Why Is This Happening? Debunking the myths of the ruling class with Anand Giridharadas: podcast & transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with author Anand Giridharadas about why the ruling class is only willing to change the world if it doesn’t change their world.
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Will a ride-sharing app battle religious intolerance? Can a billionaire combat illiteracy by sending laptops to underfunded communities? Would a bank’s involvement in one of the largest financial crises in American history be forgotten if they donate enough money to nonprofit organizations?

The ruling class — those at the top who hold all the power — want people to believe that they can do good for the world by continuing to do well for themselves; the more money and power they have, the more good they can do. They put themselves in a position of authority that is packaged and sold as both necessary and benevolent. But as Anand Giridharadas argues in his new book, “Winners Take All,” this philanthropy amongst elites is a charade, that the ruling class is only willing to change the world so long as it doesn’t change their world.

CHRIS HAYES: You know what? My favorite example of this is Elon Musk on Twitter. The guy is clearly brilliant, and much of what he's done is astoundingly impressive. No joke, legit astoundingly impressive.

Also, the guy is a nutbar! A nutbar! And I'm like, "Whoa, dude. Are they all like this? And if they are, we are so f'ed.”

Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes. There's this phrase that I think is really useful and powerful and potent explanatory phrase that we don't really use anymore in analysis of politics and it will become clear in a second why that is when I say the phrase. And it's because of the intellectual tradition comes out of and how much that intellectual tradition doesn't really have a lot of sway on mainstream American discourse. The phrase is ruling class. When you hear someone talk about a ruling class, generally make marks them in a certain part of the political spectrum. Usually the left, it's a phrase that comes out of the language of Marxism and Marx specifically as he talks about class structure and class power. He analyzes basically everything that happens in politics through this one lens of class. And the ruling class is the class that has all the power up at the top, but it's really a useful analytical category abstracted from Marx to think about a class of people that rule of society, people at the top, and not just strictly in the way that Marx talked about in his environment in 19th-century Europe but throughout all of history.

One of the things I think that's important to think about when you think about this concept is the ways in which the group of people that run a society almost inevitably create a theoretical foundation in which their rule itself is necessary and benevolent. So people that run a society don't create philosophies or ideologies around their rule in which they say, “well look, we're just doing this for ourselves to get rich or to get the benefits of power. We are doing this because we are the best people suited to rule. Our rule is benevolent and it's good for everyone else.” And if you go back to basically the first work of political philosophy ever published Plato's republic, where he talks about the various categories of people in the republic and he talks about the gold people who are the most suited to rule, it's essentially a an ideological justification of rule by the people that are running the state.

If you fast forward into feudal times and you look at the divine right of kings and the cosmology, that was a celebrated by various European thinkers during the entirety of the Middle Ages in which the king is divinely bestowed with the power of rule and the inner circle, the aristocracy, are short of virtuously one circle out and all of it is part of a divine order that is right and just and created for their benefit. If you go back and you look at the robber barons of the late 19th century and they talk about their own industry and brilliance and farsightedness. When you're talking about Andrew Carnegie or John Rockefeller, they construct an ideology in which the people at the top are the most industrious and them having great wealth creates the conditions for everyone to flourish.

Image: John D. Rockefeller
Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937).Time Life Pictures / Mansell/Getty Images

This is the sort of historical through line in which people at the top construct ideologies for themselves that are about why it's good for them to be on top. And that's something that we very much have today in the current ruling class. Now, it's a complicated category. There's all sorts of people in that different ruling class. There's people in finance, people in politics and government, there's people in tech. But there is this kind of ideology that comes out of particularly Silicon Valley, but other places, Wall Street as well, that is about the kind of goodhearted beneficence of people making a lot of money who are trying to make the world a better place. You hear that all the time in Silicon Valley talk, you know, when someone talks about their startup in Silicon Valley, very rarely do they say like, “we are trying to get that money.”

No one says that. They say “we're trying to make the world a better place. We're connecting people.” When Mark Zuckerberg talks about Facebook, which is, um, one of the most profitable enterprises on the planet and it's the largest institution other than the Catholic Church that exists in the world. Everything he talks about is in this sort of value-laden terminology of “community.” Someone tweeted once that “community is a hell of a euphemism for database,” which was pretty funny line. It's really just a database of people that you have connected to each other, but he talks about the community and what's good for the community and our community values and this is bad for our community. And when Twitter talks about someone violating their terms of service or kicks them off or it doesn't kick them off, they talk about what the community wants. And all of this is wrapping what are fundamentally for-profit enterprises that are designed to maximize the value for shareholders and the most marginal return on dollar of investment for profit in the language of beneficence.

It's a very, very old tradition, as I note, but this one particularly I think sells a little better. This one in contemporary life goes more unchallenged than say the way we think about the divine right of kings, which we now realize looking back was like a pretty ridiculous con. Like, God hadn't actually chosen Louis 14th to run France like we know that now we know that's like a preposterously ridiculous and self-justifying ideology, but contemporaneously, the power of these kind of ideological creations is that they're powerful in the moment and the repetition of them particularly coming out of Silicon Valley and other places has real penetration. And it's really worth thinking about what that ideology is and poking holes in it, and I wrote a book, the first book that I wrote, which I published back in 2012 called "Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy" wrestles with some of this, wrestles with the ideology of meritocracy specifically as a kind of self-justifying ideological regime that elites in America have constructed and populated and sold to everyone that justifies their presence at the top.

And there's a new book out that's gotten a lot of attention, sparked a lot of conversation that's about a similar theme. It's about taking what those are, the top and the American ruling class, what story they tell about themselves and their role and examining it, under the harsh light of what it is they are doing and whether that actually jives with the ideology they say they have. The book is called "Winners Take All." It's by a great writer named Anand Giridharadas. I've known him for awhile and first came to my attention from his last book called "The True American," which was an incredible story about a murder that happens in the wake of 9/11, basically a hate crime, and the twin stories of the victim, the victim's family, and the perpetrator of that crime through the lens of America in the 21st century. It’s a great, great book. In fact, we did a special look at it on "All In."

And I know him socially, he's friends with friends, and this book, which has been a long time in the making and one that he's really, I think thought about really thoroughly is a look, a very clear eyed, critical look at the myths that those in the American ruling class tell themselves about why they are doing what they're doing. And in some ways it's a book about Donald Trump because Donald Trump is someone who is in that ruling class but it’s a book that’s broader than that. It's about a much broader swath of people and about a much more pernicious and insidious way of thinking about power and who holds it that really grips a lot of American life. And I think one of the things that we try to do on the podcast always, and I think this conversation really does, is penetrate down from the moment, the news right now to the deeper structural stories about who's running America and how and Anand’s new book really really does that well.

CHRIS HAYES: So to me, what the book is about is about a delusion or a self-delusion or a lie that people are telling themselves. And what I think that it's sort of useful, I think to do, so little like categorizing here. So there's like a bunch of people who run America, I'm using it as a shorthand like Rex Tillerson, you know, I'm running Exxon or I'm running some aluminum company, they're not really who this book is about because they're not people that are telling themselves the story that this book is about. This book is about a set of the people that are extremely powerful in America that are telling themselves a story about what they're doing, and what is that story they're telling themselves?

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: At the heart of it, the story is that they can do well by doing good. They can do good by doing well.

CHRIS HAYES: That there's not a tension between making a whole lot of money, accruing a lot of power, and being a good person and a good contributor to broader wellbeing.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Correct. And I think it is obviously no accident that that culture, as I describe it, has arisen in a period of extreme inequality unseen since the 1930s. And you know, I think the sympathetic way to think about it is if you are a modestly socially aware person of privilege, perhaps fabulous privilege, if you understand the age you live in, if you read the newspaper occasionally, if you pick up the signs around you that pitchforks are not necessarily quite out but are being polished in various places, then you feel perhaps some need to respond to this moment. There are people who just don't.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, exactly.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: And they buy airstrips in New Zealand. Let's rule that out.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes. Yeah. There's a category of people who just don't feel that way.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Correct. I think there's a second category before we get to what I'm really writing about, which is maybe the Koch brothers, which is you do have that awareness and your response is, gosh, I need to grab ever more power and control the machinery of state to prevent that anger from touching me.

But then there's a third response which is at the heart of "Winners Take All," which is, I understand I live in a time that is cruel to many people, that is highly unequal, perhaps indefensible, and I am going to do everything I can to fix it, except anything that would cause me to sacrifice. A friend of mine who teaches at the INSEAD business school in France puts it very well. He says “these are people who want to change the world, but they don't want their world to change.”

CHRIS HAYES: You know, it's funny you say that because we just had a conversation with Nicole Hannah-Jones a little while ago that was about school segregation and schooling and you know, her whole thing is about kind of the way that, on a very micro level, you know, the white liberals in urban environments suddenly get real hinky about like the school desegregation plan.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I had an interesting conversation recently with an elderly African American couple from Georgia. They said this thing that I guess is maybe a well known joke in the South, but I'd never heard it, which is that in the South, the kind of white racism takes the form of blacks can be close, but they can't rise, and the North, they can rise but they can't be close.


ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: And I think that dynamic, the northern dynamic in that equation, threads through a lot of the kinds of people I talk about in this book, where there's this belief in equality in theory, but it cannot come at the expense of the really good public schools in Greenwich. There's a belief in people having better healthcare, but if it's going to make every company in America like three percent less profitable, well that seems like a bridge too far.

There's a belief in kids having a decent daycare and not having these extreme daycares where parents have to drop them off at three in the morning because their parents' schedules change every day according to the Kronos app that like dictates when they work, I think no one believes in that in theory, among the set that I'm talking about. On the other hand, the companies that your hedge fund invests in over the private equity deal that you just did, maybe the source of pressure on that company to shave costs in the precise way that led to it adopting the Kronos app dynamic scheduling and jerking workers around like that.

And so what I became interested in this question, is this question of this response to an age of extreme inequality that was circumscribed and that was full of these silences. Yes, we have to do more about each of these issues, but we can only do it in a way that is a win win.

CHRIS HAYES: Two things I kept thinking about as I was going through the book. One is a question of who, and the other is a question of when. So the who question is, who are we talking about? Because you know, I wrote a book back in 2012 called "Twilight of the Elites." It's about some related themes, particularly about the sort of ideology of meritocracy and how kind of self-justifying that can be. But there's a really interesting debate across a bunch of different texts right now about like who are the bad guys at the top?

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Right. Is it 10 percent? One percent? Point one percent?

CHRIS HAYES: Literally, that's exactly the debate.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Where does the decimal point go?

CHRIS HAYES: Is it the top 20 percent and the sort of upper middle class? There's a book called Dream Hoarders that kind of makes that argument. Is it the top one percent? Is it the top one tenth of one percent, of just the super psycho rich? Like where are you in that?

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I don't feel a need to choose. I think what's actually helpful is to think about the different predations at each of those levels. So let's start with 20. I think 20 roughly is the mark between people who have graduated from college in America and people who haven't. So that's a convenient way to think about who the top 20 percent is. One of the things you almost never hear about it in that 20 percent is equalizing the funding of public schools, right?

I mean this is something, honestly, it's the most mystifying issue to me. I mean, I'm mystified by many things in American life. I've never, ever been more mystified by any issue than this issue. I just don't understand how it is legally, morally, or constitutionally defensible to finance a child's education based on the cost of their parents' home. I mean, it literally seems like the most absurd way.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Well, but you do understand because you wrote a book about the ideological frameworks and political economy that produces that.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: But many of the things I write about are at least a little better disguised.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, yes. That's true.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: This is so nakedly ... No one could even spin a story to a seven year old-


ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: About why you got to go to this school because you know, without pencils, because Mommy's house is not as expensive as it could have been. So that's an example of an issue that I don't think it's just the .001. Where essentially the educated American elite believes in equality in theory, but wants the schools of Marin and Shaker Heights and Greenwich and Westchester to be better and does not want them to be equalized with the schools in the south side of Chicago and you know, Oak Cliff and wherever else.

By the way, like I just think there's actually few issues in American life so ripe for a constitutional challenge. If there are creative lawyers listening to this, like this is a place to get active and fight some serious cases of the next generation. Remember, one federal judge could like make this unconstitutional, could do this, one federal judge.

Then when you get to like the one percent, so the one percent now control about a quarter of the nation's income. From most of the 40s to the 80s, it was about half that. So that takes the form of a lot of things, that you start to get into things like how investment income is treated versus ordinary income. Maybe you start to get into the mortgage tax deduction. Although that sort of applies to the 20 percent as well. You really start to get into things like carried interest.

And you start to get into more complex issues like what people choose to just do with their lives and careers. The fact that so many young graduates choose to go into private service instead of public service. Then you get to the point one and the .001, and that's when we're talking really about systematized rigging as opposed to just bad policy, if that makes sense.

CHRIS HAYES: That's like on the Zuckerberg. That's when you start to get to titans that control our brain cells.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: And I think in a way like the further up you go, I don't know if this is true, but I'm just riffing on this here, the further up you go, it seems to me the more effort you have to make to overrule the public interest, right? Because there are just fewer people to benefit.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. There's a smaller base you're working with.


CHRIS HAYES: Like the mortgage interest deduction or the school funding, you've got this communities of people that share your privilege and you can sort of organize, whereas the higher you go-

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: The private jet tax deduction. I mean just think for a second. In a country ruled by majorities, like how do you get that through?


ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: How do you get that through?

CHRIS HAYES: You just hire a lot of people to work over.


CHRIS HAYES: And then you also donate a lot and you, you know ... And that's the system rigging you're talking about.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: And so I think the higher you get up the ladder, what you really ... You know, we use words like lobbying, we use words like influence. I think it's easier to think about it as there is a public interest. It would produce policy X if we just think about like where does the American people probably stand in whether a private jet should be given a tax deduction versus like nannies.


ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: And you can imagine where the American people would be, and then you see that actually we end up not having the tax break for childcare but having it for the jet. So you just think, okay, so they're just overruling on issue after issue. They're just overruling the public interest. As part of what I wanted to do with this book is not just drop it into the world and not just do media like this, but actually engage with a lot of the people in these worlds, like offline.

My wife's a conflict resolution facilitator and she's helping me organize 50 or 60 dinners, self organized, not with us, without me, without me lecturing about my views, but people can read the book and then have dinner with people in their workplace, in their community, in their however they define their tribe and grapple with this book. And we've done conference calls with some of these hosts to try to learn what are the issues. These are people in the belly of these beasts.

And the people we're talking to are like, often the typical profile is they are in a very powerful institution that is perhaps a predatory institution. Maybe it's a monopoly, maybe it ducks its taxes, maybe it, you know, is stealing everybody's data. Whatever. Their profile as individuals tends to be young and tends to be, as a matter of personal identity, they're on the wrong end of some major power equation.

They're a woman, they're a person of color, they're gay. There's some way in which they've known like the wrong end of the stick, and that gives them a double consciousness. But they're also still at Google or Facebook or Yahoo or whatever it is. And one of the things that's emerged from those conversations is that a lot of those types of people, and employees in general at these companies actually have no idea what their companies lobby for. There's no disclosure around that.


ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: And when I've raised that with people, there's been this like bulb that's gone off, and you do have this movement, and in fact, you may have even tweeted about this, about the unique leverage that coders have in Silicon Valley, and if they start getting pissed off by what their companies do, they may be the only people who can actually turn the ship. So one very practical ... Because people sometimes say, you know, there's not enough practical ideas, because people love practical ideas these days. So here's a practical idea.

CHRIS HAYES: Every day.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Here's a practical idea. I think employees of these companies should demand an internal or public report by the company, certified by outside accountants so you can't bullshit, that fully discloses every issue they lobbied on, what positions they took on it, how they align their campaign contributions strategically to be part of that effort. I do not think actually the average rank and file Facebook employee knows what Facebook is doing to avoid antitrust scrutiny.

CHRIS HAYES: Absolutely.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: And I think a lot of them would have a problem with it.

CHRIS HAYES: I think that gets actually to a deeper kind of psychological core of the book and the phenomenon which is like, do you want to know? I mean, a lot of this is about creating for yourself a story about who you are and where you fit in the world, that let's you off the hook a little bit.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I think that's very true. I guess I don't think a country is an economy.


ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I don't think a country is a market. There is a marketized view of the human condition and of our society that can be found on the left and the right in our time. I mean Goldman Sachs was one of Obama's biggest donors.


ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: That doesn't make Obama any less of a good man to me, but it's a notable fact about the traditional worker's party.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. And it's a fact about what you call in the book, you use the phrase “market world” to describe it. There's a lot of different names. I mean, I guess maybe what do we call that? What's that ideology? Some people call it neoliberalism, you call it market world, meritocracy. There's a bunch of ways people describe what to me is basically this sort of consensus ideology of the American elite, circa mid 1990s through now, which is about, you know, socially tolerant, believer in markets, very skeptical of socialism and big state solutions to things, but also not really into like over religiosity. Like there's a bunch of aspects to that ideology.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Absolutely. And so I call in a way the complex of people and institutions and morals and values, I call that market world.


ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I learned a long time ago as a journalist, you know, coinage is just a powerful way to like make people look at stuff they feel they've seen a million times and make them re-see it. I think one way I think about what the ideology is, you know, neoliberalism is a useful word, but I think it's like an academic sounding word that I think will never actually be understandable to most people.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I think it's also been just destroyed through overuse in certain contexts. It’s like, what does it mean?

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: A simple way I think about is market fundamentalism. And one thing that's actually powerful about that is like religious fundamentalists often don't mind being called fundamentalists because they actually think like the Bible or the Koran is fundamental. And so it's a way of actually talking about something that's inclusive both of the critics and the believers. I think we live, without realizing it, in the age of market fundamentalism and we have been since the seventies. The assumptions and the way conversations or delimited is shaped by a belief that in a way markets are the fundamental truths, and there are other truths atop that.

CHRIS HAYES: Or intrusions into it.


CHRIS HAYES: That this is the way gravity works and the world works, and you can do stuff to mess with it. You'll sort of reap the whirlwind if you do. There's some places where it makes sense to do it, but ultimately the sort of driving physics of the world.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: A very sad example of that for me, towards the end of the book, I had an interview with Bill Clinton. We spent probably 90 minutes together. And you know, Bill Clinton in 1964, who believed more than Bill Clinton in 1964 in using politics and movements and law and like reform, actual reform, to change the world?


ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Okay. In 2016 or 2017 when I spoke to him, or today, who believes more than Bill Clinton in changing the world through plutocratic projects where Goldman Sachs, McDonald's, like the Tennessee-

CHRIS HAYES: He is the epitome…

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Health Authority, and like a billionaire in Swaziland like all fix something?

CHRIS HAYES: We've announced today a partnership to put more fiber supplements into Chicken McNuggets, along with whatever the…

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Correct. So I had a conversation with him about, how did you get from A to B? And I think what we all know about Bill Clinton is this is a guy whose probably preternatural skill is his ability to just read where things were going, and I think he read where things were going. I think he understood. His career tracks the age of market fundamentalism. I don't think he's a bible thumping market fundamentalist, but I think he went with it. He said the era of big government is over.

By the way, Barack Obama, the first office he created, the office of social innovation, its website said top down programs from Washington don't work anymore, which is an extraordinary, first of all untrue, and extraordinary statement by the leader of a liberal government who started in community organizing. This fundamentalism is widespread and all pervasive and totalizing.

So Clinton and I are having this conversation and I alight on the issue, which I think is like open and shut, an issue he's worked on, of kids being fattened and given diabetes because of the soft drink industry's political power to get vending machines in their schools and on their menus or whatever. Now, it's hard to think for me as someone who like studied political philosophy and used to, you know, you make up these cases to try to prove an issue, I mean, it's hard to think about an issue more suited for government intervention.

Kids can't vote. They can't sue. They have no easy means of organizing to stop those companies, those companies are the most powerful, among the most powerful institutions in this country. They have the government at their fingertips. They're using that power to hurt kids. The kids are getting hurt, they're dying younger, they're getting diseases, and you've got a former American president interested in the issue, willing to work on it.

Wow, great. Should we just do a federal ban? Should we do a movement? What should we do? What he says, “if you want to get them to do less harm, it requires innovation because they still have to make money, especially for publicly held companies.” Why do they have to still make money? They're prematurely ending children's lives.

CHRIS HAYES: Or also, why do you have to worry about that?

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Why is that your problem?

CHRIS HAYES: That's not your problem. That to me is the issue, right?


CHRIS HAYES: It's like, yeah, I guess in some macro sense, for Pepsi Cola to exist, Pepsi Cola has to be profitable, although-

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Overall. But we're talking about one…

CHRIS HAYES: No, exactly.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Whose problem is it?


ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: It's their problem.

CHRIS HAYES: It's not your problem.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Not his problem. And it's not our problem.

CHRIS HAYES: But it is your problem, though. I mean that seems to me, there's stuff in here that feels specific to the age, and there's stuff in here that feels ageless. Very wealthy, elite people telling themselves self-justifying stories about their position in the moral cosmology they construct for themselves and their own worthiness and the ability of all their other rich friends to help solve problems, that seems fairly ageless to me. Like I feel like if you-

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: We all watched "Downton Abbey."

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. "Downton Abbey." You beam into Rome if you go back to the Gilded Age. Like that's basically what people at the top do throughout history. And like Bill Clinton spends a lot of time around, like he spends more time around probably Pepsi-Cola CEOs than he does around like kids getting obese off, you know, excess soda drinks or whatever. And so, that seems to me like a fundamental truth about the way that inequality functions and the way that like elites self-corrode.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I think that's right. I think there are in every age, there's a certain story that allows the people on top to not feel awful about themselves. Lord and Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey, you know, are very nice to the people living on the edge of the manor and give them something every now and then, and when they have a problem paying the rent, you know, maybe are willing to forgive it. They're not willing to like question why like they own all the land and all these people in Britain don't own any land.


ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: And so I think there's always a version of that story which is like, I'm willing to do anything to help except, you know, lose.

CHRIS HAYES: Give up my manor.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Exactly. Except give up my manor. But I think in the case of the Clinton thing, it did feel more specific to this age.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Because it felt specific to the ideology.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: The solicitousness to a business executive's bottom line, when I am literally setting you up with a tee ball saying, "Don't you think we could build a movement as you as a former president to like save dying kids?" Nope. Got to make sure the company's the bottom line. So what did they do? They did smaller cans. And you know, and I'm sure they produced studies showing that they helped some kids, and I'm sure they did help some kids.

But what was interesting to me, he said this other thing in that exchange, which was, “it's always better if you can make it work in the private sector.” And I think that's at the heart of the ideology. That the government, the public sector has become this like ugly beast that it's better not to rouse. If you have to, fine. And that is the way in which I think the left has absorbed almost a secondhand smoke, the right's forthright hatred of government.

And writing that chapter, I talked to Jacob Hacker at Yale, who's this really smart thinker, I'm sure you know, who makes this really interesting point that I'd never thought of. He says, you know, when the right denigrates government or just gets government to not function well, that reinforces its aims. The right thinks government should do less. So when government does less or doesn't work or fights or can't solve a problem, it proves its point. It's very helpful.

There's an asymmetry there, where when the left kind of concedes to that view even a little and says, well, better to make it work in the private sector or you know, we're doing healthcare to bend the cost curve down, speaks about things in business language, or just somehow kind of doesn't make an equal and opposite case for government, you end up kind of both playing within the sandbox of government is this kind of dirty thing that we sometimes have to deal with. It's a necessary evil. And one of the arguments he makes is Democrats will actually do better when they make an assertive case for government. It doesn't mean government has to be like this crazy-

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, my favorite example of this is that when you look at the politics of two different parts of Obamacare, which is like the very kind of like market fundamentalist friendly Rube Goldberg contraption of the exchanges where it's like, it's private and you're a consumer and it's business, but we're going to subsidize and like make it all work-

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: By the way, I'm on those exchanges and it's awful.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, and people don't like them.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: It's the worst part of a market system and-

CHRIS HAYES: Exactly, that's right.


CHRIS HAYES: But the brute force government part of the ACA, which is just Medicaid expansion, very popular.


CHRIS HAYES: They couldn't get rid of it. It was probably the thing that saved the ACA because in places like West Virginia particularly, that would've gone bye bye, and they did not want it to go bye bye. So the best test of this precise thing about the kind of political salience of these questions is like you've actually got it in the ACA. You've got the brute force government stuff and you've got the tinkering with the market stuff and they're there, and it just turns out that people ... Like one is more popular than the other.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: And by the way like, I mean this is a slight tangent, but I also think this has to do with what I personally regard as the Democrats' often weakness in being able to sell like really saleable things. I mean if you travel in this country, like everybody has anxiety about their healthcare because it's such a bad system whether you have insurance or don't. To not be able to sell something like Medicare for all very effectively and to still have that be fringy when it's the law of the land in every other rich country but this one, doesn't just suggest Republican effectiveness. I think it suggests like Democrats not being very good at selling.

CHRIS HAYES: No, but I think to suggest what you say in the book, like what you're arguing in the book, which is like in some ways both the cultural hegemony of a certain set of ideas and the political economy of the resistance to it.


CHRIS HAYES: I mean it's like the fact of the matter is that's a perfect example of the fact that the obstacle there is an obstacle of-


CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I mean, but-

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: But I think a really great pitch, I mean, which is what I also argued for in the book, if you get 60 percent of Americans to want that-

CHRIS HAYES: But see, okay. But this gets to what I think is missing, right? Which is that there isn't an institutionalized force in American life right now to channel in a scalable way, countervailing power to the elites that you're talking about who have different divisions among them, like some are liberals and some are conservatives and some are Wilbur Rosses and some Mark Zuckerbergs and you know, all over the place. But like there just is no like really powerful working class power in America.


CHRIS HAYES: Because they basically, that same group of people destroyed the labor movement.


CHRIS HAYES: And so it's like there's ideas, there's guilt, you can work on people at the edges, but like ultimately it's a power question.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Completely. But I don't think there's no spaces to go.

CHRIS HAYES: No, I agree with that.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: If you look at the teacher strikes-

CHRIS HAYES: That's a great example.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Where I don't think anybody saw that coming, and they used Facebook and they used some of these tools and they very quickly marshaled a lot of people power to get states, you know, to kind of get states into a very tough negotiating position and make concessions. By the way, that may be a harbinger of something even deeper, which is, you know, there's a book, an Arthur Schlesinger book I loved many years ago called "Cycles of American History." It talked about, you know, all these divides, they shift over time. Which is the market party and which, they all, they shift. We think they're so entrenched.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. One of my favorite ones is like, which is the free trade party in American life, which goes all over the place in basically.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: And it's in the middle of happening right now.

CHRIS HAYES: Literally happening right now.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I think we're living through actually one of these realignments that's very weird. It's hard to tell which issue is going to end up where permanently. One of the issues that I could see flipping around is federalism where-

CHRIS HAYES: Yes, I agree.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Particularly if Trump wins a second term. I think I could see liberals actually gravitating to the view, not just that of dire practicality, but actually saying, I could see liberals actually coming to believe that having experiments among the different states and being able to try out different things, having refuges, you know, frankly were like abortion may be legal when it's not legal everywhere, where immigrants feel safe when they don't feel safe everywhere.

As a grudging concession to reality, liberals start to actually become interested in that kind of issue. And what that would do would be to create a lot of countervailing power. I mean, I think part of what's happened is, and there's a lot of evidence for this around the Trump election, our politics have been very nationalized. Everybody focuses on these big national issues.

CHRIS HAYES: It's crazy.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: And maybe the answer is, you know, like countervailing power by people actually getting involved at all ... We have a lot of governments here. We don't just have a congress and a president.

CHRIS HAYES: Could not ... I mean I do this whenever I go out and talk and talk about particularly the second book I wrote, which is about criminal justice, I'm always like, who's your prosecutor? And what's their record? Did you vote in that election? Do they have a challenger? Do you have a challenger who's challenging them that you can go knock on doors on? Like that's a good place to start. Donald Trump, don't worry about Donald Trump when it comes to mass incarceration. Like that's 90 steps removed.

I want to talk about Silicon Valley. You spend a lot of time on it in the book, and to me it's like that's the apotheosis of the age. I mean, when I think about the Gilded Age, you think about heavy industry and you think about steel, you think about the sort of names that emerged from that, you think about steel and railroads and machinery and factories, you think about Carnegie and Rockefeller and then you also think about the worldview they had formed by that, which was this very engineering mindset. The machinery of human life. It all fuses together, when you think about that age.

To me, when they write the histories of this age, our version of that is Silicon Valley, with all of its ... I mean, the hubris will seem so preposterous at a certain point.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: They're changing the world, Chris, what are you talking about?

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, just so preposterous at a certain point.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: They're making the world a better place.

CHRIS HAYES: One question I had for you as I read the book was ... You were writing this book as the Frankenstein awareness was dawning on everyone that the monster had come off the table and was now menacing around the room.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I think the most interesting thing that I learned in spending time out there and with those kinds of people is it is a very different picture than, let's say, the stereotypical New York, Goldman Sachs person, who understands that a certain amount of structure giving or a program to help empower 10,000 women is a lubricant and an engine of greed.


ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I mean, there's this-

CHRIS HAYES: It's funny, because I remember being at ... I literally remembered, just like a flash in my mind, being at an event in D.C. with a Goldman Sachs person on the panel, talking about the women empowerment. I've literally had that moment of like, "Oh, I see what you're doing there. I get it."

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Today, this 10,000 Women program ... By the way, I think they probably helped cause many more women to lose their homes in the financial crisis, because of what they paid the multi-billion dollar fine for.

There's an e-mail, because all of Goldman Sachs' e-mails were grabbed by the Senate when they were investigating what they did in the run-up to the crisis ... There's an e-mail from November 2007 that I love. They were anticipating a Jenny Anderson story in the New York Times the next day, basically talking about the issue for which they would later pay those fines.

Image: Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein
Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative 2014 (CGI) in New York, September 24, 2014.Shannon Stapleton / Reuters file

So this e-mail says, "Look, the story's coming." It's to Lloyd Blankfein from his PR guy, and to Gary Cohn and others. "This story's coming tomorrow. It's balanced. I.e., it's got stuff we don't like. But here are five bullet-point updates on what I know about the story." Number one item on the five bullet-point update: "GS Gives is not going to be in the story." Right? Then there's some other context I can tell you but basically-

CHRIS HAYES: Oh, that is an amazing tell. That is an amazing tell.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: This was a program that had not yet been announced. I don't know if it was created for this story, which is a possibility, or if it happened to be created in November of 2007, which was a very good time to create a philanthropic program, if you're Goldman Sachs.


ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: It was a program where basically partners and managing directors would give certain money, and Goldman would match it, and it was structured, I think, as a donor advisory fund kind of model. It was very clear ... Just so revealing, in this e-mail, like, "Bad story coming. We tried to get the New York Times reporter to include 'GS Gives' in it," which has nothing to do, obviously, with this thing. Right?

But they get it. They understand that it's-

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, that is a great-

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: ... lubricant in the engine.

CHRIS HAYES: The basic thing that Goldman Sachs did was that they, like everyone else, bought all these garbage securities. They figured out they were garbage sooner than a lot of people in the market, and the way they got rid of them was by turning around and selling them to their customers, knowing they were garbage, and they got out ahead of it, which was they thing they got investigated for. Just so people know what we're talking about.


CHRIS HAYES: So they get that it's lubricant. They understand, there's almost a kind of-

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: There's a total self-awareness-

CHRIS HAYES: Self-awareness.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: By the way, that story came out without the GS Gives, and then three days later, the same reporter did a story in the New York Times about how they were announcing GS Gives, and it had some quotes in it about ... "We're citizens of the world. We understand we've made a lot of money, and it's time to give something back." So they got their say.

CHRIS HAYES: They got their GS Gives.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Even in the New York Times.

CHRIS HAYES: They got their GS Gives.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: That's one end of the spectrum, which is a long way of getting to ... I think Silicon Valley is on the other end of the spectrum. I think they truly, madly, and deeply believe that they're making the world a better place.

CHRIS HAYES: To a utterly terrifying degree. I find it-

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I can handle, and our society can handle, the Goldman Sachs thing way more easily than we can handle what I call the "Chairman Mao/Gandhi" thing coming ... The reason I use both is like, you never know which one you're going to get when you have that personality. You can get lucky, and you can get a Gandhi, or you can get a Chairman Mao, but the total conviction that you are leading a movement for the betterment of mankind has been a very dangerous force throughout history.

CHRIS HAYES: They are fully smoking what they're dealing.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Fully. I've had private conversations with a lot of people in that world, and my best understanding of it is the following, right? I always try to think about what's the most empathetic ... I'm very critical of them, but I try to be empathetic to what is they're way of thinking about ... If I was their lawyer, how would I articulate what they think they're doing?

What I think it is is this. I think it's profoundly wrong, but I think it's this. I think they believe that they got lucky in stumbling onto a set of tools that are inherently emancipating. They think that they are like tinkerers in the basement who happened to stumble upon the bolt cutter that can cut the chains of humankind. Right?

Girls in Afghanistan who can't read, we're going to educate them through Sal Khan's videos. Women who are disempowered by centuries of patriarchy ... They got "Lean In" circles. People from marginalized communities are going to be less marginalized because they have Twitter now. Whatever it is.

There's a certain kernel of truth in all of those stories, right? If you are a person with a really good voice in a basement in Algeria, your odds of being discovered today are infinitely higher than before this, right? If you are in between jobs, and look, you don't need to make $50,000, you just need to make $500 to get through a certain car payment, and you can download the Uber app and get going ... That's emancipating for you in that situation. So there's a kernel of truth in it.

But I think they have ... My understanding of them is they have come to believe that those tools and those bolt cutters are so inherently powerful and important for them to bring to humanity, that they view any retardant as evil.

CHRIS HAYES: As evil. That's exactly right.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: You and me are evil retardants, because we ask questions. The government is evil retardants because it wants to regulate this, and tax that, and pin things down, and categorize. Civil society ... people haranguing them about abuse, and taking accounts down, and taking down falsehoods and fake news are evil, because they're just ... Now they've got to put 50,000 people reading tweets or reading Facebook posts, instead of building code.

The guy in Sri Lanka who said, when there were all these killings in Sri Lanka facilitated on Facebook's platform ... ethnic killings ... The guy in Sri Lanka who said, "They have a lot of power over us, but we don't have much power over them." That guy's a retardant, because he basically wants them, I guess, to set up an office in that country, and incorporate, and file their paperwork. They could be spending that time just bolt cutting the chains of humanity.

I just think that's a much tougher problem, as a society, to deal with than GS Gives.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Yeah. That's my takeaway from the book, where the central challenge is the people who have the power that is concentrated in the wealth in almost historically unrivaled fashion ... Particularly when you think about tech, I don't think there's a good precedent for it. I mean, people always say like, "Facebook's bigger than the Catholic Church. It's the largest human institution on earth."

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: By the way, compared to the ... I mean, Carnegies and Rockefellers did oil and steel. Think about Facebook's power over minds, over discourse, over elections. The ability to make people kill themselves. I mean, this is a level of power that is rare in the history of the world.

CHRIS HAYES: I have come to think that they're basically messianic maniacs. I think-

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Who think that they're good.

CHRIS HAYES: Who think that they're good. You know what? My favorite example of this is Elon Musk on Twitter. The guy is clearly brilliant, and much of what he's done is astoundingly impressive. No joke, legit astoundingly impressive. The SpaceX stuff is astoundingly impressive. The Tesla stuff, for all of its bumpy rides and all of this stuff ... That's not just an app on your phone. It's a physical thing that they physical built in the physical world ... There's a million things about what Elon Musk has done that just is up to the hype.

Also, the guy is a nutbar! A nutbar! And-

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: But to your point-

CHRIS HAYES: It's just like showing out all the time now, and I'm like, "Whoa, dude. Are they all like this? And if they are, we are so f'ed they’re running things.”

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: What's amazing is, as you say, the achievements are real. A guy like that who showed a modest amount of respect for the institutions and norms ... Like, Why are you going after journalists, and saying you want to do a 'truth score,' and you're going to reinvent journalism? Stay in your lane, build some amazing things, but have some respect for the institutions and norms of society.

I mean, these people are so anti-government. They're so anti-press. Okay. Well, why didn't he build any of his companies in any other country?


ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I mean, I think these guys, deep down, understand perfectly well that they are totally dependent on the institutions and courts of this country.

CHRIS HAYES: That, yeah ... That's the deep question.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I've got to tell you a story. I was once at this art show, and the artist was giving us a tour of his facility, and where he makes this complicated art. This very lovely elderly lady walked over to the tour a little bit late, and apologized for being late.

We were introduced, and she asked what I do. I said, "I'm a writer." She said, "What do you write?" "I'm working on this book." "What's it about?" And I said, "It's about people who say they're changing the world." She says, "Well, are they?" I said, "Nah. I don't really think so."

She says, "What kind of people do you have in mind?" I was like, "Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, these Silicon Valley guys, just say they're changing the world, all this bluster. And really, just grabbing wealth and power." She turns a little bit icy, but she's a very classy lady, and the conversation moves on to other terrain, and the art tour continues.

About five minutes later, my artist friend comes over to me with great excitement on his face, and said, "Can you believe Elon Musk's mom is on this tour?" Yeah. Yeah. I really know how to sell them. I don't think she has bought the book.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Well, she may not have, but I think a lot of people have and will. It's called "Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World." It's by Anand Giridharadas. It's a fantastic book. You should definitely check it out. Thanks for coming on, man.


CHRIS HAYES: Once again great thanks to Anand for making some time to talk about his great book Winners Take All which you get wherever you purchase your books… or wherever you borrow them from your amazing public library. As always we love to hear from you, we love all feedback. You can email us at WITHpod@gmail.com or tweet at us with the hashtag WITHpod. I’ve really been enjoying people’s emails and tweets about Rebecca Traister and our conversation about women and anger that was happening against the backdrop of the Kavanaugh confirmation which was a grim but fortuitious pairing of subject and timing. Lots of people talked about how listening to that conversation helped them process the week, how it clarified what was happening. I’m really really happy that we were able to get that up in time so that people could have that as a contextual framework to understand the news as it was unfolding.

"Why is this Happening" is brought to you MSNBC and NBC News. Produced by the "All In" team and features music by Eddie Cooper. For transcripts, more episodes, and links to things we covered here, you can go to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.

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