Winners Take All – Book Review

Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All details – in a phrase that reworks the book’s subtitle – the charade of well-meaning elites changing the world for the better. Philanthropy takes a hit in these 250-plus pages, and this younger but experienced author joins many writers who bemoan the widening economic and social gaps produced by American society’s forty-year commitment to inequality.

Lest you think either I or Giridharadas disparages philanthropy (which in part supports my current job), rather we align ourselves with Martin Luther King Jr. who, over fifty years ago, questioned “the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary” (p. 172, hardcover).

Giridharadas’s book stays on point throughout its 250-plus pages: The current economic system that lavishes cornucopias of gains upon the wealthiest Americans and assigns but crumbs to the poorest Americans will scarcely be changed by the former’s do-good philanthropy directed to the latter. As long as status quo conditions remain in place, Giridharadas argues, private-sector elites will assuage their own feelings of guilt through philanthropy but will not work to change the system that currently rewards them so handsomely.

Real change to the system, he writes, demands sacrifice on behalf of its current winners. “Generosity is not a substitute for justice” (p. 182).

Giridharadas grew up in Ohio, and attended the private Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. – the same school attended by Chelsi Clinton and the Obama sisters, Malia and Sasha. Later, Giridharadas studied at the University of Michigan and Harvard. He then followed in his dad’s footsteps and went to work for McKinsey and Company, the high-dollar consulting firm. Two years at McKinsey, however, were enough. He changed course to become a journalist. He ended up at the New York Times and wrote the highly praised The True American, about a home-grown racist who shot three Bangladeshi Muslims a few days after 9/11 in a Dallas-area convenient store. One immigrant, Rais Bhuiyan, survived the murderous attack. The assailant, Mark Stroman, was eventually executed by the State of Texas, but not until after Bhuiyan forgave the offender and worked unsuccessfully to commute his sentence. It’s a moving and well-written tale by Giridharadas that I read as background research for my restorative justice book, There is a Balm in Huntsville. I highly recommend Giridharadas’s 2014 book as it covers racism, immigration, religion, and nationalism among other pertinent topics.

Giridharadas waits until the Acknowledgments section in his current book to fess up that he has spent some time in the belly of the beast. Winners Take All, written in 2018, came about after his time at McKinsey, and while he served as a fellow of the Aspen Institute, part of the plutocratic network of MarketWorlders – a community of powerful business and cultural elites who desire to both make money and do good with it, but shy away from reforming the current system that rewards them so extravagantly. More than a hundred years earlier, the philanthropist par excellence John Rockefeller, forged the ideal with religious language: “I believe the power to make money is a gift from God . . . and it is my duty . . . to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of my conscience.”

These modern-day followers of the Rockefeller credo are also called “philanthrocapitalists.” They like “win-win” solutions: the life-changing ability of Internet access for poor kids in rural and urban areas, apps that allow practically anyone “to start their own business,” other apps (for a monthly fee, of course) that allow gig workers to better spread out their sporadic incomes, and similar modern techno-solutions to age-old problems. None of these solutions involves sacrifice, change, redistribution, or reparations on the part of the well-to-do. Everybody “wins” and gets more of the ever-increasing pie. What’s not to like?

Plenty, Giridharadas writes. And that’s why he burned bridges at the Aspen Institute, with the goal of producing Winners Take All.

He credits President Ronald Reagan (1980-’88) with single-handedly convincing a society of the grave ills of “government.” Reagan’s movement begat a heavy-duty societal change: less emphasis on social policy and greater emphasis on fiscal policy. Consequently, as government’s ability and capacity to mitigate social problems have shriveled and shrunk, private solutions or responses to age-old problems – poverty, for one – hold sway. (The explosive growth of food pantries is but one example.) On the heels of the New Deal and LBJ’s era of big government projects, Reagan was blessed by capricious timing and rode the counter-swing of the pendulum. His movement’s philosophy still dominates today.

Forty years after Reagan’s ascendancy, Giridharadas and others writing in a similar vein are coaxing the pendulum to swing back. Market-based solutions have created colossal gains in both wealth and inequality – hardly a “win-win.”

Giridharadas calls for public solutions and responses to change the day’s and the future’s narrative. The public sector – “We, the people” – as it has before, can produce the following: a more progressively-taxed tax code, affordable housing strategies and their implementation, better regulation of stock market trading, a significantly more efficient and fairer healthcare system, smarter regulations that support workers and the environment, a commitment to repair and rebuild the nation’s sagging infrastructure, and a commitment to make amends and reparations for racial inequities.

Rockefeller and his contemporary Andrew Carnegie preferred individual autonomy for the redistribution of their great fortunes – the Progressive Era responded by creating the federal income tax, to mitigate the influence of great-fortune benefactors who had zero interest in changing a system that rewarded them so lavishly.

Public versus private, corrupt and bloated government (Reagan’s argument) versus self-interested individuals – which is best?

For forty years – all of Giridharadas’s lifetime and most of mine – it’s been individuals. The pendulum, however, might be poised to swing back. Giridharadas, an old soul, promotes an old-school type of reform, based in “citizens making common cause in the public sphere” (p. 43).

Sure, it would be oh-so modern to “innovate away” suffering, racism, poverty, and inequality. But the better way forward, according to this former elite up-and-comer, is to engage in the hard work of democratic action in order to rebuild more reliable and egalitarian public institutions that make for a society that understands common good to be a public, rather than private, concern.

T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019).

I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”

One thought on “Winners Take All – Book Review

  1. Excellent post on a challenging topic. I’ve always admired great philanthropists, even more the small philanthropists who support their churches, social service agencies, and other community benefits with a higher percentage of their incomes than most of the big name philanthropists. And much as I admire Gates, Buffet,, I would be most impressed if they took sincere action to change the economic system that has created these huge piles of wealth. From the gilded age on, the Rockfellers and Carnegies are generous but arrogantly decide what is worthy of their support, and don’t seem to question the injustice of an economic system that distributes wealth so unfairly.


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