On Tuesday, America was rocked by word of a massive scam involving dozens of wealthy people allegedly using bribes and other shady means to buy their children tickets to elite colleges. From private equity executives to Hollywood stars, these one-percenter parents, prosecutors said, threw money at a fraudulent nonprofit, athletic coaches, and fake test-takers to help secure spots for their offspring at schools like University of Southern California, Stanford, and Yale.
For author and avowed critic of the late capitalist elite Anand Giridharadas, the revelations were at once shocking and inevitable. The whole scheme seemed like a product of the exact system he detailed in his book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, which depicts how the super rich use the aura of philanthropy and gifts to perpetuate a cycle of wealth in which only a few people have access to a quality life.
After news of federal indictments in the cheating case broke Tuesday, I spoke to Giridharadas about the scandal—and how to make sense of this kind of scamming by people who already have every advantage.
VICE: Is this cheating scandal any different than what rich people have been doing for years with wealthy families buying entire buildings or wings of an educational institution to boost their kids?
Anand Giridharadas: What strikes me about this story is it is both a very old story and also has a kind of twist of modern Winners Take All America. The old story is rich people organizing the world to be more hospitable to them and their children, and you’ll find that in any era. You also find in any era rich people concocting ideas, values, and norms that seem to be selfless while justifying their rule.
What you have in this particular story is a very nice detailed portrait of some of the mechanisms through which we are being ruled by a sort of plutocratic class that rules by claiming to be helping us. A lot of these folks—the specific thing they [allegedly] did, first of all, is realized their kids were not going to hack it in a competitive meritocracy. That’s a particularly stunning conclusion to come to because the competitive meritocracy is not, in fact, a competitive meritocracy.
Rich people are hugely able to transmit their privilege to their children in terms of hacking the exams and getting into the schools it takes. So if you are the children of these rich people, you already have an enormous advantage—an unfair advantage—simply because of how our society is organized. Nonetheless these parents [allegedly] concluded that these kids couldn’t make it in this rigged meritocracy, which is just a stunning lack of faith in one’s offspring.
Where it does become very 2019 is essentially the mechanism to it all is charity—that’s what feels particularly new here.
Usually what we see is the philanthropy of erecting a new building on campus. In this case there seems to be more obvious fraud, right?
Giving $100 million to a science center is different than a relatively more paltry amount of giving to get your child in. Both are a part of the same sickness which is we hugely undertax rich people in large part on the faith that their private charitable activities will solve more problems more effectively and more efficiently than if we taxed them.
And when we do it that way, we undertax people, leave them with huge fortunes, starve many of our institutions because there’s not enough government money and then leave it to rich people to fill the void, they’re unable to fill the void in purely selfless ways. When you donate $100 million to universities and get yourself a science center with your name on it set to your priorities, you’re rigging the system in some way. Who are you to decide what kind of science should be done at that university? Why should that institution get that money and be therefore able to work on the problems because you’re nostalgic because you had your first kiss there 55 years ago?
When you have these other donations that are specifically around bribery, the common thread is giving, serving as a mask that allows a tremendous amount of taking to take place. The taking of power, taking opportunities from other people, but it’s all still taking. A lot of these Hollywood folks and others are heavily involved in telling you how generous they are.
In your book, you support the idea of an expanded government. A lot of the universities involved with this are public—not the Harvard or Princetons of the world, even if some are private. How do you square that?
This continues an increasingly well-worn tradition of rich and powerful people using private “giving” to distort the public sphere. One of the main thrusts of Jane Mayer’s masterpiece Dark Money is that a lot of the hostile takeover of public life by the handful of families on the right wing was achieved through philanthropic institutions, nonprofit institutes, and other kinds of astroturfing centers.
A hundred years ago, when people saw rich people swashbuckling around with money, the default reflex was skepticism. When John D. Rockefeller tried to give his money away through a foundation, Theodore Roosevelt had this famous line about how no amount of generosity could make up for how he made the money. Today that culture has given way to a culture of reflexive gratitude and reflexive trust.
What’s happening now, I’ve been feeling it shift in the last few months, is we’re going back to where we were a hundred years ago, which is frankly a smart posture. It’s not to say all money and all elite do-gooding are bad, but the burden of proof is on very powerful people to prove they’re doing public good. And we should be skeptical about that because more often than not rich and powerful people use their privileged position to change the world in ways that keep them on top.
There are all sorts of debates going on in higher education right now—from Harvard’s conversation around Asian American admissions rates, or a few years ago, the anti-affirmative action case at the University of Texas. How do those coexist with these other inequalities?
It is amazing that a lot of rich white people are so afraid of affirmative action. Affirmative action is the only hope their kids have—just because you don’t call it affirmative action doesn’t mean that’s not what’s at work.
The Hollywood actresses involved in this college probe make it all the more interesting in the public eye, but are celebrities actually the biggest issue here?
This is never about individuals. This is about a system. We have to understand as people down here on earth that we are getting shards of a glimpse into how the world really works. With a story like this we gained .006 percent of a view into how college admissions works in America. When the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook story leaked, we’re getting .803 percent of a view into how that system works. We have to go long on it and assume there’s more there.
Is there a difference between celebrity rich versus a Zuckerberg?
They’re all part of the same system. Here’s the most important name on this list [of people charged in the cheating scandal]: William McGlashan. McGlashan is a partner at the massive private equity firm TPG. TPG is your pretty standard aggressive private equity firm which is part of the financializing of America and very much part of the Winners Take All society, and like many institutions in Finance, TPG has felt the need to show that it’s in fact something nobler. So TPG decides to create something called the Rise Fund. (Editor’s note: TPG is an investor in Vice Media.)
And now lookie here. The CEO of the Rise Fund—which is about letting other people rise, helping those who are most disadvantaged among us—was on the sly allegedly working against his own do-gooding and rigging the system through this alleged bribery scheme to make it virtually impossible for the people he was supposedly “empowering” in Africa and wherever else to actually compete with his children.
How early do rich people start paying their kids' way into a different life than the rest of us? Where and when does this process begin for wealthy families?
Right now in America, public schools are funded by local property taxes. We essentially fund public schools according to how nice mommy or daddy’s house is. Forget what rich people do—our public policy is built on the principle you should get a nicer education [according to] the house you have. Every child’s life is afflicted by that societal sin.
And it’s no accident that people get the message—people take the idea that society rigs things for the rich and gives the best education to those who need elevation the least. And why shouldn’t we all be scheming in this way? To put it all together, what you really have here is people who, in theory and in their acceptance speeches, in Hollywood and in their TPG-impact side hustle, are all about lifting others up, empowering others, fighting for good causes, helping the meek among us. But when no one is looking they are upstairs in the bedrooms at home making phone calls that happen to be wiretapped, organizing for their children to take the spots that rightfully belonged to the kind of people they were claiming in daylight to be helping.
I think you’re right there’s more skepticism. It’s like what we saw with Amazon in New York. People said, “Yeah you’re going to give jobs, but what are you taking away”? Where is that resistance coming from and do you think a case like this will support that?
It’s easy to see these things as isolated: Why did Amazon get chased out of New York? Why is AOC connecting with millions of people in the way that she is? Why does no one like Mark Zuckerberg anymore? Why are proposals to tax the wealth of the ultra wealthy popular not only with Democrats but now the majority of Republicans? Why did Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to break up Amazon and Google and Facebook not isolate her but inspire immediate assent from many other leaders, who five years ago might have run away from her? Why is populism on the rise?
These things may all seem disparate but I think there’s an awakening happening in America that people realize that a winners take all society has been built while they didn't even realize it, and it has essentially been designed to make sure that very few people monopolize the fruits of progress. That the rainwater of the future, which is abundant, is hoarded by the very fortunate. That the lavish amount of innovation that our era has blessed us with has translated into scanty progress, if progress means most people’s lives getting better.
And people are finally realizing how that was done. It was not done in the early 19th and 20th century way of shooting workers in the back as they tried to organize, or forcing kids to work in factories. In our age, the rich and powerful have done something so much more ingenious than the robber barons of the first Gilded Age: they have claimed ownership of the idea of saving the world, of helping out and of giving back, of empowering others to rise. They have built the TPG Rise Fund, they have given money to American Humane and Free Arts in New York and various other organizations [and causes]. And what we now realize is we’ve been ruled by the aura created by their kindness. An aura which has allowed them to continue and intensify their rigging of America's systems.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
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