Instead, the system—in America and around the world—has been organized to siphon the gains from innovation upward, such that the fortunes of the world’s billionaires now grow at more than double the pace of everyone else’s, and the top 10 percent of humanity have come to hold 90 percent of the planet’s wealth.
How can there be anything wrong with trying to do good? The answer may be: when the good is an accomplice to even greater, if more invisible, harm.
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.
The only thing better than controlling money and power is to control the efforts to question the distribution of money and power.
They were supposed to make democracy more vital and effective for ordinary people, but preferably without challenging their fellow winners too much. They were to grow the public’s trust in institutions without digging too far into why the people leading those institutions were mistrusted.
Such an undertaking would be conflictual; it would name names of offending financial institutions; it would pick fights with people who might one day be useful to you.
you might conclude that you should do something to repair the systems that are working to keep Jacobs poor. But if those problems were solved, you wouldn’t have much of a win-win business to grow.
VCs and entrepreneurs are considered by many to be thinkers these days, their commercial utterances treated like ideas, and these ideas are often in the future tense: claims about the next world, forged by adding up the theses of their portfolio companies or extrapolating from their own start-up’s mission statement. That people listened to their ideas gave them a chance to launder their self-interested hopes into more selfless-sounding predictions about the world.
This power gave them great responsibility and exposed them to the possibility of resentment—unless they convinced people that the future they were fighting for would unfold automatically, would be the fruit of forces rather than their choices, of providence rather than power.
If you want to be a thought leader and not dismissed as a critic, your job is to help the public see problems as personal and individual dramas rather than collective and systemic ones.
The money can liberate the top thought leaders from the institutions and colleagues that might otherwise provide some kind of intellectual check on them, while sometimes turning their ideas into advertisements rather than self-contained work.
“Conversation with a Tax Collector About Poetry,” by Vladimir Mayakovsky
Scaling back her critique of the system had allowed her to be wildly popular with MarketWorld elites and more easily digested by the world at large; and so she became famous, which drew the system of sexism into her life as never before and heightened her awareness of it; and its ferocity convinced her not to take on that system but to conclude that it might never change; and this acquiescence made her turn from uprooting sexism to helping women survive it.
For the aspiring thought leader, it is less important to have an undergirding of scholarly research than it is to be your idea—to perform and hawk it relentlessly.
When a thought leader strips politics and perpetrators from a problem, she often gains access to a bigger platform to influence change-makers—but she also adds to the vast pile of stories promoted by MarketWorld that tell us that change is easy, is a win-win, and doesn’t require sacrifice.
The kinds of changes 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 greater hostility toward the elites. It is more useful for the elites to be seen as favoring change—their kind of change, of course.
It wasn’t as though you had no choice but to compromise. You could easily develop your ideas and promote them through what he labeled “marginal magazines” and “militant conferences.”
The question of building more inclusive economies would be atomized into endless subcategories, until the human reality all but vanished.
What if these winners didn’t know everything? What if those outsiders who weren’t in the room knew a thing or two?
Instead of listening, absorbing, trying to decipher slowly and respectfully the dynamics of the space one had entered, the high-flying, high-priced consultant was expected to jump in and know things.
Consultants first find the “business need,” or the basic problem, based on evaluating the company and its industry. Then they “analyze.” This step requires “framing the problem: defining the boundaries of the problem and breaking it down into its component elements to allow the problem-solving team to come up with an initial hypothesis as to the solution.” This is the insta-certitude at work—hypothesis-making comes early. Then the consultants must “design the analysis” and “gather the data” to prove the hypothesis, and must decide, based on the results, whether their theory of the solution is right. If it is, the next step is “presenting” in a crisp, clear, convincing way that can win over clients understandably wary of fancy outsiders’ big ideas. At last, the solution comes to the “implementation” phase, through “iteration that leads to continual improvement.”
The protocols and those who employed them did have a lot to offer the world of social problems: rigor, logic, data, an ability to make decisions swiftly. As they spread into the work of battling disease or reforming education, they could do a great deal of good and allow people’s money and time to go further than they could have without it. But there was always a price, and part of that price was that problems reformatted according to the protocols were recast in the light of a winner’s gaze. After all, the definition of a problem is done by the problem-solver and crowds out other ways of seeing it.
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.
Leave us alone in the competitive 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 entitles the winners to exemption from questions like these.
King had argued that the circumstances of economic injustice, when examined, had something to do with the people in power, and that true generosity might mean restrained taking, not just the belated shedding of some of what had been taken.
There Bill Clinton would stand beside you and read your commitment to the room and praise you. This moment would become, among the doing-well-by-doing-good set, the coveted capstone to a career: People who were influential and/or rich but relatively unknown would bask in the celebrity-like glow.
Then there was a flurry of business-speak: “In order to reach the world that we want by 2030, collaboration and co-design are key.”
When private actors move into the solution of public problems, it becomes less and less of the public’s business.
The “they” were the rootless cosmopolitans’ less-rarefied fellow citizens, who in one place after another were gravitating to nationalism, demagogy, and resentful exclusion—and rejecting some of the elites’ most cherished beliefs: borderlessness, market cures for all diseases, inevitable technological progress, benign technocratic stewardship.
It is a way of doing good that allows them to ignore the fact that their democracies aren’t working well. Or, even more simply, it allows them to avoid the duty they might otherwise feel to interact with their fellow citizens across divides, to learn about the problems facing their own communities, which might implicate them, their choices, and their privileges—as opposed to universal challenges like climate change or the woes of faraway places like Rwandan coffee plantations.
“Probably people who get together in these congregations don’t think of what they’re doing as politics,” Rodrik said. “But of course it’s politics. It’s just a politics that has a different locus and has a different view of who matters and how you can change things, and has a different theory of change and who the agents of change are.”
But the same elite help, backed by the same noble intentions, can instead “disrupt” democracy when it “replaces the public sphere with all manner of private initiatives for special public purposes.” These latter works don’t simply do what government cannot do. They “crowd out the public sector, further reducing both its legitimacy and its efficacy, and replace civic goals with narrower concerns about efficiency and markets.”
The seasoned and astute private world-changer seeks to alter “the public conversation about which social issues matter, sets an agenda for how they matter, and specifies who is the preferred provider of services to address these issues without any engagement with the deliberative processes of civil society.”
“So it’s not just the right thing to do,” Verveer said. “It’s the business-smart thing to do.” This was the highest praise a cause could receive.
The only problem-solving approach that worked in the modern world, according to Clinton, was one that made the people an afterthought, to be helped but not truly heard.
One’s American plutocrat friends didn’t necessarily have a problem with more energetic government in Africa. But they preferred win-win solutions in their own backyard, where energetic government sounded like it could end up being expensive.
Economistic reasoning dominates our age, and we may be tempted to focus on the first half of each of the above sentences—a marginal contribution you can see and touch—and to ignore the second half, involving a vaguer thing called complicity.
Her claim, rather, is that citizens of a democracy are collectively responsible for what their society foreseeably and persistently allows; that they have a special duty toward those it systematically fails; and that this burden falls most heavily on those most amply rewarded by the same, ultimately arbitrary set of arrangements.
To live in a society without laws and shared institutions that applied equally to all would be, Cordelli says, to live “dependent on the arbitrary will of another. It would be like a form of servitude.”
She says you are worth nothing without society because there can be no hedge fund managers, nor violinists, nor technology entrepreneurs, in the absence of a civilizational infrastructure that we take for granted.
Then there is the fact that absent a political system of shared institutions, anyone could dominate anyone. Every person with anything precious to protect would be at constant risk of plunder by everybody else.
“When it comes to effecting change in a way that makes them feel good—when it comes to building a business, lobbying for certain things, effectively helping some people through philanthropy, then they are agents,” Cordelli said. “They powerfully and intentionally can exercise change.” However, she went on, “When it comes to paying more taxes, when it comes to trying to advocate for more just institutions, when it comes to actually trying to prevent injustices that are systemic or trying to advocate for less inequality and more redistribution, then they’re paralyzed. There is nothing they can do.