“Speaking truth to power” sounds good, because it suggests the speaker’s courage in facing strong opponents. Often, though, the speaker and the powerful are not in the same room.
However, in July, a New York Times columnist gave an in-your-face speech before the elite and powerful at their annual gathering in swank Aspen, Colorado. His remarks have attracted unusually wide attention for a speech to a relative handful of people, who did not like what they heard.
Anand Giridharadas, the columnist, was a regular participant in these gatherings. He had been asked to give a talk on forgiveness, but admitted to his audience, “After I have spoken, I will need your forgiveness.”
The audience was composed of people who had gained great success in their professional and business lives –“winners” as he called them. They prided themselves on “giving back” by contributing to undoubtedly worthy causes.
His message boiled down to telling them that their charity was not enough, and they needed to reform how they made their money. But he understood their message was, “the winners of our age must be challenged to do more good. But never, ever tell them to do less harm.”
In his view, the way they earned their wealth could do more harm to others than their charitable gifts did good for others. He chose to focus on the harm.
The winners, he said, have gained from getting even richer in recent years. And their new wealth did not result from their getting better at whatever they do, but from the policies they supported politically. They have opposed taxes on inheritances and on many financial transactions and favored laws allowing them to conceal their wealth.
Their actions meant less money is available for education, vocational training, public works, social programs and financial aid. If you look at countries limiting such tax breaks, more money flows from the more fortunate to the less fortunate.
He argued that the corporate world has made a sustained effort to shift risk from itself to workers. Companies shed responsibility for benefits and job security for the simple reason it improves profits.
The winners’ institutions have grown remote from others, he said. Complex investment structures insulate owners from employees and customers. The recent mortgage crisis provides an excellent example of the gap between investors and the people encouraged to borrow beyond their means.
Giridharadas directly challenged the concept that business methods can solve society’s problems or that pure free enterprise will ultimately lead to all people doing better.
He pointed out that investment did not end slavery or abolish child labor or put fire escapes on tenement factories or stop drug makers from “slipping antifreeze into medicine.” Clearly, he thinks government deserves some of the winners’ resources for such purposes.
The winners use charitable giving to protect themselves from others taking a close look at how they made their money, he said. They want to ensure the survival of measures benefiting the wealthy, such as weak banking and labor laws, protective zoning barriers and insufficient efforts to end discrimination.
Of course, the winners can be generous. In short, it is easier in his view for the wealthy to make tax-deductible gifts to help a few of the less fortunate than to consider sacrificing some of their advantages so that many others can get ahead.
“For generosity is a win-win, but justice often is not,” he said. “Ask yourself: Does the world need more food companies donating playgrounds to children, or rather reformed food companies that don’t profit from fattening children?”
Whatever you think of his message, a listener may be impressed with his courage to voice it in front of those he challenges. Reportedly, he received only a polite response from his audience, though he praised them and professed to find them “amazing.”
Next week, it is likely that Americans will hear something like these words from Pope Francis, who has made these concerns a key part of his message.
Some may see the Pope as intervening in the political debate over the proper role of government. Yet government itself may not be the issue. In a more provocative way, such remarks may really be about societies in which the winners form one class and the other class can turn out to be what one candidate calls “losers.”
Giridharadas’ speech or the Pope’s expected message should not be viewed as taking sides in politics as much as an effort to prod some people – the winners – to take more responsibility for the effects of their actions.