This interview originally appeared in Volume Six of our magazine. Order your copy here.
The advice a lot of young people get today is to spend a considerable amount of time, maybe all of your twenties and some of your thirties, trying lots of things. Not committing too early. I followed the opposite path. I knew I wanted to do exactly what I’m doing right now when I was 15 or 16 years old.
I was a math- and science-prone kid in school, and I think part of that was almost a default of being the child of Indian immigrants to the United States. My dad came from a family of engineers and my mom’s father was a chartered accountant. Math and science were what I thought I was supposed to be good at, what I was good at, and where I thought my path lay.
But I remember very clearly, during my sophomore year of high school, I had an extraordinary history teacher and an extraordinary English teacher, both of whom were PhDs and just out of the league of teachers you might normally encounter as a 10th grader. I remember reading and writing with both of them and realizing that history and English were fundamentally about being able to think about life, yourself, the world, and your place in it, and other people all the time, for fun.
I don’t know why that had not been obvious to me before, but it was an epiphany. I switched from being a math and science guy to being a person who wanted to write. I wanted to have journalism be the professional training and undergirding of what I do some of the time, but also reach into other types of writing. And I was very lucky to get to that early enough that I was able to spend the next 24 years, as it’s now been, chasing that dream.
I worked on the paper in high school and had my first glimpse of the real world of journalism from a New York Times internship at the end of high school. I interned there again in college, covering a post-9/11 terrorism trial. But when I graduated, I discovered the thing that a lot of people discover in journalism, which is that it’s a total crapshoot-meets-catastrophe to actually get into this profession. It does not show up on campus; it does not recruit. I think it’s different now, but there weren’t even listings of jobs on websites. The vibe from news organizations was: if you have the skills to work here, you have the skills to find your way in here.
The vibe from news organizations was: if you have the skills to work here, you have the skills to find your way in here.
I tried a lot of different ways to get a journalism job out of college but couldn’t. I got a very fateful piece of advice from my mentor, Jill Abramson, who would go on to be the editor of the Times some years later. She said to me, “Don’t be one of these young writers who spend 10 years hanging out outside the building, trying to freelance one piece here, freelance one piece there, getting frustrated, and begging for opportunities when there’s a thousand other people as good as you begging for those same few opportunities. Go out into the world and learn about places and things that other people don’t know about.” Essentially, find something to say.
I started thinking, Where in the world do I go? After a while, I settled on India, because it was the place my parents had come from, and a place with which I had a very complicated relationship. I decided that going there would be the creative fount of my writerly career. But I was, again, unable to get a job in journalism there.
So, in one of the great errors of my life, I applied for a job at McKinsey. I knew about McKinsey because my father had worked there in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s one of those organizations that does not care if you studied history, as I had, or if you’re an engineer, or a water expert. They will take people from any place and put them anywhere to do anything, and that turns out to actually be one of the problems. But I got the job. It was my way of getting to India, and I was miserable from the beginning.
I have since heard people say that I was cashing in, but I was paid $14,000 a year to work in the local office of McKinsey. I moved there and lived in a rat-infested room in someone else’s apartment because real estate prices are basically the same as New York, even though salaries are far lower.
I was plunged into client work in the typical McKinsey way where I, someone who majored in European and American History of Political Thought, was now deployed to a pharmaceutical company in Ahmedabad in India and told to develop its leadership development system. I was like, “What’s a leadership development system?” And they were like, “You should look it up and then design one for this company.” I didn’t know what that was and I didn’t have any experience at a pharmaceutical company, and no one cared.
So I set about researching how people rate leaders. I found some websites that were like, “Here are the four criteria of leaders.” Then I had to come up with what qualified as one on a scale from one to four on this particular trait of leadership. What’s a two, what’s a three, what’s a four? And so on and so forth. And then to my shock and horror, the entire leadership team of this company was publicly evaluated according to my chart at a meeting of top executives. They sat there, the CEO and others, like, “No, that guy’s more of a 2.5” and “I think he’s more of a 3.” I remember sitting there thinking, Please do not evaluate these poor men’s lives—and it was all men—on the basis of something that you forced me to make up.
How do you end up with such profound inequity if all these people are supposedly so serious about doing all these activities to help?
That was when I realized the total fraudulence of a lot of what passes for business advice in the consulting world. It’s people who don’t know anything constructing this tremendously puffed-up authority to sell counsel for hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. I had never believed in it much to begin with, in the sense that I was using it as a way to get to India, but I soured on it very quickly and started looking again for journalism opportunities.
Very luckily, I reconnected with folks at the New York Times who had just acquired the other half of the International Herald Tribune and, for once in journalism, they were expanding. They were hiring more correspondents across Asia, in part to be able to cover Asia for Asians and for local audiences. I snuck in on a wave of new hires as a Bombay-based South Asia correspondent. That was in March of 2005, when I was 23 years old.
What’s interesting about being the age I am in journalism—although I guess everybody at every age thinks it’s interesting to be the age that they are—is that I was fully trained in the pre-internet world. I mean, the internet was there, but journalism had not been torn up and reassembled by it. And I’m very grateful for that. Because there was a rigor and a seriousness and a fussiness to that world that I carry with me and I find valuable. But I’m young enough to have lived through and benefited from a lot of the new world.
I think there are some spaces and modes in which I speak in a very serious, sober, edited, cautious, and lawyered way. And then on the other end of the spectrum, I’ll post, like, clapback tweets and a 30-second video making fun of Jamie Dimon—and everything in between. It’s all part of something that I think about as public teaching. But my commitment to being a writer and focusing on writing is as clear as ever. That’s what I do. Everything else is just in service of that.
My most recent book, Winners Take All, began with a simple observation about the specific phenomenon of “elite do-gooding.” Give one, get one shoes. Donating through Walgreens to fight cancer. Uber fighting for Black Lives Matter, and so on and so forth. My observation was that this had become the dominant, world-changing rhetoric of our time in America, and yet we live in an age of staggering economic inequality, increasing power concentration, and callousness at the top to those below. I became curious about the nature of that relationship.
How do you end up with such profound inequity if all these people are supposedly so serious about doing all these activities to help? And in particular cases, how is it that some of the very same people who are engaged in these activities of do-gooding are flying into Aspen to talk about “doing good” having departed cities where that very day they were doing harm? Building monopolies, compromising our democracy, defrauding consumers, selling health crises . . . and then flying to mountain towns to talk about fixing the problems. I gave a speech in Aspen that made a critique of that, which went viral, and that led to the book.
How is it that generosity has been allowed to stand in as a substitute for justice?
Writing a book after giving this very pointed speech was very backwards. Normally you want to be reporting first and then have your loud, strident speech. I realized I had to actually go back to the beginning and turn my speech into a set of questions and then pursue the answers.
How is it that the people most at risk of being resented in this age of inequality have reinvented themselves as saviors? How is it that generosity has been allowed to stand in as a substitute for justice? How is it that people can successfully wipe away public discussion of their harm by doing marginal side hustles of good?
I was really pushed by my editor and friends to always ground the book in the struggles of people within these systems, because that’s what made it interesting. And as I went deeper, the aperture widened, and it became about the ways in which manic, hyper-capitalism in America in the early 21st century perpetuates and upholds itself. Because it is so obscene—this division of opportunity, this corrosion of democracy, this official monopolization by the few of the fruits of progress. It is so sickening that your logical expectation would be that, at some point, it’s going to buckle. People are going to revolt. People aren’t going to stand for it. Maybe even the people on top will have some kind of moral awakening! If you look at it like an alien, you’d think, “This is a very precarious situation. This is a tinderbox.” And yet it was not. It was durable. It was strong, and getting stronger.
History is full of examples of horrifying things, like slavery or segregation, that a lot of people once thought were true but later realized are absurd. I think drug policy is one of those haunting examples, where not only do a lot of white voters and white politicians vote for this, but also a lot of people in the Congressional Black Caucus at some point were pushing for these tough-on-crime approaches. You had a whole consensus around something that turned out to be truly disastrous. There’s something so terrifying about that. I think the other big issue that we’re going to see in the coming years is whether there’s any kind of reparative approach to the harm done to Black communities by criminalizing something that just didn’t need to be criminalized.
The war on drugs locked up a disproportionate number of Black people and Black men. Now that it’s being legalized and turned into a business, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be the kind of thing that the rich make more money on. There have been important calls for allowing communities that were disproportionately hurt by the wrong policies of criminalization to benefit from the bounties of decriminalization, but that’s not going to happen on its own. That’s going to require concerted government effort to make sure that in a way, the sin isn’t compounded by the way in which it is undone.
History is full of examples of horrifying things, like slavery or segregation, that a lot of people once thought were true but later realized are absurd. I think drug policy is one of those haunting examples.
But I may be the most hopeful social critic you’ll read an interview with in a cannabis magazine today. I truly believe we are living in the dregs of an era. We are swimming in the backwash at the very bottom of this can of neoliberalism, capital supremacy, and the idolization of money and greed that has basically defined the period of my lifetime.
If there’s any silver lining to this time—and you’ve got to really dig deep to find it—it’s that it is no longer possible to be under the illusion that we are living right in any shape, way, or form. It really feels to me like the end of something, like the last gasp of a regime. And on good days, when I look around me, I see on the horizon this glimmer of other ways of organizing our society. I see it in certain political leaders, I see it in certain ideas, and I see it in the growing clarity with which people talk about capitalism. I see it in the renewed interest that people have in politics. I think if we play our cards right—and that is a big if—this age of capital can be buried, and an age of reform can be built on top of it, much as what happened a hundred years ago. That’s not a foregone conclusion. An age of tribal nationalism could very well follow instead. But I truly believe that an age of reform is possible.
It’s funny, I almost feel like if I ever want to run for office, I would actually need a good drug story. It used to be that you had to not have one in order to have any kind of political success, but now I’m dooming myself by the fact that I don’t really have one. I’m a cocktail and wine guy. I’ve tried it once or twice and, I have to say, unsuccessfully. I kept waiting for the big reveal, and I’m still waiting. So I think I’m just back to cocktails and wine.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Anand Giridharadas photographed by Meghan Marin in Brooklyn. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies. Subscribe to our newsletter here.