ANNE STRAINCHAMPS:[00:00:00] If there's no such thing as a free gift, what does that say about people who give really being gifts? I'm talking hundred million dollar gifts. Are billionaire philanthropists saving the world?
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:00:27] You know, at the heart of our age is this idea that we live in this time in which rich people talk a great deal about saving us and changing the world and making a difference, but are in fact building and operating and maintaining a system that is destroying the American dream for most Americans. It's hard to think about someone who captures that better from me than David Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group, the private equity firm out of Washington.
TAPE [00:00:56] On behalf of the National Park Service, I'd like to welcome you to National Mall and Memorial Parks.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:01:02] You're most likely to hear about him today as a patriotic philanthropist. He buys stuff for the government that the government couldn't afford — an old copy of the Magna Carta, the 13th Amendment — and then he donated to the National Archives or to other government agencies.
TAPE [00:01:20] It is a true pleasure to introduce a man with who has great respect for American history. Ladies and gentlemen, a true patriot: David Rubenstein.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:01:30] When the Washington Monument was damaged by an earthquake in 2011 — a crack down the middle, a perfect metaphor for everything that was happening in Washington —David Rubenstein stepped up when the government was unable to pay half of the 15 million dollar bill.
DAVID RUBENSTEIN [00:01:46] I only did what other Americans who were the good fortune that I had. What I've done. Presented with the same opportunity.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:01:53] One of the things that's less well-known about him is that he and his firm and his industry have pushed very hard for something called the carried interest loophole.
DAVID RUBENSTEIN [00:02:02] Many Americans have had good fortune. I have had good fortune.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:02:05] Which is a special tax benefit for very wealthy financiers that basically allows them to be taxed at a much lower rate than their secretaries, as Warren Buffett famously put it.
DAVID RUBENSTEIN [00:02:19] I really wanted to give back to the country.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:02:20] So you have a guy who has fought for this tax break that by some estimates costs the U.S. government 18 billion dollars a year.
DAVID RUBENSTEIN [00:02:29] This was just a down payment on my obligation to repay the country for what it has done for me and for my family.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:02:37] And then gets a little fraction of that money to the government for these little projects.
DAVID RUBENSTEIN [00:02:43] I hope to do other things that will help repay....
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:02:45] Gets rebranded as a patriotic philanthropist.
DAVID RUBENSTEIN [00:02:48] I hope other Americans will take up the banner and also begin to participate in what I'd like to call patriotic philanthropy.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:02:56] He's had the audacity to say:
DAVID RUBENSTEIN [00:02:58] The federal government doesn't have the money to do everything it would like to do and can't do everything it did in the past.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:03:03] "Rich guys like me have to step up."
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:03:07] At the heart of what I am critiquing is not simply what David Rubenstein or the Carlyle Group does, but what we do as a society when we turn someone like him into a philanthropist, instead of a moral debtor who should be begging for our mercy.
ANNE STRAINCHAMPS:[00:03:31] Anand Giridharadas is the author of "Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World." When Shannon Henry Clapper talked with him, they started in the Middle Ages.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:03:41] There was a thing you could buy called papal indulgence, and what that allowed you to do was live a bad life, and in time — before the buzzer went off — pay some money and get kind of guaranteed passage to heaven. And what a lot of these rich folks are doing in our time is a form of secular papal indulgence.
SHANNON HENRY KLEIBER:[00:04:02] You talk about this as predatory philanthropy. This is something that is pretty dark.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:04:08] Well, there's a whole spectrum. And I don't want to suggest that there isn't philanthropy that's good. A tremendous amount of philanthropy does good. Most of it does good at the margin and helps people and saves lives. And no one is questioning that. You know, I think $410 billion was given away philanthropically in this country within recent years. And none of what I have been banging the drum about with "Winners Take All," none of it is about saying "is giving back a noble thing?" or "are people really helped or not?".
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:04:39] There are some questions about the effectiveness of particular programs, but in general, giving is a noble impulse and helping people is a noble impulse. What I am raising a question about is our system, a system that is built on a winners-take-all economy in which people at the top of the game of capitalism practice an extreme form of it unseen in most other rich countries. That is essentially a slash and burn form of capitalism, a very particular form of it in which you basically, you know, break the environment if that's what it takes to make a profit. You break workers backs if that's what it takes to make a profit. You break the system of social mobility in America, if that's what it takes to make a profit, you break the kind of ability of people to have stable, predictable lives, if that's what it takes to make a profit. You source from China and various other places without any kind of labor protections, thus gutting your own working class in your own country, if that's what it takes to make a profit. And then having done very well because of that, because you saved some money or made extra money because of those kinds of slash and burn tactics. Then with that money, in the time of reading glasses and grandchildren, you turn around and you become a philanthropist, you start a foundation, you give back.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:05:56] And what I'm trying to suggest is that this model of slashing and burning and then giving back generously is an insane model for a country like ours, because for many reasons.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:06:09] First of all, the people who who do the slashing and burning almost never are able to compensate for the amount of slashing and burning through their giving back. It is impossible for a Goldman Sachs Foundation to do the amount of giving that it would take to do to repair what the role they played in causing the financial crisis.
SHANNON HENRY KLEIBER:[00:06:28] The motivation is not just to change things, to make that person happier. Is it legacy? Is it..what is that motivation?
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:06:38] I think there are a lot of genuine elites out there who truly feel lucky and blessed and want to make a difference for others. And I think in their case, they're often naive about the following, which is they want to make a difference. They want to do anything they can to advance social justice except getting off the backs of people shut out by power.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:07:03] So they're willing to do anything except question their own undue privileges except question the school system that allows their school kids have better schools than other people schools, except by questioning the tax regime that allows them to pay a much lower tax rate than their secretary. And so that's a kind of naive motivation that you find a lot of that in Silicon Valley where there's this kind of earnest desire to change the world, BUT I don't want my world to change. I don't want the government regulating me. And that's what you see in Facebook and others.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:07:33] Then I think you have another corner of this, which is a totally cynical motivation. I wrote a piece in The New Yorker about a great e-mail that was unearthed from Goldman Sachs in 2007 in which it was realizing that The New York Times is about to break a story about its shady mortgage industry shenanigans, which would eventually help contribute to the financial crisis. And on that day, when word of that story was traveling around the bank, you know, an e-mail went out saying, "hey, we should really make sure we're pitching them on our GS Gives program." And there was a clear recognition if you parse that email that when you are being seen in the world is doing a bad thing, you should talk about your philanthropic giving, right. And that that's the opposite end, where it's just totally cynical. Giving as a lubricant in the engine of continued taking.
SHANNON HENRY KLEIBER:[00:08:21] When I covered this world in Washington, D.C., the people who were making the technology money then ran for public office. They were the philanthropists. They were buying the sports teams. They were running D.C.. I mean, it's still like that. If they're not changing the world, who will?
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:08:36] We. Us. People. Movements. The way we change the world in the past. The reality is we've forgotten the heritage of how we make change in this country. And we've always made the. Most important changes from below, through movements of the people, demanding justice, demanding the expansion of rights and what has happened in recent years is people like the people you mentioned. People who've made a lot of money in business have decided that they are experts on whatever they want to be experts on. I always joking. You never get in a car with a philanthropy capitalist because they do not know how to stay in their lane. This swerve all the way across the highway of life. If you've had a little bit of success in a niche telecom business or or some kind of car parts manufacturer, you immediately think, you know what?
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:09:28] I made 50 million dollars in car parts. I'm pretty qualified to rethink the public schools in Dayton. I think my opinions are of some significance. That's what happens to a lot of these rich guys. And I have to say it is often guys who overestimate their own ability to be experts on everything just because they made money in one thing. And they're able to then translate that kind of what may begin as an annoying cocktail party thing of a rich guy having thoughts on education suddenly morphs into a rich guy having power over how America educates public schoolchildren because that rich guy will get on the board of an organization or will start a charter school or in some cases run for office. I think among the spectrum of things you can do, running for office is actually a little bit better because at least you're submitting yourself to the will of the people. However, you're often spending a lot of your own money in essentially buying people's votes.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:10:23] I think what we need to think about in this country is how to reduce the voice of rich people. And if you are a rich person who wants to make America better, honestly, and you're listening to this, ask yourself, how can I reduce the volume of my voice? How can I be less heard? How can my opinions ranma fly less far? It's not a question we often ask ourselves in America, but it's very clear if you look at our winner take all economy and society that this society has heavily overweighted the voices of rich people and heavily underrated the voices of everybody else.
SHANNON HENRY KLEIBER:[00:10:59] So this is so interesting to think about that rich people listening to this world change the way they think or change the way they do things. I can imagine, not being one of them. And I can imagine they're thinking if they're listening to this...
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:11:12] Give it time, give it time. Public radio is pretty lucrative.
SHANNON HENRY KLEIBER:[00:11:15] Public radio is totally the way to go. I can imagine "they're thinking, well, what am I supposed to do with my money and my influence?" Right?
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:11:22] Thank you for asking. Look, the simple, kind of pithy advice I give to folks who want to give better is to shift from giving back to giving up. Giving back is standing on top of an indefensible mountain and throwing a couple of gold coins down. By the way, when Jeff Bezos announced his philanthropic kind of initiative recently, the founder of Amazon, I wrote a piece suggesting what shifting from giving back to giving up would look like for him.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:11:51] Giving back is what he's doing right now. It's, you know, creating some Montessori schools, helping the homeless. Totally noble, fine, it'll help some people. But I said I'd be much more ambitious for him to give up. What if he were to actually invest a billion dollars or two billion dollars in the future of worker power in this country, in the future of organizations trying to build stronger unions and figure out the future of collective bargaining? That would be a kind of giving that would put his own privilege at risk. That might take the stock down of Amazon. That might reduce his net worth. But he was only able to build Amazon because he got lucky and built it in a moment — which he didn't cause, but he inherited — a moment of particularly low worker power in this country. And he knows that. Jeff Bezos should give in ways to ensure that there's never another Jeff Bezos.
SHANNON HENRY KLEIBER:[00:12:39] This makes me think that the biggest challenge in what you're talking about might be ego.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:12:45] Not for the first time in history. Is that the biggest challenge in a conversation? Absolutely. And I think it's as simple as seeing the fact that giving in this country so often comes of putting your name on something.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:13:00] I will say very simply here on this show — and NPR has a complicated relationship to this very topic — that I don't think giving should come with your name on it. I think you're truly generous, you should make sure your name is not on it. If you're putting your name on a gift, on a building, on whatever, you're purchasing something; you're not giving. You're just giving over here and you're buying your name on something. When your friends see your name on that wall, they might think the better of you. You're purchasing something.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:13:29] And by the way, we are all subsidizing that through tax breaks that allow you to buy esteem in your community. So I think when folks give, it should be anonymous — there's actually something in the Jewish tradition that requires that of a certain kind of giving — I think that should be actually the default for everybody.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:13:45] You have to ask yourself: if you're giving and you want to be associated with it, why? What are your motivations? Are you simply trying to do what you need to do for that organization or for the community? Or are you in it for yourself?
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS:[00:13:57] By the way, if you do get a naming right, why do so many people put their own name? Why can't they, you know, name it "The Rosa Parks Library" or the "Rosa Parks Auditorium"? It's extraordinary how many people didn't occur to them to put someone else's name, a name of someone who would be a hero and would inspire people on the wrong side of power to to challenge systems and structures instead of putting their own tired name, that doesn't need any more exposure on yet another building.
ANNE STRAINCHAMPS:[00:14:39] Anand Giridharadas at us is the author of "Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Shannon Henry Kleiber talked with him.