie-proletariat divide that plagues us today through his shareholder primacy modelling.
Much to digest from Giridharadas’s book. Many questions are unanswered. But it’s a start, and an executive running a business these days might want to read it to prepare for the coming tsunami of societal revolt.