Anand Giridharadas speaks to students at Ritter Hall

By: Nick Santangelo

It's a comforting thought that the rich will generally act in the best interests of society. It's exciting to live in the digital age and buy into the idea that technology can solve what ails us. It's heartwarming to believe relatively small donations can make big differences. But can we really rely on those things to bring about large-scale, positive changes to the U.S.'s biggest problems?

That was the question NBC and MSNBC Political Analyst Anand Giridharadas posed to College of Liberal Arts (CLA) students Tuesday afternoon when he visited Ritter Hall's Walk Auditorium as a guest of the Economics and Global Studies departments. Giridharadas didn't leave students hanging either. In his mind, this wasn't a rhetorical question. It's one he attempted to answer with his book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. On Tuesday, he told the standing-room-only crowd that the answer his research bore is a definitive no.

Savage Inequity

Giridharadas was inspired to write his book when it dawned on him that Americans were increasingly relying on the rich and powerful to make ethical decisions, donate to charities and develop groundbreaking tech. Meanwhile, people had largely stopped pushing for systemic changes, like truly universal healthcare.

"What I became curious about is why that came to be the case in the very same moment in American life when you all are getting screwed," he said, addressing CLA students. "You all are the first generation in American history to have worse job prospects, worse mobility."

Despite so many billionaires talking about things improving, Giridharadas looked around and observed things to be "savagely unequal." Profits were rising while wages and salaries remained mostly flat. Those at the top appeared to be—despite the public images they had created for themselves—depriving those at the bottom from living good lives. To find out if this was actually true, Giridharadas spent time with billionaires, CEOs and politicians like former President Bill Clinton.

What he discovered was that the rich and powerful don't want to let go of their wealth and power. That might not sound revelatory, as it's a charge that's been levied against the rich virtually since the invention of material wealth. But Giridharadas sees two key differences today.

You all are the first generation in American history to have worse job prospects, worse mobility.

For one thing, he said we now know what's needed to solve many of our biggest issues. To help women succeed in the workplace, for example, things like standardized maternity leave and better childcare are necessary. Instead of providing them, however, the rich and corporations have pushed for what Giridharadas called "fake change." They've presented society with counter offers like the Lean In movement, which was started by billionaire tech executive Sheryl Sandberg. Lean in, Giridharadas explained, puts the onus on women to overcome sexism on their own without systematic change.

The other relatively new problem is that society is letting billionaires and millionaires do this. Unions have lost much of their appeal, especially amount today's youth. Collective bargaining hasn't found a way to be effective in the face of the gig economy. And everyone is jumping on their smartphones to post or to like someone else's post about societal problems and walking away feeling like they did something to move the needle when they haven't.

"I wrote this book to try to wake people up to take change back," said Giridharadas.

All the World's a Market

To illustrate how important this cause is, Giridharadas asked who in the audience knew of the Sackler Family. A few professors rose their hands. No students appeared to. Giridharadas explained that the Sacklers "literally invented the opioid crisis" by fraudulently peddling OxyContin as a safe painkiller when it's actually the least-safest one ever made. For knowingly ignoring OxyContin's risks and still pushing it on the public, the Sacklers were fined $600 million by the government. They proceeded to run a public relations blitz, donating millions to art museums to dissociate their names with the crisis from which they made billions.

"Why do we actually tolerate this? Why do people in our government tolerate this?" an exasperated Giridharadas asked students.

The political analyst and author explained that 200,000 have died from the ensuing crisis, a number that, to Giridharadas, looks genocidal. But it's far from the only problem. Giridharadas sees the Sacklers as just one part of a larger group of billionaires doing irreparable harm to society. Their destruction isn't always as graphic or as obvious as the opioid crisis either.

In explaining that rich Democrats are as much to blame as rich Republicans, Giridharadas namedropped Mark Zuckerberg, saying Facebook has done a great deal more harm than good.

Why do we actually tolerate this? Why do people in our government tolerate this?

And on college campuses everywhere, Giridharadas sees marketing blitzes for social entrepreneurship and impact investing. Neither, in his view, are viable solutions. Instead, they benefit the same people who are pushing them on students: the rich. "Unless we are thinking about solutions to our biggest shared problems that are public, democratic and universal," said Giridharadas, "we're not solving them."

But he sees an increasing number of young Americans thinking the best way to change the world is by joining a business after they graduate college. In his book, Giridharadas wraps this phenomenon up with billionaires claiming their philanthropy will save the world and technologists saying their businesses will save the world and dubs it MarketWorld.

"I wanted to take those different things and scoop them up and put them in a kind of framework," explained Giridharadas.

The ethos behind MarketWorld is that you can do well for others by doing well for yourself, you can change the world without having your own world change and you can help people while polluting the environment. Were any of this true, remarked Giridharadas, inequality would be dropping every year. Instead, it has not been reduced a single year since 1980.

"What would they have done in Birmingham in the '60s?" asked Giridharadas of how today's wealthy class might have combatted the Civil Rights Movement.

To bring about more equal rights for black Americans, to get children out of factories, to build the interstate highway system and to get women the vote, the same thing had to be done each time. Society had to overrule rich people. That was accomplished by drowning out their dissent, ignoring their money and passing laws that made the world a more equitable place for everyone.

A Contract Voided

A student asked about the social contract, a theory that holds that the ruled surrender some of their freedom in exchange for protection from their rulers. Giridharadas responded that this simply doesn't exist in the United States of today. Americans are afraid of being ruled and suffer from "King George PTSD," he quipped. Any regulations from the government are seen as treading on personal freedoms. It's almost as if they believe King George is coming back. Giridharadas sees an enormous need for people to get over this and "to take civic life back" for themselves.

Everyone, Giridharadas recommended, should look inward when thinking about affecting change. That apparently includes himself. When a  student pointed out that while he may not be a 1 percenter, Giridharadas himself is still wealthy and powerful relative to most Americans, he agreed with the charge.

You change the world by getting involved.

Writing the book, however, changed his own attitudes a great deal and even cost him some friendships and relationships with some in his social circles who might be described as "elites." He also argued that a great many more people than just himself need to change in order for the world to change, for it to overcome what ails it.

Giridharadas identified four tsunami-like changes to America in his lifetime: women's rights, the rise of tech, the downturn of manufacturing and a massive demographic transition away from white people being in total power. Politically, the country did virtually nothing to help people adapt to these changes, and that's landed us in our current situation. But Giridharadas sees at least some small cause for hope.

"These things are cyclical, and I think we are coming back to a realization that fancy tricks aren't how you change the world. You change the world by getting involved."