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“Davos Man”: How Billionaires Devour the World & Fuel Global Inequality, Prolonging the Pandemic

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As many of the world’s wealthiest people wrap up virtual talks today at the World Economic Forum based in Davos, Switzerland, Oxfam reports the incomes of 99% of the world’s population dropped during the pandemic while the world’s 10 richest men saw their wealth double. Meanwhile, vaccine profits have minted at least nine new billionaires at Moderna, BioNTech and China’s CanSino, amassing a combined new wealth of over $19 billion. To discuss the rise of billionaires and the policies that got us here, we speak with New York Times global correspondent Peter Goodman, author of the new book “Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World.” Goodman says billionaires’ championing of “stakeholder capitalism” is ruining U.S. democracy, and attributes the Omicron variant to “our unwillingness to challenge patents.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The World Economic Forum is wrapping up today. Many of the world’s wealthiest people and world leaders have been gathering virtually this week for the annual event that normally takes place in Davos, Switzerland. The forum was held online for the second consecutive year due to the pandemic. Earlier this week, Dr. Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization warned participants of the growing vaccine inequity crisis.

DR. MICHAEL RYAN: If we look at the population of the world in total, over half of the world’s population has received two doses of vaccine. But if we look at in Africa, our African regional office states only 7%. So the reality is that the world is moving towards a 70% goal; the problem is we are leaving huge swathes of the world behind.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also spoke at the virtual World Economic Forum.

DR. JOHN NKENGASONG: So, what we have seen over the last two years is really total collapse of global cooperation and solidarity, period. I think there is absolutely, absolutely no reason why the continent of Africa should be lagging behind and having 7% of the population fully immunized, a continent of 1.2 billion people. It’s totally unacceptable.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Oxfam reports the world’s 10 richest men saw their wealth double during the pandemic, from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion, while the incomes of 99% of the world’s population dropped. Oxfam declared, “Widening economic, gender, and racial inequalities — as well as the inequality that exists between countries — are tearing our world apart,” unquote. This has led to growing calls for a wealth tax on the world’s billionaires.

Well, to look at some of the billionaires taking part in the World Economic Forum, we’re joined by New York Times correspondent Peter Goodman, author of the new book Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World.

Talk about what inspired this book, Peter. And talk about who was in Davos and the effect that they have on the world.

PETER GOODMAN: Yeah, you bet. Thanks for having me.

So, what inspired the book is the reality that, as you quite correctly report, we are in the middle of a global emergency. And it’s an emergency — I’m of course referring to the pandemic — that has been extended, worsened, intensified by the reality that a handful of people, the billionaire class — the people I refer to in the book as “Davos Man,” which comes from attendees of the World Economic Forum, you know, this glittering gathering of the most powerful, wealthy people on Earth — these are the people who have rigged our system so that most of the wealth flows in their direction, at the direct expense everyone else.

And I think vaccines are a perfect example. I mean, it’s well and good that in Davos they’re talking about vaccine inequity, just like they talk about climate change and gender imbalance and systematic racism and voting rights and all sorts of other super important issues about which they not only do very little — I mean, they put out some great reports — but then they go home, these participants, and they commence the battle to protect their privileges, to prevent actual redistribution of wealth. You know, the forum convenes under the mantra “committed to improving the state of the world,” which is a handy phrase that connotes change. These are the ultimate beneficiaries of the status quo.

And if you look at the fact that we have frontline medical workers going to treat COVID patients in places like South Asia and Africa while we’re boosting children in the United States, you know, that sort of tells you everything we need to know, because we’ve accepted one of the key talking points of Davos Man, that we either affirm the system we’ve got, where pharmaceutical executives get to sell their vaccines to the highest bidder, they monopolize the gains of publicly financed research for their own benefit, and the result is this gaping, lopsided distribution — that is not only a humanitarian catastrophe, it’s a catastrophe even for people in wealthy countries, because it’s an open invitation to the Omicron variant. We are paying the monopoly royalties for vaccines to companies like Pfizer through our closed schools and disruption to our children’s education, through death, fear and hits to economic livelihood. That’s why I wrote the book.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why don’t you lay out who these men are?

PETER GOODMAN: Well, so, my book focuses on five key Davos Men, but I could have picked, you know, 20 others and would have ended up with the same story. I focus on Marc Benioff, who’s the CEO of Salesforce, the Silicon Valley software company. He’s actually a member of the board of trustees at Davos, and he really encapsulates the Davos Man view. He said last year, the last time they convened virtually at the forum, that CEOs are the real heroes of the pandemic — not, mind you, frontline medical workers; CEOs — because they gave us vaccines, because financiers kept credit flowing, preventing bankruptcies. He talks about how he personally pulled strings in China to locate 50 million pieces of PPE — face masks, hand sanitizer, medical gowns — and he distributes them to frontline medical workers in the U.S. Well, that’s good. That probably actually saved people’s lives. But it’s fair to ask: Why are we dependent upon a tech bro in Silicon Valley, in the richest, most powerful country on Earth, to outfit our frontline medical workers?

And part of the explanation is that people like Marc Benioff, who does give to philanthropic pursuits, who kicked in 10 million bucks of his own money to fund a ballot initiative in San Francisco to increase services for homeless people — his company, Salesforce, has paid the modest sum of zero in federal taxes, a couple of times, on billions in revenue. And that makes everything else a rounding error. I mean, how are we supposed to deal with homelessness, with the lack of affordable housing; how do we pay for the infrastructure that allows entrepreneurs like Marc Benioff to run their companies, if people don’t pay their taxes? I also quote this —

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to Marc Benioff —

PETER GOODMAN: Oh yeah, go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN:CEO of Salesforce, speaking at the World Economic Forum virtually last year.

MARC BENIOFF: In the pandemic, it was CEOs, in many, many cases, all over the world, who were the heroes. They are the ones who stepped forward with their financial resources, their corporate resources, their employees, their factories, and pivoted rapidly, not for profit but to save the world. And just look at the many examples that we have, whether it was the aggregation of PPE, building of contact tracing systems, the development of the vaccines themselves, the development of liquidity into the system to keep the financial systems floating, development of mental health systems to give — let people have mental health capabilities at critical times.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce. According to your book, Davos Man, between late March and the middle of August 2020, Salesforce doubled in value, making the business worth more than $225 billion, Peter.

PETER GOODMAN: Yeah, that’s right. And, you know, look, it’s great that CEOs are talking about doing good. And some of them are doing good. And that’s terrific. But this idea that Benioff champions, along with Larry Fink, another guy I profile in my book — he’s the world’s largest asset manager. He now controls $10 trillion in investments worldwide. That’s pension funds. That’s university endowments. Both of these guys champion this idea that Milton Friedmanism is over, this idea that we just maximize shareholder value, and then the wealth trickles down throughout the economy, and everything is rosy. It’s been replaced, they tell us, by this thing that they called stakeholder capitalism. We’re catering to stakeholders now, to labor, to local communities, to society in general, to the environment. Well, that’s all well and good, but it’s always unilateral. There’s no labor unions in stakeholder capitalism. Government does not really exist in stakeholder capitalism. It’s not a talking point. It’s all about us depending upon the goodness, the innate goodness, of people like Benioff and Fink and the other CEOs to run their companies so that everybody wins. And central to that is this idea, that is pervasive at Davos, that all solutions to problems can be found if people just earnestly debate them and find win-win solutions. They love win-win solutions, because then that obviates sacrifice. It’s all an elaborate prophylactic against the actual exercise of democracy toward the redistribution of wealth so that we can tax wealthy people and finance the things that we actually want, like expanded healthcare and affordable housing.

I focus on the book on Steve Schwarzman, who’s the world’s largest private equity magnate, worth about $35 billion, made a fortune on the foreclosure crisis in the U.S., and then around the world. He’s now vacuuming up homes again at distressed prices. He’s buying heavily in Florida. He’s turning homeowners into renters. And, you know, Davos Man style, the thing about these guys is they present themselves to us like they’re our saviors. They’re not content to just make the money; they want us to give them adulation for being the good guys and taking care of our problems — again, a preventative against policies that will hold them to account. Schwarzman invested heavily in healthcare in the run-up to the pandemic. He owns a company called TeamHealth, which is a huge staffing company that puts people in emergency rooms, where there’s just an epidemic of surprise billing — patients wheeled in, not knowing the terms of their insurance policies, discovering later that they’ve been treated by an out-of-network provider, with huge bills, collection agents hassling them. And Schwarzman has taken the opportunity of the pandemic to buy more healthcare assets.

AMY GOODMAN: According to the Financial Times, in November 2020, BlackStone founder Stephen Schwarzman defended Donald Trump’s response to the U.S. poll results during an emergency meeting of senior business leaders alarmed by the president’s claims that the election is being stolen. Financial Times describes Schwarzman as “one of Mr. Trump’s most energetic supporters on Wall Street.” Peter?

PETER GOODMAN: Oh, I mean, he funneled tens of millions of dollars into the campaigns of Trump, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Party in general. I mean, he saw in Trump the ultimate vessel for what Davos Man cares about most, and that’s tax cuts and deregulation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to the world’s richest man, who completed a 10-minute suborbital flight aboard his —


AMY GOODMAN: — Blue Origin spacecraft last summer. Jeff Bezos spoke at a news conference after his crew landed.

JEFF BEZOS: I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all of this. So, seriously, for every Amazon customer out there and every Amazon employee, thank you from the bottom of my heart very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Very revealing, as Jeff Bezos thanks the workers for paying for this flight into space, that unforgettable image of the richest man on Earth leaving Earth as the pandemic was at its height, that we saw last year.

PETER GOODMAN: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting. Some people point to quotes like that, or, you know, like what Benioff said about CEOs being the heroes, “Oh, this is a gaffe.” It’s not — these are not gaffes. These are direct insights into the worldviews of the richest people in the world, who are writing the rules for all of us.

And it was especially interesting that Bezos singled out for thanks his employees, because, you know, it would be a problem, but a smaller problem, if Bezos was worth $200 billion, and his workers at the same time weren’t doing nearly as well, but his wealth is coming because his workers are not doing well. He did have a lot to thank them for. He kept them in harm’s way during the first wave of the pandemic, knowingly, without PPE, without protection, as COVID, we now know, was working its way through Amazon warehouses. When Christian Smalls — who I know you’ve covered quite a bit on your program — led a labor strike in Staten Island at a major Amazon warehouse to protest the lack of protection and the lack of paid sick leave — something that did not happen by accident: Amazon has lobbied aggressively to prevent paid sick leave from becoming the law in the United States — he was fired. Christian Smalls was fired and actually accused of violating quarantine — incredible irony given that he wanted everyone to be quarantined with pay.

And then, of course, Bezos doubles down and sends out this letter, “Dear Amazonians,” where he thanks them for their sacrifice, the warehouse workers. He applauds them for saving other people’s grandmothers, says Amazon is prioritizing the shipment of all the things that his workers don’t have, like PPE. Well, Christian Smalls tells me this is just made up. They know what’s going in the boxes. The way he said it to me was, you know, it’s baking goods, it’s gaming consoles, it’s sex toys — it’s all the stuff people are buying while they’re stuck in their houses. And we are adding to Jeff Bezos’s fortune while his workers have to choose between their lives or their paychecks.

AMY GOODMAN: As these CEOs talk about their workers as stakeholders, maybe they are redefining the term “stakeholders,” as in they’re driving stakes into the workers’ and unions’ hearts. The effect that they have had on organizing in this country? For example, you have the horror that happened in Illinois in December, an Amazon warehouse partially collapsing, killing at least six people, labor and rights advocates blasting Amazon following the news. Union leader Stuart Appelbaum said, “Requiring workers to work through such a major tornado warning event as this was inexcusable.”

PETER GOODMAN: Yeah, that’s right. And, you know, there’s a lot of focus now on the supposed increase in labor power through the Great Resignation, the fact that there are labor shortages. Most of these shortages aren’t really shortages; they’re just workers deciding that they don’t accept the terms any longer — you know, the shortages of nurses, shortages of truck drivers. If you dig deep, you discover there are plenty of people who can be nurses and plenty of people who can drive trucks. We’ve just run out of people who are willing to fall for the cons that these companies employ to try to draw people in to these impossible circumstances. And we need to remember that this current shift in the balance of power between labor and management, it could be — it could disappear as quickly as it’s materialized, because unless it turns into collective bargaining, unless it turns into rules that workers can use to actually get their fair share of the bounty of global capitalism, you know, the next crisis just very easily takes it away.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Goodman, very quickly, Jamie Dimon, you also focus on. Explain his significance.

PETER GOODMAN: Yeah. So, Jamie Dimon is significant on multiple levels. He, of course, is the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, America’s largest bank. He heads the Business Roundtable at a time when it plays a critical role in engineering Trump’s tax cuts, a $1.5 trillion package of tax cuts, lavished on people like Jamie Dimon. He’s also running the Business Roundtable as they trot out this statement of a purpose of a corporation, which embraces stakeholder capitalism. This pledge is signed by Jeff Bezos — doesn’t seem to have stopped him from mistreating his warehouse workers.

AMY GOODMAN: And one of your chapters in your book, Davos Man, “Taxes, Taxes, Taxes. The Rest is [B.S.]”


AMY GOODMAN: Where did the quote come from?

PETER GOODMAN: Well, that quote comes from Rutger Bregman, who is this young Dutch academic, showing up at Davos for his first time, horrified that everyone is talking about philanthropy, they’re talking about win-win solutions, they’re talking about how workers have to train themselves to realize the new opportunities. These are the supposed solutions to inequality — everything except for the most obvious thing. And he says, “It’s like I’m at a firefighters conference, and no one’s allowed to talk about water.” And the remarkable thing — you know, that moment went viral. People may have seen that in their Twitter feed.

The remarkable thing was, the guy who’s running that panel, a guy named Edward Felsenthal, who’s the editor of Time magazine — recently purchased by Marc Benioff — he turns to Jane Goodall, who’s a naturalist, and says, “You know, what is it about us as a species that we can’t solve these problems?” — as if it’s some sort of deficiency with our species, while letting off the hook all the people who are actually in the room, who know well and good why this is. It’s because they don’t want to sacrifice. They don’t want to give up their money.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Goodman, we want to thank you for being with us, New York Times global —


AMY GOODMAN: — economics correspondent. My final question: Do you think billionaires, and now trillionaires, have prolonged the pandemic?

PETER GOODMAN: Oh, I don’t think there’s any question that they’ve prolonged the pandemic. I mean, the fact that we have Omicron is a direct result of our unwillingness to challenge patents, to challenge the monopoly profits of companies like Pfizer and Moderna. We have effectively subsidized those profits through the tune of our own suffering. That has extended this pandemic.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Peter Goodman, no relation, New York Times global economics correspondent. His new book, Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World.

Next up, we speak to The New Yorker's Jane Ferguson. Her piece, “Afghanistan Has Become the World's Largest Humanitarian Crisis.” Back in 30 seconds.

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