Beware Rich People Who Say They Want to Change the World

Aug 28, 2018, 01:00 PM

The New York Times

“Change the world” has long been the cry of the oppressed. But in recent years world-changing has been co-opted by the rich and the powerful.

“Change the world. Improve lives. Invent something new,” McKinsey & Company’s recruiting materials say. “Sit back, relax, and change the world,” tweets the World Economic Forum, host of the Davos conference. “Let’s raise the capital that builds the things that change the world,” a Morgan Stanley ad says. Walmart, recruiting a software engineer, seeks an “eagerness to change the world.” Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook says, “The best thing to do now, if you want to change the world, is to start a company.”

At first, you think: Rich people making a difference — so generous! Until you consider that America might not be in the fix it’s in had we not fallen for the kind of change these winners have been selling: fake change.

Fake change isn’t evil; it’s milquetoast. It is change the powerful can tolerate. It’s the shoes or socks or tote bag you bought which promised to change the world. It’s that one awesome charter school — not equally funded public schools for all. It is Lean In Circles to empower women — not universal preschool. It is impact investing — not the closing of the carried-interest loophole.

Of course, world-changing initiatives funded by the winners of market capitalism do heal the sick, enrich the poor and save lives. But even as they give back, American elites generally seek to maintain the system that causes many of the problems they try to fix — and their helpfulness is part of how they pull it off. Thus their do-gooding is an accomplice to greater, if more invisible, harm.

What their “change” leaves undisturbed is our winners-take-all economy, which siphons the gains from progress upward. The average pretax income of America’s top 1 percent has more than tripled since 1980, and that of the top 0.001 percent has risen more than sevenfold, even as the average income of the bottom half of Americans stagnated around $16,000, adjusted for inflation, according to a paper by the economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman.

American elites are monopolizing progress, and monopolies can be broken. Aggressive policies to protect workers, redistribute income, and make education and health affordable would bring real change. But such measures could also prove expensive for the winners. Which gives them a strong interest in convincing the public that they can help out within the system that so benefits the winners.

After all, if the Harvard Business School professor Michael E. Porter and his co-author Mark R. Kramer are right that “businesses acting as business, not as charitable donors, are the most powerful force for addressing the pressing issues we face,” we shouldn’t rein in business, should we?

This is how the winners benefit from their own kindness: It lets them redefine change, and defang it.

Consider David Rubenstein, a co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm. He’s a billionaire who practices what he calls “patriotic philanthropy.” For example, when a 2011 earthquake damaged the Washington Monument and Congress funded only half of the $15 million repair, Mr. Rubenstein paid the rest. “The government doesn’t have the resources it used to have,” he explained, adding that “private citizens now need to pitch in.”

That pitching-in seems generous — until you learn that he is one of the reasons the government is strapped. He and his colleagues have long used their influence to protect the carried-interest loophole, which is enormously beneficial to people in the private equity field. Closing the loophole could give the government $180 billion over 10 years, enough to fix that monument thousands of times over.

Mr. Rubenstein’s image could be of a man fleecing America. Do-gooding gives him a useful makeover as a patriot who interviews former presidents onstage and lectures on the 13th Amendment.

Walmart has long been accused ...