With rolling green hills and rivers, Davos looks like the Von Trapp family’s paradise. Just a tiny village nestled in a Swiss valley, Davos is home to the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting. Each year, the worlds’ elite business, social, and political leaders – including the likes of Bill Gates, Angela Merkel, Al Gore, Matt Damon – meet for four days to discuss “improving the state of the world,” (Meredith, “Who’s Going to Davos?”). Following these leaders is an entourage of heavily-armed snipers and soldiers who roam Davo’s streets and protect the world’s greatest philanthropic icons – at a hefty price of $9.37 million, paid for by local, state, and the national Swiss governments (Ellyatt, “Soldiers, Snipers and Security”).
Among this year’s attendees was Michael Dell, multi-billionaire and founder of Dell Technologies. Dell participated in a panel vaguely regarding “making digital globalization inclusive,” along with a handful of digital experts, historians, and industry heavyweights (Fraher and Grant, “Dell CEO Joins Davos”). Not once did the panel specify exactly who could reap the benefits of digital globalization (though judging from Dell’s net worth, predominantly himself). Yet U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was mentioned frequently, and her ideas about a 70-percent marginal tax rate on the wealthiest Americans inspired heated discussion. When Dell was singled out for his opinion (he was the only multi-billionaire on panel), the audience burst into laughter before he could give a response. Dell coolly answered: “I feel much more comfortable with our ability … to allocate those funds than I do giving them to the government… I don’t think it will help the growth of the US economy. Name a country where that’s worked – ever.” Co-panelist and MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson jumped in to answer: “the United States,” (Fraher and Grant, “Dell CEO Joins Davos”).
The audience fell silent. Though Ocasio-Cortez was not at Davos, her political force simmered into conversation, churning an unspoken tension among WEF’s attendees. The proposed 70% marginal tax rate policy targeted those with at least $10 million, and intended to address America’s ever-growing wage gap. The policy would undoubtedly affect most attendees. Almost all members held a single stance: taxation is ineffective at fixing society’s ills, and that most ills are best solved through the rich engaging in philanthropy, such as providing education and technology to the poor. The idea that governments are too corrupt and ineffective to function is not new; Trump’s successful 2015 campaign slogan “Drain the Swamp” indicates how popular this sentiment is, among rich and poor alike. Moreover, philanthropy has never been more fashionable, with donations from businesses and individuals contributing to 2.1% of the U.S. GDP (“Giving Statistics”). Yet swirling amid a radical Trumpian government and growing philanthropy remains the stark reality of massive income inequality.
The self-righteousness displayed at WEF, the contradiction of the super-rich as saviors of the poor, and weak government are the critical preoccupations of Anand Giridharadas’ wildly successful and eye-opening book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. A former New York Times columnist turned best-selling author, Giridharadas sets fire to some of the world’s most-generous, and torches these leaders on their own stages by revealing their self-interests and blatant insensitivity for recent history. The rich and powerful will fight for equality and justice in any way they can – except for in ways that threaten their position at the top of the social order.
Giridharadas openly admits he once worked alongside Dell and his kind, also believing that he could create significant change. His own hypocrisy becomes his strength, and he successfully guides his readers in-and-out of this strange world. Rather than weighing down readers with numbers and political analysis, Giridharadas stages a series of biopics that reveals the alibis and strategies used by Dell and his kind to justify their philanthropy. What’s worse, Giriharadas points out, is that the 0.001% genuinely believe in their kindness. The Sacklers catalyzed the opioid crisis, but zealously donate to education and art; the CEO of Volkswagen launched an electric car initiative to “go green,” while cheating on the company’s emission tests. Giridharadas amasses their desires to improve the world using their wealth and power into a central theme he calls “Marketworld.” It’s a feel-good world where PowerPoint presentations solve workplace sexism, and billionaire CEOs hold seminars titled “Sharing is Caring.”
Marketworld’s greatest sin, however, is its genuine belief in “win-win” solutions. Marketworld chooses to attack humanitarian problems with impact investments, sustainable capitalism, and social enterprise – it believes that a profitable product can solve social ills (win for the business elite, and win for the needy). For instance, Airbnb “attacks income inequality” by letting homeowners rent out their rooms or apartments for extra side-income. Yet its creators forgot to consider that those most in need of income subsidies are likely too poor to own their own properties, let alone extra rooms. Even worse, landowners have realized that renting to well-off Airbnb users makes more money than renting to conventional tenants, pushing the poor to outskirts of cities (Hinsliff, “Airbnb and the so-called Sharing Economy”). Airbnb, along with every “win-win” solution, Giridharadas expertly argues, does nothing to attack real societal issues, but instead profits from the status quo.
Like dieters who would do anything to lose weight except eat less, Marketworlders would rather invest in a million social enterprises than question their own actions. In order to have the equal-opportunity economy that Marketworld supposedly champions, Marketworld must quit their win-win mindset, and take real sacrifice. Marketworlders would have to offer fair wages to its employees, support unions, pay high levels of personal and corporate income tax, and support public institutions like school systems and welfare rather than their own private organizations. Economic equality cannot exist when social inequality is so high. As Giridharadas puts it, people wanted to do “various side projects instead of doing their day jobs more honorably,” (Giridharadas, 266).
At Davos, Dell and his kind actively practice cognitive dissonance. They celebrate the new economic world they forged, which has rewarded them so generously. They effortlessly glide from seminars about the dangers of climate change and growing inequality, to closed-room dinners where they praise deregulation of corporations and tax cuts for billionaires. They conveniently overlook growing pollution, rising tax rates for the lower class, the death of America’s middle class, and the risk of another financial crisis. All of this – because again – solving any one of these issues would require a real sacrifice of money and power.
Perhaps Giridharadas’ most gut-wrenching point is that average readers and young Americans praise Davos participants for their humanitarian work. Bill Gates is often seen as the champion of the poor – one of the “good guys.” And Mark Zuckerberg has single-handedly provided free internet to nearly 100 million new users. Most Americans tend to side with the rich – believing that the true reason for most social ills is an out-of-touch government, and that creating private institutions can offer better solutions. Again and again, Giridharadas reveals the self-dealing that belies the philanthropy of the mega-rich: Gates recently denounced Warren’s three-percent wealth tax, claiming the money is better used for “a little bit [of] consumption, and hopefully the balance to do philanthropic things,” while Zuckerberg profited from 100 million new Facebook users (Bogost, “Bill Gate’s Fortune”). Governments may be inefficient, but the rich, dripping with paternalism, are no better.
While Giridharadas’ arguments are richly nuanced and caustically witty, his concluding remarks leave something to be desired. His portrait of the elite class, though devastating, thorough, and blunt, is followed by an amateurish analysis of reform. He simply concludes that we must create a stronger centralized government. He, like Ocasio-Cortez, flirts with higher income marginal tax rates and tighter regulations on corporations as possible solutions, but he side-steps away from showing readers how to fight a system already heavily dominated by elites. The elite, as Giridharadas drives home repeatedly, already use their money and power to bend government in their favor. Readers are left with an unsettling sense of dread that our current democracy is irreparable.
Giridharadas does acknowledge the complexity of the situation, and he openly admits that change does not come easy. He interviews others like him, insider-outsiders who are aware of their positions within the elite, and he carefully considers their methods of reform and their value. Most notably, he interviews Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation who is painfully aware of his position as a part of the business elite. Having grown up poor with a single mother, he now oversees a multibillion-dollar investment portfolio, and spends most of his days giving away money for charity. Like Giridharadas, Walker grappled with his own privilege and the merits of his day job, stating that his guilt “definitely nags at [him] on a daily basis” (Giridharadas, 170). Walker knew what kind of world he wanted to live in, but he was also realistic about his power within Marketworld. He, unlike Giridharadas, decided to work within Marketworld and try to change the opinions of the elite by revealing the consequences of their actions. While he has managed to change some opinions (most notably Robert Rubin, former U.S. Secretary of Treasury), the vast majority dislikes how he frames Marketworld as the culprit, calling Walker “a real turn-off.” Surprisingly, Giridharadas is somewhat hopeful. “Perhaps [Marketworld] would see the self-preservational quality of so many of their approaches to social change,” he writes (Giridharadas, 171). Perhaps tiny steps are better than none at all.
A year has passed since the publication of Winners Take All. America’s political landscape is almost unrecognizable – for the first time in recent history, Americans are seriously considering a 70% tax rate, or at the very least, a high-income tax rate on corporations and the mega-rich. With the upcoming presidential election, America has a real chance at tearing down Marketworld. In fact, most of the 2020 Democratic candidates, including Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Andrew Yang, have called for higher taxes on the wealthy. While all candidates make tall promises, it’s important to differentiate who is peddling real change, and who is peddling fake change. As Giridharadas repeatedly mentions in his book, a lot of people who sound and champion similar agendas are actually quite different. Winners Take All keeps voters from becoming unwitting enablers with a simple message: inequality threatens democracy. Real change requires a loss of power.
- Bogost, Ian. “Bill Gates's Fortune Isn't Going Anywhere.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 7 Nov. 2019, www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/11/bill-gates-wrong-about-warrens-wealth-tax/601594/.
- Ellyatt, Holly. “Soldiers, Snipers and Security at Davos: Protecting the World's Rich and Powerful.” CNBC, CNBC, 14 Jan. 2019, www.cnbc.com/2018/01/22/davos-security-snipers-and-soldiers.html.
- Fraher, John, and Nico Grant. “Dell CEO Joins Davos Debate on 70% Tax Rate: ‘Not Supportive.’” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 23 Jan. 2019, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-23/dell-ceo-joins-davos-debate-on-70-tax-rate-not-supportive.
- Giridharadas, Anand. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.
- “Giving Statistics.” Charity Navigator, Giving USA 2018, 12 June 2018, www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=42.
- Hinsliff, Gaby. “Airbnb and the so-Called Sharing Economy Is Hollowing out Our Cities | Gaby Hinsliff.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 31 Aug. 2018, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/31/airbnb-sharing-economy-cities-barcelona-inequality-locals.
- Meredith, Sam. “World Economic Forum 2019: Who's Going to Davos This Year?” CNBC, CNBC, 18 Jan. 2019, www.cnbc.com/2019/01/15/world-economic-forum-2019-who-is-going-to-davos-this-year.html.