As a keynote speaker at the 2015 Aspen Action Forum, American author and New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas chose a topic that he was sure would make him unpopular at the bar later that night: “I want to reflect with you on where we stand as a community on some of the injustices of our time. I want to suggest that we may not always the leaders we think we are."
Giridharadas argues that the modern world has hugely reduced poverty, and yet the extraordinary changes in economies and technologies have created extreme winners and extreme losers. Ironically, deliberations around solving these problems of poverty, inequality and injustice are often sponsored by extreme winners. This has led to discussions operating under what he calls the Aspen consensus:
The Aspen consensus to me in a nutshell is this: the winners of our age must be challenged to do more good, but never, ever tell them to do less harm. … In Aspen, you don’t hear a lot of ideas involving the privileged and the powerful being in the wrong and needing to surrender some of their status and position for the sake of justice. We talk a lot here about giving more, we don’t talk about taking less.
The Aspen consensus, he believes, tries to market the idea of generosity as a substitute for the idea of justice:
Let us talk honestly about some of the harm the winners of our age commit while doing well for themselves, before compensating for it by also doing good. First, the winners have benefitted in the last few decades from a massive re-concentration of wealth by the upper echelons of society globally. The rich didn’t suddenly get better at algebra. The world economy changed, yes, and as it did the rich fought for policies that helped them stack up, protect and bequeath the money, resisting taxes on inheritances and financial transactions, fighting for carried interest to be taxed differently from income, insisting on a sacred right to conceal money in trusts and shell companies and really weird islands. This hoarding does not merely correlate with the have-nots’ struggles; it is in a certain sense a cause because that is the money that would be going to schools, to vocational training, to infrastructure, to social insurance, to financial aid. We know this because there are societies where a lot more of this money is taken from the most fortunate and it results pretty straightforwardly in less cruelty for the least fortunate.
He also drew a connection between papal indulgences and corporate giving:
Sometimes I wonder if these various forms of giving back have become to our era what the papal indulgence was in the Middle Ages – a relatively inexpensive way of getting oneself seemingly on the right side of justice without having to alter the fundamentals of a long life. Because when you give back, when you have a side foundation, a side CSR project, a side social impact fund, you gain an exemption from more rigorous scrutiny. You helped a hundred kids in the ghetto learn how to code – important work. But the indulgence that results spares you from questions about the larger systems and structures you sustain, that benefit you and punish others.
Heron shared this video in a recent edition of In Case You Missed It, and thought it merited a deeper look. Hungry for more Soundbites? Click here for thought-provoking social ideas, sizzling economic commentary and more that’s worth a listen.
This post was prepared by Shravya Jain.