Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, America’s roughly 640 billionaires have seen their fortunes soar by $845 billion in combined assets or 29% collectively, widening the already yawning gap between the very richest and the rest of the U.S.
Many of those billions were made by tech founders, including Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, whose companies have soared in value and, in tandem, their net worth. In fact, so much has been made so fast and by so few relatively, that it’s easy to wonder if greater equality is now forever out of reach.
To talk about that question, we reached out earlier this week to Ananad Giridharadas, a former New York Times correspondent whose 2018 book, “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” became a best-seller.
Giridharadas’s message at the time was largely that the generosity of the global elite is somewhat laughable — that many of the same players who say they want to help society are creating its most intractable problems. Think, for example, of Bezos, whose company paid zero in federal tax in 2017 and 2018 and who is now on the cusp of opening a tuition-free preschool for underserved children called the Bezos Academy.
Given the aggressive escalation over the last six months of the same trends Giridharadas has tracked for years, we wondered how he views the current situation. Our chat has been edited for length and clarity.
TC: You have a weekly newsletter where you make the point that Jeff Bezos could give every one of Amazon’s 876,000 employees a ‘pandemic’ bonus of $105,000, and he would still have as much money as he did in March.
AG: There’s this way in which these crises are not merely things that the rich and powerful survive. They’re things that they leverage and exploit, and it starts to raise the question of: are they even on the same team as us? Because when you have discussions about stimulus relief, around what kind of policy responses you could have to something like the 2008 financial crisis or the pandemic, there’s initially some discussion and clamor for universal basic income, or substantial monthly checks for people, or even the French approach of nationalizing people salaries. . .and those things usually die. And they die thanks to corporate lobbyists and advocates of the rich and powerful, and are replaced by forms of relief that are upwardly redistributive that essentially exploit a crisis to transfer wealth and power to the top.
TC: Earlier in the 20th century, there was this perception that industry would contribute to solving a crisis with government. In this economy, we didn’t see a lot of the major tech companies, or a lot of the companies that were benefiting from this crisis, really sacrificing something to help the U.S. Do you see things that way?
AG: I think that’s right. I’m always wary of idealizing certain periods in the past, and I think there were a lot of problems in that time. But I think there’s no question that it was not as difficult back then, as it is today, to summon some kind of sense of common purpose and even the need to sacrifice values like profit-seeking for other values.
I mean, after 9/11, President George W. Bush told us all to go shopping as the way to advance the common good. Donald Trump is now 18 levels of hell further down that path, not even telling us that we need to do anything for each other and [instead describing earlier this week] a pandemic that has killed 200,000 people as being something that doesn’t really affect most people.
So there’s just been a coarsening. And that kind of selfish trajectory of our culture, after 40 years of being told that what we do alone is better than what we do together, that what we do to create wealth is more important than what we do to advance shared goals — that quite dismal, dull message has had its consequences. And when you get a pandemic like this, and you suddenly need to be able to summon people to all socially distance at a minimum or, more ambitiously, pull for the common good or pay higher taxes or things that might even cost them a little bit, it’s very hard to do because the groundwork isn’t there.
TC: You’ve talked quite a bit over the years about “fake change.”
AG: Silicon Valley is the new Rome of our time, meaning a place in the world that ends up deciding how a lot of the rest of the world lives. No matter where you lived on the planet Earth, when the Roman Empire started to rise, it had plans for you one way or another, through your legal system, or your language, or culture, or something else. The Roman Empire was coming for you.
Silicon Valley is that for our time. It’s the new Rome [in] that you can’t live on planet Earth and be unaffected, directly or indirectly, by the decisions made in this relatively small patch of [the world]. So the question then becomes, what does that new Rome want? And my impression of having reported on that world is that it’s an incredibly homogeneous world of people at the top of this new Rome. It’s white-male-dominated in a way that even other white-male-dominated sectors of the American economy are not . . . and it’s a lot of a certain kind of man who often is actually more obtuse about understanding human society and sociological dynamics and human beings than the average person.
Maybe they didn’t spend a lot of time negotiating human dynamics at sleepovers, which is fine. But when you end up with a new Rome and it’s hyper dominated by people of one race and one gender, many of whom are disproportionately socially unintelligent, running the platforms through which most human sociality now occurs — democratic discourse, family community, so on and so forth — we all start to live in a world created by people who are just quite limited. They are smart at the thing they’re smart at, and they’ve become in charge of a lot of how the world works. And they are simply not up to the task. And we see evidence of that every day.
TC: Are you speaking about empathy?
AG: Empathy is absolutely one of [the factors]. The ability to understand the more amorphous, non technological, non quantifiable things . . . it’s so interesting, because it’s people who are clearly very smart in a certain area but just honestly do not understand democratic theory. There’s just so much work that’s been done — deep, complicated thinking going back to Plato and Aristotle, but also modern sociological work, including why a safety net and welfare is complicated. And there’s a certain kind of personality type that I have found very dominant in Silicon Valley, where it’s these men who just don’t really have a lens for that.
They’re often geniuses. It’s a certain kind of particular personality type where you care a lot about one thing and you go deep on that one thing, and it’s probably the same personality type that Beethoven had. It’s a great thing, actually. It’s just not great for governing us, and what these people are doing is privately governing us, and they have no humility about the limitations of their worldview.
TC: We’re talking largely about social media here. Is it reasonable to expect some kind of government action. Do you think that’s naive?
AG: It’s absolutely essential that the tech industry be brought into the same kind of sensible regulatory regime. I mean, you have kids, I have kids. If you’ve ever read the side of their car seats or any of the other products in their lives, you understand how much regulation there is for our benefit. . . I often say that the government at its best is like a lawyer for all of us. The government is like ‘Why don’t we check out these car seats for you and create some rules around them, and then you can just buy a car seat and not have to wonder whether it’s the kind that protects your child or crumbles?’ That’s what the government does for all kinds of things.
TC: You’ve talked about billionaires who don’t want to pay taxes yet don’t hesitate to make a donation because they have control over where their money is spent and they get their name on a building, and it’s true. Many companies whose founders also consider themselves philanthropists, like Salesforce and Netflix, paid no federal tax in 2018, which amounts to billions of dollars lost. If you had to prioritize between taking antitrust action or closing the tax loopholes, which would you choose?
AG: They’re both important. But I think I would prioritize taxation.
One way to think about it is this pre distribution and redistribution. The monopoly issue in a way is pre distribution, which is how much money you get to make in the first place. If you get to be a monopoly because we don’t enforce antitrust laws, you’re going to end up making, pre tax, a lot more money than you would otherwise have made if you had to compete in an actual free market.
Once you’ve made that money, the tax question comes up. So both are important, but I think you can’t overestimate the extent to which the tax thing is just totally foundational. If you look at the report that the 400 richest families in America pay a lower effective tax rate than the bottom half of families, it’s appalling.
We live in a complicated world. A lot of different things have been going on, including just in the last few months. But if you have to really summarize the drift and the shift of the last 40 years, it’s been a war on taxation. And it’s been a massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top of American life through taxation. Since the ’80s, the top 1% has gained $21 trillion of wealth, and the bottom half of Americans have lost $900 billion of wealth on average — and much of that was prosecuted through the tax code.
Awkward! Above, Giridharadas shaking hands with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos at a Wired event in 2018.