How the billionaires devoured the world

Every January the world’s powerbrokers meet in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum. While issues such as climate change or inequality are on the agenda, it is best known as a networking event for the privileged elites known as ‘Davos Man’. These global operators are “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 straddling jurisdictions, eliminating loyalty to any particular nation.”

In other words, globalisation’s biggest winners, and the subject of the book Davos Man: How The Billionaires Devoured the World. Written by the New York Times global economics correspondent Peter S Goodman, it looks at who they are, how they have distorted the global economy in their favour, and how the rest of us might put it right.

The most important way that the wealthy have distorted the economy is by promoting low taxes for business and the rich, arguing that this will release money for investment and stimulate the economy. It doesn’t. That much has been repeatedly proven, but the economic stimulation is a good cover story for their self interest. Not that they necessarily pay their taxes anyway, but prefer to be seen giving back through philanthropy. And if governments complain that they need more money, then the answer is austerity.

This is all part of what Goodman describes as the ‘cosmic lie’: 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 so bluntly, though Trump and the Republicans preach it without shame. Whether explicit or not, the effect is the same: “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 flow to the top. And as Christians, the idea that society should be organised around the richest should ring some alarm bells. The kingdom of God calls us to ‘the least of these’, calls the poor blessed, and invites us to consider others better than ourselves. As Mary sang, in God’s economy it is the rich that are sent away empty. And thus, the ‘cosmic lie’ that the rich should be served first is not just poor economics and unjust policy, but an un-Christian idea too.

Goodman’s book explains the actions of CEOs and billionaires in blunt terms, but without ever being unfair. As a senior journalist, he’s talked to many of them and they get to explain themselves. But he 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. A whole section is devoted to the ways that billionaires were able to dramatically increase their wealth during the pandemic, even as most people were getting poorer.

In the final chapters of Davos Man, the author turns to solutions, from breaking monopolies to closing tax loopholes, to rediscovering more collective modes of prosperity. We have featured some of these solutions recently, including Eva Watkinson’s recent talk on the Jubilee Campaign, and Cat Jenkins’ article on wealth taxes. We will continue to champion steps towards restoration of the common good, as we work together for a fairer and greener world – whether the billionaires want it or not.

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