It’s the Super Bowl of the ultra-rich.
Each year, up to 3,000 people flock to Davos, Switzerland, each paying $29,000 (plus a huge membership fee) to attend the five-day World Economic Forum, filled with panels, jets and parties.
They come to rub shoulders with top business executives, heads of state, venture capitalists, hedge fund managers and celebrities who together aim to “solve the great crises of the times”, writes Peter S. Goodman in his new book, “Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World” (Custom House), available now. It is “an event where the interests of Bill Clinton, Mick Jagger and Greta Thunberg all intersect in one way or another in time and space.”
Getting into Davos is incredibly complicated, even for those lucky enough to score invitations. First, you need to become a member, limited to just 1,000 of the world’s largest companies, which starts at $62,000 per year and goes up to $620,000 for “strategic partners”. (Government workers, nonprofits, and media enter for free.) The ski resort has only a limited number of hotel rooms, with even bare-bones chalets costing upwards of $400 a night, so some attendees have to commute from the surrounding area. villages, where accommodation is limited and sells for absurdly inflated prices.
As a result, “the anxiety of exclusion is pervasive,” journalist Nick Paumgarten once wrote of the scene. “The tension between self-celebration and self-doubt generates a kind of social electricity.”
It’s hard to believe that it all started in 1971 because Klaus Schwab, a 33-year-old German economist and professor of business policy at the University of Geneva, wanted to teach American management practices to European companies.
Schwab grew up in Europe’s post-war reconstruction — her family moved from Germany to Switzerland to escape the Nazis — “steeped in the principles of social democracy,” Goodman writes. While studying public administration at Harvard, Schwab befriended mentors like Henry Kissinger and John Kenneth Galbraith, and came up with his “stakeholder theory” – the idea that a business should serve not only its shareholders, but also its employees, suppliers and community. .
Schwab wanted a way to discuss these concepts with high-level contacts on an annual basis, so he launched the event – originally called the European Management Forum. He chose Davos as his home base because “the remote and placid setting seemed conducive to a focused exchange of ideas”. The mountain village already had a colorful history – it was home to numerous tuberculosis sanatoria for wealthy Europeans during the 1800s, and Albert Einstein was a regular visitor in the early 1920s, once giving a lecture on relativity at a mountaintop visiting scholars.
The Forum’s first year attracted 450 people from dozens of countries, and within a few years it had established a reputation for exclusivity. Schwab offered CEOs and heads of state a way to meet and close deals within days that “would normally take months to close,” Goodman told the Post. In 1987, Schwab changed the name of the event to the World Economic Forum and looked for ways to “distinguish itself from ordinary business conferences, where people sat down to talk about money”. So he turned it into “a manifestation of social interest”, writes Goodman.
Today, the Forum’s logo clearly states its mission: “Committed to improving the state of the world”. It is embossed on banners hung on every street corner and meeting hall in Davos during the festivities.
Unlike billionaires of centuries past, like Andrew Carnegie and JP Morgan, who were “on the whole content with their wealth as an end in itself”, the Davos man wants more than the spoils of ridiculous wealth. He wants gratitude and confirmation that he’s doing his part to make the world a better place, even if he’s doing no such thing, the author claims.
Goodman, who has been attending as a reporter every year since 2010, calls the contrast between the Forum’s lofty wrapper and raw reality “surreal”.
He writes that he has seen billionaires blindfolded and yelled at by angry officials during group exercises to simulate the experience of Syrian refugees, then munch on truffles at dinner parties hosted by global banks. He saw venture capitalists, fresh out of roundtables on human trafficking, “bump their fists for scoring bacchanalia invites from a Russian oligarch who brought in prostitutes from Moscow.”
At the 2020 gathering — the last time the Forum was held in person since the pandemic — participants’ collective net worth was $500 billion, including President Trump. (The Forum will return to Davos in May.) Today’s attendees — who are predominantly white and male — pose for photos with Matt Damon and praise Bill Gates for his philanthropic efforts while attending seminars on the way to fight against global warming or economic inequalities. They come for “serious discussions about climate change, gender imbalance, and the digital future,” but they often fail to “live up to their own lofty rhetoric,” Goodman writes.
In 2020, Prince Charles delivered an address to world leaders and billionaires in Davos, urging them to get serious about saving the planet, after flying there on a private jet. According to an analysis by the Air Charter Service, around 1,500 individual private planes flew to Davos for the Forum in 2019, up 11% from the previous year. Andy Christie, director of private jets for the ACS, said in a statement that the increase was due to “business rivals not wanting to be seen as being outdone by each other.”
Marc Benioff, the founder of Silicon Valley software giant Salesforce, who spoke on a virtual panel at Forum 2021, has long been one of the forum’s biggest supporters, and Schwab in particular, whose he called stakeholder theory “one of the greatest intellectual contributions to business.
Benioff perfectly encapsulates the Davos Man aesthetic, writes Goodman. He earned his wealth not by privilege, but by being “smarter and more innovative than the next man. He’s okay with giving away some of his money, but on his own terms, through branded philanthropic efforts, and especially if it puts his name on a hospital wing, or gives a picture of him surrounded by grateful children in a miserable country made a little less miserable by his generosity.
During a 2020 interview with Goodman, Benioff admitted, “Davos isn’t perfect, but what’s the alternative?”
If his focus on doing good was only for publicity, Benioff explained, then his employees would see it. “They would go elsewhere, gravitating toward businesses that were genuinely imbued with a social purpose,” Goodman writes.
Meanwhile, it’s not just the Forum that has become overdone over the decades. The same goes for Schwab’s sense of sufficiency. Now 83, he expects to be treated like a visiting head of state on his travels, with “greeting of delegations at the airport”, writes Goodman.
Once, when a Forum employee inadvertently pulled into Schwab’s parking spot at the Forum’s global headquarters in Switzerland, the boss caught wind of the insubordination and, despite being at the stranger at the time, demanded that she be fired. He relented “only after senior executives stepped in to save her,” Goodman writes.
It did not help matters when, at a Forum meeting in South Africa in the mid-1990s, Schwab gave a speech to Nelson Mandela in which he drew heavily on the March on Washington speech of Martin Luther King Jr., notably at one point dramatically declaring, “I have a dream.”
“Several of us almost threw up,” recalled Barbara Erskine, who was then the Forum’s communications director, mortified that her boss was trying to pass MLK’s famous words off as her own. (Schwab did not respond to requests for comment from The Post.)
Schwab often boasted to colleagues that he expected to receive a Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Forum, Goodman notes. He has yet to receive this honor.
But while he can be “something of a ridiculous character”, he also has a special talent for responding to the “narcissistic tendencies of the powerful”, writes Goodman. “He demonstrates faith in the veracity of his statements, even when they contradict the reality and ethics of the Forum.”
This has allowed Schwab to invite speakers like Chinese President Xi Jinping, with his reputation for encouraging human trafficking and forced labor, and brutally suppressing dissent.
“In a world marked by great uncertainty and volatility, the international community looks to China to continue its responsive and responsible leadership,” Schwab said during the Chinese leader’s presentation in 2017.
It was a moment that brought to light the central irony of the Forum.
“Founder Davos Man was hosting a conference-packed event on transparent governance,” Goodman writes. While “bowing to a Chinese dictator”.