Every January the world’s powerbrokers meet in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum. On the formal programme are discussions on how to solve the world’s biggest problems, though these are a sideshow to the parties and networking events that surround the conference. It is here that ‘Davos Man’ is found, “those so enriched by globalization and so native to its workings that they were effectively stateless, their interests and wealth flowing across borders, their estates and yachts sprinkled across continents, their arsenal of lobbyists and accountants stradling jurisdictions, eliminating loyalty to any particular nation.”
In other words, globalisation’s biggest winners. In his book Davos Man, the New York Times global economics correspondent Peter S Goodman looks at who they are, how they have shaped and distorted the global economy in their favour, and what we might do about it.
There are a few central principles that they champion. Chief among them is low taxes for business and the wealthy, arguing that this will release money for investment and stimulate the economy. It doesn’t and that has been repeatedly proven, but it allows them to argue for something that benefits the richest while claiming it’s for the poor. The richest don’t necessarily pay their taxes anyway, but like to be seen to give back through philanthropy. And if governments complain that they need more money, then the answer is austerity.
Over the last few decades, what Goodman describes the ‘cosmic lie’ has become almost common sense: the idea that “when rules are organized around greater prosperity for those who already enjoy most of it, everyone’s a winner.” It isn’t always expressed bluntly, though Trump and the Republicans do, but the effect is still visible. “The history of the last half century in Europe, North America, and other major economies is in large part the story of wealth flowing upward.”
Sometimes discussions of this kind get branded as ‘the politics of envy’, or anti-capitalism. It’s critically important to recognise that this is no such thing, Goodman argues. This is a distortion, a deliberate shaping of the forces of globalisation so that the benefits accumulate to the wealthiest. “Davos Man’s greatest triumph has been insinuating into the public discourse the notion that anyone who opposes his monopolization of wealth is anti-business or socialist”.
Goodman does not mince his words. He talks about the “rapacious opportunism” of a “gluttonous cabal” that have carried out a “historic act of larceny” by “hogging all the bounty” from globalization. But while he denounces the Davos class in no uncertain terms, the book is not unfair to them. As a senior journalist and a regular attendee at Davos, Goodman has spoken to all the key people and they appear in the book. He asks them difficult questions, and some of them challenge him back.
As well as talking to CEOs and billionaires, Goodman also talks to their warehouse workers, bus drivers, people who lost their jobs in offshoring, protestors, disillusioned voters. The book does a great job of showing the real world effects of policy decisions for the rich, and it carefully sets out the consequences of profit-driven healthcare, austerity, or the prioritizing of shareholder value.
The book also shows how the reshaping of the global economy allowed billionaires to dramatically increase their wealth during the pandemic, even as most people were getting poorer.
There’s a lot in Davos Man, which covers events in the USA, Britain, Italy, France, Sweden and elsewhere. There’s a lot that will make you very angry. In its final chapters, there are also some solutions, from breaking monopolies to closing tax loopholes, to rediscovering more collective modes of prosperity. Because for all the talk of heroic individuals, it is the things we do together that really deliver social progress.