Doing well by doing good

Michael Podlasek Kent

June 19, 2019

Veils. They mask, they obscure, they filter what we see, or what we think we see. They cast things – faces, worldviews – in new light, sometimes rose-hued, other times grey and foreboding.

In the run-up to 2016’s presidential election, and in the years after, each political scandal, each news-stopping revelation, each strongly worded think piece and hot take seemed to lift a veil while dropping another. The world I thought I knew did not exist. Perhaps it never did, or perhaps it once did and somehow fundamentally changed. Or perhaps everything is almost the same as ever, only obscured in new and confusing ways that we are still learning to decode.

As a news consumer, a civic-minded thinker, and most of all a reader, I have struggled to discern which information sources, which viewpoints, offered the more transparent perspectives on current affairs. Increasingly, I seek out books that I hope explore the complexity of our times with greater nuance and insight than the Tweet-storm du jour does.

In walks Winners Take All. Anand Giridharadas’s 2018 book profiles "thought-leaders," "change agents," and "innovators" who are bent on disrupting political systems and entire industries, with the requisite snark those titles conjure in like-minded readers. A wide-eyed college graduate wades into high-profile consulting as a launchpad to a public service career; a philanthropy executive rattles his peers by asserting that no amount of charitable giving can atone for the sins of wealth accumulation; ex-President Bill Clinton, through the Clinton Global Initiative, emerges as something of a messiah among those who believe that when corporations win, we all can win.

The public sector is vast, encompassing electoral politics, governmental operations, direct social service, philanthropy, advocacy, and more. I've worked in the public sector my entire career, and it is near impossible to grasp the breadth of actors and domains involved in, hopefully, making the world better.

Winners Take All introduces the reader to an emergent player in this sprawling field: the private sector. Private consulting firms, such as McKinsey and Bain, carve niches in the public sector by applying the same profit-driven approaches to management that prevail in the private sector. This, says Giridharadas, is MarketWorld, “an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo.” McKinsey and Bain are both players in MarketWorld, as are the mega-philanthropies, from Carnegie and Rockefeller to the Ford and Gates Foundations. Their fortunes, their very capacity to give, Giridharadas writes, are predicated by take-no-prisoners business practices – from concentrating wealth and thus power in the hands of a few to stripping the earth of precious natural resources – that instigate many of the societal problems they aim to remediate.

The notion that public problems might be resolved by private solutions has taken off like a wildfire, like a new religion, says Giridharadas:

The idea of doing well for yourself by doing good for others is a gospel, one that is celebrated and reevangelized at an unending chain of tent revivals around the world. The citizens of MarketWorld can reinforce the mission at conference after conference: Davos, TED, Sun Valley, Aspen, Bilderberg, Dialog, South by Southwest, Burning Man, TechCrunch Disrupt, the Consumer Electronics Show, and now, at Summit at Sea, on a cruise ship full of entrepreneurs wishing to change the world.

Winners Take All is not only a work of in-depth reportage, not just a series of profiles of MarketWorld’s foremost personalities. It is also something of a memoir, a way for the author to play out his own grappling with the market-driven approach to doing good through others’ reflections. Giridharadas, it is revealed in the acknowledgements, is no stranger to the culture of game-changers and thought-leaders and market-driven innovators:

I chose not to write about these things in a personal way because I didn’t want the book to be about me. But let me say here, while I am doing some acknowledging, that I once worked as an analyst at McKinsey, that I have given not one but two TED talks, that I earn a chunk of my money giving speeches, that I was attending conferences claiming to ‘change the world’ long before I came to see them as a charade. I have tried to navigate my life honestly and ethically, but I cannot separate myself from what I criticize. This is a critique of a system of which I am absolutely, undeniably a part.

To what extent is the writer obliged to disclose to their readers their proximity to their subject? And, how late in a book is too late to bring it up? I wonder how I might have received Giridharadas’s writing differently if he had addressed his connections to MarketWorld earlier on.

As robust as Winners Take All may be, it seems only the tip of the iceberg. By book’s end, it was clear that Winners Take All offered just a glimpse into the influence of market-driven approaches to solving societal problems. Giridharadas claims to be something of a reformed MarketWorld participant, a born-again public servant perhaps. But I wonder which topics he excluded from the book, intentionally or not, courtesy of his own proximity to the subject.

For example, Giridharadas’s near exclusion of actual public servants: community organizers, advocates and activists, civil servants. Their omission reinforces the power asserted in the public sector by disciples of MarketWorld while making “traditional” public servants seems passive and feckless. Those profiles might have raised questions that probe deeper into MarketWorld’s impact, questions Giridharadas might explore in a subsequent volume.

How do the funding requirements from big-money philanthropists affect the sorts of projects that cash-strapped nonprofit organizations and governments can pursue? Does the reluctance of MarketWorld elites to change their wealth creation practices run directly against the societal problems they are supposedly working to ameliorate? Which issues do these philanthropists and consultancies ignore altogether for fear of putting a dent in their own bottom line?

Which brings me back to veils. Giridharadas challenged himself to avoid writing a book to about himself, while reporting on “a system of which (he is) absolutely, undeniably a part.” But the insight he gains from being part of that system is why he was just the person to have written this book — though not as the objective piece of reporting I had expected it to be.

I believe Giridharadas's background informs his writing, as it might for any writer. These profiles of MarketWorld and its myriad players are told through the hued perspective of someone who knows his subject intimately well. I only wish he had made this clear on page one.

Books in this review:
  • Winners Take All
    by Anand Giridharadas
    August 28, 2018
    304 pages
    Purchased by reviewer
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Michael Podlasek Kent is a writer and city planner. His writing has appeared in Crosscut, Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, and Northwest Runner magazine. He founded the Melrose Promenade, a street redesign project in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. He has lived in New York City, Seattle from 2009 to 2019, and now Chicago.

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