The World Economic Forum is being held at Davos, Switzerland this week.
In "Davos Man," Peter Goodman argues that billionaires are responsible for many of the problems they purport to solve at Davos.
Contributor Noam Cohen says Goodman's analysis falls short of offering any real solutions of his own.
In the 1940s, the young screenwriter Budd Schulberg dreamed up a dashing character, Sammy Glick, who in barely a decade rises from New York City's Jewish slums to the peak of the Hollywood studios by stepping over or double-dealing nearly every person he meets. The novel, which became a runaway best seller, is narrated by an idealistic, older screenwriter obsessed by the question: "What Makes Sammy Run?" How, he wonders, can you explain a person who "emerged sprinting out of his mother's womb, turning life into a race in which the only rules are fight for the rail and elbow on the turns and the only finish line is death?"
Later in his life Schulberg would wonder if he asked the wrong question. The better questions raised by Sammy, he wrote, are "How do we slow him down?" and the deeper one, "How do we slow down the whole culture he threatens to run away with and that threatens to run away with us?"
The same might be helpful to ask about the men and women attending this week's World Economic Forum, held each year in the Swiss mountain village of Davos. Peter Goodman, the global economics correspondent for the New York Times, sees the menace clearly, as is evident from the subtitle of his recent book, "Davos Man: How Billionaires Devoured the World." In over 400 pages, Goodman documents the wreckage from these exceedingly wealthy men (yes, all men) and their mad dash to be the wealthiest and most powerful. There's Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, whom the director of the UN's World Food Program called upon to "step up" and end world hunger at this year's forum. There's also Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA from Sweden, and the French business magnate, Bernard Arnault. Each in their own way, as Goodman puts it about Arnault, a "master at the art of avoiding taxation."
Founded in 1971, the World Economic Forum serves dual purposes: It is both a reliable gathering place for the world's economic and political leaders to make deals on a global scale and a conference meant to assure the public that those in attendance are "Committed to Improving the State of the World," as its mission statement proclaims. This last bit, in Goodman's eyes, represents the Cosmic Lie, namely that "when the rules are organized around greater prosperity for those who already enjoy most of it, everyone's a winner."
From India to Finland, Compton to Argentina, Goodman shows that even as Davos Men have grown immensely more prosperous those on the bottom are hardly "winners." One eye-popping statistic: In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the collective wealth of billionaires worldwide had increased by $3.9 trillion while half a billion people descended into poverty. "Their recovery likely to take a decade or more," he writes.
In another section, we see the lengths Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, goes to make the Argentinian government, struggling as the pandemic rages, pay back its debts at 55 cents to the dollar instead of 53 cents. Goodman writes succinctly on Argentina: "The billionaire who ran the world's largest asset management company had menaced a desperate country for two pennies on the dollar."
To document a recent textbook case of billionaire wreckage, one need only sit still and observe Musk's recent Glick-like cynicism in purchasing Twitter. With swift assurance of being the company's savior, he made a bid to acquire it at a premium, trashed its executives, cast doubt on its business model and whether he would even go through with sale, made common cause with those who would "own the libs." Today, the value of the company is roughly where it was when Musk first arrived on the scene and, spoiler alert: no one was saved.
In light of all this billionaire damage, Goodman's solutions can seem rather tame and no remedy wins his full praise. He waffles on Universal Basic Income - seemingly a favorite of socialists and billionaires alike. On one hand it's a "utopian flight of fancy," on the other, perhaps UBI can be applied "to expanding employment and encouraging economic growth." He suggests there isn't a simple way to finesse ourselves out of this current predicament with a clever new policy. "Absent substantial economic redistribution, the very concept of democracy is endangered," he explains. But then pulls up short of making any real demands: "Reclaiming power from Davos Man requires no insurrection or revolution of ideas. It demands the thoughtful use of a tool that has been there all along: democracy."
One hopes democracy can save us. It's the only path I'd want to take. But we need to recognize the depths of our problem and focus laser-like on reducing wealth inequality and boosting the power of workers through labor unions as a vital check on the powerful. In other words, the kinds of solutions you'd rarely see bandied about at an event like the World Economic Forum at Davos.
It is important to replace the image of sophisticated, two-faced Davos Men that Goodman portrays with a more Glick-ish one - manic folk running madly to the top for some mysterious reason and without concern for the rest of us.
We must slow them down for the sake of society and our planet.