How We Are Going to Live Together Is Up for Grabs

Anand Giridharadas, writer and author of the book, Winners Take All, discusses the multiple crises we are currently facing, how they could provide an impetus for real change, and how US and global elites are failing to live up to the challenge.

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Rob Johnson:

Welcome to Economics & Beyond. I’m Rob Johnson, President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

I’m here today with Anand Giridharadas who wrote a book that I say turned me inside out a few years ago, Winner Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. How do I say it? It raised so many questions that I actually think are even more vivid now and in need of exploration as a result of the pandemic and some of the other things that we’ve experienced that have been so unsettling for society, both in the United States and around the world. Anand, thank you for joining me today.

Anand Giridharadas:

I’m most happy to be with you again.

Rob Johnson:

It’s very powerful what I will call the kind of musical inspiration, not necessarily the lyrics. But what I was thinking about today, I kept hearing this song that Bob Dylan wrote last year called I Contain Multitudes. And in many ways, the many multidimensionality of awareness, psychological, political, how media and various institutions work.

I just see you have a lateral pattern recognition type skill that’s extraordinary. And I hope my young scholars will not only tune in today, but continue to learn from you. I know you have a very nourishing Substack site on called The Ink, which I subscribe to. And I not only enjoy you, I enjoy the people you attract to that site. And I hope it continues to thrive.

Anand Giridharadas:

Well, thank you. I appreciate it. I remember our first conversation from three or four years ago and it still stands out to me so glad to be back in a conversation with you.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. And I would say to you, having worked in government in the private sector with very wealthy billionaires, et cetera, throughout my life, you’re helping me navigate on my path and how do I say? A mask within my own heart what I think goodness is as opposed to dodging and avoiding things. And as you know, when you avoid things, you end up in a crisis.

You’ve got to embrace the challenges. So right now we’re coming through a pandemic of fear that the Biden administration is losing momentum as the midterm elections approach in the United States. We’re seeing a lot of concern about US, China relations. We’re seeing a lot of concern about the Ukraine and we’re seeing a lot of anxiety.

I just made a podcast with Ajay Chhibber about the reinvigoration of India. And I think I remember from our first time talking, my mother grew up in Rocky River, Ohio. And I think you said something like you were born in Cleveland or lived in Cleveland. And I knew you were a Wolverine at one point at University of Michigan.

It’s where my dad went to college. But I just remember thinking that you had been in Mumbai, though that’s not where you started. And then to the New York Times, which I think where you were coming out of when we first met. But from those different backgrounds, those different places, Cleveland, Detroit, and Arbor, that wasn’t a part of the world.

I used to say that that’s the region of the world America divorced when the auto industry went down. They didn’t come to the assistance. And when you’re thinking of healing now, seeing what’s happening, seeing the dysfunction, seeing the attraction to authoritarian alternative, what’s the picture you would paint of the, which am I called? The road and the light at the end of the tunnel.

Anand Giridharadas:

Well, I’m glad we’re doing an easy start, an easy interview. Look, I think this could not be a moment of higher stakes. This is a moment where… And not just high stakes on one thing or two things or three things. This is a moment in time in which some of the most vital questions of how we are going to live together within the United States in the family of nations are up for grabs.

And there is a wider range of answers possible on offer for people possible, could be in place in five years or 10 years or 20 years. Then I think it’s typically possible in a given era. So just to take a few, climate. It is genuinely possible that we will make choices that allow the planet to be a place we can continue to live.

And it is genuinely possible that we will not make choices to keep the world being a habitable place to live, and it will no longer be a habitable place. And I can’t tell you nor can you tell me which of those we’re going to do, right? That is a live discussion and contest. The end of civilization on earth, or should we keep going?

I mean, in how many eras has that been a live fraught subject of deliberation? But it is. We are in a conversation in the United States, and not only in the United States, about whether we should attempt to realize the promise of democracy in this country, be a liberal democracy that has peaceful transitions of power through respecting the will of the people in elections or whether maybe we should not be that.

Again in your and my life, and there haven’t been that many moments when that kind of question, should we do peaceful transitions of power, or should we not, has been elevated literally to the… Presented in that way with a kind of 50/50 view on it in the country.

We are having a reckoning around race and understanding the bone deep nature of racism in this country in a way that has normally been buried, marginalized, hidden in subtext, talked around through these kind of proxy, coded things like deficits and welfare and these kind of issues that allow people to talk about race without talking about race.

Well, that’s over. We are now explicitly talking about a kind of things like the 1619 project, views of the United States as being flawed from the beginning in their endemic racism. And on the other hand, the attempts to kind of purge honest history have book bands ban critical race theory, and these other useful contributions to understanding ourselves.

So we’re not having a 1990s like welfare argument as a pro… We are talking about whether we are an irredeemably racist country, or whether anybody who thinks we are a racist country should essentially be banned from teaching and banned from public life in different ways. So on that level, again, we are having the highest stakes version of the argument.

With COVID, we have really had dramatized the questions around what kind of economy and safety net and the basic question of what we owe each other. Are we a society that leaves people to their own devices? Which again has always kind of been the question, but has been really dramatized when for a lot of people just work was taken away for a two year period, opportunity was taken away, homes were taken away.

And on the other hand, people arguing with a new skip in their step because of the teaching moment of the last two years, that there is a case for having real solidarity in this country, for doing things like healthcare together, for having real labor protection. With the Ukraine, Russia situation, and I think the Afghanistan would draw some months earlier, we are facing a real question about what does the world look like?

When the country that has in recent decades, and you’re in my lifetime, been the self appointed kind of arbiter of the packs Americana that was named after it. What happens when that country, our country, still kind of remains the only country that can throw its weight around on a situation like Russia?

That can try to beat back the terrible things Vladimir Putin is doing, but at the same time is a country that is kind of stripped of all authority to say anything about anything to anyone else. It’s just not clear who the hell we are, what our standing is in the world. If we don’t even do peaceful transfers of power anymore as a kind of guaranteed bedrock thing, what are we talking about when we talk about democracy around the world?

If we cannot go into a society like Afghanistan in 20 years and understand that country with just the barest enough understanding of social dynamics in that society, that frankly every writer I know who moved to that country and wrote a book about it, understood it much better than the entire security apparatus of the United States that spent 20 years and trillions of dollars attempting to understand it.

Literally every writer who went there understood it on their own just by walking around and talking to people. So I don’t understand the trillions of dollars we spent trying to not understand it, but if we’re not able to understand a society like Afghanistan in a way to have basically any influence there besides bleeding money there, then what gives us an understanding about how to out strategize Vladimir Putin?

What gives us any kind of insight into what is actually motivating the Chinese? So we could go on, but on every level what I see is the highest stakes imaginable. And the last thing I’ll say is I think there was a way that you could listen to what I just said over the last few minutes as a case for despair.

But I actually think if you heard the kind of various versions of the dilemmas, they all contain a very positive potential scenario also. And I am not clear which way we’re going to go. I think we could come out of COVID with a new understanding of the safety net. We could come out of COVID with a desire to bring down plutocracy in a way that there wasn’t when you and I talked last on this show.

I think there is a possibility that climate change will wake us up not only to beating back climate change, but to creating a way of living with the planet and with each other that is better than the way we’ve ever lived with each other on the planet before. I think it is possible that we come out of Afghanistan, we deal with this Russia situation in a way that has actually more humility, because we understand what we don’t understand.

And we realize that if you’re not a strong democracy at home, it really limits your ability to talk about protecting other democracies. There is in each of these scenarios, a hope that this is actually one of those moments in societies. I think like the moment coming out of World War I, the moment coming out of World War II, where there is actually this greater than usual space to rethink, to reimagine, to build something different, to go a different way.

And I think the other half of each of those dilemmas is that we may really mess it up. And we may be the people who made the planet go to hell who basically squandered whatever measure of democracy we had and who left life worse for everybody who has come after us. And that is a real and fraught choice that I think haunts us on every level of political question we have.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I’m always informed by musical lyrics as I listen to my guests. Bob Dylan in 1962 at a time when the Sputnik polarity and fear of nuclear wars had a song called Masters of War. You’ve thrown the worst fear that can never be hurled, fear to bring children into the world. For threatening my baby unborn and unnamed, you ain’t worth the blood that runs in your veins.

That fear, like you said, crisis is opportunity, but people like Daniel Ellsberg who had done a very nice job, I made a three part series for my young scholars with him last year, have talked about the scale and size of these arsenals. If these people unleash on each other, will destroy the upper atmosphere and 95% of life on earth. And he’s not what you might call conjectural.

These are things that are published in nature and science magazine. And in other words, the dispassionate experts in some real of this science see the danger of nuclear war, which was always hideous vis a vis the two places fighting, but it’s now a planetary destruction that makes me worry a little bit about the Taiwan streets or Ukraine.

You’ve got all of these very, very, which I might call lots of momentum in the political economy. The strength of pharma and insurance, making medical care in America cost about twice what it does for everybody per capita in the OECD, but being ranked by the world health organization as 38th in quality. There are better models existing that we’re not emulating.

And I don’t understand all the sources of resistance. You mentioned the notion plutocracy, and I don’t understand, how would I say? How you let things go down the drain while making money. When you’re talking about the stakes being as high as you are, nuclear war, climate destruction, how can you not shift gears?

I understand from listening to one of your earlier audio podcast that you have two children. I’ve got four children and two grandchildren. That’s really something worth fighting for.

Anand Giridharadas:

It is.

Rob Johnson:

And it’s not just about money. And I don’t know-

Anand Giridharadas:

There are people from my generation. I mean, I don’t take this view, but there are people from my generation, people I know and respect who otherwise want children, but are not having them because of the nature of the world that those children would be in.

And again, that’s an individual choice, a private choice, and who knows what else may be going on there. And while it’s not a choice I share, I think it’s a wake up call. What does it say about our stewardship of our institutions, the society, the world? That people are not confident it would be ethical to introduce a human being into it.

Rob Johnson:

Dylan has a lyric in that same song. Let me ask you a question. Is your money that good? Will it buy you forgiveness? Do you think that it could? I think you will find when your death takes its toll, all the money you made will never buy back your soul. That’s-

Anand Giridharadas:

Sounds like he shares my views on philanthropy.

Rob Johnson:

Exactly. And this, how you say doing good and doing well, the question is doing well financially accompanied by doing good. Is that doing good or feeling good about your intent?

Anand Giridharadas:

Yeah, I mean, I think to step back, we have all these problems. A lot of these problems, they have multiple causes, but a very common cause behind a lot of them is the richest and most powerful people wanting to run the society like a casino where they’re the only people who win.

And that shows up in why we don’t have healthcare. It shows up why we don’t have a safety net. They would rather not pay taxes and pay what they owe. It shows up in why we are so ready to go to war. And so loathes to make peace. It shows up in the kind of knee capping of Joe Biden’s agenda to spend a lot of money protecting this country and the world against climate change and tightening the safety net and so on and so forth.

And the very same plutocratic forces, the billionaire class, the Jeff Bezos and Elon Musks and others of that ilk who have spent this pandemic seeing their fortunes just mushroom, will do everything they can to resist any checks on their wealth and power, resist anti monopoly scrutiny, resist regulation.

You see Elon Musk taking government money for his projects and then decrying government spending as an ingrate, so on and so forth. And then to your point, they turn around having plundered, having gut punched the state that is really the best chance the rest of us have to have something of a level playing field with them.

And then they turn around and they say they want to do well by doing good. They actually want to help us. Rob, didn’t you know they want to help us? They want to give back. They want to change the world. They want to make the world a better place. They want to solve this problem. They want to solve that problem.

You have Jeff Bezos not long ago donating money to create a free preschool for poor children. Another way to say poor children is the children of the people Jeff Bezos and people like him underpay. So you build a fortune in this way where you cut every moral corner you can, you underpay people if you can, you underpay taxes if you can, you avoid regulation, you avoid antitrust scrutiny.

You avoid, you avoid, you avoid, you take that surplus profits that you make doing that and pump it back into the political process, a slice of it back into the political process, buying donations to buy off politicians from both parties so that they don’t catch you in the end.

Rob Johnson:

Buying the Washington Post.

Anand Giridharadas:

Exactly, you just get a newspaper if you want. And then you launder your reputation using the drive through reputational laundromat of philanthropy. You start a foundation, you give back and you turn yourself into public imagination in the eyes of enough people into not only not the problem, into the solution, the deliverance.

You are now, if we are going to have racial justice in this country, you are now a funder of it. You’re now someone racial justice organizations need to fund your efforts. If we’re going to have new economic ideas, you are someone who is going to get a phone call to support those ideas.

If we’re going to have a kind of renewed social contract around work and workers and unions, you’re going to be someone funding those initiatives. And so you become the person kind of most at risk of being resented for deforming this society, becomes the savior, or at the least the person people cannot pretend cannot be honest about not being the savior.

And so it is a remarkable game they play. And it’s a game that I try to expose and explain in Winners Take All. And I will say four years later, thanks to any number of larger forces in American life, and I think above all the pandemic, I think that has become much clearer to people.

I think the pandemic in particular made it clearer to people that while literally everybody else was suffering and struggling, it was this group of pollutes at the top grabbing and hoarding and living their best eras. And that actually does give me hope that there has been more clarity around that.

I think the average person’s… I felt this very strongly when I was writing Winners Take All and even talking to people about it in the aftermath of it. I think often I would encounter people, very average Americans whose kind of reflexive feeling about the billionaire was not any particular one.

Just kind of the average billionaire, average person’s attitude to the average billionaire was like, yeah, they work really hard and they’re very lucky. And they should probably pay more of their fair share, but not-

Rob Johnson:

Got to reward their talent.

Anand Giridharadas:

Right. That they are kind of innocent until proven guilty and that they must have done something right. And I would say, as I look at the culture now, I feel like the average person’s reflex on who and what a billionaire is, is someone who did something personally or systemically shady to get in that situation.

And I may not be right. And it’d be interesting to do opinion polling on it, but there has been some favorable polling already that I’ve seen. I think there has been a real shift in how the average American conceives of their plutocratic overlords, conceiving them as people who don’t just happen to be kind of high above them, but people who are high above because they’re kind of standing on them.

And I think some of the mechanisms of standing have become clearer to people. And that actually gives me quite a bit of hope.

Rob Johnson:

There’s a kind of dilemma that I’ve talked about with some of the other guests on this podcast, which was, I’ll just start with in the era of FDR and others, there were people who believed in markets but thought the state was always a source of inefficiency and corruption.

On the other side of the pendulum, there were people who believed in the state and thought that you needed to with, whether it’s antitrust or whatever, constrain concentrations of wealth and power. What I saw during the Obama years with the great financial crisis and as Joe Stiglitz often said, the polluters got paid in the bailout, was a cynicism developed on both left and right.

And there was a very kind of tense situation. And there was a gentleman named Stewart Zechman, who I’ve talked to online and on the phone, but I’ve never met. He was a musical artist in New York. And he talked about how the Obama administration said we can’t go back to being like FDR because nobody trusts the government.

And he went into the Gallup polls, which were the source of this person’s anonymous presentation I believe it was on political. And he said, when you read the Gallup report, it’s they don’t trust the government because they don’t think the government governs the powerful structures, the plutocrats and the corporations.

They think that they are subordinates now and they are captured and they are accelerating, amplifying the concentrations of power. And I guess where I’m going with this in a question to you is the fear of that process creates a despair because nobody thinks there’s any place to go to heal things. And you see people like Donald Trump getting elected saying the system is rigged and people reacting to that positively.

I read an essay that you wrote a little while ago and you said, we live in a time in which generosity has come to function as a wingman to injustice in many cases, which giving back has come to function as a wingman to taking too much. And which talking about changing the world is all too often serving as a wingman for keeping your world at the top the same.

So that’s that resistance from plutocracy, but then what you recommend later in another writing is part of what I’m here to say, whether you like it or not, is that it is much more important in my view to make bad harder. It requires doing it over people’s objections. It requires kicking and screaming from the owner’s CEOs and investors.

It requires doing things they hate to see to achieve a fair society. And so the question at some level is I’m seeing this distrust in government. I’m wondering what organization, what institutional force or collective we can put together to create that counterbalance to the plutocratic capture and control.

Anand Giridharadas:

I actually don’t think that’s possible. I think you can’t… I don’t think the capture of government and the discrediting of government is a reason to do an alternative to government. I think you just have to take your government back. It’s a little bit the way I see my family. When I have problems with my family, I don’t get another family.

Maybe if they got really bad, you’ve got to fix the problems in your family because they’re your family. And the government is us. And one of the last lines of my book is the government is us. And Joe Biden said something similar in March, 2021, after he took office. Unlikely for a guy who was much more of a centrist, moderate Democrat, said the government is us.

So this right wing notion that the government is this kind of foreign occupying force in a society that is hostile to the interest of people, that’s a right wing talking point that as you say, has in some ways found a certain kind of mirror image purchase on the left. Understandably, which is kind of that if government is fully bought and paid for by the plutocrats, there can be a kind of anti-government sentiment on the left as well.

But I think at the end of the day, if we’re talking about how do you deliver this country from the legacy of 400 years of racial plunderer and injustice embedded in every system and fabric of this country, if you’re asking a question of how do you make the planet habitable or not? If you’re dealing with a question of how do you empower women through policy to play all of the roles they can play and want to play?

If you’re asking a question like what does a modern safety net look like in the age of GrubHub and Uber and a kind of precarious app economy? If you’re asking those kinds questions, the only answer, the only kinds of solutions are public democratic institutional and universal solutions. As the feminists said a generation ago, there are no personal solutions at this time. Only political solutions.

There are no personal solutions to the precarious gig economy. There are no personal solutions to climate change, whatever light bulb they may be trying to sell you. There are no personal solutions to the empowerment of women, whatever Cheryl Sandberg might be trying to tell you would lean in while she’s kind of selling most women into a kind of authoritarian misogynistic future.

So I am a deep believer in government, but not in the government we happen to have today. In the idea of government as the only place where we can solve the biggest problems we share because the government is us. To believe in government the way I do is simply to believe in us. I believe that we can come together through common institutions to solve problems the way we have in the past.

I believe we are not doing that very effectively right now. I believe we can do it again. And I think it’s quite clear the obstacles to doing that, which are very, very powerful people who want to divide and distract us and pit us against each other and feed us with bogus information and any number of other sins.

Make us think they are the saviors when in fact they’re the trouble. Their motives are clear, how they do it is clear. And I am trying to suggest that they are only doing this, they only go to the lens to do this because they understand how absolutely dire it would be for them if we got our act together and made government work for us, made it work for most people, made it serve the interests of all.

If that wasn’t such a powerful force, such a powerful mechanism for human betterment for the achievement of solidarity, for the realization of democracy, they wouldn’t spend so much of heir time and money rigging this society. They’re rigging for a reason.

They’re afraid of you and you should that seriously and do the thing they’re most afraid of, which is organize through democracy for a government that fights for you and everyone like you and everyone at large.

Rob Johnson:

I guess one of the questions I’m often asked is how do you get an existing legislature to vote, to change let’s say the role of money in politics when it is actually something that gives an incumbent an advantage relative to a challenger because they have policy to sell? And so there are obstacles, there’s resistance in the way and being mindful of that, I think is important.

Anand Giridharadas:

But those are the hard, you’re right, those are the hardest issues where the judge and jury are kind of the guilty party. They’re kind of the defendants and the judge and jury at the same time. At the same time, I would say I do not believe on most of those issues, including money in politics, I don’t believe it’s the case that we only have a problem of the people in power not wanting to do these things.

If you were to come to me with polling data that said 99% of Americans want to get rid of money in politics, right? But only 40 senators out of 100, I would say, okay. And there may be some issues that fit that bill.

I think in the United States of America, and this is often something I think the left doesn’t confront as honestly as it could, we don’t just have a powerful interest problem. We often have a laypeople public opinion problem.

Rob Johnson:

Consciousness is off course.

Anand Giridharadas:

We haven’t won that argument. And a lot of that consciousness is driven by those powerful actors and the media they own and the manufacturing of consent they do. But it’s not just that. This is a, as people have said, a center right country.

It is certainly a country with a history in many communities, in many parts of country, particularly more rural regions of real esteem in anti-government feeling a real sense of like, we’re still trying to get rid of the king of England. Like that revolution’s kind of never done for a lot of people.

That’s not just the Murdoch ginning up stuff, right? That’s been with us very deeply for a very long time. This country does have a somewhat unique history of the large numbers of people who came here to get away from some other thing.

And the kind of people who were happy to live alone in places with zero community and zero anything, zero history of their communities wiping out other communities that have been living there for a long time and trying to begin their own history there. That was a kind of weird setup that a lot of people were attracted to in Europe.

And so I think from the beginning, this country has had this kind of rugged individualist fantasy of kind of grafted onto this settler colonial reality that I think goes deeper than are a couple of corporations pushing a right way agenda? They are and they’re shoring that thing up, but there’s a very primordial American desire to be left the hell alone.

That don’t tread on me flag from the war independent, right? I mean, is that slogan from a few years ago or is that the slogan from the American Revolution, right?

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, every school room in the world is repeating that year after year for our children. It’s baked in by the time you are a young adult and perhaps when you’re anxious as a young adult. I’m always citing the book of the late Jane Jacobs called Dark Age Ahead. It was the last book she wrote, published in 2004.

And she said, we have to worry about when we are credentializing not educating, because people are so afraid they’re not becoming citizens. They’re not trying to understand the scope of the possible. They’re trying to conform to get a job.

And I’m curious what you think as a parent of young children regarding what do you hope for them to have and what would you like to see in the education system as we’re growing the next generation of American citizens?

Anand Giridharadas:

I mean, I think the biggest concern I have with them is just the world we are leaving them overall feels indefensible. I have a seven year old who’s old enough to understand the ways in which we are leaving him in indefensible world. He’s starting to ask about whether we have a gasoline car or an electric car, and why one or why the other.

He’s old enough to be puzzled by a lot of the choices that adults seem to make. I mean, he was born in 2015. So the kind of a grave authoritarian threat, either being kind of on the margins or in power or looking off stage has been the kind of dominant message of his lifetime. I mean, my daughter was born in 2018 and effectively has not been conscious outside of a pandemic.

And so neither of them really remembers life without masks. Neither of them remembers a kind of moment in which voting was not, is this the end of the Republic or not? So I often think about with them, is this the kind of moment that we can bend in a direction that will kind of redeem adults in their mind and their friends’ minds?

Because right now I think we’re failing them. And it is not clear to me that my fellow parents out there, many large numbers of them have any intention of making this the kind of world, the kind of country that their children would be proud of them for.

Rob Johnson:

Yes, let me share something with you because my children were born in 2010 and 2012. Excuse me, 2009 and 2012. And so they’re 12 and nine now. But when my oldest of these two was I guess nine years old and just as background, Naomi Klein and her husband, Avi Lewis are friends of the family.

And she, my daughter was very inspired by Greta Thunberg and so forth, but she’s nine years old. I took her to the climate strike. About three weeks later, I held a board meeting of the Institute for New Economic Thinking. And afterwards couple of the board members came over to dinner who know my daughter and we talked about climate change.

My daughter went quiet, went to bed. Next day didn’t talk when I drove her to school, which is very uncharacteristic. And at the end of her second hour, I got something sent on a text, which is a poem that she wrote during her study hall. What is Everything by Sarah? What is everything? Is it all essence or is it all answers?

Is there more? Why am I all covered up never seeing past or present or future? Is it all an illusion? Why is it all collapsing, destroyed all those lives not knowing will we ever know? I was haunted that a nine-year-old child would feel that kind of weight because some of what I thought were outstanding thinkers.

People like John Paul, who’s at Berkeley and Drummond Pike who founded the Tides Foundation were at this dinner. She knew them from summer times and holidays and stuff, but she was so haunted when we talked about climate change, having done the climate strike and not seeing anything.

That was a real wake up call to me in the sense that I felt like I’m in this pathway in my own career and so forth. But the awareness of disorientation by a nine-year-old child.

Anand Giridharadas:

As that poem beautifully made clear, they know what we are up to and they know what we’re not up to. And I think they feel, and there’s a lot of mental health data to back this up. I think they feel very acutely this young generation, our failure to leave them a halfway decent world.

And it’s very hard to appeal to people who are on the other side of these issues of climate and economic injustice, et cetera, because people feel so immovable. But Even if you don’t come at these issues from a policy or ideological perspective in the place I do, I think it’s very important for people to realize that their children will not respect them for the world they left their children if these trends continue.

Because unfortunately if you’re a climate denier on the right, you don’t get to opt out of your kid’s suffering from climate change. It just means you don’t believe in it. And your kid will one day lose a house. They may lose a house. And a few years they may lose a house in 40 years when you’re long gone, but your kids are going to suffer from climate change whether or not you believe in reality.

And they’re going to think of you. They’re going to think of you. They’re going to think of how you used to watch Fox News all the time And rant about the climate hoax. And they’re going to think of you as their house is burning or as the water is coming in through the windows. And they’re going to resent you.

They might even hate you for contributing to a world in which that kind of violence was possible on them. And I think millions and millions of people need to really reckon with apart from the ideology of this, why do you bother to lovingly coach your children for Little League and make sure their mask is over their nose and make sure they go to the best school they can get to.

If on the macro through your politics, you are sending them into a world that essentially has no space for their flourishing. What is the point of catching a ball well on a planet you can’t live on? And I think a lot of parents are going to need to reckon with that. Not as-

Rob Johnson:

It’s like teaching somebody how to-

Anand Giridharadas:

… As parents.

Rob Johnson:

It’s like teaching them how to kayak and then have them go over a waterfall. It doesn’t-

Anand Giridharadas:

Or teaching them how to kayak and voting for there to be a world without rivers.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, an interesting dimension of this, you were talking, I think about a core of what’s wholesome and good in America when people seem to be what you might call following the siren songs of temptation of plutocracy.

But one of the other dramas that’s taking place now is what I’ll call the realm of Asian geopolitics, where people like Orville Shell have written the Cartesian enlightenment way of seeing and the Eastern philosophy, Daoism and Hindu and Buddhism and so forth are in conflict. And China, which was wounded by the opium wars, Japanese invasion, is trying to regain, I won’t call it unilateral leadership, but at least front row partnership.

And a man named Kishore Mahbubani has just really used a book called Asian 21st Century. And he essentially says in a chapter called democracy versus plutocracy, with the Eastern philosophy, which has a little bit more of a flavor of accepting uncertainty and common good than the individualism model, individual freedom like you were referring to that from our founding experience in America, we trump it.

But it gets to the place where money says, do you have a Republic of by and for the 1%? And how do you expect other countries want to get in line and follow that? Given the number of people in prisons, given the problems in schools, given the concentration of wealth, given what the pandemic has revealed and given the failures in climate change.

I thought it was fascinating for him to what you might call, ask the same kind of questions about the moral fabric of the society that you and I are exploring in the context of our children in terms of what is the comparative magnet that people want to aspire to?

And at the same time, I just saw a film called Ascension, which was the grand prize winner at the Tribeca Film Festival, where a woman from China really made a very hard and cold film about what’s happening to people who are all becoming subservient to plutocracy within China.

Is that really economic development? So it seems like there’s awful lot of cards on the table for what I’ll call reshuffling or reorganizing at this place all over the world.

Anand Giridharadas:

And I think part of what you’re raising, just to go back to the beginning of the conversation is the question of standing. The United States, I think has a desire to be in conversations like what is the best system of government in the world?

I mean, there’s a lot of shy, timid countries out there. They have their system, they have their way, but they don’t talk about it much. They don’t try to spread it. They don’t have institutes promoting it. They just are who they are. Bulgaria is who Bulgaria is. Bulgaria is not trying to make anybody else like Bulgaria.

It’s just being Bulgaria is enough for Bulgaria. Well, we’re not like that. We think we have something to say to the world. We think that our system is a better system. And China, it is worth saying, I don’t think at any moment you could look at the Soviet Union and say, as an outsider to that this is providing a real question of whether liberal democracy is a better system or not.

But I think the rise of China has been a much more powerful challenge to the hegemony of liberal democratic society. And I’ll say why from a kind of more personal point of view. I think the real comparison with China is not the United States, which is a very rich, highly successful imperial power. I think it’s India.

India is right next door to China, was in a very similar place in the 1970s. Both very poor countries, mostly rural agrarian. And if you look at the trajectories of… And India basically went on the American model, liberal democracy, universal suffrage. Mean, in a way it did universal suffrage before getting rich in the way United States did not.

Ruckus messy, decent, heavily federalized democracy, and China did it through in a kind of authoritarian system. And I’m still a deep partisan for democracy, but if you look at that experiment what the Chinese have done for human dignity and living standards and the kind of scourges of disease and want in their country, I think is a real challenge to those of us who would say, doesn’t matter what the consequences are.

Always go with democracy. I was a reporter in India for several years, I have seen and I’ve also spent time reporting in China, I have seen those villages in India where you are lucky if you escape all the way to your first birthday, right? They have eliminated problems like that in China to a great degree. I have seen the places in India where there’s just really no elementary education.

And the Chinese really had an educational revolution focusing on primary school, whereas India really focused on higher education to cultivate a kind of more educated elite. And so while I will always defend a liberal democratic order over any alternative, I think those of us who want to do that, it’s gotten harder with the challenge China has posed, with the contrast with places like India, like the United States that are nominally liberal democratic, but have strayed so far from the actual practice of those valued institutions.

That it kind of makes the Chinese alternative look good to a lot of countries around the world. That used to be a much clearer choice for a lot of places. You see it now in a lot of places in Africa and Latin America, it’s not a clear choice. They look at these models and it’s not just the money in power.

It’s not just Chinese buying them bridges and building stadiums. And it is that, but it is also the model, right? It is looking at in India and looking at a China as an African head of state and making an honest choice about where you want to see your country in 20 years. And we are not helping by befouling our own democracy such as it is every day.

We are whispering into the ear of every aspiring autocrat or want to be autocrat or fair minded leader of a poor country that maybe you should try their way, right? Because we have lost our own. And so the conversation that we normally have within this country about democracy and strengthening institutions and inequality, I think it’s just important to remind people that is also a global conversation if we don’t really have standing as the United States to defend the idea of liberal democracy, because we’re not even really adhering to it ourselves.

The world starts to look very, very dark and there are real forces in Russia and China, elsewhere who are very happy to step in and offer a kind of Beijing consensus model to counter the Washington one. And that is, I think, something that has kind of century long consequences potentially.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Right about two and a half years ago, I was invited to the Swedish Consulate in New York for our luncheon. And all of these people, Swedish economists and former government officials, some of whom I knew, really were putting it, there weren’t too many Americans there, and they really put it on me.

And they said in Sweden we love the robots because we see the potential. But we also know that when there’s a transformation of how we produce things to make things better or more efficient, people will have healthcare. People will have pensions. They will get adjustment assistance and they are members of the society.

So you have a very large consensus within Sweden about what you do for the common good in order to achieve the most productive and vital society and economy you can have. And then they went on about, and you’re watching the power of Donald Trump. This was just a year or so before the election.

And you’re seeing in America, people are terrified of automation, machine learning, what happened to places like Detroit and Cleveland. And recently somebody brought to my attention that I had written something about this. And then Peter Goodman who wrote the book Davos Man had written an article called, we love the robots, about the characteristics of the Scandinavian collective transfers in order to make change and how it was absent in America.

And it was very, how would I say? Haunting to me when somebody came to me and said people in West Virginia now, which is not a big group of people, but they’re the coal miners are saying, look at what they did to the Midwest in manufacturing. You all talk in climate change now. Nobody’s going to help us. We’re going to be losers.

We’re going to resist it. And as you’ve emphasized several times, we can’t afford to resist climate change. And I always said that Joe Manchin seems to be blocking everything. It would be nice if he had a positive vision of something he could construct to make transformational assistance of the state of West Virginia, which is his home state and set a new example for America.

That could be a constructive element within the democratic party, but we just don’t seem to be getting off the launching pad of transformation that is inclusive.

Anand Giridharadas:

Yap. And I think, again, going back to the point about organizing, this is a problem of people like Joe Manchin, but I think we fetishize these handful of obstructionist leaders and kind of treat them as alibis for much deeper problems.

Rob Johnson:

I agree.

Anand Giridharadas:

I don’t think we have actually won these arguments among ourselves, right? And I mean that in an optimistic way

Rob Johnson:

There’s potential there.

Anand Giridharadas:

There are times that portray something like Medicare for all as being overwhelmingly popular with people, but for our leaders, I actually don’t think that’s true. I think a very large number of regular people in this country incorrectly, fear universal healthcare as kind of socialized medicine. But to me, that’s optimistic because that’s an argument we’ve got to have.

I don’t think we’ve won them over. I think we need to, but I don’t think we’ve done that work and it is work. And similarly on climate, it’s not just the oil companies blocking. That’s a very big part of the story and they’re ginning up all this fake stuff.

But there is a genuine view out in the country that are being left alone by central authorities telling you what to do is the highest form of human existence. And we’ve got to argue with those people, we’ve got to talk to them. We have to play some things they believe against other things they believe.

We can’t just say Joe Manchin, Joe Manchin, Joe Manchin in a way that lets us off as if we’ve done all the work to lay the groundwork for these changes, except one guy. We haven’t. We haven’t done that work. And it’s very important to do that work and not let yourself off the hook.

Rob Johnson:

And when you see Build Back Better can’t go through but military budgets can, there’s a structure underneath that needs to be excavated, illuminated and scrutinized in order to, how do I say? Reinvigorate what our sense of values and priorities are.

I guess what I like in listening to you today and in reading you always, is that you’re illuminating the challenges, but you’re not giving up on the prospect of success. And I do think there’s a famous old book by a California psychologist named Gerald Jampolsky and it’s called Love is Letting Go of Fear.

And the idea is unless you can address the situation and overcome the fear, all kinds of resistances to evolving will take place. And my sense is that you’re fierce in identifying what’s out of balance, but at the same time, you’re illuminating potential process ways forward, which is part of the healing that we need. It’s onramp to the momentum for the healing that we need.

Anand Giridharadas:

I appreciate that. And I’m not a hopeless person and I don’t think this moment is hopeless. I think this is the kind of moment that teaches people things about themselves and their society that maybe are less apparent in more normal times.

And when I look around, I see crisis after crisis, fire after fire, flood after flood, but also kind of far away on the horizon, this sense that we are attempting to solve some of the hardest problems known to mankind. And it’s hard for a reason. And we’re trying to build something remarkable in this country, a country made of people from all around the world dealing with the backlash to that vision, dealing with those resentments.

And when I remember that, it does give me that sense of hope. At the end of the day, I just believe deeply as you’ve heard in democratic life, which is to say, I believe in people’s ability to make choices together. Not have things handed down by edicts, not have things written in stones by gods, not have things kind of revealed through studying the heavens.

Others may put their stock in those things. I put my stock in the ability of people to get together and make choices about their common life. And I think we still have some fight left in us.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, I certainly, how’d I say? I sense you’re right. And I hope you’re right. And I’m glad that you underscored and set an example for it. I mean, if you said to me, everybody’s resigned. I can say, no, I got this man I’ve met named Anand. You should read his stuff. You should watch him on videos.

You should go to the conferences. And by the way, I want to say something that is also very interesting. You have done something which is challenging, but you are invited to elite institutions all over the world. Your voice is being respected.

Because I think in part you’re so constructive and people are worried, you’re actually helping remove the armor of the defensive elites because they hear the echoes of concern, but they see someone being constructive. And I think that’s an excellent example for the students, for the young scholars, for the people who aspire to be in the next group of leaders.

Anand Giridharadas:

Well, thank you. I appreciate that very much.

Rob Johnson:

Well, to end things, I come up with a song that I’ve heard in my mind several times as I’ve read your work and particularly at Substack. Teddy Pendergrass used to be in a band called Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. And he wrote a song, and I think this song in John W. Gardner’s book, The Recovery of Confidence have been my two favorite stimulants.

They’ve inspired me, but I just I’m reminded of you by the first couple of verses. Wake up, everybody. No more sleeping in bed. No more backward thinking. Time for thinking ahead. The world just changed so very much from what it used to be, but there is so much hatred and war and poverty. Wake up all the teachers, time to teach a new way.

Maybe then they’ll listen to what you have to say, because they’re the ones who are coming up and the world is in their hands. When you teach the children, teach them the very best you can. You’re one of the very best teachers that I’ve ever encountered. Thank you and I look forward-

Anand Giridharadas:

Very kind of you to say. Thank you.

Rob Johnson:

… As you continue your work. I am very committed to helping to aluminate the awareness of what you do, because I think it’s courageous, it’s intelligent and it’s very soulful at the same time.

Anand Giridharadas:

Well, thank you. Thanks for this conversation. I enjoyed it.

Rob Johnson:

Thank you. I did as well. I’m very inspired to hear how my young scholars react, because I think you are in some sense a call to action. We’ll talk again. Whenever you’ve got something new or something you want to talk about, this window is open for further chapters.

Anand Giridharadas:

That sounds great.

Rob Johnson:

Great. Thank you Anand.

Anand Giridharadas:

Of course. Be well.

Rob Johnson:

You too. And check out more from the Institute for New Economic Thinking at ineteconomics.org.

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