Forbes started compiling an annual list of the world’s billionaires in 1987. That year, 141 people made the cut. The number crossed the four-figure threshold for the first time in 2008; a brief market correction brought it down to 793 the following year, but the group has expanded at a fairly steady rate since then, until a recent and unprecedented surge. From the spring of 2020 to the spring of 2021, the number of billionaires jumped from 2,095 to 2,755, with a collective net worth of over $13 trillion, up from $8 trillion the year before. This increase, which roughly coincides with year one of life under the Covid-19 pandemic, is just one of the more dramatic indicators of a longer period of socialized risk and privatized reward.
The Forbes list was first released during a period of market optimism. More recently, stagnation and recession have darkened the public mood. Widespread economic pain has become a political problem too, especially since the 2008 crash, when governments adopted crisis-response policies that prioritized the security and confidence of those at the top. While some people still admire, even revere, certain billionaires, there is now a voluminous commentary on the unsavory ways that the ultrarich have amassed their wealth and the harm they have caused.
Amid the upheavals of the past decade, these criticisms have moved from the margins to the center. Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World, the latest book by New York Times reporter Peter S. Goodman, is in some ways an index of that shift. Goodman’s 2009 book Past Due explained the Great Recession as the result of decades of loose credit at both the individual and state level, which he believed was coming to a salutary end. “From the ashes of the failed era of easy money,” he wrote, “Americans must get back to honest work.” Goodman voiced support for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and other ameliorative measures supported by the Obama administration in its first months, but his policy imagination was limited to federal spending to spur public-private partnerships in potential growth sectors like renewable energy and biotech.
Past Due featured sympathetic portraits of working-class people, small-business owners, and upper-middle-class professionals whose lives were upended by the recession, while pinning responsibility for their plight on an amorphous, credit-induced malaise. In Davos Man, Goodman has turned his attention to a global elite unperturbed by recent economic crises, and he has named them the problem. The Davos Man, he writes, “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.” Goodman’s new book is a story of ill-gotten gains, the corruption of governing institutions, and the betrayal of the public trust. He considers a wide array of ideas to deal with the billionaire problem, and he abandons any hint of austerianism for the conventional Keynesianism of today’s center-left.
Goodman is rightly scandalized by new forms of plunder and privation, but the origins of his billionaire hatred lie in the advances of right-wing populism—a political development that he experienced as a shock, and which he attributes directly to ruling-class irresponsibility. If the belief that Donald Trump represents a brief aberration in the arc of history still holds some weight among the liberal faithful, Davos Man is an indication of a broader, dawning realization among this set that the United States is beset by multiple crises with origins that predate Trump’s election in 2016. But a leftward drift in mainstream opinion—for however long it lasts—is not enough to overcome the entrenched problems of American life. A bold plan of attack is needed; what Goodman offers up amounts instead to a policy hodgepodge detached from his own vivid sense of fury and betrayal. Anger about elite misrule, however justified, is not enough to move us through this impasse.
The Swiss academic Klaus Schwab founded the European Management Forum in 1971. The organization hosted an annual gathering of businessmen in Davos, under nonprofit auspices, with the initial intent of bringing American managerial methods to firms across the Atlantic. The same year that Forbes started its billionaires list, Schwab renamed it the World Economic Forum—a change that reflected both its widening geographic scope and Schwab’s ambitions to turn the business-oriented conference into a more public-minded affair, featuring not just executives but also state leaders and select representatives of civil society groups. In the ensuing years, in large part through Schwab’s networking and marketing savvy, Davos—a ski resort town in the Alps with a population of around 10,000 people—became synonymous with global capital.
In those same years, that elite was getting a lot richer and more politically powerful. One former WEF executive told Goodman that the forum played an important role in this process: “It is the largest lobbying operation on earth. The most powerful people gather together behind closed doors, without any accountability, and they write the rules for the rest of the world.” While it’s hard to say what exactly happens behind those closed doors, Davos is hardly the seat to a shadow global government; by many accounts, attendance is more vital to strivers than to those at the very top. More significant is how the WEF advanced what we now call “thought leadership”—the exchange and synthesis of ideas that pass between government officials, corporate executives, and their intellectual supporters. The summit has less to do with designing the international order than with offering an opportunity for powerful people to tell each other about all the things they care about besides money.
Schwab took this mission seriously from the start. Since the 1970s, he has been a proponent of “stakeholder capitalism”: the idea that corporations bear responsibility for the well-being of not just their owners but also of workers, consumers, and the communities in which they operate. This vision emerged alongside the actually existing shareholder-value model of the corporation, with its ruthless focus on the bottom line. Stakeholder capitalism recommends the adoption of higher corporate moral standards, without altering the power dynamics or governing institutions in any meaningful way. With some small adjustments, everyone can share in the bounty amassed by the ultrarich.
Goodman calls this story the “Cosmic Lie,” and it’s understandable that, after reporting from Davos for over seven years, all the self-congratulatory high-mindedness irks him. His most forthcoming interviewee, Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff—who once cowrote a book called Compassionate Capitalism—told him during the pandemic, “I think the world needs a Davos right now.… So that everybody can get together and talk about how to move forward.” Goodman doesn’t let this galactically out-of-touch statement pass (and Benioff says he “totally get[s]” the skepticism). It’s not just that Goodman sees the WEF as an ineffectual mechanism for quelling social upheaval. He rejects the notion that the success of the superrich is linked in any meaningful way to a growth machine that benefits everyone, and he describes philanthropy as a failure of public policy.
The ideas circulated at places like Davos, however morally bankrupt, are probably less in need of debunking now than at any point in recent memory. Goodman calls this ideology Davos’s “most cunning innovation,” but these days many see right through the pabulum. Elsewhere, there’s been a renewal of a harder-edged Darwinian version of the ideology: Nationalists have supplanted mutually beneficial exchange with zero-sum competition, and conservatives talk less about a rising tide lifting all boats and more about the problem of weak swimmers. The “Cosmic Lie” is still a trope at public gatherings of the upper echelon; it just doesn’t do much today to legitimate the order of things. Proponents of the idea that we have reached the end of neoliberalism—a term Goodman avoids in Davos Man—have highlighted this shift in popular opinion over the past decade or so. But ideologies can fail while the systems they once justified carry on, even if in mutated forms.
Davos Man documents some of these harsh economic realities, with special attention to the role that name-brand plutocrats have played in creating them. A section on Jeff Bezos and American deindustrialization could have been written at almost any point over the past 50 years. Elsewhere, Goodman turns to forms of financialized extraction of more recent vintage, such as how the asset management firm Blackstone has amassed real estate and thereby contributed to increased rent burdens around the world, or how sophisticated tax avoidance schemes have eroded the fiscal basis for a more generous social policy.
The entire middle section of the book is devoted to the deleterious consequences of private power on public health and policy during the pandemic. Corporate concentration undermined the safety recommendations by medical professionals. Lean hospital budgets made it impossible to meet capacity during an emergency. The global distribution of vaccines was leveraged to further enrich the companies that received public funding to create them. And in the United States, the rich excelled at taking advantage of federal stimulus money meant to prop up the economy during an unprecedented shutdown.
Just as significant to Goodman are the government leaders who have abetted the brazen transfer of wealth. He delivers harsh criticisms of figures whom he sees as playing significant roles in provoking backlash, including former UK chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne in the case of Brexit and French President Emmanuel Macron with the “yellow vest” protests. Goodman argues that right-wing populism is a direct response to the near-total capture of state power by elites who have done next to nothing to protect working people from the headwinds of a turbulent economy. But it is also a displaced response: While the right condemns “globalists” for orchestrating a conspiracy against the hard-working people of the nation, it is migrants from the Global South, blamed for undercutting the economic prospects of the native-born, who come under actual threat. Meanwhile, however far Trump is from embodying the ideology of enlightened capital, the tax-cutting president was welcomed at Davos—only to be dropped by the same businessmen after the January 6 insurrection, when it became clear that he was a liability they could afford to purge from their balance sheets.
Goodman recognizes the challenges of overcoming this toxic political cycle, from which the rich have so far come out unscathed: “How can democratic societies attack inequality when democracy itself is under the control of the people who possess most of the money?” Some of his answers to this question involve skirting around the problem through cooperative and creative localism, operating on a scale small enough to avoid the billionaire gaze. (Perennial left-wing reference point Mondragon, a federation of worker co-ops in Basque Country founded in the 1950s, makes an appearance.) Another chapter places hope in the renewal of anti-monopoly policy, an area of genuine political interest and advancement under the current US administration, but one whose power to democratize the economy without broader legislative and popular support remains limited. Goodman also advocates for a universal basic income, a scheme that he can’t seem to break free from the elite-capture problem: It would either be too small to make a difference, or big enough that it would incur significant opposition. Finally, he pushes for the sort of wealth tax popularized by the French economist Thomas Piketty—a proposal that Goodman admits is currently politically impossible but about which he remains hopeful, because clear majorities support raising revenue from millionaires and billionaires.
If this is a deflating ending to a searing indictment of a predatory ruling class, it is understandably so. Short of building power to wrest control from the current set of elites—something Goodman doesn’t entertain—there’s little to do but tinker outside the system and hope that political power in some way tracks with public opinion. Davos Man’s discussion of the Biden administration is painfully ambivalent, alternating between admissions of how enmeshed the president is with business interests and optimism about “his willingness to challenge the corporate establishment.” You can almost smell the ink still drying on passages about the devastating obstructionism of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Biden’s “tenure would clearly be defined by compromise,” Goodman writes. “Whoever was in the White House, Davos Man retained his perch.”
Of course, there are politicians who have promoted the democratization of political and economic institutions. But the mentions of Bernie Sanders (or even Elizabeth Warren) in Davos Man are scant, and the only reference to Jeremy Corbyn is a bizarre passage that says nothing about either the increase in Labour Party membership during his brief ascendance or his ambitious agenda. It’s hard to blame Goodman for this omission of defeated candidates. As the historian Anton Jäger has argued, left-populists put hope in the idea that “a disorganized society simply might need an organizational stir from above,” but in the majority of recent cases, this push wasn’t enough—in the United States, for example, to pass new labor laws, to institute electoral reform, or to begin to undo the most undemocratic aspects of our constitutional structure. It is hard for even inspiring leaders to create the organized support they would need to implement ideas that challenge powerful constituencies.
Angry tirades and all, Goodman maintains an abiding faith in democratic capitalism. “Capitalism is indeed the most advanced form of economic organization,” he writes, while government “operating under a democratic mandate” does the work of “justly distribut[ing] the gains.” By contrast, “the capitalism since hijacked by Davos Man is not really capitalism at all. It is a social welfare state run for the benefit of the people who need it least.” This account raises more questions than it answers. As our distance from the postwar “golden age” grows larger and larger, it becomes harder and harder to pass off our current condition as the aberrant one. Without a sense of how capitalism became (slightly) more democratic in the first place, and of the mechanisms that reversed those gains over the last half-century, there’s little way to make sense of the world we live in or to find any pathways out.
One place to start is by asking hard questions about the “Cosmic Lie.” There are certainly times when elites and their publicity machines have the power to shape our sense of reality—all the more so when alternative institutions for making meaning are in decline. But the set of interests that maintain the status quo can’t be reduced to a cabal and the people they’ve hoodwinked.
In their groundbreaking book The Asset Economy, Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper, and Martijn Konings argue that the spread of home ownership has provided a broader base for opposing inheritance taxes and supporting policies that promote asset appreciation—the very sorts of policies that have sharply increased wealth at the top—even as that makes life more expensive and precarious for those who don’t own property (and even for some of those who do).
Similar dynamics surround one of the most significant policy developments since the 2008 crisis: the role of the Federal Reserve and the US Treasury, along with parallel institutions in other parts of the world, in providing a backstop to the global economy. This responsibility only deepened during the pandemic, when, as the economic historian Adam Tooze writes in Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy, “not just individual banks but entire markets were declared too big to fail.” Goodman depicts this policy regime as a moral failing: “This gusher of credit spared Davos Man from a cascade of bankruptcies while triggering a wealth-creating boom in the stock market, even as joblessness remained a scourge.” But the fallout of banking panics and corporate collapses can be equally far-reaching.
Financial barons and working people do not have identical interests, of course. But to truly reckon with the power of globe-bestriding elites, we need to plan for the harm they cause not just when they win, but also when they lose. Successful political projects do the work of identifying where coalitions can be built, which interests can be disentangled, and what can be offered to allay people’s fears of the unknown. The belief that there is indeed an alternative takes root in the feeling of collective strength.