With some guests I have a hard time finding a court to start the episode with. With Anand I had the opposite problem. At least half of what he said wild me and could have been the opening statement. I saw him speak and the title of his book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World I didn’t think that someone there could really challenge a community that he was in. But he did. In this episode you’ll hear Anand in the first few minutes describe the starting point of the book. I would guess that almost everyone listened to a podcast called Leadership and the Environment wants to make the world a better place. Complex systems as opposed to linear ones are simple ones can make actions you think would do one thing do another. His book shows how our society is leading people who believe they are helping trying to decrease the inequities toward classes of people who through no fault or lack of their own lose out on society actually hurt them increasing that inequity. I highly recommend his book, especially if you’re interested in helping others want to make sure that your efforts create the results that you want because intent alone is no guarantee that you will get the effects you want and are concerned that you might be caught by the same systemic effects that these others are. It’s more subtle than we can capture in this conversation but we talk about the effects since the book came out and he applies the perspective in many other places. This is all new stuff from the book. We didn’t have time to cover point important to me how similar patterns happen in the environment that among the people in the organizations most active and likely sincere in their attempts in say recycling, a circular economy and carbon offsets may not be changing the path that we’re on to total waste but actually accelerating a motion on that path that is creating more total waste even as we become more efficient. Listen and see if you can identify the pattern and its results. Read the book to check out the results of your efforts, not what you hope results but actual results are the results that you’re looking for.
Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I’m here with Anand Giridharadas. Anand, how are you?
Anand: It’s great to be with you. It’s Anand, by the way.
Joshua: Anand. Sorry. You know I practiced getting the last name because it seemed like the harder one. And then I got the one I thought I’d got wrong. Anyway. You know I want to start with your book and then I want to switch to talking about the environment. I don’t know if you realize how much what you wrote about applies almost perfectly to the environment as well but I think for people haven’t heard about the book or haven’t read the book I’d like to start there. Actually, I’d like to start… You know I first came across you. I guess I’d heard about the book and the speech that led to it beforehand. But I saw you at Summit and I remember seeing the title of your talk. I was like this is really going to be real like someone in the middle of this talking about this. And then I saw you speak and I was like this guy is really genuine and then a little while later I had Lorna Davis on this podcast and she started talking about your book. And so I started reading it and then right after reading it I was speaking with someone who’s the head of a foundation. And she said, “Oh, my god, that book is about me. It’s about everyone in my world and it’s really important that people read it.” And then right after that I’m talking to a Stern student at NYU where I teach and she was saying how much she loved the work that she was doing. She was organizing a social ventures conference. And then she said, “But I really have to go and work at McKinsey for a while.” If something like that in order to I don’t know what she felt she had to do. And I was like, “I think you might want to read this book.” And I think people listening to this podcast probably fall within the audience that this book is really relevant too although it’s relevant to a lot of audiences but that’s what brought me to you. And I wonder, if you haven’t summarized it to too many people in too many podcasts, I wonder if you could say a little bit about it where it came from.
Anand: Yeah, well thank you for having me. And you know I think the book grew out of an observation of a paradox and you know often a lot of writing at least for me begins as a kind of irritation or repressed worry about something you’re seeing in the world and then slowly it comes to the surface and you decide to take it on and learn more and talk to people and process it and turn it into a piece of writing. But at first the observation of the paradox was that we live in this time in which people with good fortune, people who have been on side of the winning end of this age of tremendous churn, of upheaval of globalization and trade and technology, the winners of our age are incredibly devoted to making the world a better place. Right now Davos is underway in the Swiss Alps and you know you have all these people sitting there talking about how they’re making the world a better place you know through the banks that they run and through the social enterprises they advise and through the Give One Get One you know products they make. And that’s just the kind of metaphor for the age in general more money being given away now than ever. You can’t go to the mall without seeing products that are going to change the world if you buy those socks or that iPhone case. Every young person as your story suggested seems to want to change the world. It’s actually rare to meet someone in their early 20s who says you know, “I want to go to finance because I want to make as much money as possible.” Even the people who go to finance these days at least feel a need to claim a kind of philanthropic rationale the same way Saddam Hussein used to you know at least make the effort to you know simulate election results because in an age in which democracy had become such a universal aspiration even autocrats felt they needed to seem like Democrats.
And I think that sort of happened to elite do-gooding where even people who work in the most predatory industries feel a need to seem like do-gooders and all of that is half of the paradox. The other half of the paradox is despite everything I just said despite all that elite do-gooding, despite all the efforts that those people make, despite Davos, despite the conversations and the panels about ending inequality you know where one banker sits next to one wealthy philanthropist who sits next to one in a safe thought leader despite all of that this has been a period of yawning, disgusting inequality in the United States and in many other countries, a period that has basically screwed working people, a period in which the 1 percent have doubled their share of the nation’s income, a period in which 82 percent of all new wealth created in 2017 went to the global top 1 percent, a period in which the bottom half of humanity got 11 percent poorer last year and twenty-two hundred billionaires got twelve percent richer. The paradox is that the very people who claim to be helping and changing the world and giving back and making the world a better place and went to Davos to talk about improving the world are the same people building, operating and maintaining an unfair system that advantages only the winners and locks many, many people in the advanced countries out of opportunity and progress.
Joshua: And they don’t actually believe that they’re trying to do what’s actually happening. They really do believe… The irony it seems to me is that the people who are causing this chasm to grow they actually do believe when they say win-win that it really is win-win. They don’t think that they’re exacerbating the problem but they are. Is that right?
Anand: I think that’s exactly right. I mean you know look, there are many, many people who are very clear about the fact that they’re operating through greed or power lust and who understand that a little bit of giving or social this or social that is kind of lubricant in an engine of continued oppression. But that said there are many, many more people in my reporting who I think are genuinely desirous of making the world a better place but who are limited by the kind of lattice of false assumptions that have been spread by this kind of complex of people and institutions that I call market world. And so you really have this set of phony ideas in my view about doing well by doing good and about win-win social change that has convinced somehow gotten a lot of decent people to uphold an indecent system.
Joshua: There’s a big personal journey on your part because you’re in this world and also you saw something that I think everybody feels or somewhat people sense is there but they either weren’t willing to go there because it probably made them feel uncomfortable or guilty or something like that. And it must have been very personally challenging to pursue it. But I sense that you started pulling the thread and you couldn’t help it unravel the whole sweaters because there’s a very personal element to it even though you don’t say it. You’re quoting people that you know and directly and it must be…
Anand: I think what I’m going after is the shared bullshit of my time. You know every age has its own widely shared bullshit and it’s often sincerely held. That’s what makes it so powerful. And so if you think about for you or any of your listeners who used to watch Downton Abbey or any of those kind of feudal English period shows if you think about a show like Downton Abbey or that kind of upstairs downstairs world we all looking at that now where we’re in another country, it’s another time, we all look at that and think, “Wow, that is an absurd distribution of power.” I mean how come those people get to live in the castle and the farmers don’t even really own their land and no one really has no power except the Grantham’s and you know that’s crazy. Why are all those people just living in the basement not challenging things? Well, the reason they didn’t, the reason that system worked is that a lot of people believe the story in that time about the natural order of things that the upstairs people belonged upstairs, the downstairs people belonged downstairs. This was the way nature worked that things were deserved and that generosity by the Grantham family and the living in the castle was a kind of substitute for justice. And I guess what I became curious about is what is that for us. One hundred years from now I think people will very much be watching a period show probably implanted in their heads directly and…
Joshua: With the technology today.
Anand: Netflix cyborg ship behind their ear. But people will be watching a show about you know activists and billionaires partying in Davos and one hundred years from now I think it will be very obvious to people that while a lot of people met while they were part of a system of lies, lies to themselves and to others that allowed us to be as dangerous and inequal a world as we are. And the nature of those lies I think at the heart of it is what I’ve tried to unravel and really investigate for myself, for my own understanding is the idea that it is possible for the richest and most powerful people to make change to be in the vanguard of fighting for change while refusing to let anyone touch their own wealth and power or in a way architects of this cruel system are the ablest protectors of the rest of us and the most suitable reformers. I think that is the lie of our time and what I wanted to do was make it as obvious to people as I think the lie of a Downton Abbey upstairs downstairs British feudal world is obvious to us now. And my hope is that when people see through that big lie suddenly that world starts to unravel and people stop believing the story and I actually think we’re already seeing that happen in many ways as we speak.
Joshua: I’m really curious to hear how… No doubt you’ve heard back from people… Well, I’ve heard that you’ve heard back from a lot of people that you’ve now become a confidant for people saying, “It’s worse than you thought.” And there’s all these inside of things. Is it also leading to change? Do you hear people saying, “Thank you for waking me up and now I’m doing something different or I’m changing institutions…”?
Anand: I don’t know. I mean I’m in touch with a lot of people, a lot of people reach out to me. Some of them you know I have to imagine it’s a way of signaling that they will work without changing anything. I try to understand this world for a long time and I know the moves. On the other hand, there are people who I’m in touch with or I just hear about from others who I think are really using the book to interrogate themselves, to make different choices. I can’t tell you how many messages I’ve gotten from young people sort of like the person you described who say that they were ensnared by some story that they have to go to McKinsey or JP Morgan in order to you know help humanity because they read the book either leave those places or deciding to leave those places or deciding to not go there in the first place. Look, I have been so immensely gratified by the number of people who tell me that they’re making real decisions in their lives that are different because of it. And I can only hope that it’s not just individual actions but changing the conversation we have.
You know yesterday this really fascinating and thoughtful new congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez was in a conversation with [unintelligible] at the Riverside Church in New York and she made the point that political leaders are thought of as leaders but they’re often followers of the public will which is not to say they just go and pull numbers but that it is often activists and she really comes from an activist and organizing background but she also mentioned artists and writers and people like that who helped shape what the public will is. And leaders can only respond to that. And so a lot of what I’ve tried to do and I think I’m one small piece of a very big puzzle of writers and artists and thinkers and others right now who are trying to change the conversation we have about inequality, trying to change the conversation we have about why America is in this situation and they’re trying to raise questions like “Should we even have billionaires? Is it a good thing to have billionaires or is that a failure of our society? Should we move on from thinking of just merely a minimum wage to actually think of a maximum wage?” These are kind of outlaw ideas in American life that are coming in doors and are coming in from the cold and getting a hearing that was I think not thinkable before. And I think all of that is really, really to the good.
Joshua: It does at first sounds wow, crazy talk but then I immediately started thinking about once there were no antitrust laws and once there were no bankruptcy laws and these are really important checks on capitalism that if you don’t have bankruptcy, you have slavery. It’s like inevitable almost. And just because people you know that you’re predatory lending and then someone’s in debt to you and then if you can make it so that the debt never goes away, that person works for you forever and you’re in control. And I’m sure people at the time thought that was crazy that you could forgive debt. But it makes for, in my opinion, a much better society. And to say maximum I mean there’s already a lot of talk about should be the maximum ratios between what a CEO makes compared to what the lowest paid employee makes. And I hadn’t thought about what you just said but it does at first sound crazy but it really doesn’t take long for not to sound crazy. I’m not sure how the legislation would happen but I don’t know how lots of other legislation would have happened if passed at some point too.
Anand: I mean you’re absolutely right. Look when children used to work in factories when that was outlawed I can assure you some factory owners thought that was crazy. Old people you suggest languish and die on the street because there was no social insurance. And when we tried to pass Social Security a lot of people thought that was crazy. You know when we tried to electrify rural America a lot of people probably thought that was too expensive or crazy. You know when we tried to pass the Glass-Steagall Act to make sure that the Great Depression or something like it never happened again you know that was fought ferociously by the banks who thought they were you know being manhandled by President Roosevelt. And the reality is most of the changes that have been worth doing in our history and frankly world history have advanced over the objection of those with the most to lose from the status quo, from the status quo changing. The people who are doing great in any current system are the people just mathematically least likely to want to change that system. That is obvious. The question is what are the lengths they go to to convince the rest of us to not change the system. And what I wanted to do was deconstruct some of the myths that the people in the citadel have kind of broadcast far beyond the citadel so that all of us end up participating in this culture that keeps a few in charge and shuts most Americans out of the thing we still anachronistically call the American dream.
Joshua: And it’s very easy to think of what we would lose. You think, “Oh, if we don’t have X, then we won’t have…” People think if people can’t make as much money as they want, then they won’t have, I don’t know, motivation to create their companies or something like that. But certainly I mean in the environmental area people often think of “Well, if I don’t have my, I don’t know, disposable water bottle…” and they don’t think of what is on the positive… They think of what they give up. And that’s easy to think of, “What am I going to lose?” But they don’t think of what’s on the other side of what you get.
Anand: Right. And also let’s just like you know I am sick and tired of these entrepreneurs and business types saying you know, “If you tax my 10 million dollar or my 100 million dollar at 50 percent or 70 percent, you know it’s really going to just reduce my motivation to work.” First of all, who cares? Second of all, you know like we don’t need your amazing work. Like it’s cool. You know if you want to only work up to the part where you make 10 million, then you want to hang out in the beach. Fine. Right. We don’t actually need that other thing you’re going to do it like you just had a latte app. Like what are these people doing? What have they done that’s been so amazing for humanity? We can’t afford to discourage them from working. We might be better off if they don’t invent some app that’s going to compromise our democracy or whatever it is that they do. So first of all, I’m not so worried about it. Second of all, it’s not true. You know as Alexis Ohanian, the founder of reddit, said you know, “If you’d gone and totally wrote on Twitter if you’d gone and told them many years ago that you know if you made 10 million dollars a year or more, he’d be taxed at 70 percent on that 10 million dollar sign up, he would have said, “OK. I’ll still start reddit.” Like these people claim that they’re in it for the passion, they’re in it for the love. Mark Zuckerberg just wants to make the world a better place. The money is incidental. Great. Then you can’t have it both ways and claim that you know “But if you tax me too much…” And they get lazy.
Joshua: Yeah. The lie seems pretty clear. Well, you just laid it out. I mean we’re motivated by passion, we’re motivated by making the world a better place. This is win-win. Oh, but if you take my money away, then I won’t do it. Meanwhile, I want to add a third thing that if he didn’t have all that money, if the money were more evenly distributed, there’d be many, many, many other people who would start their things that can’t now because they don’t have the resources. The resources are out there but the more we have this widening disparity, then resources become less and less available to more and more people. And that’s a world in which it’s more community based and more people are helping each other and less of the upstairs downstairs situation that you described or that we see in the movies from before. And from my perspective have you thought about what you talk about in the same systems perspective applied to the environment by any chance? Because there’s an incredible parallel that when I was reading it…
Anand: I’ll give you an example that I think captures this so well. I mean, first of all, I see now advertisements all the time for Coca-Cola being the Clean Water company or you know these oil companies advertising on podcasts where they’re reaching hippie young millennials talking about how they’re you know part of the renewable future you know which is literally like arsonists you know advertising at a fire firefighting convention that they want to be part of the solution. And my favorite example of this as it relates to the environment is you know the great Larry Fink. Larry Fink you know runs BlackRock, biggest asset manager in the world, and with very few brush strokes of do-gooding, kind of performative do-gooding he became the face of purposeful capitalism. Last summer sometime, last year he put out this statement you know, “All businesses in the future need to have a social purpose.” and this really sent shockwaves to the business world because people were saying, “Is BlackRock saying it wouldn’t invest in businesses that don’t have a social purpose?” I mean that would have a real effect on the markets. So it was treated as a really big statement and then you have you know him leaning for a glam shot in Barron’s “Is Larry Fink the new conscience of Wall Street?”, all this stuff. Well, that’s great.
You know then in September a tipster sent me this thing, “You heard Larry Fink is giving a lecture at the UN on sustainable development as part of this larger conversation about climate change?” Like what? And I immediately thought like why is Larry Fink an asset manager giving a lecture to the U.N. on climate change sustainable development? Makes no sense. So being a journalist I decided to do what I do which is look up what Larry Fink has been doing instead of what he’s been saying. And I go to the SCC web site and you can look up what are the actual transactions. And then I pulled up spreadsheets to find out what BlackRock had been buying in this four-five six-month period where he’d been talking about how all capitalism should have a purpose and talking about sustainability at the UN and it turns out he was buying four million shares of Exxon Mobil in this period, just in this period of his rebranding and BlackRock rebranding and purposeful capitalism and sustainable development. He was buying four million shares of Exxon Mobil. That is how incorrigible these people are. They can’t even take a six month break that would just be good for their brand. They literally have to do it while they are trying to do a brand makeover around purpose and sustainable development. Four million shares of Exxon to pile onto an already huge set of holdings in fossil fuel companies. And so that’s how it works. Not only.
So think about that. You have a guy that’s part of the problem caused by Exxon Mobil instead of shoring it and getting out of it, shoring it out and didn’t end there. And then actually he becomes an authority on purposeful capitalism. Journalists amplify that message, let him be seen in a new light and the UN invites him to lecture and it’s a climate explain to the UN about climate change. That’s the loop that the foxes are literally put in charge of the hens. And so that’s one example. But I think you could find in that a story that is probably very common to environmental issues in general which is the conversations we should be having about how to get to the world we needed to essentially save the world we have are frankly conversations that should be about dethroning the absolutely dangerous predatory power of fossil fuel companies and others. And in fact, we so often end up you know being on the receiving end of their marketing campaigns that they are leading the search for a solution which is sort of like when I lead the search for a solution to the problem that I eat French fries too much.
Joshua: It really feels like you get so filled with outrage. And I guess you’ve channeled the outrage into determination. Did you write up? First of all, people always talk about how journalism is fading away that we don’t have the long form journalism as much as we used to and this seems like exactly what we need to keep having to do… Is that something you reported?
Anand: I mean I reported that on Twitter because you know I’ve been traveling like crazy for the book so I haven’t had time to do the kind of pieces that I would normally do. So I reported that out and I just put it out on Twitter and let other people run with it.
Joshua: Well, I appreciate that you brought it out there and looked it up. I guess anyone could have done it but I’m glad you did and that does seem everywhere.
Anand: It’s amazing, it is like all the coverage like no one had done that search. It’s so easy, it’s so easy that people covering his purpose statements no one had been like, “What’s he buying?” It’s so obvious. I mean I did it again today. It’s so obvious. Today there was a panel at Davos about journalism some quote like Jamal Khashoggi remembering him and it’s really brilliant editor from The Washington Post Marty Baron talking about his murdered colleague. And that was great. But I thought you know that’s interesting that the World Economic Forum is giving a platform to honor Jamal Khashoggi. That’s great. But me being me I immediately think, “Huh. Are they just paying Khashoggi lip service? Are they actually honoring him by not allowing like the murderous Saudi regime to use the World Economic Forum platform to launder its reputation and clean its oily blood money?” And so I just go online and I look up strategic partners of this Davos conference and there’s only a hundred, a lot of companies in the world. A lot of them would like to be strategic partners of wealth. I’m pretty sure but only one hundred get and it says on the web site you know you have to be a really big serious company and you also have to have alignment with the forum’s values. In other words, you say retweets aren’t endorsements. When Davos picks a strategic corporate partner it is an endorsement. It is saying “There is an alignment with our values.” And two, two out of the 100 companies are basically state-owned companies from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia including Saudi Aramco, the biggest oil company. So we’re sitting here having a conversation about honoring Jamal Khashoggi and we’re sitting I’m sure having conversations about climate change and the foxes are watching the hens. The Saudi state is literally sponsoring the simulated honoring of Jamal Khashoggi.
Joshua: And I feel like as outrageous as these things are, I feel like almost anywhere you scratch the surface it’s there like these aren’t rare occurrences. You didn’t go out of your way to find these things. You’re just kind of curious about this thing. I feel like what for a lot of people is great marketing, win-win, do well by doing good or do good by doing well that those become signals for you of like this is a place to look to see what’s going on here because almost certainly this is something being said to make the person doing it feel good, to make the people buying it feel good but actually sustaining the system that’s exacerbating these disparities.
Anand: Yeah. You know a friend of mine has a saying “The bigger the front, the bigger the back.” And I think you know the more you have these kind of big fancy claims about doing good, the more you have to dig in and figure out what’s really going. It’s become a… I think a lot of journalists are learning this and I get more and more phone calls from journalists every week you know processing this but I think more and more of them realize that when you see Jeff Bezos saying he’s going to give away two billion dollars that’s the time to start asking questions about how he made the money, what his labor practices are, what his involvement in causing homelessness may be, what his taxation stuff is etc.. You know five or ten years ago when Gates and Zuckerberg and these others were starting to get into philanthropy it was often just an occasion for gratitude. And I think part of what is changing and again, my book is a very small piece of a shifting conversation. Many books like you know Decolonizing Wealth and just giving on the philanthropy stuff and then many others really starting to raise questions about you know when you see these kinds of initiatives your first thought should be, “What am I not seeing? What’s being hidden? What’s being obscured?” Not because you want to be you know a skunk but just because that’s how we actually hold the powerful to account. One of the things that powerful have figured out is the do-gooding is a space where they are least questioned. And so therefore their gestures of do-gooding are places where a lot of things are lurking.
Joshua: I remember as a longtime Linux user I’ve never been a fan of Microsoft or Apple. And I remember when Microsoft I believe was convicted of monopolistic practices and so forth and that means overcharging things and in a little while later Gates starts giving money away. Parents like, “Oh, he’s such a great philanthropist.” I’m like “Where’d the money come from?” That came from schools and from businesses that could have started that didn’t and all these things. And everyone forgot so quickly.
And then a few years ago a friend of mine is a principal of a project-based learning school, a progressive educator doing amazing work. And he says when did Gates become an authority on education? What’s the connection between him being rich having dropped out of school and having knowledge about education? That connection doesn’t make any sense but no one really asks it. And your book really, really highlights it and also makes… I mean I come from an Ivy League background. I have an MBA. I didn’t go into banking and consulting and things like that. But it’s hard not to… You look at the world and see other people but it’s ourselves as well. Like this we’ve bought into, a lot of us have bought into a lot of these stories as well. I guess one can read it without challenging oneself. But it’s hard not to.
Anand: Well, that’s the whole point of reading.
Joshua: Yeah. To expand your horizons.
Joshua: I want to know more about this parallel with environment because everyone’s talking circular economy and everyone is pushing recycling and so forth. But the CO2 levels keep rising and we keep having to relax you know the IPCC it’s like it’s actually… Well we know it’s going faster but also in some ways we’re meeting some targets but in many ways were not. And one thing about science is that it’s much more measurable. People can dispute measurements but you know the circular economy for you the way… I think that when you hear someone say win-win it means “Check what’s going on behind there.” Almost always circular economy or promoting recycling is from a company that makes single-use stuff. It’s almost always from a place… Because it promotes consumption and it promotes more and growth and the more that you talk recycling, the more that people forget that reduce comes before reuse and reuse comes before recycling. And so these big producers love to talk circular economy because if everyone out there is thinking it’s a circle then they don’t notice that they’re trying to make it a bigger and bigger circle. But you can never close a circle completely.
Anan: I never thought about the three R’s. You know I think what strikes me there is just what’s happening in that world of recycling and the environment feels like it’s part of a larger pattern of our time. That’s one of the patterns I try to lay out in the book. The personalization of political problems and turning issues of the abuse of power by people in charge and people with tremendous amounts of resources and connections and capacity turning their abuses into kind of willpower issues for regular people. Let me give a couple of examples.
You know if you think about food the way we eat, first of all, before we throw the packages away we now know that there has been a war waged by packaged food processed food companies to change the way Americans eat. And there was a lot of deception around the dangers of fat and the fact that you know essentially sugars were better and starches were better which just turns out not to be true at all. And a bunch of companies profited handsomely from you know fattening us as a country and from more and more people getting diabetes and heart conditions and various other things. We became a much less healthy society over decades as we kind of gave in to what that book Salt, Sugar, Fat pushed and they did really well, they did well by frankly doing harm. And if you notice what has also arisen in that period there hasn’t been much criticism of those companies. There’s been a book here in their article here and there. But when I mean average people, I don’t mean average people who are angry about those companies. I don’t mean average people who are aware of the lobbying that they did and that you know the way they rate things. I mean average people every day who are panicked about dieting and not spending more of their money buying dieting books and going to Weight Watchers and going to various other programs to lose weight.
So now look what has happened. You have a powerful people who have used their connections to make people’s lives worse and instead of being thought of as a system problem that needs to be fought through political power at the level of the system, instead of fighting it through nutrition labels and calorie limits or various other things you could think about, it’s transferred onto the backs of average people. And say you know New Year’s resolution you should try to lose weight this and that. Well, that is the same thing that you’re describing where we know that a big part of climate change is really well-connected fossil fuel companies. You know according to David Wallace Wells there’s a great new book about climate. You know he says we subsidize fossil fuel companies to the tune of five trillion dollars a year. That’s a big political choice that the world makes. And instead of talking about that, instead of talking about why Saudi Aramco is even you know allowed to be a strategic partner at Davos, instead of talking about you know how we should have lawsuits against Exxon Mobil and others and frankly people should go to jail for their deception of the world on the climate change issue, we turn it no willpower issue. Hey, Joshua, did you throw away that plastic case your four apples came in? I’m not saying that important. But like there are monsters here who have engineered the world where and who are fighting every damn day to make your government not act against them even though you want your government and 51 plus percent of people want your government to do something. We’re getting in the way of that. And the conversation is about you throwing away your plastic apple case and you dieting more instead of dealing with these problems in the in the centers of power where they originate.
Joshua: So what you said about personalizing the challenge, the problems certainly feels to me like it feels like offloading responsibility and they’ve done it in a way that people do feel like, “Yes, it’s my problem.” And then they start working on themselves which may be nice but it doesn’t change the system. But then another part of your book talks about B Corps. And when I talked to Lorna, she was instrumental in Danone USA switching over to become a B Corp, the largest B Corp and it seemed like it’s possible that there’s a chance for some meaningful systemic change that they may have found a leverage point there whether they intended to or not. And I wonder if you’ve looked at the B Corp structure and what’s happening there. Is it a meaningful change that you see there?
Anand: So I think the thing about B Corps is it’s a great experiment and I think what they’re trying to do is very noble. They’re trying to test and role model whether a different kind of capitalism is possible. And I think they’re trying to, I think, demonstrate to people that there’s not one way to be capitalism, the greedy kind of worker stiffing tax dodging capital is not the only kind of capitalists. I think that’s great. The demonstration is important.
The concern and critique and kind of admiring critique that I make about B Corps in the book and the question that I raise is whether in a moment that is defined by not just you know a few problems here and there but really plutocratic power concentration that really unsustainable and dangerous level of concentration of wealth and power whether those folks making it a little bit easier to do good and certify yourself as doing good are really moving the needle or whether it’s more urgent and important in this moment to go after those who are actively working to rig the system, fight for tax and labor and other policies that screw most people, et cetera, to shift it to a different situation because again it’s sometimes easier to look at historical circumstances.
I think if you were to go back to the period of segregation in the Jim Crow South and look at that social problem and you were to say “OK, let’s attack this problem by you know we’ll create our own chain of restaurants where black people are totally welcome.” Well, that’s a nice thing to do. But there seems, I think retrospectively, I think there seems to be something quite weird to people about one’s approach to the problem of segregation being to you know create some nice restaurants to have black people be able to eat in. The real problem there was the law and there should not be any one restaurant in the South where black people are not allowed to eat and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere and all that. So why is it that we now look back and say that kind of approach of creating pockets of excellence maybe creating a town with three restaurants that can demonstrate that nothing goes wrong when white and black people eat in the same restaurant? Yeah, sure noble but it seems something off about it I think to most people listening today to that scenario and I think what I’m trying to suggest is I see the same problem. When you have Exxon and Goldman Sachs and Wal-Mart pushing for a world that pushes the planet over the edge that deprives most Americans of the American Dream that allows them to evade justice for creating financial crises, et cetera. I just don’t know how much we’re getting to the heart of things by making it slightly easier to do good.
Joshua: It’s an interesting question because when I think of segregation one of the major things that made a difference with a long way to go was nonviolent civil disobedience. And it’s not obvious to say well, there’s a segregation, maybe some people should go to jail by resisting… That’s not an obvious thing to happen I guess. There was indeed to look at before that and through before that and looking at the situation you describe today it’s not obvious what solution… From a leadership perspective is what can we do to get out of it. What can we do to change it? I mean some people would say, “We should have a revolution.” That’s not such an easy thing to do and it doesn’t always take you in the direction you want. I think from your perspective you’re a writer and a journalist, correct me if I’m wrong but I think you’re exposing these things and making it very clear that you can’t ignore this anymore. And if you’re in it, like you can’t read your book and not see what’s going on. And if people don’t see it it’s very difficult to act on it. From a leadership prospect, I guess I’m asking, do you see signs of what to do or what people are doing or next steps?
Anand: I think that you know people in the business world in particular often love to ask the question “What can I do? What can I start? What can I create? What actual can I take? What can the CEO do on Monday morning? It’s like slow down, slow down. You’d have to sit with a problem to process it, to understand how to go on the right side of it. What I often say to people particularly in the business world is you know you all love to ask the question “What can I do for my country?” The Kennedy question. I’d tell you to ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what you’ve done to your country. Ask about the ways, become curious about the ways you’re already involved in this problem. Does your company avoid and evade taxes? You lobby for tax policies that keep them unduly low. Do you fight for carried interest, the carried interest loophole? Does your company pay people enough? Do you employ your janitors as contract workers or do you put them on staff make sure they have health benefits? Do you donate to like one really fancy charter school near you or do you actually fight for an education system that gives an opportunity, equal opportunity or whether you’re born in the South Side of Chicago or Greenwich, Connecticut? What is your involvement in these problems? It may be great that you’re trying to help resolve homelessness but are your employment practices making some of your own employees homeless? It may be great that you are Mark Zuckerberg wanting to build a universal community of mankind. But didn’t you compromise democracy? Mark Zuckerberg is such a great example of this we actually don’t need his philanthropy. I’ve never needed anything less than Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy and I think most people in this country would rather have our democracy pried out of his greedy hands than have whatever marginal philanthropy he’s going to do in education or public health. The most important thing Mark Zuckerberg could do for America would be to step away from America.
Joshua: Yeah. So it’s a reflection, pausing, looking at all the consequences of one’s actions, not just the ones that you want, being more thoughtful. If I read you right, the mindset that got us into this, this is an old idea, the mindset that got us into it is not the mindset that will get us out of it. The actions that got us into it are not the actions that will get us out of it. If it’s not obvious what other actions are the thing to do is not like just keep scrambling to find oh, what would work but to ask what’s going on and let that percolate and then it’s not so obvious but at least it won’t be exacerbating things.
Anand: Yeah. I think that’s right and you’re hearing my little one-year-old in the background. She actually is the one who writes all the books. I think other people have said you know it doesn’t matter how fast you’re running to solve a problem, or how much capital you’re deploying to solve a problem or how much energy you’re throwing into a problem if you’re solving the wrong problem in the wrong way. And a lot of what I’m suggesting to people is that we’re misperceiving the problem and we’re pursuing the wrong kinds of solutions in this rush to like “Well, what can I do tomorrow?” is I often say that you know that the desire for immediate solutions often masks what kind of reveals actually the real desire which is for premature absolution. I think the banker wants to rush to the part of the discussion with me that is about what can I do tomorrow because a banker doesn’t want to sit with the fact that his or her industry has been engaged for years in a predatory relationship to the public it gives has made it everything it is.
Joshua: I’m curious if you’ve… Have you interacted with Doug Rushkoff yet? I presume you have but I’m not sure.
Anand: A little bit. I think we were… There was some talk about us doing an event together at some point.
Joshua: Yeah. Because I just interviewed him in the past couple of days and I’ve been talking to him. He’s a different but similar approach to yours and his book just came out. Also I think you guys would really enjoy having a conversation. Also have you ever looked at or studied systems from… I mean people have worked on systems thinking and it’s a class that I teach and it’s really to start looking at things from a systemic perspective building on what people have been doing for decades to understand these things. It feels like you have because so much of what you write is so much in line with what they’ve come up with.
So let’s wrap up. I like to wrap up… Thank you and I want to say to everyone something beyond what you might be able to say as the author but Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World is a life changing book and I said this already in this conversation but it really makes you think and you see things that were always there. My read is you’ve really gone beneath and connected a lot of dots that others wouldn’t have. And it doesn’t give answers but it really makes you think and people who are thinking I want to change things. I would read this book first. You won’t regret it. It’s a challenging book. So Anand, thank you very much.
I apologize that a technical problem led to the recording cutting off but I hope you’ll agree that this episode was dense with insight and refreshing thought-provoking views. A science background helps ground you into measurable results. I hear a lot of people tout carbon offsets, recycling programs and yet I see results of increasing total waste many of them get indignant I believe based on people wanting to see their intent and disappointed or frustrated when pointed out what’s actually happening is not what they intended. I hope Anand’s book leads people to consider and refine the actual results of their actions, not just their intent. I don’t think anyone [unintelligible] wanted to leave the world a worse place than they found it yet carbon dioxide, methane, mercury and plastic levels they’re all increasing. The results that we want depend on us getting this point. His book covers it.
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