Anand Giridharadas On How Taxes — Not Philanthropy — Will Change the World

Season 1 Episode 6
Anand Giridharadas on How Taxes — Not Philanthropy — Will Change the World

S1E6 / January 16, 2020


There is a growing sense that governments are not able to effectively solve the problems of the world. The narrative that governments are slow, costly and not informed enough to make the right decisions. This stands in contrast to the private sector; business leaders are regarded as effective leaders because they generate incredible wealth.

The “savior complex” is particularly strong among the wealthiest tech executives. Their world view is rooted in the idea that we can use technology to solve all the world’s problems.

In this episode of Big Tech, co-hosts David Skok and Taylor Owen speak with Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.

Giridharadas speaks about this rise of powerful tech executives who are using their wealth and influence to reshape systems of governance — instead of supporting democratic institutions, they are creating their own philanthropic organizations. For Giridharadas these elites are the new plutocrats who have seized power through wealth, much like the railroad tycoons of old. “There is enormous moral difference between five guys deciding to do something and a city deciding to do something. This is something I think you wouldn't have had to explain to people 100 years or 200 years ago when we actually had more faith in the idea of democratic action,” Giridharadas says. He goes on to explain that where funds are coming from is more important than the amount of funding, citing military aid to Ukraine as an example. There is a difference between $400 million dollars provided by the American taxpayer and $400 million dollars provided by a wealthy executive who isn’t elected to represent the best interests of a population. Giridharadas argues that if tech billionaires really want to help make the world a better place, they should just pay their fair share in taxes, and leave governments to solve the world’s problems.


This transcript was completed with the aid of computer voice recognition software. If you notice an error in this transcript, please let us know by contacting us here.


Anand Giridharadas: Well, you literally had five families on the right that pushed this idea of let's shift the culture to not believe in government and believe more in business, and they did it. And it's like a plan. They met, they had meetings, they had committees, there were report, they rebranded stuff. They funded institutes, they did it. And then the rest of us like idiots are downstream being like, "Yeah, I guess government's not that effective." We are literally saying the thing they just paid for us all to be saying, thinking we're feeling original thoughts. So, I'm trying to move the origin window on this conversation. I actually don't accept the premise that government is a place of ineffectiveness and the private sector is full of dynamism. What's the evidence?


David Skok: Hello and welcome to Big Tech, a podcast about technology's impact on democracy, the economy and society. I'm David Skok.

Taylor Owen: And I'm Taylor Owen.

David Skok: Today, we're talking to Anand Giridharadas. Anand is someone who you wouldn't necessarily expect to show up in a podcast about Big Tech, but we brought him in because some of the issues he's covering on the high level really do impact the way technology is used in our society and the way governments approach technology.

Taylor Owen: Yeah, that's right. And a central tension that Anand brings out is this disconnect between the rising power and influence of the technology platforms that we've been talking a lot about on this show and the traditional mandates of governments. It used to be that we relied on democratic institutions and democratic governments to solve a lot of these social problems to do these big things. But what Anand's pointing out is that increasingly we are devolving this responsibility to a small number of companies and billionaires that lead them.

David Skok: Right, innovation in social capital or social entrepreneurship.

Taylor Owen: Absolutely. Or just a look at something like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which is a big philanthropic arm stemming off of Mark Zuckerberg's wealth is being used to do things like reform the education system around the United States. And so, the question Anand would ask about that is what makes Mark Zuckerberg the right person, either in terms of his knowledge or in terms of his democratic accountability to be the person to reform our primary education system?

David Skok: In a wide ranging and sometimes heated interview with Anand, we tackle his worldview and some of the solutions that he may propose.


David Skok: I want to welcome New York Times bestselling author, Anand Giridharadas to the show. Anand is editor at large at Time magazine and a political analyst for NBC news and today we're going to be speaking about his latest book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Welcome to the show Anand.

Anand Giridharadas: Thank you for having me.

David Skok: In your book, you suggest that the great harm of our era is inequality and the concentration of money and power among a select few. In the US for example, three and a half decades worth of change and growth has had zero impact on the average pay of 117 million people. Is this in part because we have replaced social democracy with social entrepreneurship?

Anand Giridharadas: I think in part, but I think it's bigger than that. I think the story I tell in Winners Take All is that there has been over the last 30, 40 years a massive cultural project prosecuted by the richest and most powerful people and the biggest corporations and the biggest fortunes to sell us on the idea that government is bad, regulation is bad, taxes are bad, and that companies change the world, and that philanthropy is how you change the world. And that impact investing, which is just adding the word impact to the old thing that investors used to do and claiming to have a little bit more social consequence is how you change the world. That ice cream companies that give back a little bit is how you change the world, that tote bags and things involving Bono are how you change the world. What you see as a result is all of these efforts everywhere to change the world from on high, not through movements, not through democracy, but through rich people being kind, waking up with a good feeling on a particular day and wanting to be kind. And we see these efforts everywhere. I wrote the book to challenge the notion that these efforts are what they seem because if these efforts are all that great, why is it that we live in an age in the United States in which it's the worst time to be a regular person in 100 years? Why is it that this has been an era of growing concentration of wealth and power, not reducing? The burden is not on those of us criticizing plutocracy to make our case, the burden is on the plutocrats to justify themselves and to explain why if all these efforts that they do to fight for equality and justice are what they claim to be, how come things are getting worse on that front year by year?

Taylor Owen: I mean, I think you're right the argument you make is much broader, and we were talking about this same thing 100 years ago, the plutocrats would have been the industrialist, but now in many ways they are the tech sector, right? And, the ecosystem and economy that revolves around them. I thought one of the anecdotes or scenes you paint in the book around being on the summit sea boat was indicative of this. I'd heard of this conference before and I think it sums up a lot of what you're talking about, but this scene with Chris Sacca and Edward Snowden talking about solving the world's problems and then just having fundamentally different visions of that. Can you talk a little bit about that and how does that tell us about tech in specific's role in this broader economic structural problem you're talking about?

Anand Giridharadas: Well, look, for the sake of all your listeners, I went on a cruise ship with 3,000 entrepreneurs who believed they're changing the world so that none of you have to.

Taylor Owen: Thank you.

Anand Giridharadas: I believe that is an act of philanthropy in and of itself, by the way. I may be critical of philanthropy, but that was the most charitable thing I've done in a long time. So, I hung out with these entrepreneur types who almost to a person on that particular ship would not say that they're just launching a business. They're just trying to make money. They're almost all in the business of changing the world. So, you have these conversations and you start to realize that what they're really talking about is this ideology that they all share, which is this win-win ideology. And you're right, it is particularly acute and concentrate in the tech sector, which has become not only the biggest emergent power center in the world, but has become a place of monopoly, of rampant abusive privacy and of democracy, of fomenting violence through platforms like WhatsApp without any kind of responsible fixing of those problems. And you start to say, how are these people who are talking about changing the world, owners of this incredibly predatory industry that began 20 years ago with promises of leveling playing fields and flattening hierarchies and empowering people at the margins and has become more concentrated than the economy that it replaced? We have five companies right now running tech. We had way more than five companies with that much power. For those five companies, if you look at their fraction of capital expenditure in the US, it's an enormous fraction. So, how did we get there? And the argument of that particular chapter in the book is that the story the tech sector tells is a story of powerlessness. That's how they lubricate their power, right? It's the story of we are rebels against the man. We're not the man. We're rebels against the man, we're fighting the man, we're bringing down the man, we're fighting the powers to be ... We're Uber fighting against the corrupt taxi cartels as one of the characters in the book talks about. We are Facebook trying to democratize community and get rid of the old gatekeepers and so on and so forth. And this self-image of powerlessness, of the rebel spirit is an incredibly effective way to grab power while deceiving people about what you're doing. The simple example that I use in the book, I think that chapter is called rebel kings in worrisome berets. Sometimes from time to time you have in a poor country that's going through some kind of armed insurgency and you've got this rebel army that's out there trying to overthrow the president or the king or whatever. And these rebels, often will wear berets. And sometimes the rebel army wins, takes over the country. I always say to people, it's a really bad sign if you're a rebel leader upon becoming president keeps the beret. That's when you know you're fucked. If they keep the beret it means they still think of themselves as an insurgent, like Saddam kept the beret, right? And what it means is these guys didn't transition from being on the outside of power to being power in their own minds. When you are powerful but deny your own power, it's not a humility, it's abusive. It actually explains how someone like Mark Zuckerberg can be selling out American democracy for profit and still genuinely feel in his heart that he is a builder of community. I think we need new stories and truthful stories to combat these bullshit stories.

Taylor Owen: So I think you're right. I mean there's no question they've taken over some of the governance roles and large swaths of what was once the social democratic state. Do you think that some of that story is right, that that state was atrophying, that those democratic institutions were failing, that the industrial economy was exclusive, that the media structures were excluding too many and that some of what they have replaced it with has been ultimately more democratic or more participatory?

Anand Giridharadas: No. There has been, and this is where we need to wake up as citizens. There has been a very concerted, organized plan that Jane Mayer in the book, Dark Money lays out in great detail the United States, well you had literally had five families on the right. There was a small rinky dink operation at the start that pushed this idea of let's shift the culture to not believe in government and believe more in business. And they did it and it's like a plan. They met, they had meetings, they had committees, there were report, they rebranded stuff. They funded institutes, they did it. And then the rest of us like idiots are downstream being like, "Yeah, I guess government's not that effective." We are literally saying the thing they just paid for us all to be saying thinking we're feeling original thoughts. So I'm trying to move the origin window on this conversation. I actually don't accept the premise that government is a place of ineffectiveness and the private sector is full of dynamism. What's the evidence? I actually think the government would be able to do a lot of what it does in the absence of people like Mark Zuckerberg, but I do not think Mark Zuckerberg would be able to do anything in the absence of the United States federal government. So, if all these people are so hostile, the government, how come they never start their ... There's a lot of countries in the world that do not have effective, capable government, maybe more countries than have it, right? If you really like an open environment, how come none of these Silicon Valley peoples start their company in Somalia? I'm sure the government in Somalia would leave you alone to a great extent. I'm not sure they have the capacity to regulate you in the way that we annoyingly regulate you in some of these Western countries. If it's so annoying to you, how come you never incorporate there? That's interesting isn't it? All these banks that say these regulation is not good. So interesting, there's a bunch of countries that don't do metal some banking regulation. How come you never found your banks there? Kind of interesting.

David Skok: One of the places where they do incorporate is Netherlands because of tax or legal benefits of doing so. Just last week there was a case here in Canada about Uber in the Supreme court challenging on the premise of Dutch law, not Canadian law, their place and how they treat their workers. Which leads me to a bigger question that you raised and I don't want to go down the rabbit hole of what was capitalism, but it's hard for me to hear you talk and not think about the larger systems at play. So, …

Anand Giridharadas: That's what we should be thinking about.

David Skok: … We talk about venture capital. Venture capital is just about telling a story so you get more money. As someone who's raised money recently, I can tell you that, it's all about what is the story that you're going to tell that sounds compelling so you can get more capital. Well that capital, those venture capital firms, they're beholden to their own pension funds or whomever else, institutional investors that have put money in on their behalf. And so when we think about the tech companies and the role of Chris Sacca or even Mark Zuckerberg, are they not just small peas in a much larger game here that is, the BlackRocks of the world and the CPPIBs of the world.

Anand Giridharadas: Yeah, I mean I don't think Winners Take All is a book about individuals. I think it's a book about a system and it tells the stories of individuals to try to illustrate and illuminate a system. But you're right, the system is market fundamentalism, which is in addition to being a structural system is a belief system. I have friends who, on the dating market and they use the term the dating market. I have friends who use words like optimization to describe their experience of dating. Business has become in many of our worlds, our culture, right? It's become our common language. It's become our way of seeing the world, which is separate and apart from saying the distribution of resources is off, which is true. But what's making all of this possible is a bad culture, a culture that has ... I was walking through an airport the other day, and just looking at all these restaurants in the airport, and they're all just so ugly these restaurants, and the chairs, and it's just like ... And this is really particularly true in America, where everything in this restaurant has been optimized. The question driving this was never, what would the most beautiful version of this restaurant concept look like, right? None of those restaurants are owned by a single person owning a single restaurant. They're all probably owned by private equity companies that are owned. And you can just see that you're in an entire landscape now where the only question asked is how to maximize profitability. I am not suggesting that that's a question that we should ban from our society. I'm suggesting it's not the only question that should drive our society.

David Skok: You worked at McKinsey. McKinsey is a place that does think of itself ... It's had some rougher press stories of late, but overall it sees itself as a good in the world. How do you reconcile the way that McKinsey thinks about itself in the world versus the optimization projects that you were I assume a part of?

Anand Giridharadas: Well, my own experience of it was pretty negative and was an awakening to me in how easy it is to sell people a story that is not based in reality. I think a lot of people are overpaying for their advice and they're getting a certain kind of advice that's disguised as being sage and truthful, but comes from a particular way of looking at the world that's not inevitable. The problem is not just the advice that they give their clients, but that the McKinsey way of looking at life has really spread. So now in non-profits and in academia and in journalism, all these other worlds, there's a pressure to think in that way. Whereas in fact what actually needs to happen is you need the way people think in academia and journalism and non-profits and medicine to actually colonize the business world. In fact the colonization is happening the wrong way. One of the things that I've found is that in McKinsey in particular, there was this construction of authority that you learn to do as like a 21 or 22 year old when you really literally know nothing. But if you can just learn to talk in a certain way and construct authority for what you may privately be profoundly unknowledgeable or even insecure about, knew that guy, saw people, myself, others. But if you can just learn to perform the authority, you can really help push society in this very different way. If you can perform authority, you can get that company to do 50,000 layoffs and justify it as being wise and sage and the sober thing to do. I think we just need new frameworks, and we need the frameworks of the business world to have less power over life in other domains and the frameworks of other domains to actually inform how business is done.

Taylor Owen: One of the other structures your book dives into is exactly that, the structures of how those ideas transfer and what ideas we talk about and I have to say this piece of it really hit home and participating in some ways on the periphery of that challenge, right? Of how and when do you bring either academic ideas or public facing ideas out into the public and via what mechanisms. And I actually a couple of years ago met with one of the guys you talk about in the book, Bruno Giussani and it got the sense like you talk about, right? That one was being vetted in some way in those conversations. I have to say, the quotes you have of him really struck home, right? Like the one in particular that he says somewhat tongue and cheeking, but “if I put only losers on stage, I become one of them because nobody comes to my conference”, right? And that you have to package ideas to make them more palatable to this kind of environment, which means cutting moral corners in some of your convictions, right? So here's a guy who is the gatekeeper to the biggest idea stage in the world, which makes people's careers, right? In real ways and is doing it through a lens that I think you say is representative of this structural problem. Can you talk a little bit about that and how you see that as contributing to this broader challenge?

Anand Giridharadas: Yeah, I mean, I think that chapter is called the thought leader and the critic. What I try to get at in that part of the book, I mean, much of the book is about the structures and cultural ideas that uphold this age of inequality and plutocracy. But I think an important component of the story that I wanted to put in there and is in that chapter is the notion that if you have, as I believe we do, a lot of fundamentally decent human beings at the top of these systems and structures, upholding a profoundly indecent system, these are not people getting together to talk about how to screw the workers of the world. These are people who, through their blindness and through the belief adherence to faulty religion, end up having that outcome despite I think having good intentions. The question then becomes, how do decent people uphold an indecent system and the answer is when they have easily available, widely believed bullshit to help them guide their actions, right? So, if it comes to be believed that women can be empowered through lean in and raising their hand as opposed to structural change, that's a fraudulent bullshit claim that has no basis in reality. But if we can make that available and widely believed in the culture, then it may reduce the pressure to do universal daycare. If it can be widely believed in the culture that just doing a little more testing for minority kids in schools, will fix educational equity, we actually don't have to give people equal schools instead of allocating public school funding, depending on how nice your mommy or daddy's house is, which is what we do in America. We're able to do it in a way that doesn't require a structural change, which is nice for rich people. So, what starts to happen is this has to be a demand for thinkers to supply the justifications for change light for plutocracy, for not doing the structural change, for doing the lighter approach. And so there's this temptation that comes in to if you are a thinker thinking critical thoughts on patriarchy or on white supremacy or any of these other social challenges, to change the way you talk, to change things, to basically sound the opposite of how I might sound right now, to make things not blame me, not about structural fixes, not going after anybody, not saying anything negative, just talking about positive solutions. If you're willing to do that and sound like that, the plutocracy opens its doors to you and the plutocracy now owns a lot of the great intellectual stages, right? As newspapers have declined, as academia has become more precarious, less tenure jobs, more adjunct jobs, a lot of the traditional platform supporting yourself as a thinker have withered. And so now what is left is TED can make your career, the Aspen Ideas Festival can put you in those networks. Davos can give you a moment and so on and so forth. The plutocrats control those spaces and they can decide ... I'm not going to get invited to Davos, right?

David Skok: Are you sure?

Anand Giridharadas: Yeah, I'm pretty sure.

David Skok: So, I guess what I'm getting at is how do you reconcile the idea that these arguments that you're making, the very same people who you're trying to reach or who have had this platform, are they inviting you or are they not inviting you at the dinner table to have these conversations with them? Are you now one of their shining lights to say, see, we are listening. We do get it.

Anand Giridharadas: They're not who I'm trying to convert. I'm trying to convert regular people to take power back from plutocrats. I mean if I wanted to reach plutocrats I could just write them letters. There's not that many of them. You don't write something in Time magazine because you want to reach plutocrats, you write something in Time magazine because you want to reach two million middle-class people in the United States. So, I don't go on TV to reach plutocrats, I can go to Aspen to reach the plutocrats. I go on MSNBC because I want to reach people working three jobs who might get five minutes of thinking about our age in a slightly different way. What I'm trying to suggest to those people is that I think most of them want transformational change. I mean the desire for transformational change in the United States is significant, and we have outsourced the job of achieving that change to the people with the most to lose from such change. And that has doomed this project from the starts. I'm trying to convince people to take power back. That said, in all these power transitions in history, there's always a role for a certain minority of people within a bad power structure to recognize it's bad and contribute, right? There were people in the slave economy, white people who benefited from it. There was a minority of them who realized it was wrong and in some way assisted the struggle. I don't think we should ever outsource the job of dismantling that structure to those people. We should always welcome the help. Everybody who talked to me from my book, who's in a lot of these worlds, it was not necessarily the most sensible thing to do. You don't know what I'm going to write. I think they all understood that. They knew the perspective I was coming from. I'd given a speech about it that was public. I think they all did that in some ways to put the institutions they work at at risk because they felt like there's something wrong. Marc Benioff and I have discussions about this. We disagree on a lot of it. We agree on more of it than not. He's now someone who advocates, a billionaire who advocates for higher taxes, which is something most billionaires do not do. I think he's gone on a journey and he's now says things like that and doesn't only say business is the greatest platform for change, which is I know something he believes that I do not believe, but he's added to that litany we got to raise taxes on people like me, so that's good. That's positive change, but I don't think Marc is going to lead us there the way I don't think I'm going to lead us there. I think popular movements are going to lead us there.

Taylor Owen: How are popular movement's going to emerge when you have this confluence of the plutocracy or the corporate powers also controlling the distribution mechanisms or the mediums for collective action?

Anand Giridharadas: Well, I mean I think that's true, but I also don't think it's inevitable. I mean the reality is, I mean look at the tools of the internet. Yes, they are absolutely, right now. The way we use the internet in terms of civic action, Jia Tolentino writes about this in her new book Trick Mirror, which is an excellent book. A lot of us have confused clicking for joining and we just spend our days hovering on Twitter or Instagram or whatever, and we feel like we're being civically active. We feel it simulates the emotional loop of being involved, but we're actually not involved. We're spending time on an advertising company's platform whose revenue is essentially being used to polarize us further. So, you're making things worse, but it's not the inevitable and only use of those tools, right? Facebook or Instagram or Twitter could also be used to facilitate a new era of joining in our societies. And those are very powerful tools to do that. They're not used that much as much in that way as they should be. I always say to people, without really even signing up for things I'm on a bunch of political mailing lists. I'm on Donald Trump's campaign mailing list and I'm on a bunch of democratic party campaign mailing lists. I get all these emails, donate five bucks, donate five bucks. Trump said this terrible thing donate three bucks. Trump did this horrible thing, donate two bucks. I am not sure, and I'm on the local Brooklyn democratic party lists and I'm on the national, I'm not sure I've gotten one email from the democratic party at any level since Trump took over saying, you know what? Today was a hard day when he's railed against Muslims. Or you know what? Today was a hard day with these stories in the border. Let's meet in Fort Greene Park at 5:00 PM, bring music, bring songs, bring food to share, and let's commune. I have never been invited anywhere at a specific time to get together with other people using the tool of the internet. All I've been asked to do is to chip in three bucks and shut up, right? So we are using these tools in impoverished ways. Why is the democratic party of Brooklyn not getting 5,000 people together in Fort Greene Park every week of the Trump presidency in a show of solidarity against Donald Trump's values? How come that's not happening every week? Why? It's not the fault of the technology. I can't blame Mark Zuckerberg for that. People are not imaginatively choosing to do that. There's this whole thing that you go online to stay online or do you go online to get offline? I think we need to start using these tools to go online to get offline.

Taylor Owen: I mean I don't want to leave this conversation about this ideas and structures of media without going back to this TED example one more time because I mean I think you rightfully point out that there are certain types of ideas that are preferenced, but I think you described another layer of that which probably through the story of Amy Cuddy, which I found just fascinating, right? Not because she's in any way ill intended in any of this, but because the very way she focused her message, right? To be on the type of solution that does not address or need to address the structural dynamics behind it, right? That we can solve problems of feminism in the workplace or gender in the workplace with posture is something that intrinsically supports the structures that fund and benefit from these types of conferences. Is that right? That it's not just about them choosing and the people who choose these speakers choosing ideas that they think are going to be palatable, but it's actually about the entire academic system shaping itself to provide these kinds of bits of information and justify this larger system and I think someone calls it pinkerism in the book, but is that right? This is much deeper I think and we're worrying about how we think about knowledge production and dissemination certainly in academics.

Anand Giridharadas: Yeah. I mean Amy used this phrase that I think is very interesting. She said, I believe both in, when it comes to these exclusions, whether it's of women or other groups, I believe she said in a walls down and ladder up approach. In other words, when you've got a wall excluding women from certain opportunities, one approach is to build a ladder so women can climb over that wall, and that's maybe a more makeshift or short term or immediate thing you can do right now. And then, wall down is getting rid of that barrier, right, which will help way more women and will solve the problem structurally. Amy clearly believes in both and a lot of her early work as I recount was wall down work, not ladder up work. But when she came up with one piece of work that was more ladder up than wall down, what was really interesting was how this world of the plutocrats glommed onto her and was like, yeah, yeah, yeah, that. I mean, I didn't know this. I mean for someone who's become so famous, she had never given one talk outside of academia until her power post-talk. Think about that, that's insane. And she'd been doing that for a long time, and had top, top papers in the field. Never once invited to come out of the walls until she had a ladder up theory instead of a wall down theory. I think she struggled with it and resisted it and gave into it and challenged it more than many people. But for a lot of people it's like, all right, I'll stop with the wall down stuff if there's no demand for that. I'll just do ladder up. The question I try to raise in the book is what is the cumulative effect over time of hundreds and thousands of people making similar calculations and have academic departments having such calculations filter in and have economists deciding, you know what, my proposal for an institute for wealth taxation is never going to get funded, but my proposal for an institute of social enterprise, even though it may not really be that effective, is going to get funded, so let me do that. What's the net effect on our discourse and our culture and on these systems and structures when each of these choices bends in that more plutofillic direction.

David Skok: I was particularly struck in watching the Prop C. discussion of for homelessness in San Francisco last year and how you had different tech leaders rallying on different sides of this. Was there anything that you learned from that process or that you were actually inspired by in that process watching the industry and this community in and of itself wrestle with it?

Anand Giridharadas: I wrote a piece for The New Yorker about the billionaire bros beef between Marc Benioff and Jack Dorsey. It was very interesting because they really were at loggerheads over this proposal to raise taxes on some of the biggest companies in San Francisco in order to in a dedicated way fund initiatives for the homeless. The argument was like this, the mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, the new mayor at the time opposed this because she feared it was an unusual argument. She feared all this money coming in before they had a plan for how to spend it was going to overwhelm the city, and she felt it was better to have a plan first before you raise this money. And so Jack claimed that he was deferring to the mayor, deferring to a democratically elected person and not wanting to supersede that. But of course he was also there for opposing a tax that would have cost him a bunch of money. Marc Benioff took the view that this homelessness thing is abhorred and we should raise taxes on companies like his, which I thought was an interesting and important stand, but he violated a different value, which is that he therefore spent a lot of his own money on political advocacy trying to influence the election in that way, which is problematic in its own right and maybe anti-democratic in its own right to achieve something that he felt was more humane. And so, it was an interesting collision between different views. I mean, yes, should you raise taxes? That's good, but should you defer to democratically elected officials? That's good. And he pitted all of that against each other. They ended up passing it. I think it's tied up in court now, but it's a lot of money that they've raised that's tied up in court. I remember having occasional chats with Marc during this process, for him it was just like this awakening of realizing that it is actually not the same to raise $100 million from rich people to solve that problem and to raise $100 million in taxes. This is something a lot of rich people don't understand until they get into the weeds of this. There is enormous moral difference between five guys deciding to do something and a city deciding to do something. This is something I think you wouldn't have had to explain to people 100 years or 200 years ago when we actually had more faith in the idea of democratic action, but in our culture it's like, well, if you're going to have $100 million, who cares who spends it? Maybe it's even spent more effectively by five rich guys, and the reality is it matters who does something. It matters what entity does something right? It matters that the United States supports Ukraine against Russian aggression. I mean, five rich guys in America could fund $400 million in aid for Ukraine. Is that the same? I don't think so. I think it matters a lot that that money actually comes from cab drivers and janitors in the United States of America and has an expressive value that is different. And I think if you asked Ukraine, do you want $600 million from five rich guys or $400 million from the United States of America? I think it would pick $400 million from United States of America. So it's the same thing for homelessness. It's the same thing for hunger, it's the same thing for social welfare programs. Philanthropy is not the same thing as taxation, and that's something that I think a lot of rich people need to understand or are in various stages of learning.

David Skok: So who is learning? I mean you mentioned Benioff, are there others out there that you would consider are the most interesting traitors to their class?

Anand Giridharadas: You have a wave of folks who are really raising the ultimate taboo, which is advocating for a wealth tax, right? Abigail Disney. There was a letter that Abigail signed that involved I think a member of the Pritzker family, and some others. That's I think where the frontier of this conversation among rich people is. I talked to some of these folks by virtue of the book, and I think there's a real awareness that on the giving side they need to be class traitors if they're going to do philanthropy and actually the kind of philanthropy that is going to help end the second gilded age. Not just treat people for symptoms incurred because of the second gilded age and there's a recognition that they're going to have to actually give up power.

David Skok: That's my cynical brain coming to the fore, which is, is it a recognition for the good of humanity or is it a recognition that if they don't, the pitchforks will be outside their mansions?

Anand Giridharadas: I think it's both. I think the pitchforks thing is a nice rhetorical thing. I mean, I just don't think that's actually what's motivating. I think it's motivating some people maybe, but the form of the pitchforks take is not actual pitchforks. It's going to be just like rising resentment and chaos. I think Donald Trump has been very radicalizing for a lot of people. The form the pitchforks take is Donald Trump, it's not linear. It's not like someone's going to come to your house and stab you. It's more just like I think a lot of people, I mean Lloyd Blankfein, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, who I don't agree with probably on anything, but he said the other day, would I pay a few more taxes to live in a less mean chaotic society? Yes, I would. I'm not sure if he's really going to push for that, but he's on the right track. It's not fun to live in a society that is so polarized, so angry, so full of scapegoating and that's the society you have when there's this scarcity. And so, I think there's a case to be made that these societies are more fun to live in when most people are provided the rudiments of a dignified decent life.

Taylor Owen: The wealth tax is one thing and broader economic structures are critical. But I sometimes wonder if the way platforms are stepping into this space like Facebook's oversight board for example, right? Trying to find their own way of governing speech for everybody in America and everybody frankly around the world, if that's not in part because governments have not stepped into that space. And if it abdicated their responsibility to govern the digital public sphere, for example, in the case of the oversight board. So, do you think beyond the antitrust movement that we're starting to see the wealth tax movement, the economic structures, there's actually a broader range of things governments need to do to actually govern the digital economy and this part of our lives?

Anand Giridharadas: I think the biggest issue is the imbalance of power, particularly with regard to tech that it just has way too much power relative to users and way too much power relative to the state. If you look at the banking industry, which is a powerful industry, the other big leg of the American economy, it is a heavily regulated industry. And by the way, it still makes a ton of money, but we are protected from its depredations in all kinds of ways. It's not perfect, but imagine what the world would be like if there wasn't that infrastructure. And there's basically none of that infrastructure for tech. So, I'm glad that there's thousands of pages of regulations protecting my car insurance loan. I mean thank you. But also car insurance doesn't make me that vulnerable compared to Mark Zuckerberg's power over my life and my democracy and whether or not Russia is waging cyber war on my account. I don't understand why my car insurance is more regulated than Mark Zuckerberg. I don't understand by the way, why Mark Zuckerberg is the subject of poo-pooing instead of a criminal inquiry. We have just hugely gotten wrong this approach to tech, this veneration of the entrepreneur and world leaders sitting on stages of Mark Zuckerberg talk ... These are pariahs. These are the modern robber barons who need to be put in their box through regulation, through law, through policy, through taxation, and not be venerated as heroes and not be given new philanthropic territory, the public education system, the world of public health to go rich-splain their way into those domains too.

David Skok: US election will be decided a year from now. What do you hope? I'm not going to ask for your prediction, but what do you hope the discourse will be and what issues do you hope will come up and surface in this campaign that will move along some of these important issues that you've raised?

Anand Giridharadas: I love this campaign. I couldn't believe in this ... This democratic primary is fantastic. A lot of people are tired of it, exhausted of it, don't like the sniping, don't like the number of ... I think it's a fantastic primary, I think this is a graduate seminar level debate about capitalism, socialism and democracy as Schumpeter put it. I think we are having it out in a way that countries often keep things under the rug or don't talk about deficits or some narrow proxy issue. We're talking about it in this primary. We are talking about are you a capitalist? You're not. We got diversity on that question in this primary. We're talking about is big structural change more electric, more necessary in general and more electric to people in Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania who are important in this election or being moderate and care careful and cautious and tweaking, right? We're talking about whether McKinsey as a background is a boon or a problem. We're talking about whether Joe Biden's theory that you can lift people up down below without fundamentally changing anything for people on top is plausible or whether as I believe you can't change things for people down below in America without displacing the people standing on their necks. We are having this debate in a way that I think feels fulsome, feels exciting. It feels like a real contest and it's a bigger, broader, messier, more consequential contest of ideas than I think we usually have in a presidential primary.

David Skok: We'll be talking about it and we're still talking about your book. Thank you for taking the time to write it and for joining us today.

Anand Giridharadas: Thank you for having me.

David Skok: Anand Giridharadas, thanks so much for your time.

Anand Giridharadas: Thank you.

David Skok: Anand is a Time editor at large, a political analyst for NBC news and the bestselling author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. He joined us in Toronto.

Taylor Owen: Let us know what you thought about this episode by using the #BigTechPodcast on Twitter. I'm Taylor Owen CIGI senior fellow and professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill.

David Skok: And I'm David Skok, Editor-in-Chief of The Logic. Thanks for listening.


Narrator: The Big Tech podcast is a partnership between the Centre for International governance, innovation, CIGI, and The Logic. CIGI is a Canadian non-partisan think tank focused on international governance, economy and law. The Logic is an award winning digital publication reporting on the innovation economy. Big Tech is produced and edited by Trevor Hunsberger and Kate Rowswell is our story producer. Visit for more information about the show.


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