• Ben Henschel

"Winners Take All" — The Danger of Unbalanced MarketWorld Thinking

*photo from Amazon.com

Anand Giridharadas, author of ‘Winners Take All,’ was perplexed by a paradox.

How could, in the same era, there be the most sweeping philanthropic efforts by corporations and big business — more giving, donating and well-working by well-to-do bodies — but also such vast inequality? How could so many foundations exist, so many billionaires with such incredible intentions be so powerful in their own moneymaking but so “powerless” to help outside of it in the world of policy?

The answer is complicated, but boils down to a root change in the American psyche on how real change is done. Since the ‘80s, we’ve tailored our brains to believe the best ways to go about change — specifically in terms of inequality and promoting the general welfare — lie in the private sector only. And as this shift settled in and businesses began initiatives to profit off of helping people, sort of like a government that would charge you a royalty every time you used a library card, something peculiar began to happen in the world of corporate generosity.

This realm of thinking entails the disruptive idea that billionaires might not be the heroes of philanthropy that headlines hail them to be. In many cases, the sweeping acts of charity that major corporations tout act as a soothing distraction from the misdeeds they commit with their own business models. The charitable giving — charity, not justice — acts as a pseudo-reimbursement for the damage they cause.

No one bats an eye when a business lays off hundreds of workers on the one hand because on the other they offer gracious training programs to underprivileged teens. It’s an easy way for companies to continue to bring in billions with no regard for the collateral: give millions, a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of their intake, to distract from the hoarding of billions.

And when these businesses can sport the image of heroes by offering drop-in-the-bucket social initiative solutions, their ethically questionable bottom lines and untamed intake are suddenly out of the picture.

“Inspire the rich to do more good, but never, ever tell them to do less harm; inspire them to give back, but never, ever tell them to take less; inspire them to join the solution, but never, ever accuse them of being part of the problem,” Giridharadas explains.

When a business or corporation announces a new initiative to turn poop into drinking water or a billionaire adopts a charter school, the headlines read in golden font and the givers are seen as angels. And their giving is certainly helpful, certainly saving lives, certainly helping a small set of people. But what billionaires and corporations don’t like to support are systems and changes that may threaten their cherished bottom line, even if it means benefiting a farther-reaching swath of people — and leaving them with billions, still, to spare.

Equal funding for all public schools, not just higher funding for public schools with expensive area codes, would be less beneficial for the children of plutocrats and themselves. But adopting a charter school to benefit a handful would allow that same public school funding advantage to exist in their lives while also marking themselves as the righteous saviors. The examples of this “win-win,” do-good-by-doing-well mentality, as Giridharadas puts it, are ceaseless and have carved out a severe chunk of public trust in government.

Governmental systems and initiatives are a counterweight to the private sector, not a partner, but the idea of big government now comes with hyper-dystopian visions of control and regulation to much of modern America. Since the ‘80s, we’ve grown to see governments as nuisances more akin to regulating for the hell of it rather than promoting the general welfare that some businesses aim to profit from. But Giridharadas rightly points out the balance is overdue for a shift back toward the middle, where the people in a democratic society have a measurable say in who and what systems control it.

“Politics is the inherently messy business of negotiating and reconciling incompatible interests and coming up with a decent plan, designed to be liked but difficult to love,” he says. “It solves problems in a context in which everyone is invited to the table and everyone is equal and everyone has the right to complain about being unserved and unseen.”

Only so many are invited to board rooms to discuss business actions, and thus the social initiatives that businesses performatively crank out. Summits like Davos and the Clinton Global Initiative invite only “MarketWorld” thinkers to the debate, allowing no real criticism of the system and instead only suggestions on how to best save lives, as long as they profit, within the flawed one. The act of changing the world became one that politicians yielded to entrepreneurs, and one that entrepreneurs have outsourced only to shareholders.

As so many of us think about what we can do to change the world, what we can contribute and hopefully leave better than it was when we got there, businesses station themselves to take us in and show us. But remember foremostly that real change doesn’t really happen in a boardroom or by structuring a way to profit off of saving lives. I’m considering a life in business, but I give incessant reminders to myself that a life in business should be complemented by a life of governmental support, lifting up the systems that protect the underprivileged rather than striking them down and insisting I can do it better.

Providing safeguards against businesses with structured and specialized taxes on corporations that can currently evade all of it, along with implementing a more broadly justified public school system and affordable housing program and form of healthcare as a civil right, are roles of government. Right now, they’re used as pawns in a game where businesses use philanthropic giving to masquerade as the solution rather than a key contributor to the problem.

The only chance to topple this structure is to discuss it and force yourself in the picture, to cauterize the issue and catalyze the conversation and hopefully build it enough to force politicians’ hands.

Grassroots movements sound cliche in their premise but grow to be the most effective form of citizen-driven change. As companies stifle the middle class by continuing to outsource jobs and provide little to no benefits, cut wages to minimums that are in place without reason as to why, lay off thousands without any real plan or care for what their workers will do once they’re gone — it’s important for us to see why the charitable giving will no longer be adequate reimbursement.

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