Beware of billionaires offering to save the world (review of Peter Goodman’s Davos Man)

Alexa, how much did Jeff Bezos spend on his 10-minute rocket ride to the edge of space?

Bezos has reportedly spent $5.5 billion on his space company.

Here’s what the Amazon founder could’ve done with that money here on Earth.

He could’ve saved 38 million people from starvation, according to World Food Program estimates.  Vaccinated two billion people in developing countries against COVID-19. Given paid sick leave to Amazon employees who contracted COVID while working in his warehouses.  And he could have cut, rather than hiked, the price of masks sold by Amazon during the pandemic.

Bezos is not only the world’s richest man – he’s also a Davos Man. Political scientist Samuel Huntington coined the term in 2004 for the globe-trotting billionaires who fly into the Alpine resort town every year for the World Economic Forum.

New York Times global economics correspondent Peter S. Goodman has covered the forum for years and watched Davos Man in action.

“He is a rare and remarkable creature – a predator who attacks without restraint, perpetually intent on expanding his territory and seizing the nourishment of others, while protecting himself from reprisal by posing as a symbiotic friend to all,” says Goodman in his book Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World.

“He pretends that his interests are the same as everyone else’s. He seeks gratitude for his exploits, validation as the product of a just system in which he is a guardian of the public interest, even as he devours all the sources of sustenance. He argues that his own prosperity is a precondition for broader progress, the key to vibrancy and innovation.”

What does Davos Man want in return for gracing us with his presence and saving our world? Tax cuts. Deregulation. No unions. Minimum wages instead of living wages. Austerity measures that force bankrupt governments to privatize public services. No handouts for anyone during tough times until billionaires get their taxpayer-funded corporate bailouts because stocks need to bought back, dividends need to be paid out and executive compensation packages need bumping up.

So how’s that deal working out? Goodman reports that over the past 40 years, the wealthiest one per cent of Americans saw their fortunes soar $21 trillion while households in the bottom half saw their wealth shrink by $900 million. Since 1978, total compensation for corporate executives has increased more than 900 per cent, while wages for typical American workers have risen just under 12 per cent. Worldwide, the 10 richest people are worth more than the combined economies of the 85 poorest countries.

In 2020, the wealth of the world’s billionaires increased by $3.9 trillion while their philanthropic contributions hit a 10-year low. At the same time, upwards of 500 million people fell into poverty during the global pandemic.  “If the agony of 2020 had demonstrated anything it was how the rich could not only prosper but profiteer off everyone else’s suffering,” says Goodman.

Extreme inequality is leading us to a bad place. We’re scared and struggling. Out of desperation, we turn to real or pretend populists who pocket campaign contributions from Davos Man, slash their taxes, dismantle safety nets, fuel conspiracy theories and deflect our anger onto immigrants (build walls!) and governments (drain swamps and fire up the freedom convoys!).

“Strife and inequality will create more opportunities for political movements that employ scarcity as a springboard to hate, stoking fear of ethnic and religious minorities as an electoral strategy.”

So what’s the solution? Goodman recommends a universal basic income that provides economic security for regular people along with a wealth tax for billionaires and the break-up of their monopolies.

It won’t be easy. Bank on billionaires threatening to take their ball and go to one of their dozen homes, yachts or islands. This may also help explain why they’re suddenly keen to fly off into space and dream about living on Mars.

“Reducing economic inequality is not terribly complicated,” says Goodman. “It’s just exceedingly difficult as a political objective. The government needs to reapportion wealth so that ordinary people gain a meaningful stake in society. But those who possess wealth have mastered how to use it to manipulate democracy, preventing a fair distribution.”

While that redistribution will be difficult, it’s essential and ultimately doable.

“Democracy has been warped by the billionaire class, its workings tilted toward private islands, offshore bank accounts and secret meetings in Davos convened to plot the next insider deal.

“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.”

Although a convoy that grounds the Gulfstream private jets at the next World Economic Forum may be worth considering.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

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Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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