Saturday, June 15, 2019

Winners Take All-- Read This Book (Excerpts)

Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas might be the most important book you read this year. It is not directly aimed at education or education reform, and yet it has everything to do with education form. I'll address that in a separate post going up the same time as this one. But here I just want to share some important quotes from the book as a means of encouraging you to buy it and read it, because it offers a framework for understanding much of what's going on, from the neo-liberal wave to the wave that swept Donald Trump into office. Buy this book. 

The initiatives mostly aren't democratic, nor do they reflect collective problem-solving or universal solutions. Rather, they favor the use of the private sector and its charitable spoils, the market way of looking at things, and the bypassing of government. They reflect a highly influential view that the winners of an unjust status quo-- and the tools and mentalities and values that helped them, win-- are the secret to redressing the injustices. Those at greatest risk of being resented in an age of inequality are thereby recast as our saviors from an age of inequality.

For when elites assume leadership of social change, they are able to reshape what social change is-- above all, to present it as something that should never threaten winners.

"If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." If this view is correct, then much of the charity and social innovation and give-one-get-one marketing around us may not be reform measures so much as forms of conservative self-defense-- measures that protect elites from more menacing change.

What is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests.

A charitable interpretation of this idea is that the world deserves to benefit from flourishing business. A more sinister interpretation is that business deserves to profit from any attempt to better the condition of the world.

There is no discounting the audacity of this MarketWorld idea. It rejects the notion that there are different social classes with different interests who must fight for their needs and rights. Instead, we get what we deserve through marketplace arrangements-- whether fantasy football to help African orphans or office software to make everyone more productive or the sale of toothpaste to the poor in ways that increase shareholder value. This win-win doctrine took on a great deal more than Adam Smith ever had, in claiming that the winners were specially qualified to look after the losers.

It is fine for winners to see their own success as inextricable from others. But there will always be situations in which people's preferences and needs do not overlap, and in fact conflict. And what happens to the losers then? Who is to protect their interests? What if the elites simply need to part with more of their money in order for every American to have, say, a semi-decent public school?

Here Pishevar was engaging in advocacy that disguised itself as prophecy, which was common among technology barons and one of the ways in which they masked the fact of their power in an age rattled by the growing anxieties of the powerless...In the Valley, prediction has become a popular way of fighting for a particular future while claiming merely to describe what has yet to occur.

A king presides over a multitude of truths. But a rebel, who takes no responsibility for the whole, is free to pursue his singular truth. That is the whole point of being a rebel. It is not in the rebel's job description to worry about others who might have needs that are different from his.

And powerful people who "see themselves as underdogs in a world where instability and inequality are rampant fail to realize they have a moral responsibility."

What connects these various notions is a fantasy of living free of government. These rich and powerful men engage in what the writer Kevin Roose has called "anarchist cheerleading," in keeping with their carefully crafted image as rebels against the authorities. To call for a terrain without rules in the way they do, to dabble in the anarchist cheerleading, may be to sound like you wish for a new world of freedom on the behalf of humankind. But a long line of thinkers has told us that the powerful tend to be the big winners from the creation of a blank-slate, rules-free world.

The self-styled entrepreneur-rebels were actually seeking to overturn a major project of the Enlightenment-- the development of universal rules that applied evenly to all... The world that these elites seemed to envision, in which rules receded and entrepreneurs reigned through the market, augured a return to private manors-- allowing the Earl of Facebook and the Lord of Google to make major decisions about our shared fate outside of democracy. It would be a world that let them deny their power over the serfs around them by appropriating a language of community and love, movements and win-wins. They would keep on speaking of changing the world. But many, down in the world, would feel, not without reason, that what was bleak in the world wasn't changing.

What the thought leaders offer MarketWorld's winners, wittingly or unwittingly, is the semblance of being on the right side of change. The kinds of change favored by the public in an age of inequality, as reflected from time to time in some electoral platforms, are usually unacceptable to elites. Simple rejection of those types of changes can only invite more hostility toward the elites. It is more useful for the elites to be seen as favoring change-- their kind of change, of course. Take, for example, the question of educating poor children in a time of declining social mobility. A true critic might call for an end to funding schools by local property taxes and the creation, as in many advanced countries, of a common national pool that funds the schools more or less equally. What a thought leader might offer MarketWorld and its winners is a kind of intellectual counteroffer-- the idea, say, of using Big Data to better compensate star teachers and weed out bad ones.

MarketWorld elites spun an intellectual cocoon for themselves, and kept repeating the stories that insured against deep change. Meanwhile, Giussani said, millions around the world were "feeling that a big chunk of their reality was being ignored at best, censored, or ridiculed even."

Somewhere on the road to globalization, Porter said, the self-image of business as a pillar of community had yielded to a self-image of "We're global now, and that's no longer our problem."

In the chapter discussing the McKinsey protocols and their emphasis on using problem-solving tools that were unrelated to knowing about the actual industry with the problem...
Hinton described the assumption that he saw guiding the protocol bearers in their new, public-serving assignments: "If we assemble enough brainpower and enough money, we can crack this, we can solve these problems." Then the solutions can "get scaled." This approach, he said, "just fails to recognize that we are attempting to solve these problems with the very tools and the very minds that constructed the problems in the first place."

Walker had broken what in his circles were important taboos: 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.

The foundations were, in other words, allowing a small handful of wealthy people like Carnegie and Rockefeller to commit monumental sums of money to the public good and thus gain a say in national affairs that rivaled that of many public officials.

Other criticism focused on how the new philanthropy not only laundered cruelly earned money but also converted it into influence over a democratic society.

This is the compromise, the truce, distilled: Leave us alone in the marketplace, and we will tend to you after the winnings are won. The money will be spent more wisely on you than it would be by you. You will have your chance to enjoy our wealth, in the way we think you should enjoy it.

Generosity is not a substitute for justice, but here, as so often in MarketWorld, it was allowed to stand in.

Walker said that the concentration of wealth and power in our time was causing a "hollowing out of the middle class" and "a huge blowback of populism, of nationalism, or xenophobia."

This thought led Walker to the observation that America was becoming privatized now.

Commandeering the role of government through civic action suddenly feels like a very empowering notion.

Donald Trump had harnessed an intuition that those people who believed you could crusade for justice and get super-rich and save lives and be very powerful and give a lot back, that you could have it all and then some, were phonies.

When private actors move into the solution of public problems, it becomes less and less of the public's business.

MarketWorld's winners had, in Ferguson's telling, surrendered any loyalty to place.

The globalists believed that there were "right answers" in public policy--answers that made a place safe for the foreign investors that Macri had been worried about--and having a very flexible labor market, in which it was easy to hire and fire people, is one of the right answers. The right answer, then, was not arrived at democratically.

The panel members saw themselves as above and apart from fearful, conflictual politics. Their politics was technocratic, dedicated to discovering right answers that were knowable and out there, and just needed to be analyzed and spreadsheeted into being.

The government should work as a partner to the private sector, not a counterweight to it.

They weren't interested in making politics work better, but insisting on their own proprietary power to give the world what it needed, not necessarily what it wanted.

MarketWorld's ideas weren't promoted through propaganda and falsehoods so much as through this kind of confinement. Its weapon was not utterance but silence, the people it did not invite, the way it hemmed in a conversation. This approach eliminated the kind of expertise that could cogently and persuasively formulate a less MarketWorld-friendly response.

If the logic of our time had applied to the facts of an earlier age, someone would have put out a report suggesting that ending slavery was great for reducing the trade deficit.

Take, for instance, the view that MarketWorld has a duty, and a right, to address public problems-- and, indeed, to take a lead in developing private solutions to them. This, for Cordelli, was like putting the accused in charge of the court system. The question that elites refuse to ask, she said, is: "Why are there in the world so many people that you need to help in the first place? You should ask yourself: Have your actions contributed at all to that? Have you caused, through your actions, any harm? And, if yes, the fact that now you are helping some people, however effectively, doesn't seem to be enough to compensate."

Businesspersons calling themselves "leaders" and naming themselves solvers of the most intractable social problems represent a worrisome way of erasing their role in causing them.

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