Winners Take All – Anand Giridharadas

Just finished this book, and wanted to take some notes. Overall I thought it was great – very captivating and gave me a lot to think about as well. Obviously it had a particular view on the subject, which I found to be persuasive. The fundamental questions for me coming from it are,

  1. Are systematic changes possible in this world given how far we have gone with capitalism?
  2. If we agree that the system should be changed, and that it is possible to change it, what is the best way? He argues through government and institutions versus the continuation of private sector solutions.
  3. If you don’t really believe that any real change is coming, at least in your remaining years, is it foolish to continue to push for the systematic changes versus accepting this as the way it is? This is where I’m at.

I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible….except by getting off his back. Leo Tolstoy

Successful society is a progress machine. In the modern world, gains from progress are not shared equitably. Has led to people being wary of the “system” and assuming the deck is stacked against them.

People who have gained disporportionately see the danger in the mounting inequality, and often times have genuine good intentions and want to give back and help. But they choose to use their money to create private organizations to address these problems, outside of government. These organizations do mean well, but should you ever really expect them to address the underlying issues which have caused the inequality, given these conditions have enabled the org’s benefactor to gain their wealth and prominence? They want to improve things within the confines of the system, versus addresses the fundamental shortcomings. Society should not be changed in ways that upset the underlying economic system which created the progress, the work is around the edges, the symptoms.

Should reform be led by governments which are accountable to those who elected them, or by private citizens claiming to know the best interests of society and the best methods to achieve those goals?

Neoliberalism – David Harty definition. A theory of political economic practices that proposes well-being can be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms within a framework of strong property rights, free markets, and free trade. Deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state. Each individual is held responsible for their own well-being, in the realms of welfare, education, health care, and pensions.” Age of responsibility.

Ronald Regan – government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem.

To really change the world, you must rely on the techniques, resources, and personnel of capitalism.

Elites want the do well by doing good model. Make yourself better off while also creating something net positive for society. Author argues that while they might be net positive, they are complicit to the system which generates problems. Should not get a pass.

Whoever treats a disease recasts it with their own diagnosis, prescription, and prognosis. Limitation in people from a business background coming into government. These types can often times overlook the roots of the problem and their involvement in it.

Justification of for-profit business – it is self-sustaining, it does not need to fundraise (non-profits) or collect taxes (government).

Very few people are willing to make a financial sacrifice to do good.

Adam Smith- invisible hand. The selfish pursuit of prosperity takes care of everyone just as well as actually trying to take care of everyone. Regulation isn’t required – human nature will handle it.

People get what they deserve through marketplace arrangements. The winners will look after the losers.

Entrepreneurs are willing to participate in making the world better if you pursued the goal in a way that exonerated and celebrated and depended on them.

Technology both diffuse power and concentrate it at the same time. Diffuse by making everything available to everyone – ex. self-publishing versus being reliant on the media Concentrating since they are the platforms where all the activities happen.

Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan, shorthand for monarchy or authoritarianism.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it. Upton Sinclair

People who are more or less satisfied with the status quo want people to tell them that the underlying problems are here to stay, efforts better suited towards teaching the suffering how to cope. Solutions that are pragmatic and inclusive. Rolling with the waves versus trying to stop the ocean. Look for ways to give bits of power to those who lack it without taking power away from those who hold it.

Thought leaders – tend to know one thing and believe that it’s an important idea that could change the world. Long on affirmation, short on constructive criticism. Focus on the victim, not the perpetrator. Makes you more empathetic, and increases the chances of channeling your anger in a constructive direction. Make the issues more personal and individualized versus being systematic and collective. Be constructively actionable. Be uplifting and give hope. Show people how they can make themselves or the world a better place.

Defense of thought leadership – even if the advice is tiny changes, and it is often times very sanitized, tiny incremental changes over time do add up. And this approach, guiding people along slowly, is more effective than one big all or nothing new year’s resolution type push. Does using this approach versus demanding the system be exposed for what it is and fixed make you a sellout?

The world of ideas is just another industry.

Thousands of thought leaders, each making some sort of bargain with the group paying their wages, massaging their assessments and messaging to please and not offend. Net result – all of the content caters to confirmation bias. Avoid criticism. Use poverty instead of inequality. Poverty can be addressed via charity, they like that. Inequality gets to the root, the way people are able to generate the money they now want to give away, makes them very uncomfortable.

Thought leaders are not irrational or sellouts for crafting their messages for their audience. Getting the audience and reach, preaching for incremental change, is better than holding a hard line, alienating people, and not achieving anything?

Pinkering – based on the book of author Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of our Nature). Using the long run direction of human history to minimize or de-legitimize the concerns of those without power. Economic Pinkering – the global economy has been great because 500 M Chinese have moved from poverty to middle class.

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Audre Lorde

Atomization – breaking something down to level so small that it fails to resemble anything human. Makes the fundamental problems unrecognizable.

Business minded problem solvers recast the problems in a business language which they are comfortable with, and sideline more established ways of thinking about the issues.

Business consultants are expected to have an opinion on an issue from the start, versus going in as a blank canvas and learning about it.

Business protocols – not specific to any one industry. Allow you to break down problems in a way that surfaced new realities, produced insights, sidelined other solvers, and make themselves essential. How you frame a problem to begin with. Then design an analysis, gather data, and confirm your hypothesis.

Problem is this metrics, consulting driven methodology overlooks the nuance, human, and social complexity of some of these issues. Leads towards a group trying to solve a problem with the tools that caused the issue.

Larger context can be obscured when looking at things, and making decisions, at such a sub-atomic level.

Michael Porter, HBS Professor. Capitalism has gone array by losing it’s connection to the communities that it serve. Atomizing has allowed each component of the business to optimize itself, with these decisions making sense on an individual basis, but the outcome is a business with interests everywhere, and no real connections.

Being productive, clever, optimizing, gave people the false belief that they could stop caring about the human beings involved and the health of the overall system. The idea of shareholder value has become overly-dominant.

Philanthropy – wealthy people build foundations. Inequality to them is inevitable. Allow people to chase the maximum possible profit based on their abilities and circumstances, and then pass it down through the system. The net result will be rising the standard of life for the bottom rung of society at a higher rate than giving everyone equal distributions. Inequality is better in the long run than socialism. Keep the laws of accumulation free, and keep the laws of distribution free. Andrew Carnegie.

After the fact benevolence justifies anything goes capitalism. Generosity is a substitute for a better and more equitable system of power distribution. People with means again don’t want to face the underlying issues of an unfair system. They’d rather default to giving to make themselves feel like they are not complicit to the structural issues.

Addressing the inequality implies that they would need to give up the built in advantage, which is something they are not willing to do when push comes to shove. Giving away some disposable income is much easier to swallow, especially with the added benefit of virtue signaling.

People can always find ways to rationalize taking advantage of the system. People are glad to provide moral support, since it costs them nothing, but they don’t want to be the only person to give something up since they see most others not being that generous, making the overall system unchangeable.

Liberalism – systems building philosophy. Society left on it’s own tended towards entropy and extremes, not because people are inherently horrible, but because they thought locally. Private individuals can’t be counted on to see the big picture of their society.

Previously, people thought they could solve problems through public service and collective actions. Now problems are solved through partnerships and markets. Common causes and win-wins.

Marketworld – open borders, technological progress, rule by data.

Elites often show more concern for distant humanitarian causes than what was happening five miles away from them. Globalism – chasing a dream for everyone, risks belonging to no one. Allows people too easily to escape their domestic obligations.

Political act – can be defined as something that is trying to shape the world for the better. So Aspen, Davos, etc are all political conventions of sorts. Are they employing appropriately political processes to help shape them?

Marketworld – private sector led approach to social change. Undermines the idea of the government taking the lead and solving problems. Starts to crowd out democracy.

Easier to make doing good easier, than to aim to make those who do harm pay a higher price, which involves changing the system for everyone.

Doing a modest bit of good while ignoring the larger systematic issues you know exist doesn’t give you a pass. You have to focus on the larger issues. Don’t allow yourself to become complicit.

Don’t underestimate what society and government provides. Political systems and shared institutions protect us from potential plunder from everyone else. Otherwise we would constantly be dependent on the arbitrary will of someone else.

Democratic institutions work on the behalf of all, within a context of equality. Avoid weakening institutions by thinking we can do the jobs on our own. Focus instead on making the institutions work better.

Targets in this book:

Management consultants, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, private philanthropy, clinton foundation, b corporations, corporate giving, neoliberalism, thought leaders, globalists, market based solutions, small government proponents.

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