The Hidden Cost Of Tech Billionaires' Philanthropy

And what one expert thinks might balance the scale.

The Hidden Cost Of Tech Billionaires' Philanthropy

A few pages into Anand Giridharadas' Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, as the author begins to explain the inherent problems of modern corporations and philanthropists' intent to "do well by doing good," it becomes increasingly apparent that this book was not written to make you feel good, either. 

It offers no concrete solutions, no actionable next steps, no "one person can make a difference" platitudes. That's the point. 

Giridharadas spent years studying the industry of "MarketWorld" where thought leaders in the business, tech, and philanthropy spaces make thousands, millions, even billions offering up simple, digestible solutions to the world's biggest social problems. 

Sexism? Strike a power pose. Income inequality? Download this finance app. Environmental issues? Buy this sustainable product.

The simplicity of these philanthropists' solutions make for compelling headlines and news copy — news copy that, as a positive media company, A Plus has certainly participated in writing. But Giridharadas asserts that these kinds of solutions allow the powerful to appear as though they are challenging the status quo, while not only maintaining it, but refusing to take responsibility and make amends for their part in causing that status quo in the first place. When looked at through that lens, these aren't solutions at all. They're just a new kind of problem. To be solved, he says, they require a new kind of solution — one that involves personal sacrifice, a community of collaboration, and, most importantly, the acknowledgment that if you've already won big, you can afford to lose a little.

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A Plus spoke with Anand Giridharadas to discuss how these problems are playing out in real time and what chance, if any, there still exists to solve them: 

A PLUS: So just to begin with a broad question that digs into the overall premise of the book, what's so bad about doing well by doing good?

GIRIDHARADAS: The problem with doing well by doing good, which has become such a ubiquitous idea in the culture, is that it's not that there's narrowly anything wrong with trying to help people but that it's an ideology of helping people that insists that the winners of our age should profit from doing good — that one should be able to do well every time one does good. 

The problem is not that some activities of doing well are bad; the problem is the conquest of social change by the "doing well by doing good" ethos, which essentially says that the powerful need to benefit from helping the powerless. [That's] like saying that men need to benefit from empowering women, and rich people need to benefit from empowering poor people, and people in finance need to benefit from helping people recover from the financial crisis. And my problem with doing well by doing good is its conquest of social change so that other forms of change — which involve actually asking the powerful to sacrifice something for the sake of the common good — have been ruled out of many spaces and many conversations about change.

A PLUS: There's this whole ethos of "voting with your dollar" that helps many consumers feel like they're doing good. But does this idea just further enable the "do well by doing good" charade?

GIRIDHARADAS: I think we live in this age in which wealthy corporations and people have fostered this notion of the kind of change that operates within a market framework and does not disturb market arrangements, or the winner's right to win. That said, this idea of change has trickled down. It has trickled down in ways that actually reach everyday consumers so when you go to the mall, people are now telling you that if you buy that tote bag, it's gonna change the world. Or that red iPhone case is gonna change the world. 

Of course, the people buying those things are not billionaires, but they are participating in a culture that has devalued change. That has tried to redefine change as not being a matter of power and justice and rights, but a matter of scaling things up and products that kick a little back to the poor and those kinds of things, which generally tend to mean changing the world in ways that don't change the world of the powerful and making no difference in the ways that protect the powerful's opportunity to continue making a killing. 

A PLUS: Jeff Bezos recently made headlines for launching a $2 billion fund to finance a network of nonprofit preschools and donate funds to organizations helping homeless families. He announced this on Twitter, where at least one tweet went viral for pointing out the irony of putting so much money toward these causes when simply eliminating the tax loopholes corporations and billionaires like Amazon and Bezos disproportionately benefit from would, theoretically, provide the government with the necessary funds to improve schools and help homeless families. So what do you make of it? 

GIRIDHARADAS: One of the things that's interesting about the Bezos news is that I think, even a few years ago, an announcement like this would've been met with a wave of uncritical gratitude, and I think it's a measure of two things happening. One: a backlash within tech and a growing skepticism of whether what is best for the tech overlords is really what's best for humanity, as much as they keep telling us that. And second: a backlash and a reckoning within the philanthropy world about whether the generosity of the rich really is adequate when they're also upholding many of the social problems that we talk about. 

Jeff Bezos Amazon protest in Berlin
Amazon employees in Berlin protest Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's receipt of the 2018 Axel Springer Award for his "visionary entrepreneurship," citing poor working conditions in Amazon's logistic centers. Markus Heine/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

I think Bezos, in some ways, is the first major giver to make his foray into the giving world in this way since those two backlashes have happened, and I think that's the real story here... If you just think about the way we all talk about tech, it's hugely changed in the last 12 to 24 months... My book is one small part of this larger reckoning and shift that's been happening, and if you look back to the early 20th century when, you know, Rockefeller and others wanted to give back, former President Theodore Roosevelt said — I don't have the exact quote, but — "No amount of generosity in giving this money away can compensate for the awfulness of how it was made." That used to be a very normal attitude. We've lost that and kind of bow and tremor every time rich people give money. 

All of which is to say I think the reception that Bezos got — a mix of gratitude, skepticism, concern about his level of power over democratic life, concern about the hypocrisies and ironies around taxation and labor — those are all good signs. These things are not all good or all bad, but like any kind of exertion of power, they need to be regarded with skepticism, as someone like Rob Reich of Stanford, that's been his big idea. You know, philanthropy is an exertion of power, and it should be judged the way every other exertion of power is judged — with skepticism and caution. 

And so, I don't think it's a backlash against Bezos, I actually think it's a healthy, emergent attitude to this kind of the exertion of power, which like military power and governmental power and corporate power and others should be viewed with weariness. 

A PLUS: In your book, you discuss how big business interests have contributed to people losing trust in political institutions. Within the Trump administration, we're now also seeing a deliberate scaling down of institutions and turning away from institutions. One instance that I thought was really a stark example of the government turning its back on the good of people and then businesses deciding to take up the charge was President Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. Private businesses like Walmart, McDonald's, and Apple have claimed that they will change their business strategies to eliminate or reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so do you have any faith that they will actually live up to this promise, and what actions can everyday citizens take to hold them accountable to these claims?  

GIRIDHARADAS: Yeah, that's a great question. I think what you're getting at is something actually very deep, which is the way this whole circle works... So on the issue of the environment, these big companies have spent the last 30 or 40 years discrediting government at every turn. When government has to pay people more, discredit. When government tries to give people maternity leave, discredit. When government tries to do environmental regulations, discredit. When government tries to regulate workers' safety, discredit. When government tries to have a carbon tax, discredit. Every turn, right? So then what happens? 

One: the companies make a lot of money because they're subject to less regulation and pay less taxes, etc. ... Consequence number two is the government does less stuff. Consequence number three is because the government does less stuff, social problems multiply. Climate change gets worse, income volatility goes up, right? Then, you end up in phase two where all those trends play out. Social problems have festered, gotten worse. The government is now weaker and less able to solve them. Maybe it's tried and failed to solve some of these problems, and the only people with money left are big companies or philanthropists who used to have big companies. 

So now, in phase two, they come around and say, "Oh, what a shame. The government can't solve these terrible social problems. Well, at least I'm here to make a difference. I can step in." And lo and behold, they're the last ones standing because they eviscerated everything else... For 30 or 40 years, a lot of those same forces in different ways discredited government, creating an environment in which those problems multiplied that Trump could claim and speak to people who felt government and the private sector, frankly, had left them behind. ...Then when, in many ways as a consequence of the movements they supported —the anti-government movements — led him to pull out of that accord. They [big business] are then there to... turn climate change into, like, a branding thing. But I'm sorry, no amount of CSR [corporate social responsibility] is gonna stop climate change. Frankly, doing it legally through the U.N. is barely enough to stop it. 

So you just see —  when you take that example that you wisely chose  — the full loop of how first you discredit the institutions that are supposed to do it, and then you benefit because you are solving it privately the way they were supposed to solve it publicly but you didn't let them... [it] becomes this new reputational boost. 

Climate change activists hold "Stop Climate Crime" sign ahead of One Planet Summit in Paris, France
 Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

A PLUS: If you're an average person reading your book and you're thinking, 'OK, so now what?' what would be the first action you would tell someone to do? 

GIRIDHARADAS: Part of what I'm trying to challenge in this book is our desire for easy, individual solutions. You know, one of the great things that came out of the feminist movement a generation ago was the idea behind that famous phrase, "There are no personal solutions at this time. There are only political solutions." And part of the whole insight of that was that until you had that idea, a lot of women were experiencing systemic violations as personal failures or personal problems. Therefore, when you start that way, you are asking women to solve things in your own life that are not solvable within one life. 

...Part of what I'm trying to push people to think about is when we want the individual solution, we change the nature of the problem just by wanting that. A lot of these problems are necessarily problems that actually doing things together and building movements and coalescing and not trying to solve things separately and alone anymore. That said, I think the thing that your readers can do is be part of more "we's" and less "me's." Be part of movements. Rebuild movements. We need workers' movements in this country. We need consumer movements We need to be part of movements again. We need to be joiners again. We need to be part of things. We need to have power proportional to the power that organizations and companies and big philanthropists have over us ... you know, if there were citizens' organizations with 20 million members that all decided to do X or do Y or not buy these products, that would start to become as powerful as something like the Gates Foundation, but we don't really have that. 

...So I would say, "What can you be part of?" and "How can we actually build organizations so that we are part of things again and can make the kind of change that you can only make when you are part of things and join together with other people in coalition?" That is why Black people can vote. That is why women work today. That's why my family was allowed into this country. It was all because of movements from below and people fighting power using the power of their numbers. We need to learn to reclaim that vocabulary and heritage of change-making in this country and not wait for permission slips for the powerful to try to make a difference. 

A PLUS: Going off of that, I think the main way people are getting involved and feeling like part of a 'we' is through political activism. I think that a lot of people are really excited to vote for progressive candidates with positions to fight for the working class, expand health care, and other policies for reducing inequality. But do you think it's enough to vote for socially-conscious candidates? ... Are there any other forms of activism that you think might be just as valuable, if not more valuable, than the political activism we're seeing right now? 

GIRIDHARADAS: Here's the best thing about Donald Trump. Donald Trump has inspired young people, women, and Americans of all stripes to make sure they fight for the country they want to live in, and that is awesome. That is awesome that that's happening. I also think there's a very real chance that the way we're going about it, the kind of activism you see will be here when it's here and it'll be gone when it's gone because we're still not joining. 

There's a difference between being part of a durable movement and tweeting a lot, phone banking, knocking on some doors, then it's over. Alongside all this amazing political activity, which I love to see — and I'm a political junkie myself, and I love to see others feel excited about politics — I just still think there's a difference between that and joining and being part of deeper movements that have a life and have community and where friendships form. 

I think a lot of that's happening also, but on a smaller scale. And I would just say, I think the answer to this power from above in American life is sustained in growing power from below and that requires something deeper than just getting involved in an election. It involves being participants.

A PLUS: Is there any movement that currently exists that, if someone else is thinking about starting another grassroots movement  — maybe it's based on consumer choice, for example, or consumer responsibility — that you would point to as a great movement they should use as a blueprint? 

GIRIDHARADAS: I'm a big admirer of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. I think it's one of the few unions that feels like an organization of the future with its best days ahead of it, not behind it. And it's representing some of the hardest to represent people in America, which is caregivers and nannies and domestic workers of all kinds. It's a tough problem, and they've cracked it. They're developing technology to empower these workers, they're doing all kinds of things. Ai-jen Poo [the Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance] is just one of the great civic leaders of America and, by the way, I think she's someone who raises money from rich and powerful people, but then just to protect her cause from their influence in a way that I think is important. 

I think you also have The Workers Lab in Oakland, California, which is... like a union incubator. Like, what's the future of worker power, and how do we get workers more power? How do you build that? That's the kind of thing where solving that is so much more useful, because if you solve that then millions of people could be empowered. That's trying to solve an issue at the root, and you know, I think when you think about even something like the B Corps — the rise of the B Corporation — again that's an example where people are trying to challenge one of the very bleak things in American life, which is the shareholder supremacy and trying to do so by creating a parallel, voluntary corporate law where people can opt into that's about a broader-based stakeholder capitalism. But I think there's starting to be questions raised by Elizabeth Warren and others about how do we actually get all companies to take care of all stakeholders and not just the ones that opt into it? 

A PLUS: Anything else?

AG: Don't boo. Don't just vote. Be a joiner. 

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

Cover image via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images and  Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock.com.

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