Book Review: Davos Man by Peter Goodman

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Every January (with the exception of the pandemic), journalists from the international media travel by plane and train to the normally nondescript and ill-located Swiss Alpine town of Davos for a gathering of the world’s elite.

Above all, they do not come to attend the public sessions with leading figures from business, politics and civil society, but for the more frank discussions behind closed doors to which a privileged few are invited, and to have the chance to corner delegates in the hallways, for a chat, coffee or, occasionally, a meal.

Their motivations are not unlike those of the full-fare titans themselves, many of whose organizations pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege and rush in private jets, helicopters and chauffeured limos.

Peter Goodman, global economics correspondent for The New York Times, is a Davos regular. And his experiences spark his book’s spirited assault on the archetypal übersummit participant: Davos Man.

Over 400 pages, it expresses a just – and largely justified – indignation against contemporary capitalism, from price gouging, anti-competitive behavior and comfortable corporate lobbying to the failure of the trickle-down economy, the rise of the international tax evasion, to growing inequality. , and the pain of public sector austerity.

He takes on the aggressive investments of Stephen Schwarzman’s private equity group Blackstone, reserving skyrocketing profits on property developments as millions struggle to pay rent or buy; or invest in private health operators who impose costly “surprise billing” on patients and are slow in the pandemic to restrict fee-generating non-Covid medical tests despite infection risks.

It attacks Larry Fink’s giant fund management group BlackRock, which berates other companies for not practicing responsible capitalism while resisting debt write-offs for overburdened low- and middle-income countries; and reaping commissions from environmentally friendly funds despite fierce debates over the ambiguous value of these environmental, social and governance filters.

Then there’s Marc Benioff at Salesforce, who advocates for social justice and stakeholder capitalism while minimizing his corporate tax bill. And Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan Chase, who lobbied for tax cuts under Donald Trump while earning a salary of $31 million in 2018 – a year when collective Wall Street bonuses were more than triple earnings totals of every full-time U.S. earner at minimum wage. .

And there’s Jeff Bezos at Amazon, who Goodman says is undermining rival high street retailers and online outlets, imposing low wages and aggressive management practices on his staff, and getting paid largely in bloated stock. , which it uses to help fund its carbon-consumer space travel.

Goodman rightly worries about the injustice of concentrating wealth among billionaires at the expense of the vast majority of the world’s population, and slams claims that their modest philanthropy is somehow better than helping the world. society by paying taxes through democratically accountable governments.

Some of his best reporting describes the pain of outsiders, from impoverished workers in the Gulf to non-union warehouse workers in the United States, to the unemployed victims of “twilight” manufacturing and mining companies stoked by anti-immigrant fervor. populist politicians.

But his book has two limitations. The first is its obsession with Davos as a common thread, as if the World Economic Forum has a unique and powerful network and is the only place where elites with shared values ​​conduct negotiations to advance their interests.

He tries to weave a common link in Davos between the fallout from Brexit, the 2008 financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic in very different countries with varying health systems, business leaders and politicians.

The reality is that many of the egregious practices he describes existed in different guises long before the forum was established half a century ago; some of the most extreme practitioners have never been to Davos; many of those who attend have very divergent points of view; and much of any negotiation that takes place is as common elsewhere, if not more so.

Goodman snaps some shots of the management style and financial interests of WEF founder Klaus Schwab. Yet there are few reports of behind-the-scenes affairs during après-ski or evidence of initiatives, good or bad, that really took off in and thanks to the Alpine Rally.

The second shortcoming of Goodman’s thesis is the limited exploration of alternatives. He touches on some interesting, yet familiar, alternative models to the supposedly shared vision of Davos Man, such as worker co-ops and universal basic income. But neither is analyzed in sufficient detail to draw definitive conclusions.

Nor is there much analysis of countries that have introduced higher tax systems, imposed stricter regulations on business, and succeeded in fostering shared wealth creation and human well-being, as in post-1945 Scandinavia. Davos may not have succeeded in offering a softer form of capitalism, but its role in promoting today’s uglier alternative is more modest than Goodman suggests.

Davos Man: How billionaires devoured the world by Peter Goodman Customs House, £20

This article is part of FT Wealtha section offering in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, as well as alternative and impact investing

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