A Review of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

“Wealth is like an orchard. You have to share the fruit, not the orchard.” – Carlos Slim

The above quote from Carlos Slim, taken from the pages of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, appropriately sums up the core theme of the book: Why are we living in an age of extreme generosity by the wealthy elite while simultaneously burdened with the largest wealth gap in the history of our species? Anand Giridharadas sets out to tackle this complicated narrative in a compelling, evocative, and thoughtful manner. This is the first “book review” I’ve done since college so let’s get into it.

The stage is set to highlight the increased wealth gap in recent decades. “For instance, the average pretax income of the top tenth of Americans has doubled since 1980, that of the top 1 percent has more than tripled, and that of the top 0.001 percent has risen more than sevenfold – even as the average pretax income of the bottom half of Americans has stayed almost precisely the same.” Immediately we are hit with a serious data point to consider. For the majority of middle and lower-class citizens, our income has stagnated over the past decades. Despite this stagnation, costs of goods/services and housing have skyrocketed by over 50 percent. In full transparency, that’s a strong negative lens we’re given to view and analyze the notions Giridharadas presents before us. To be fair, it is an accurate lens so before even finishing the Prologue we are beset with internal conflict.

What is MarketWorld? As defined by Giridharadas, “MarketWorld is an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo.” In simpler terms, MarketWorld is the embodiment of privileged individuals protecting their own interests while pretending to push for change for the greater good. It is a series of group think conferences and retreats for the wealthy elite to circulate like-minded ideals. It is also a hub of indoctrination into the mentality of “Win-Win” thinking. Win-Win philosophy was pushed into the mainstream arena by Stephen Covey in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. As described by Covey:

Win-win sees life as a cooperative arena, not a competitive one. Win-win is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions. Win-win means agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial and satisfying. We both get to eat the pie, and it tastes pretty darn good!

As an outsider, this concept seems incredible. A way of life that is centered around opportunities for both you and I. The ultimate business solution! Giridharadas spends the rest of the book challenging this way of thought; Giridharadas brings to light how although there are countless opportunities and stories of wealth created by win-win thinking, there are vastly more stories of failure, poverty, and struggle as outcomes of pursuing that virtue. Essentially we are forced to reconcile with the reality that a perfect business outcome can be generated where you and I as buyer/seller have our needs met but the outside entities indirectly impacted by our arrangement are held down and oppressed.

This is best captured by the evaluation of win-win companies like Uber, Airbnb, Toms, Bombas, and more. Uber is particularly lambasted by Giridharadas as a false prophet enterprise, one he describes as “a company…that had sought to shatter democratically enacted regulations and evade the unions that have a record of actually, and not just rhetorically, fighting for the little guy.” The punches are pulled there either, GIridiharadas continues digging into Uber and similar MarketWorld entities on how they frame disruption and change as part of their core beliefs, while not actually driving any true progress. What has become known as the gig-economy, where many of these win-win companies thrive, has neutered the working citizen’s ability to fight for better wages and benefits and opportunity professionally. Instead of fighting for equal pay I can just download an app and start my side hustle. Which sounds more American?

MarketWorld idealogy spreads far beyond the business sector as Giridharadas shows. It permeates our education system as well. Look at the rising cost of tuition and the ever-increasing burden of student debt that plagues many college graduates. Giridharadas forced me to take a long hard look at my choices as a student and my choices to take on student loans to pay for my college degree. I came from a comfortable middle-class family with loving parents who gave me every opportunity to succeed in life. My father immigrated from Cuba and my mother was a first-generation daughter of a Cuban immigrant, my grandmother, as well. Neither of my parents had college degrees when I went to pursue mine. I graduated with $30,000 in loans and a degree in Business Administration with a focus in Hospitality Management. Almost a decade removed from graduating college I still have over $30,000 in student loans compounded daily with exorbitant interest rates and the ability to only cover the minimum payment. My situation is drastically better than so many others and I can acknowledge that. At least I work in an industry that typically has higher wages and provides full benefits even for entry-level roles. It’s hard to excuse my own mistakes though when looking back on how I got to where I am now.

The concept of wealth generation, wealth hoarding, and wealth influencing are not new-age ways of thinking. Giridiharadas takes us back to the days of business behemoths Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller to illustrate where these seeds were sowed. Summarized by Giridharadas, “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 your wealth, in the way, we think you should enjoy it.” What a line. Can you imagine if one of the billionaires of today came out and made such a statement? You don’t have to. Computer tycoon Michael Dell was asked about higher taxes on the wealthy at a Davos conference back in 2019. Dell replied that he and his wife already give to charity: “I feel much more comfortable with our ability … to allocate those funds than I do giving them to the government.”

Are we to accept that systemic change is only acceptable in a manner where the wealthy elite have the final say in how it is implemented? In a manner that is win-win for their interests and doesn’t challenge the status quo? This is the type of question you are forced to ask while reading through Winners Take All. Giridharadas does an excellent job of showing the inner workings of a world many of us would never be privy to. He caveats the entire story by sharing that he is one of these MarketWorld elites, having access to conferences, billionaire friends, TED talks, and more. It’s a bold approach to take but one that is appreciated. While there are certainly plenty of examples of MarketWorld companies fighting for the status quo there are plenty that are choosing to pursue real change. I hope that from reading this I will be more informed about these win-win companies and be able to better judge how I support them. In an age where everyone wants to change the world, how can we actually change it?

If you’d like to hear Giridharadas summarize the core of the book himself:





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *