It is (nearly) always useful to read books that you don’t expect to agree with. Woke Inc. by Vivek Ramaswamy is one of those. (Plus buying it means Amazon is now sending me lots of different recommendations for books by Ron DeSantis etc… which is a fun change). Ramaswamy is running in the Republican primary and doing really quite well, so it is especially illuminating to understand his views. As I write his campaign website just has him staring into the distance with Truth written in big letters. This shows he is serious about something and is suitably presidential. I doubt he thinks he can beat Trump etc… but a run for President will bring him attention. (And at least one more book sale so job done there). I was most interested in how he saw modern business. In the next post I’ll look at his philosophy of business for now I’ll examine the use of Woke as a magical term.
A Politician’s Book
Given this is a book by a politician, it is actually quite good. It has a (somewhat) clear theme. The writing is effective and the personal stories shoehorned in to tell us that the politician is admirable are at least worth telling. The stories don’t always fit. Ramaswamy uses an extended discussion of his parent’s arranged marriage to compare a good and a bad arranged marriage. The bad one being Corporate America’s arranged marriage to ‘Woke’. His precise line of argument wasn’t clear to me. It seemed like Corporate America, according to his argument, was hypocritically exploiting Woke rather than marrying it. Plus, no one seemed to be arranging the marriage. As such, I didn’t get the arranged marriage analogy. Still, it gave him a chance to tell us about his family and if you have an interesting family like him why not tell us about them?
He also hits a lot of hot-button political issues. He talks about “… liberal priorities like voter registration..” (Ramaswamy, 2021, page 145) without explaining why someone like Ramaswamy who professes to care about non-voters and American democracy doesn’t see voter registration as a non-partisan aim.
He clearly wasn’t comfortable with January 6th. That said, politically he can’t blame the people who did it. So needs to blame the left for its more egregious sins. He, therefore, describes the:
Soviet-style ideological purge, happening in plain sight, right here in America, except the censorship czar wasn’t big government.Ramaswamy, 2021, page 8
I must go back and re-read Solzhenitsyn but if I remember correctly the Soviets may have done a little more than chuck people into a Twitter timeout.
Ramaswamy can be funny. I did enjoy when he described the corporate rush to endorse Black Lives Matter.
This time, corporations knew celebrities would not be enough. The situation called for socially conscious tweets.Ramaswamy, 2021, page 274
My peers pressured me to be courageous enough to do the same thing that, well, everyone else was doing.Ramaswamy, 2021, page 58
The author also tries some obvious sleight of hand. On drug pricing, Ramaswamy argues that prosecutors went after Martin Shkreli because he publicly flaunted social norms and was already guilty in the court of public opinion. That doesn’t surprise me. When you are ripping people off it is generally wise not to draw attention to yourself. Not sure what this had to do with Woke to be honest.
Martin Shkreli may have commited fraud, but the reason the DOJ punished him for it is that he was an asshole who was bringing too much heat down on all the more polished pharmaceutical elites.Ramasswamy, 2021, page 155
More pertinent to this discussion is that Ramaswamy argues that Martin Shkreli didn’t hurt people when he jacked up the price of Daraprim by over 5,000 percent.
The people who used Daraprim didn’t pay more for it; the cost was split up across the whole health insurance system.Ramasswamy, 2021, page 155
I don’t believe that all people who needed Daraprim had adequate insurance or access to special low prices. Assuming my guess is true some people would have been directly hurt by the increase. Even if insurance covered all the increases the idea that high prices paid by insurance companies don’t hurt anyone is clearly silly. Ramaswamy is going for the mantel of thinking person’s Conservative and he has been very well educated. Surely he knows that insurance prices that people pay will rise when drug prices rise. Some price rises hurt everyone and it even risks driving some people to give up their health insurance. The claim that no one was hurt is ridiculous.
Overall, Ramaswamy has some relatively interesting things to say about public policy. I have no idea about his legal theories but they were at least in the book for the reader to see. He also had an extended discussion of (non-military) national service to bring the country together. This appeared to be most developed policy proposal to solve the stated problem that the country drifting apart. If America being divided is the biggest problem though it seemed weird to me that Ramaswamy wanted to drive a further wedge between parts of the country with his war on Woke.
Woke As A Magical Term
My main confusion throughout the book was the use of the term Woke. Even after reading Woke Inc. I’m not sure what Woke is exactly. People seem to see Woke as a magical term. Woke can be everywhere and nowhere. It is all-powerful although often we can’t see its effects. Woke is both something that corporate leaders control but also something that pressures corporate leaders into doing what Woke wants. Woke is powerful but is easily duped by cynical corporate leaders. Meanwhile, the business leaders are simultaneously both Woke while exploiting Woke people for their own personal (not especially Woke) ends.
Indeed, Woke is so powerful that Ramaswamy has to reassure the reader that stakeholder capitalism (a proxy for Woke in his mind I think) didn’t (directly) kill Jamal Khashoggi. (The reporter who was murdered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul). He did, however, posit some labored connection to Woke’s suppression of speech. I’m sympathetic to some of Ramaswamy’s arguments that problems could be caused in universities through stifling discussion (see here and here). Still, insinuating a connection between Woke and the Saudi government murdering people is fairly risible.
(Not connected to Ramaswamy but I just saw another weird use of ‘Woke’. It was given as a reason not to show the Cerne Abbas Giant’s penis on the Oxford Cheese Company’s packaging, here. Why is this Woke? How west-country of England Saxon chalk hill figures relate to modern political discussions is unclear to me. Can people stop using Woke without telling us what it means?)
So Inclusive That You Advantage The Advantaged
The book does draw attention to the challenge of being inclusive. Ramaswamy, when he was CEO, brought in incentives for workers who came from backgrounds in the lower 25% of income.
I announced that we would prioritize recruiting a certain number of candiates who grew up in a family where the household income was below the 25th percentile. (Over the last year, Roivant [his Compay] has since expanded the program to be more inclusive by increasing the qualification thresholds to below the 50th percentile).Ramaswamy, 20221, page 80
Woke people like inclusivity. The challenge here is defining inclusivity. By Ramaswamy’s logic, therefore, the Woke might want him to expand the program to give special prioritization to candidates who grew up in families in the top 100 percentile of income. This would be maximally inclusive as it includes everyone. This doesn’t seem to capture the spirit of the idea though.
Overall, I was left wondering what Woke is. I know if Ramaswamy is elected president he’ll lead the charge against Woke but I’m really not sure where he’ll be charging.
For more on Woke Washing see here
Read: Vivek Ramaswamy (2021) Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam, Center Street