- Show Notes
On this episode of Stay Tuned, “The Plutocrat’s Status Quo,” host Preet Bharara answers your questions about:
— The indictment of Rudy Giuliani’s associates, brought by SDNY prosecutors
— Giuliani’s refusal to comply with a congressional subpoena related to the impeachment inquiry into President Trump
— Last week’s Stay Tuned interview with George Conway, conservative lawyer and Trump critic
Anand Giridharadas is an author, editor-at-large for TIME magazine, political analyst at MSNBC, and cultural critic. He joins Preet to discuss his most recent book, now out in paperback, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.
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Anand G.: If you are listening to this podcast, you are probably not going to become a billionaire. I just want to be really clear with people. The reality is you can do extraordinary things for everybody in this country, pay for massive things for everybody in this country, by taxing a few hundred thousand people, a small amount more that would still allow their fortunes to grow every year. What that should tell you is that group of people is hoarding an extraordinary amount of resource.
Preet Bharara: So, welcome to the show.
Anand G.: Thank you for having me.
Preet Bharara: So, I didn’t say your name when I welcomed-
Anand G.: Were you nervous to try to pronounce it?
Preet Bharara: Well … I want to spend some time talking about it because I’ve seen you on television, and I’ve seen you at events. People have a hard time. Anand Giridharadas.
Anand G.: Preet, you’re close. Giridharadas.
Preet Bharara: Giridharadas. Okay. So, what do you call yourself?
Anand G.: Anand. Growing up, I used to let people call me whatever … Aaynand, Anand, Anand …
Preet Bharara: Jerk.
Anand G.: Gearyhardass …
Preet Bharara: Gearyhardass is pretty good.
Anand G.: I think someone called my dad that, as like, genetic, and-
Preet Bharara: Gearyhardass junior.
Anand G.: Thanks to the rising wokeness of American life, I have found my own courage to occasionally tell people, “Say my name right.” I was once on an NPR … some kind of public radio show on book tour last year, and this guy just couldn’t say Anand. He just couldn’t say Anand, so I would say-
Preet Bharara: He could say the last name?
Anand G.: Yeah, we didn’t get there. We didn’t get there. Right?
Preet Bharara: Right.
Anand G.: The train was not even at that station. He couldn’t say Anand, and so, I said, “Rhymes with almond.”
Anand G.: “Aaynand?”
Anand G.: “Rhymes with almond.”
Anand G.: “Aaynind?”
Anand G.: I mean, just on and on, right? We were clearly not going to get there. So, I got irritated, and he got irritated. And, I said, “You know, you all have no problem saying Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky. And, he said, “Maybe when you get as famous as them, I’ll learn to say your name, too.”
Preet Bharara: So, it’s an open question whether or not you have the hardest last name as a guest on the show, or Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Anand G.: First of all, I got to say this about Mayor Pete. Mayor Pete is the only presidential candidate in American history who’s said my name perfectly on national television, and I just want to say-
Preet Bharara: How many have tried?
Anand G.: He’s also the only one who’s ever tried.
Preet Bharara: Lincoln didn’t get it right?
Anand G.: But, I have to say, if my ancestors had known that our journey to America would be redeemed by the mayor of South Bend correctly pronouncing my admittedly difficult last name … Look, he’s got name empathy.
Preet Bharara: Right. I do. We were talking before we came on that maybe it’s because I have name empathy, and I get my name mispronounced all the time. I take some time, and maybe I won’t get it right, but at least, make an effort to try to figure how to pronounce people’s names. Even when I was announcing criminal charges as a US attorney, against people who we thought would be proven guilty of serious charges, including terrorism charges, I would ask the line prosecutors for a phonetic on how to pronounce the names of people we thought were criminals.
Anand G.: Yes. I mean, having followed your career closely, I would say one of my life goals was to never have you pronounce my name, ever. I’m okay with it now that it’s in a podcast context.
Preet Bharara: But, I would’ve done it a little bit wrong.
Anand G.: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: Do you really think that people who can’t pronounce a difficult name are lacking some quality?
Anand G.: The quality may be in the tongue muscles. I don’t think it’s a moral issue, necessarily. But, here’s why it becomes one. You know, I described this the other day in something as … A lot of people have a John-Bob mouth. They can say things like John and Bob.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Anand G.: And, frankly, this is, I think, the larger issue here is the country’s going through a massive transition as we know. So much of what you’re talking about on TV, what I’m talking about, we’re writing about, in different ways, is all downstream of this really big identity transition in American life, where a mostly white and male-run country is changing into another kind of thing. And, I think there’s a lot of changes that go with that, and behavioral changes we all need to accommodate.
Anand G.: One of those things, frankly, is name pronunciation. My parents first came to this country, were living in Cleveland, Ohio, when I was growing up in this country … The John-Bob names were defaults. White names were defaults, and everything else, you were lucky to be in the room, and don’t worry how they say it. I think part of the new America that we’re all trying to clamor into is an America in which there are fewer, if any, defaults. That’s going to require a lot of people with John-Bob mouths to do some tongue exercises and try to broaden their ability to say all kinds of sounds, all kinds of names.
Preet Bharara: Just wait till the caravan gets here.
Anand G.: Right.
Preet Bharara: The John-Bob mouth … I haven’t heard that phrase before, and I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this on the podcast … I remember when I was five years old, and I was in kindergarten or first grade, and these three boys came up to me and said, “What’s your real name?” I told them my name. It’s like, “No, no. What’s your real name? That can’t be your real name.”
Preet Bharara: I said, “What do you mean?” And, he said, “Well, I’m Bob. This is Joe. This is Jack. This is Bill. What’s your name like that?” And, I’m like, “I don’t know. I better go home and find out.” I went home and asked my dad … I explained to him what happened. I said, “What’s my real name?” And I got-
Anand G.: Preet, we’re going back to India.
Preet Bharara: He’s like, “What are you talking about? I give you beautiful name.” But, I didn’t get it because … Later, some kids were mean and obnoxious. But, they were just curious. They didn’t understand. How could you not have a name …
Anand G.: Well, and it’s so interesting and actually makes this an issue of significance is the language those boys used. What’s your real name? I think a lot of what is happening when you look at the work of Robin DiAngelo, Ibram Kendi … All these people writing about whiteness, white supremacy in America … We used to think white supremacy was people in robes burning things. There’s an increasing understanding, culturally, that white supremacy is whiteness being the default. It’s having certain types of names be thought real by really young kids, who are not hateful, but who just think certain kinds of names are real, and other people are pretenders to this society.
Anand G.: That’s why … This is my third book. I’ve been on tour for all three. The first two, I never said anything. And, the third one, I was like, “No,” and actually saying something. Pushing people to get it right is actually part of how we get to the society we need to get to.
Preet Bharara: I wasn’t going to spend this much time on names, but you made me think of something else. I don’t begrudge people who do this, and I have lots of friends and members of my family who have done this, who have their given name. But then, they Anglicize it or Americanize it in some way, or go by some nickname. So, if your name is …
Anand G.: I got one. Mine is Andy Ghirardelli.
Preet Bharara: That’s a nice chocolate.
Anand G.: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: But then, Giridharadas …
Anand G.: That’s my Indian-American southern governor name.
Preet Bharara: Okay, so …
Anand G.: You got Nikki Haley. You got Bobby Jindal. If I had a name like Andy Ghirardelli, I wouldn’t be here talking to you. I’d be passing a budget-
Preet Bharara: You’d be the governor or something.
Anand G.: … in a southern state.
Preet Bharara: But, do you have any problem with people deciding … you know, I’m just going to use an Americanized nickname, wherever they’re from?
Anand G.: It’s not my choice. I don’t have a problem with people doing what they need to do to navigate systems that can be painful. I was made fun of for my name. I understand that it’s tough, and you got to do what you’ve got to do. But, I think the onus is not on people with unfamiliar names to fix it. I think the burden is on the society to be accommodating to that, and to understand that it’s not trivial.
Preet Bharara: All right. So, let’s talk about the book. I don’t even think I’ve mentioned it yet. Which has done very well. It’s well written, thoughtful, provocative. Not everyone’s going to agree with everything in the book. It was a national bestseller in the hardcover. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, and it is now out in paperback.
Anand G.: Yes, it is.
Preet Bharara: So, people should go get it.
Anand G.: Paperback, you know? If you don’t like cardboard, and you do like saving money, it’s now available in a format for you.
Preet Bharara: The main thesis of the book is what?
Anand G.: That we live in this time in which the richest and most powerful people on Earth are lavishly giving back, changing the world, trying to make a difference. They’re giving back money, philanthropically, more than has ever been given away before. Probably a lot of the people you investigated gave away lots of money.
Preet Bharara: They did.
Anand G.: And used it, maybe, as a bargaining chip. They do things like impact investing. We’re going to invest and in ways that are going to help solve poverty. They do social enterprises. Every young person on a college campus has some scheme about how they’re going to go to Rwanda and turn recycled poop into coffee and sell it in Portland or something.
Preet Bharara: Wait … They’re going to recycle poop into coffee?
Anand G.: It’s very complicated.
Preet Bharara: I’m going to invest in that.
Anand G.: It’s changing the world, yeah.
Anand G.: You can go on and on. It’s rare to find young people on campuses who don’t want to do something idealistic for the world. The question is, if we live in this time of extraordinary generosity, why is it that we also happen to live in a time of extraordinary elite hoarding. The very same class of people who does all the aforementioned good stuff is also, by the cold logic of numbers, among the most predatory elites in history, essentially monopolizing the future. 49% of new income goes to this one percent. The .1 percent, with an emphasis on point, now owns more wealth than the bottom 80% of Americans.
Anand G.: As we know, this group of people has monopolized the access to policy makers and policy, and writes rules that help it and hurt the country, and hurt the planet. And so, the question is what work is the do-gooding doing? Is it just a drop in the bucket? If there was more of it, it could solve these problems? Or, as I became curious about, is it possible that the extraordinary generosity of our time is part of how we uphold a system, fundamentally, of extraordinary hoarding? Is the “making a difference” stuff how we uphold the system that fundamentally is about these people making a killing?
Preet Bharara: I want to understand a couple of things. Which people are you talk about? Are you talking about just billionaires, or are you talking about just people who are above a certain threshold of wealth? Are you talking about people who have inherited their wealth and then grown it further? Are you also talking about people who, in common parlance, we say are self made, who came from nothing and invented something that people wanted in the world? Whether it’s a computer or a car or anything else … Are they all the same, or are there distinctions you make among this group of people who are fabulously wealthy?
Anand G.: Yes and no. What I’m talking about is a word that used to be in fashion and is now not in fashion, but is coming back, maybe … which is, plutocracy. Which is the rule of the class or ultra rich people. The important second half of the word plutocracy is the ‘cracy’, which is ruling. So, it’s not merely being rich, but it’s being rich and ruling, and the society being ruled by wealth and by those people.
Preet Bharara: And, Pluto has to do with being a dwarf planet?
Anand G.: I think Pluto’s not a planet anymore.
Preet Bharara: Is it a dwarf planet, or just not anything?
Anand G.: We will get the researchers to … I have no idea.
Preet Bharara: Okay. So, a plutocrat is not somebody who’s ruling a non-planet.
Anand G.: It’s not a dog from a Disney … No. It’s none of that.
Preet Bharara: Oh. Wanted to clarify that.
Anand G.: Yeah. We’re going to get emails about this. To your point, there is a class of people who have disproportionately monopolized the future in America. That’s the class I’m talking about. Are there other issues in equity … people making 200 grand a year and having better public schools than other people? Absolutely, and I talk about that, too. But, if you look at most of the numbers, where the real capture is taking place, where you really have people standing at the head of the river and cornering most of the water for themselves, starts to be in that one percent, .1 percent, .01 percent area. That’s where you start to see that kind of immunity.
Anand G.: And so, within that class, am I saying that everybody’s the same? Of course not. Am I saying that Bill Gates is the same as some of the financial people who caused the mortgage crisis? Of course not.
Preet Bharara: You’re saying Bill Gates is better?
Anand G.: Yes.
Preet Bharara: Okay.
Anand G.: Let me lay out a taxonomy. So, first of all, you have in this group of elite do-gooders some people who are just outright thugs-
Preet Bharara: Now, who’s a thug?
Anand G.: The Sackler family. Members of the Sackler family-
Preet Bharara: And, that because of their involvement in-
Anand G.: In the opioid crisis, brought to you by certain members of the Sackler family that knowingly put forward a product that was, frankly, killing people on what has become almost a genocidal scale. Hundreds of thousands of deaths through corporate malfeasance. Knowing corporate malfeasance.
Anand G.: So, you have a case like that. You have, frankly, someone like Mark Zuckerberg, who’s done tremendous damage to our democracy by refusing to allow the government and others to actually investigate what’s going on, trying to thwart that when we were in the middle of cyber attacks.
Preet Bharara: That’s not offset in any way by the connectivity he’s given to lots and lots and lots of people in the world?
Anand G.: I would rather live in a democracy where we have some of the older-fashioned ways of being connected, or eight of the other apps instead. I just would prefer to live in a democracy in which he hadn’t given an edge to Donald Trump by doing what he did, and by being unwilling to do what he was unwilling to do. A world in which he’s not spreading election violence in countries around the world through WhatsApp and so resistant to reasonable checks on his authority.
Anand G.: So, the first and easy case, where I think probably anybody listening to this would agree with me, is when you’ve personally and through your company or whatever done tremendous social harm, and then you sprinkle a little coin of do-gooding through philanthropy or whatever, on frankly, a smaller scale. That’s an easy … It’s an important case. Epstein … all these people. We can talk about them, but that’s an easy case that I think most people are with me.
Anand G.: That is not the sum total of the problem. There are still people who don’t meet that kind of bar of malfeasance who still trouble me. They trouble me for a different reason, which is even if you did not harm in making your money-
Preet Bharara: Meaning you made your money honestly?
Anand G.: Yes.
Preet Bharara: You provided a good or a service that was wanted in the world.
Anand G.: Yes.
Preet Bharara: And, you sweat, and you toiled to make that business.
Anand G.: Correct.
Preet Bharara: You’re still bad?
Anand G.: No, just the fact that you have that money. What I’m suggesting is then people who turn around … Bill Gate is someone. Bill Gates is not innocent. Bill Gates actually had a big antitrust issue, which may sound technical to people, but is an issue of whether you allow other people to breath oxygen who want to start companies, or whether you are the only one who gets the oxygen. So, that’s actually an important issue.
Anand G.: But, look. Bill Gates is not the Sacklers, is not some of these other folks. But, I believe that in a democracy, when someone like Bill Gates spends billions of dollars with his views on education, or with his views on this and that … He is exerting power, a kind of power over public life, that our system is expressly designed to prevent. What’s the point-
Preet Bharara: Just because he has disproportionate voice?
Anand G.: Yes. I mean, think about this. You know this, as a man of the law. Think-
Preet Bharara: Even if he’s benevolent? Even if he’s voicing his opinions in good faith for something better in the world, and he came by his money … Let’s use … in the hypothetical … And, he came by his money in good faith and with good behavior. In a democracy that’s also capitalistic, has he not earned the right to have a larger voice in the same way that … not the same way, but in a related way to somebody who’d become a top film actor or musician is going to have 60 million Twitter followers, whereas the ordinary person will not. In some way, society is condoned those people having a larger voice, and why can’t they exercise it?
Anand G.: There are certain kinds of larger voice, like having Twitter followers or being able to commission art, where that power is … It is what it is. What I’m talking about specifically is stuff that gets into the terrain of democracy. If you are pushing Common Core through your foundation and having multiple state legislatures vote on it without a meaningful debate, as the Gates orbit did philanthropically, that, to me, is not just like, you’re famous, and you have a little bit more of a voice. You are engaging in democratic activity, and you are engaging on a scale that way exceeds your one vote.
Anand G.: By the way, I also have a problem with people doing the same thing by giving money to politics, and I believe we should abolish that. This has become an important route of the plutocratic element in American life exerting even more power than it already had, through money in politics and through the economy.
Preet Bharara: But, I want to understand if your critique is more content based on what these people decide to do, or the nature of the structure. So, for example, because you say very pointedly, generosity is not a substitute for justice. Which, I think, is hard to disagree with. So, let’s say there was a policy proposal that you thought was really good for the country and for the world. I don’t know if this is one that you would subscribe to, but let’s say that public school teachers in America should get twice as much salary as they get now. That would draw more people in. I don’t know if you agree with that or not, but accept the hypothetical.
Preet Bharara: Now you have someone like Bill Gates, who came by his money, in our hypothetical, honestly and honorably. And now, he has this outsized voice. If he spent all of his time and energy pursuing this policy goal that you think would help inequality, that you, Anand, agree with, would that be okay? Or, is it still a problem because that man shouldn’t have an outsized voice?
Anand G.: It’s a great question, a question of a great prosecutor. I have less of a problem with it, and I think that’s the best-case scenario for a certain kind of giving, and not what most of these people do.
Anand G.: The reason I like it is …
Preet Bharara: Well, because you like the policy, right?
Anand G.: No. Yes and no. I may like a lot of different policies. What I particularly liked in that setup was A, you didn’t say he’s doing a three billion dollar fund to pay those teachers directly to double their salary. I would like that less, even though I would like that outcome. I wouldn’t like that because that’s not working through democracy.
Anand G.: If he were to work through democracy, and not jam it through state legislatures, but actually, let’s say, do political advocacy training for teachers and teachers’ unions so that they became more effective in the political fights they’re in and won it legitimately in the public square, I would like that even more. Working through respecting democratic procedures, having some impact on them, to be sure. But, having that impact filtered a little bit through actual people besides yourself, being engaged in the hurly burly of democracy.
Anand G.: The other thing I like about it is it is traitor to your class giving. The net effect of doubling the pay-
Preet Bharara: You like traitors to their class.
Anand G.: I do. The net effect of that kind of doubling would have to be, over time, raising revenue. That’s an expensive thing for the society to do. Where is that going to come from? Probably raising taxes on rich people like him. So, to the extent that rich people are advocating for, even using philanthropy, policies that would reduce the power of plutocrats in public life … I’m all for it. I think that’s, in some ways, one of the only acceptable forms of philanthropy when it comes to this issue of inequality.
Anand G.: I think your question about is it the substance, or is it the procedure is really important here. And, you are someone who’s well known as not being a big fan of Donald Trump, but I imagine if I came to you and offered you a deal, where we could bring back Barack Obama, but as a king … and install him as a king, under a kingly system … I think you wouldn’t take the deal.
Preet Bharara: I would not.
Anand G.: You are willing to live under drastically worse substance-
Preet Bharara: But, that’s about the only deal I wouldn’t take.
Anand G.: Right. But, I think no one would. And, I think this is so important. This is the achievement of democracy. We don’t care if it’s a benevolent substance. The procedure matters.
Preet Bharara: Yes. But, we’re not building society from scratch. So, we have the billionaires. We have these rich people. Unless you’re saying something, which I don’t think you’re saying and that I don’t hear people in the political process saying, that we’re going to deal with something very radical and bring those billionaires down to millionaire status or less.
Anand G.: I think we should heavily tax them so that their fortunes become drastically smaller.
Preet Bharara: Well, I mean, as a pragmatic matter, you have Elizabeth Warren, who has a proposal for a two percent wealth tax above 50 million dollars, which is not going to really change their world that much. And, that’s deemed by a lot of people … very radical. So, I’m asking these questions about what you want these people to do. We’re assuming that we’re living in the real world where they exist. How do we steer them under your theory and your approach and your vision to make society more democratic and make it more just?
Preet Bharara: I want to get your impression on this incident that made a lot of news. So, we have a rich person named Robert Smith … African American, person of color … who did something that was applauded by everyone. He shows up to give the commencement address at Morehouse College, and he says, “I’m picking up the tab for all of your college debt.” That got a standing ovation, brought tears to people’s eyes … How do you view that? Is that good?
Anand G.: It’s the kind of gesture that has actually multiplied in a broken society, the kind of gesture that, on its own, is lovely.
Preet Bharara: Right. You’re not against it.
Anand G.: Well, I think it’s-
Preet Bharara: Or, are you against it? You’re against the free college?
Anand G.: I’m not against people getting free college. I’m against the following. I’m against the fact that that class of people had such debt to begin with, because of the way we structure our society. I’m against the fact that Robert Smith has such a vast fortune because we have an insane tax loophole for people like him called carried interest, which he has specifically, in an article by David Gelles in the New York Times, endorsed and said we should not take away.
Anand G.: I am against the fact that people like Robert Smith, as generous as they may be, contribute to a world through the use of their power and the opposition to policies like repealing carried interest, that frankly, doom all the other college students graduating that day and that month, who did not have the benefit of his largess.
Anand G.: So, yes, I am thrilled that some small group of young people got some relief. But, I am mindful of the fact that millions of young people setting out into the world in the coming years, will not have this relief because the same type of people, the plutocrats who have the money to do that … Their main contribution to society is not wiping the debt clean from a few people. Their main contribution to society, on a much greater scale, is fighting for public policies that doom most young people.
Anand G.: The other day, you have KFC … I don’t know if you saw this online. KFC makes this announcement. A woman who worked there, who was walking some extraordinary distance to and from work every day. You remember, maybe, from my True American book. That was one of the striking observations, that Rais made about his colleagues at the Olive Garden. These people walking long distances because they couldn’t afford a car. So, KFC hears about this woman and buys her a car.
Anand G.: KFC, by me and others, starts to get dragged immediately. Just pay her more. Do you ever ask yourself why is your employee not able to afford a car to begin with? And, what happens to all the other KFC employees? These gestures that donors choose, and they’re these stories of teachers … Oh, I need $15 for my pencils. Is that bad? No, of course, it’s not bad. Is it good to give something? Sure, of course. But, these are-
Preet Bharara: It’s not fixing the main problem.
Anand G.: … the smoke signals of a sick and broken society.
Preet Bharara: So, what if Robert Smith, separate from and on top of giving free college to a class of folks … This is like my earlier example. He banded together with a bunch of other people who have a strong political voice and donation ability, and urged members of Congress to pass legislation along the lines that some people are proposing, for more financial aid, or forgiveness of debt, or free college in every state at a state school, that would cost a lot of money and might result in higher taxation. Is your point that that’s what they should be doing-
Anand G.: Yes.
Preet Bharara: … instead, or on top of?
Anand G.: That’s much better. It’s much, much better. That’s exactly what … And, by the way, he could’ve spent the same amount of money maybe helping some people with debt, and … I’m just making this up, but you do a thing where there’s scholarships if people go into certain kinds of careers, then they get the scholarship. You could do that kind of thing, where you do give some debt relief to people, but you have some component of you got to go into public policy and work on some of these issues if you want to qualify for it, where you can actually start working through a political progress.
Anand G.: I often say to people … People come to my events and say, “What can I do? What can I do? What’s a thing I can do?” The simple thing I tell people is pick the thing that angers you about your society. Because we all have our own set of gripes. Pick the thing that angers you, and then, think of a solution that has the following four qualities. It’s public, democratic, institutional, and universal. When-
Preet Bharara: What if it’s the subway?
Anand G.: That’s …
Preet Bharara: That makes people very angry in New York. Is that a legitimate one?
Anand G.: It does, and it should make people angry. It is maddening that in the city of New York, which is probably by most measures, the greatest accumulation of wealth, in the history of human civilization, in one very small place. I think it would boggle the mind of alien visitors or of our own ancestors that such a city, a city that could literally afford to pave the streets in gold if it wanted to, just can’t have a functional subway system.
Anand G.: And then, you go to all these other countries in the world-
Preet Bharara: Well, have you been to the subway in Moscow? It’s lovely.
Anand G.: I have not. I have not.
Preet Bharara: Yeah, and it’s very cheap. But, I’d rather live in New York than Moscow.
Anand G.: Well, these days, while living in America, you sort of are living in Moscow.
Preet Bharara: Well, I’m banned from Russia also, but that’s a separate issue.
Anand G.: Right. Congratulations on that. I mean, yeah.
Preet Bharara: Who’s the audience for the book? Is the audience for the book the very people you’re criticizing?
Anand G.: I think they’re the minor audience, not the major audience. The book, over the last year, has had two audiences that are, in some ways, opposed to each other. But, both have been drawn into a conversation, which was my hope. The main audience of the book is everybody who has casually assented to the outsourcing of changing the world to plutocrats. Because we all participate in this, and that’s what’s important.
Anand G.: We all participate in this when we casually accept the notion that someone like Mark Zuckerberg is an idealist who wants to connect the world. We casually assent to this when, as a principal of a public school, we let some tech giant or some foundation completely dictate the way our teachers need to teach, and some tablet they need to use. We assent to this as journalists when we cover gifts like Robert Smith’s the way people used to do and, frankly, have changed in recent years … without skepticism, without asking how the money was made.
Anand G.: And so, the biggest thing I wanted to do was to change how regular people thought about plutocracy, to make plutocracy a more top-of-mind issue for them, so people, frankly, would be more comfortable taking power back. And, frankly, with that audience, the big bulk of the audience, the biggest thing I want people to do is to think about and be able to better discern, having read the book, real change versus fake change, and the peddlers of real change versus fake change.
Anand G.: I think if you don’t have this lens, I can imagine you looking at the Democratic primary candidates and thinking, you know what? They’re all pretty similar. They’re all talking about fairly similar things. They all want people to have health insurance, et cetera. My hope is this book is a set of infrared lenses, that when you put those on, you realize, whoa … Joe Biden’s attitude to what to do about plutocracy in America is fundamentally, diametrically different than Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders.
Preet Bharara: Is there a big difference, in your mind, since you brought up politics … a difference between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren?
Anand G.: I think there is a difference of the kind of democratic socialist tradition in this country, of a certain tradition … and around the world, frankly, of organizing of a culture that is inherently in its mind outside of a kind of normal, two-party process. And so, there’s a lot of that energy in his campaign, that I think is powerful. It can also be sometimes toxic. I think-
Preet Bharara: Toxic how?
Anand G.: No one’s followers on Twitter are more lethal than his?
Preet Bharara: Have you ever criticized Bernie Sanders on Twitter.
Anand G.: I criticize everybody one way or another. I mean, I wrote an 8,000-word piece about him for a Time magazine cover piece, in June. The hilarious experience was I started getting all these private messages from the top people in his campaign. It was a piece that said Bernie Sanders needs to change if he’s going to win. It was not a hit job. It was also not a puff piece. I started getting these private messages from people at the top of his campaign saying, “That’s one of the most thoughtful things ever written about him. You really got the essence of him. I’ve known him 25 years.”
Anand G.: Meanwhile, I’m getting dragged online by all of his supporters being like, “How are you talking about him this way?” But, I get where that comes from. That’s what I mean by the difference. I think he comes out of a democratic socialist tradition that, in some ways, is just outside of the American two-party political process, and has a certain energy and anger and passion around that, that is both a strength and a weakness, potentially.
Preet Bharara: I don’t know how pragmatic you are, actually. I was going to say you’re a pretty pragmatic guy on all issues of change, particularly the kinds of issues that you are writing about, and I think, fairly effectively making a particular point. I’ve seen you do it in lots of forms where not everyone is agreeing with you, and not everyone is welcoming your message.
Preet Bharara: There’s a debate not generally on whether we should proceed incrementally or more radically. What’s your view on these issues? In order to have change actually work, how fast of how slow?
Anand G.: I find the framing of incremental versus more sweeping or radical, versus not unhelpful for the following reason. I think what we’re actually talking about here is how to undo something radical that happened over the last 40 years, not about how to do something radical.
Preet Bharara: You mean Make America Great Again?
Anand G.: That’s not what I said. Over the last 40 years-
Preet Bharara: You want to go back to something that we had 40 years ago, which is interesting to think about.
Anand G.: But, a different thing. A different thing. 40 years ago … A lot of people look at 1979 as date where the data started to change … 1980, the coming of Reagan … You had a real takeover of the kind of neoliberal, plutocratic, market fundamentalist ideology in American life. That meant for regular people, your taxes were cut, maybe. You started to have government spending slashed. You started to hear a rhetoric of government is bad, government is bad, government is bad … You were serving in government for many of those years, when what you did was denigrated as, in and of itself, just leechy and bad.
Anand G.: That was a very successful, and I have to say, quite radical idea, because this country began as a republic, a Constitution … with the Constitution of a government. That’s actually what constitution means. This society started by creating a government to do stuff for us, and the idea that people running it and the entire leadership structure, certainly on the right, but it started to infect the left, absorbed this idea that government is itself is an evil enterprise.
Anand G.: It’s such a profoundly radical thought that became so normal and normalized that I reject the notion that Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren saying everybody should have healthcare, and it would be cheaper and more efficient and more just if the government paid all those bills to all the existing doctors and whatever that are already out there. I reject the idea that’s radical … A, because it’s in place in virtually every other country that’s rich, and B, because it is attempting to unwind a profoundly radical and un-American tradition that has draped itself falsely in the flag. There is nothing patriotic about this country being run for a few hundred thousand people.
Preet Bharara: If I’m understanding you correctly, if you’re talking about undoing this notion that government does too much, and government should do less … I’m not an expert in history, but I know some. Isn’t it true that the republic began with government doing very little? Government didn’t even provide education.
Anand G.: Sure.
Preet Bharara: And, that, in fact, it took a lot of time for the idea to take hold that government needs to do all these other things. So, it depends on how much unwinding you’re talking about, going back 40 years or going back 200 years-
Anand G.: Completely. But, here’s the thing. And, this is a very important point. I think throughout history … You can ask a philosophical question about how active government should be. And, I think one way to think about it is to the extent that you build an evermore complex society, where people are constantly being acted on by forces way too big for them to control, you need public power commensurate with those forces.
Anand G.: So, in the horse and buggy days … Yeah, you didn’t have an SEC, but you also didn’t have the mechanisms for people to lose all their fortunes in some massive thing that would lead to global meltdown, because you didn’t have all that kind of activity.
Preet Bharara: Right. But, going back to my education example, that remains the same, that the need for basic education, so people could rise up and be mobile in society, that was-
Anand G.: But, that was a new idea. A lot of people were farmers who didn’t believe … That was an idea we had to invent, right? The whole idea of republican motherhood and education. These are all concepts we’ve had to fight for. They didn’t just start.
Preet Bharara: Part of the reason that there’s not as much anger as a Martian might expect to see if they came to the United States is that for good or ill … And, I wonder what you think about this … There is this innate belief on the part of the Americans, which, I think, is ultimately a good thing, but maybe it’s overstated. I can become a billionaire, too. I can become president of the United States. Maybe I can’t play for the Yankees because I can’t throw a ball very well, but if I work hard, and I’m lucky a little bit, and I have ingenuity, I can become Tim Apple, too.
Anand G.: Right. Let me … I think this is so important, and I’m going to disagree with you on this. I think this is a widespread belief. I agree with that. That is not a good belief. It’s an unhealthy belief. If you are listening to this podcast, you are probably not going to become a billionaire, not just because you’re listening to this podcast, but because you’re probably not going to become a billionaire, regardless of who you are.
Preet Bharara: Are you saying because they’re wasting their time?
Anand G.: That is not what I was implying at all.
Preet Bharara: And, it is a sign … a self screen … It’s a sign that they don’t have enough good time management skills that they can’t possibly make a billion dollars.
Anand G.: I hadn’t thought of that angle. I just meant that most people are probably not going to become one.
Preet Bharara: I make everything about myself, so that’s how I took it.
Anand G.: I know. It’s fair. No. Look … The reality is … I just want to be really clear with people. If you look at … And, this is just one example. You look at the Warren Wealth Tax she talked about. You’re right. It’s not as thoroughgoing as Bernie’s in a certain sense. It probably wouldn’t reduce fortunes. It would slow the growth of fortunes. Even so, it would raise extraordinary amounts of revenue to fund universal preschool, free college, things like that, from a very small number of people. Tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of families, right? I forget the number in that case.
Anand G.: Now, think about that for a second. You can do extraordinary things for everybody in this country, pay for massive things for everybody in this country, by taxing tens of thousands or a few hundred thousand people, a thousandth of our society, let’s say … a small amount more, that would still allow their fortunes to grow every year. What that should tell you is that group of people is hoarding an extraordinary amount of resource.
Preet Bharara: Right. But, what you’re saying is it’s a fool’s errand on the part of lots of people who don’t have a lot of money to be hopeful that they can join the ranks of people with a lot of money.
Anand G.: Yes.
Preet Bharara: And, their hope is misplaced-
Anand G.: And the data-
Preet Bharara: … and it should be taken away from them.
Anand G.: And, the data is very, very clear. In fact … This belief that you site is most pronounced in America, as you know.
Preet Bharara: Right. But, you agree that the belief is there?
Anand G.: It’s absolutely there. I remember … I mean, David Brooks, I think, talked about this a long time ago. 19% of Americans believe in the top one percent. Think about that for a second. And, the same kind of phenomenon of people expecting to get rich.
Preet Bharara: Right. But, isn’t it true, though, that … And, I get it. I get what the odds are. Like, people play the lottery in America, and maybe they shouldn’t play the lottery. Lots of people think, well, I can win this lottery.
Anand G.: I also think lotteries are very problematic.
Preet Bharara: Well, I’m sure you … I’m not surprised that you think that. But, it is true, and maybe it’s not good overall, and if you could change people’s psychology, the way I think about it, living in the real world and understanding people’s real psychologies, you have to take people’s nature as you find them, unless you can change it over time, and maybe think that you can … Not everyone thinks they’re going to become a billionaire, and they can aspire to that. Bruno Mars … Don’t tell anybody I listen to Bruno Mars. He had a hit song called I Want to be a Billionaire. And, it would be odd if people thought that was not a thing that you could aspire to. But, some people do think they can improve their lot. And, even at the end of the day, they think, well, maybe I can be a billionaire like Donald Trump. At least I can become a millionaire. Is that so bad?
Anand G.: Yes. Here’s why. Because it really messes up the coalitions politically. So, let me explain this in a simple way. If you have … imagine, let’s say … Trust my numbers. I’m making this up. You got a million people.
Preet Bharara: That’s my favorite phrase. Trust my numbers.
Anand G.: Yes. Trust my numbers. I’m making this up.
Preet Bharara: I’m making it up.
Anand G.: The memoir of the Bush administration. And so, you got a million people, let’s say, who have rigged public policy, taxed policy, and set a regulatory policy to monopolize the fruits of progress. These are the people … most new incomes going to them, most new wealth is going to them, et cetera. You’ve got this million people over here. And then, you got 300 and some other million people who are not benefiting from that. If that is the full story when you enter the political arena, and people are coming in saying, “If we can just tax this million group more and do X, Y, Z, we can do so much for you,” that’s going to happen.
Anand G.: What prevents that from happening? When you start to have a hundred million out of that 300 million think, somehow, through magical thinking, frankly, that they’re going to become that million, against all evidence and data. What that does is now, you got 200 million people on one side against 101 million people, but the 101 million people have all the money and all the lobbyists and all the power, and suddenly, you take a fight that should not have been a fair fight, and suddenly, the one million people are beating the 300 million people because they’ve poached a certain significant fraction of them the cultural ruse that they’re all about to be billionaires.
Preet Bharara: I get that. I comprehend what you’re saying. But, I wonder, in practice, what that means. So, for example … I’ll give you something … I haven’t done the research, but trust my numbers. Because this, I know, is true. It is much, much easier in the United States of America, based on the numbers, to go from poverty to becoming a billionaire, than to becoming president of the United States.
Preet Bharara: There have only been 40-some-odd presidents of the United States. There are hundreds and hundreds of billionaires, some who came from money and some who did not. And, maybe this is also foolish, but we do tell our kids in America that this thing that’s harder than becoming a billionaire … You can do it because that’s what America’s about. If you work hard, and you study, and you care about service, you can work your way up, and you can be the president of the United States. Is that crap that we’re telling our kids, too, and how do you distinguish those two things?
Preet Bharara: It may be an unfair question, but I wonder what we’re supposed to be telling our kids. You say, “Look, you can have a big house like that, too. You can be as rich as that guy. You can be president of the United States.” What are we supposed to be saying to people about their ambition, even though the system is rigged?
Anand G.: I think you can tell your kids to, first of all, be kind to other people in whatever they do, and to carry that into the work they do, to do work that is important. Sure, you can tell your kids to start a company and, hopefully, have that company be successful, among the spectrum of things they can do. But, what I’m talking about is something different. When large numbers of people who will never be billionaires acquire the belief that they will, they vote against themselves.
Anand G.: I actually do think one of the reasons I write books is I actually do think people’s psychology is malleable over time. I do think people are way madder at plutocracy today than they were five years ago or 10 years ago. I do think Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders would not have had a shot a decade ago in the way that they have very real chances now. I think things do change all the time. Culture changes. Values change. And, I think a lot of the intellectual groundwork that people have been laying has created a moment in which we could end up in a campaign in 2020 in which both candidates … Let’s imagine it’s Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump. Both candidates, in profoundly different ways, ran against, at various points, a rigged system and the idea that the American Dream doesn’t work for people anymore. That was a two-party consensus that sounded very different 10 years ago.
Anand G.: So, I actually think we are getting to a better place, where we’re understanding that our self image as Americans … This is a place where you can work hard … And, I grew up with an Indian immigrant family that told this story to ourselves a lot.
Preet Bharara: Me, too.
Anand G.: The problem is, the data doesn’t bear it out. Maybe it works for a handful of our families. By the way, half of people from India in New York are not in good shape and living at or near poverty, according to some data I saw. So, even those stories are not as true as we may think.
Anand G.: But, more importantly, when you look at the question, how effectively do parents’ income predict kid’s income, which is the greatest indicator of actual social mobility … America is number one among the rich countries. In other words, income is most hereditary in America. And, what do we think? We think it’s the least. We think we’ve built the country where who your parents were has the least effect, and it has the most.
Preet Bharara: That psychological disconnect among humans is true in all sorts of categories. People think their judgment is better than it is. People think they’re more moral than they are. People think they’re smarter than they are … all sorts of things.
Anand G.: I’m with Justice Brandeis, who said, “You can either have democracy or wealth and power in the hands of a few. You can’t have both.” I just think that’s true. I don’t think … And, look, people listening to this podcast may think I am crazy. I don’t think a size and scale of Jeff Bezos’s fortune is compatible fundamentally with a one-person, one-vote democracy.
Anand G.: I think the idea that you had people dying in this country, so one person could vote next to another person, and then, you don’t worry about the fact that someone’s got 300 gazillion votes over here, through all the power they’re able to have on society that way … It makes no sense.
Preet Bharara: I get the point. I’m not sure how far it goes. Is there some way other than taxation? So, let’s say Jeff Bezos, for example, who didn’t have a lot of money, and let’s also assume that he didn’t cheat, and he made his money honorably-
Anand G.: Should we assume that his workers didn’t pee in a bottle?
Preet Bharara: No. No, maybe not. You can assume that he engaged in, for the purposes of the hypothetical, all sorts of ways to get to greater wealth earlier, yeah. Maybe that’s so. But, is there some other way, other than, based on the engine that was created by Amazon and the outsized success that was created … And, by the way, we’re just talking about one guy, who’s, I think, the richest person in the world. Before he got to the point where he had the most money of any human being on Earth, some policy other than taxation could’ve prevented it?
Anand G.: Correct.
Preet Bharara: Or not?
Anand G.: Correct.
Preet Bharara: What would that have been?
Anand G.: So, that’s what I’m saying. There’s a whole suite of this stuff. Wealth tax is at the end of the journey. That’s post … It’s rude distribution after. There’s also predistribution. And so, a minimum wage is predistribution.
Preet Bharara: What should be the minimum wage?
Anand G.: I think the 15-thing an hour is, frankly, a no brainer. I actually think, as soon as we do that, we’re need to talk about 20 or 25 in the matter of years because it’s just that if you look at what’s happened to costs in this country, in terms of housing, healthcare, this and that … My sense is we’re going to be back where we started with 15.
Preet Bharara: Do you think $15 … I had … I think it was Michael Bennet on, running for president on the Democratic side, who said he generally supports $15 an hour, but he understands the arguments of some people, economists, and others, that in certain industries and in certain geographical areas, that would actually hurt the folks who would be required to be paid $15 an hour.
Anand G.: Yes.
Preet Bharara: Do you take into consideration those economists’ arguments about the minimum wage?
Anand G.: First of all, those are very overblown. It’s interesting that all the people blocking the wealth, opposing the wealth tax, happen to be super rich. Interesting that all the people who are opposing minimum wage increases happen to have a lot of their profit come from not paying higher wages. So, let’s take a lot of that with a grain of very fancy fleur de sel.
Anand G.: That said-
Preet Bharara: That was a very elite term.
Anand G.: It was. I was trying to embody the point.
Preet Bharara: Since you don’t go to the Hamptons anymore, you don’t have to use those phrases.
Anand G.: Exactly. We get it from FreshDirect. It’s good for finishing dishes. And …
Anand G.: My guess is that something like $15 minimum wage probably would have that consequence in some cases. That’s also what public policy is for. So, if we decide as a society that no one should live under that, I would be fine with some of that, in certain cases, being subsidized by the government. You could easily have tax credits for if you hire an additional person, and in your area, the market wage is closer to 10, and you’re really being driven underground by that extra five, the government can give you a five dollar an hour tax break. That’s the whole point of public policy. If things are properly resolved by a market, great. And, I think that would largely happen. But, if they’re not, we can step in, and we can subsidize that. That’s not a big problem.
Anand G.: The reality is, you look at most of the people … Look at the lists of companies, lobbying groups, that oppose this … None of them are what you’re describing. They’re all extremely lucrative, lucratively invested, lavishly compensated CEOs who are just … They’re rich because they’re good at keeping money, and they don’t want to pay higher wages.
Anand G.: The other thing is, you have to look at workplace regulation. All these things that would, as you say, limit a Jeff Bezos-like fortune from ever developing in the first place at that scale, and then, in terms of tax and capital gains, more taxing wealth, you deal with some of what you missed. Should Jeff Bezos not be richer than someone who didn’t invent Amazon? No. I don’t think anybody’s saying that. I don’t think Bernie Sanders is saying that. I don’t think the DSA is saying that.
Preet Bharara: You’re saying that there’s a limit.
Anand G.: There is a limit, and there’s a limit when … And, the limit is not a quantitative limit. The limit is when someone like that has enough power to turn the society into a machine that works for them, and a machine that grinds other people to help keep them make even more and more money … It’s not a society that actually conforms to any of our values.
Preet Bharara: Should capital gains be taxed at the same rate as income?
Anand G.: Yes, and as with income, you can do that differentially, based on how much capital we’re talking about.
Preet Bharara: And, you don’t buy the view of economists who will say that at some point, a higher capital gains tax is going to hurt investment and investment in small businesses? Not just big businesses, but investment in small businesses allows for employment of people and better quality of life for all folks.
Anand G.: Again, this is why you have to think about how you do it. So, I don’t know the blanket … what the rate should be. I think if that’s a concern that’s borne out by the social science on that, then yes, you should figure out if you have less than 20 million dollars in your bank account, you can have a different capital gains tax than if you don’t. We can do all that. We do all that stuff all the time. People talk about these concerns as though there’s no possibly way we could work around them. You’re raising-
Preet Bharara: Because there’s not an infinite number of possibilities. There’s a spectrum.
Anand G.: Right. And, I think with a lot of this stuff, what is true, what is inarguable, is the data of what rose and what didn’t over the last 40 years. Corporate profits have been fine, so the idea that everybody’s so worried about what if we do something that hurts those? They’ve been fine. But, wages have stagnated. Life expectancy, as you know, has gone down in this country in recent years. Do you know how hard you have to work to rig a society for life expectancy to go down in a country with most of the best medical schools, with extraordinary doctors and nurses? You have to rig society to an extraordinary, Herculean level to achieve that kind of drop in life expectancy. The last time it happened in this country, I believe, was during the HIV epidemic, the plague in the late ’80s, early ’90s.
Anand G.: And so, I think what people like me are talking about is not some wild, wacky agenda, but simply saying the answer to a winner’s take all world is a world in which the winners take less, and are forced to take less because they’re not going to do this on their own.
Preet Bharara: The subtitle of your book includes the phrase “elite charade.” In some ways, you’ve part of the elite. You worked at McKinsey. You’ve gone to fancy, brand-name schools. You used to go to the Hamptons until you stopped being-
Anand G.: A couple times.
Preet Bharara: … welcomed there. Did something happen to cause you to want to write this particular book and make these particular points, other than just general evolution in your thinking? Was there a triggering event?
Anand G.: I think there was. Two things … First, I always say every book that I report and write leaves an intellectual hangover. The True American, which you’ve been so nice about … My second book was about this hate crime in Texas and this story of murder and redemption, mercy. And, just the reporting took me to parts of this country that shocked me. These were not urban communities that we hear about in the news. These were not inner cities. These were not black and brown people. These were not the kinds of communities that we are told in our media are supposed to be failing.
Anand G.: These were white exurbs, solidly middle class type homes that you saw, where an entire generation of people in their thirties and forties was absent because they were all on meth or in prison, or dealing with various complications of dead-end lives, where children were coming into the world with various drug issues … The guy I wrote about in the book, Mark Stroman … His entire circle of men that he grew up with … I found a list of some of his childhood friends that he ran with when he was a kid. And, I just looked up all their names, 20 years later, and virtually all of them have criminal records.
Anand G.: It was just a very radicalizing experience about the level, the scale, of entropy … not just inequality, although inequality’s a big part of it. Not just what China has done to manufacturing, and that’s a part of it. But, it just made me realize what the data was already telling us, which is that there was just this total evisceration of the American Dream, ongoing, in our lifetimes. It radicalized me about that.
Preet Bharara: From that hangover was born this new book?
Anand G.: Yes. But, the twist was whenever people write about inequality and poverty, they always write about poor people. They go live in the slum, which I admire. They go live in The Bronx and write about people. That’s some of our best literature. Some of the pioneers of my field of narrative nonfiction … That’s what they did. But, writing about poor people as a way to understand inequality is like going to a building and interviewing the person who happens to standing in the lobby, to understand the architecture.
Anand G.: Poor people did not invent the structures that make them poor. And so, I thought, what if we did a book where you actually investigate how this works by talking to the rich people, talking to the people who are the architects of this system? And, the final thing was when I got invited to this Aspen Institute fellowship in 2011, and was invited into this group of people, mostly business people, but a lot of business people in a room obviously is very boring. So, they would always put two or three non-business people there at every class … activists, a poet, someone like that.
Anand G.: I was in this group, and we were supposed to talk about how to change the world, how to make it better, and it occurred to me that a lot of these business people, flying into Aspen to talk about how to make the world better, had just flown in from places where they were making the world worse. I began to realize that this whole rhetoric of elites changing the world, plutocrats changing the world, was a big part of how we got to the world that I had seen in Texas and elsewhere in this country and that it was important to tell a new story about how we can take change back from these people.
Preet Bharara: How provocative were you intending to be in the book?
Anand G.: Very. This is the edited book. This is the book with chapters deleted. This is the book-
Preet Bharara: Because you wanted some people to buy it?
Anand G.: I think they would’ve … I would’ve sold way more copies with that stuff in it. It just couldn’t get through my wife and my editor at Knopf.
Preet Bharara: So, were you offended by this review in the Times that describes the book, in part, as gently and politely skewering corporate titans, and that you, as the author, were careful not to offend? Are you annoyed by that?
Anand G.: I’m not. I disagree with it, and I’m surprised by it. I mean, this book has caused many plutocrats to reach out to me or just snarl online about how offensive it is to them.
Preet Bharara: Which means you’re getting through.
Anand G.: But, I will say, the thing I never expected with this book was that so many of the people who … And, I’m not just talking about billionaires themselves. I’m talking about people who work for big tech companies. I’m talking about people who help give away the money of these people. I’m talking about people in nonprofits who raise money. I can’t tell you the number of people who reach out to me from these spaces and say, “You are saying what is the secret chatter of these arenas we’re in, and no one can say it because they’re all paid by these people.”
Anand G.: They work for these people. These people have all this power. I have started to collect the most amazing stories from people. People DM me the weirdest things. Photos from inside warehouses and …
Preet Bharara: Are you going to publish that?
Anand G.: I’ll publish them when I get permission. But, more importantly, it’s given me a portrait of how these places actually work, how Mark Zuckerberg actually behaves in his … You know, these people … I got eyes on all of them.
Preet Bharara: So, Jeffrey Epstein, who is now deceased … While his criminal case was pending for a lot of different counts of sexual misconduct, it has been coming to light over recent weeks that he did a lot of charitable giving. He’s one of these people who may have been a billionaire, probably was a billionaire. And, among the charitable giving that he engaged in was to various institutions of higher learning, including MIT. There’s a lot of controversy about the MIT media lab … So, they took this money, some consequences may befall the leadership at MIT, maybe not … The person who was head of the media lab had to resign with a big cloud. Once the university has taken this money, now what should happen to it?
Anand G.: Well, first of all, the university should not have taken that money.
Preet Bharara: Got it. But, my first question was now we’re living in the world in which they did. This happens with politicians sometimes.
Anand G.: Second of all, money like that should be returned, and it should be returned not to the person, but should be returned as reparations.
Preet Bharara: But, to whom?
Anand G.: Well, you’d have to figure out a process for that. It’s very complicated, but you’d have to do it, the same way you’d have to do it with racial reparations, what Georgetown did with slavery, et cetera. You have to create a process-
Preet Bharara: So, if there’s money given to the university, and it’s money that came from someone who victimized-
Anand G.: Yes.
Preet Bharara: A lot of people, the money should go back to the people who were victimized?
Anand G.: And, there’s a philosophy behind it. So, you know … This is very obvious example that I think we should translate to the less obvious case. If I steal a painting from your house and give it away to my friend, my friend is innocent of this … may not have known anything about it. But, correct me if I’m wrong. He still has to return the painting if we find out.
Preet Bharara: Correct.
Anand G.: Even if he did some yard work for me, and the painting was … Too bad. A stolen painting is a stolen painting. So, I think we need to apply that principle to a lot of the resources that are given to these universities. And so, the practical thing … The philosopher Chiara Cordelli at the University of Chicago talks about this. It’s about who has claims on resources.
Anand G.: So, if Jeffrey Epstein has the amount of victims he does, surely there are women whose lives were damaged … forget just psychological trauma … medical bills, therapist bills, any number of other costs, tangible and intangible, associated with being abused by a predator like that … There are claims on resources that I think become equivalent to the stolen painting that is now sitting at Harvard or MIT. And, just because he chose to give away that money there, I don’t think gives them a kind of preemptive claim over the money. I think those women have a preemptive claim over the money.
Anand G.: I have suggested that Harvard, and I would add MIT to this, open its healthcare and mental healthcare system to any victim of Epstein, who needs and would benefit from that care, for free. Neither has taken me up on it.
Preet Bharara: So, let’s change the hypothetical to something that happens every day. And, I went to Harvard. I went to an elite institution. You went to Harvard for a bit, right?
Anand G.: Dropped out.
Preet Bharara: Congratulations.
Anand G.: That’s why you have the podcast, and I’m just the guest on the podcast.
Preet Bharara: That’s why you have three books, and I barely was able to write one.
Preet Bharara: So, we’ve been talking about the ways in which people who have a lot of money … billionaires and approximate billionaires … how they spend their money, and what’s the most effective way to use it to fix some of the problems in society? It’s an easier question about what a university should do with money that comes from somebody like Jeffrey Epstein, who was a monster to a lot of people. Should universities be taking large amounts of money from wealthy people who don’t have that history of criminal activity, or should they be making some kind of statement about not taking that money because that money can go to better purposes?
Anand G.: It’s a great point. I forget the number. I wish I had it in front of me, but if you look at the percentage of all giving to education that goes to Harvard specifically, it’ll make your blood curdle. It’s an extraordinary number. A lot of that educational giving is old men, nostalgic for the place they had their first kiss. That’s deciding which institutions have money?
Preet Bharara: Yeah. Should the university be rejecting that money? Because it’s not going to happen in the real world, but how should we thinking about it?
Anand G.: No. This is where we need policy. I think, to go to your deeper question, I think there’s some money that just should not be taken at all. But, there is this area where the heir to the Walmart fortune is a little different from Jeffrey Epstein. I think most people would say, “Yeah, you got an heir to the Walmart … Yes, they under paid workers, yes, this and that, yes, but …” I think most people would say take the money.
Anand G.: The question is how do you structure the taking of the money to do the following things? To limit the increase of plutocratic power … So, how do you take the money in a way, but do not say, “Now you can come into this lab or that lab and shape what we do and veto what we don’t do”? How do you not put names on buildings? I still think, in part, as revealed by the Epstein case, you actually don’t necessarily want to do anonymity-
Preet Bharara: Why not names on buildings?
Anand G.: Well, two reasons. First of-
Preet Bharara: Small price to pay for a gift of 500 million dollars that, let’s say, they would distribute to people who otherwise couldn’t afford to go to the college?
Anand G.: First of all, you and me are paying, in many cases, half the bill for that name being on that building. They get a tax deduction, as you know. So, I’m a little puzzled. Why only their name?
Preet Bharara: Right. Well, now you’ve raised a broader question.
Anand G.: It’s actually …
Preet Bharara: You keep giving me more questions to ask you.
Anand G.: David Koch and the people of the United States. How can the people of the United States never get named?
Preet Bharara: But, should there be a tax deduction for charitable giving at all?
Anand G.: I am dubious about it, but my guess is getting rid of it entirely would probably have some disastrous effects on certain things.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. I don’t think that would be a popular view.
Anand G.: But, here’s what I suggest. There are some smart people who advocate that. Here’s what I suggest. I think you should make it conditional on how public spirited the gift is. I think many people listening to this may not realize that the government of the United States raises tens of billions of dollars in extra revenue every year from you, from people like you, to subsidize big philanthropic giving, and well, frankly, all charitable giving. And so, when you give a billion dollars, you may get back four or 500 million of that as a tax benefit, which means you, the taxpayer, are paying into that four or 500 million.
Anand G.: So, I think if we’re going to pay into that, we should make sure we’re getting value. The whole concept of it is, in a way, that they are doing something that is of public benefit, so the public doesn’t have to do that work. So, the public’s saving money, in theory. So, the public should subsidize that. That’s the idea. Otherwise why would you do that?
Anand G.: So, let’s actually make sure that it’s public spirited. So, a couple things would make it public spirited. One, if you’re putting your name on it, in my view, you’re not giving. You’re purchasing reputation.
Preet Bharara: You’re doing both.
Anand G.: Totally fine.
Preet Bharara: Maybe you’re doing both.
Anand G.: But, you’re purchasing something of value. Your name on a building on a city like this … the Lincoln Center? That’s a valuable thing to have.
Preet Bharara: I mean, a lot of charitable giving is done not anonymously. And, you become known as someone who gives to a particular cause, even if you do nothing other than tweet about it. Look, there’s also, arguably, good ancillary benefits to that because you’re signaling to other people, this is a good cause. I support it. You should support it. You can give $10. I mean, it’s not all bad.
Anand G.: But, at the heart of my book is the idea that another thing is also going on while those things are going on, which is when you put the name Koch, David Koch, on the ballet or whatever … Yes. All the effects you talked about … You’re signaling to some people to donate, this and that. But, you are also helping to launder the reputation of someone who deserves way more skepticism, who deserves, frankly … The fact that the Kochs were so generous to the arts in these liberal, urban cities was very smart because what it did was it defanged a certain strata of the influential liberal Democratic elite. I was literally booted out of a dinner in my own honor by a bunch of rich donors raising money for PEN America because this very good, rich Democrat next to me was like, “Well, don’t say anything bad about David Koch. I mean, yes, yes, the Koch brothers are terrible, and they’ve ruined the environment, and they’ve rigged public policy to their benefit, but I’m on the board with him with this nonprofit, and he’s my friend.”
Preet Bharara: I don’t disagree with you. That kind of thing happens in lots of contexts. They’re not just about rich people. This hesitancy to unduly attack publicly a benefactor does not only happen in these rich contexts.
Anand G.: Of course. But, I think all these things happen to varying degrees. And, by the way, just given your legal background, I think an interesting thing that I’ve noticed of late, in this question of taking money, is I’ve seen this now enter judges’ decisions in ways that are very interesting. So, in the Michael Cohen sentencing at SDNY, he cited his charitable giving-
Preet Bharara: Oh, this is a big issue.
Anand G.: … to his kids’ private school as a justification for leniency. And, the judge had one of the most memorable take downs. The judge said, “If you are convicted of tax fraud, and then you’re using the fact that you did charitable giving to a private school, you are basically asking for mercy for stealing the public’s money and then donating it to a private institution that exacerbates the issue.” In New York State Court, when Tish James, the attorney general of the state put forward a complaint against the Sacklers and various other people in the opioid crisis. She explicitly said, “They used arts philanthropy and other philanthropy to distract New Yorkers, create a smokescreen, to distract people from the machine that allowed them to kill New Yorkers.” So, I think, more and more, even in the law, there’s a recognition that a lot of this do-gooding stuff, while good, is part in parcel of how a great amount of harm is done directly and indirectly.
Preet Bharara: And, maybe there’s trade offs. You’ve thought about all these issues that we talk about in the podcast a lot, and we’ve talked about them throughout the show, but I’m wondering if I had to put you to it and ask you what your working definition of justice is, what would it be? Everyone flinches when I ask that question.
Anand G.: Yeah. Well, particularly answering it from you. I mean, I think that the definition that I’ve always loved is centered around the idea of human flourishing … a society that lets people flourish. Flourishing is health. Flourishing is the right to learn and educate yourself, to be basically secure from the vicissitudes of life, to pursue your talents … And, right now, if that’s the definition, then I think we have a lot of wealth in this country, we have a lot of money in this country, we have a lot of great companies, we have a lot of great innovations … We have a lot of good stuff. But, I think we’re not doing well on this score of human flourishing.
Preet Bharara: The book is Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Anand Giridharadas. There you go. Thanks for coming. Thanks for taking extra time with us today.
Anand G.: Absolutely. Thanks. It’s so fun to talk to you.
Preet Bharara: It’s in paperback. Get it now.