It’s the Super Bowl for the ultra-rich.
Every 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, jet planes and parties.
They come to rub shoulders with corporate executives, heads of state, venture capitalists, hedge fund managers and A-list celebrities who, together, aim to “solve the great crises of the age,” writes Peter S. Goodman in his new book, “Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World” (Custom House), out now. It’s “an event where the interests of Bill Clinton, Mick Jagger and Greta Thunberg all somehow intersect in time and space.”
Getting into Davos is impossibly complicated, even for those lucky enough to score invites. First, you must gain membership, limited to just 1,000 of the world’s biggest corporations, which starts at $62,000 per year and can run up to $620,000 for “strategic partners.” (Government employees, non-profits, and media outlets get in for free.) The ski resort town has only so many hotel rooms, with even bare-bones chalets going for more than $400 a night, so some attendees must commute in from neighboring villages, where accommodation is limited and going for absurdly inflated prices.
As a result, “the anxiety of exclusion pervades,” journalist Nick Paumgarten once wrote about the scene. “The tension between self-celebration and self-doubt engenders a kind of social electricity.”
Hard to believe it all started in 1971 because Klaus Schwab, a 33-year-old German economist and University of Geneva business policy professor, wanted to teach US management practices to European firms.
Schwab grew up in Europe’s postwar reconstruction — his family left Germany for Switzerland to escape the Nazis — “steeped in the principles of social democracy,” Goodman writes. While studying public administration at Harvard, Schwab made friends with mentors like Henry Kissinger and John Kenneth Galbraith, and came up with his “stakeholder theory” — the idea that a company should serve not just its shareholders, but also its employees, suppliers and community.
Schwab wanted a way to discuss these concepts with high-powered contacts on an annual basis, so he started the event — originally called the European Management Forum. He chose Davos as its home base because “the remote and placid setting seemed conducive to a focused interchange of ideas.” The mountain village already had a colorful history — it hosted numerous tuberculosis sanatoriums for wealthy Europeans during the 1800s, and Albert Einstein was a regular visitor in the early 1920s, once giving a lecture on relativity to a summit of visiting academics.
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 a way for CEOs and heads of state to meet and make deals over a few days, which “would normally take months to pull off,” Goodman told The Post. In 1987, Schwab changed the event’s name to the World Economic Forum, and looked for ways to “distinguish itself from the run-of-the-mill business conferences, where people sat around talking about money.” So he transformed it into “a demonstration of social concern,” Goodman writes.
Today the Forum’s logo plainly spells out its mission: “Committed to Improving the State of the World.” It’s embossed on banners that hang on every street corner and meeting room in Davos during the festivities.
Unlike billionaires of past centuries, like Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan, who were “by and large satisfied with their wealth as an end in itself,” the Davos Man wants more than the spoils of ridiculous affluence. He wants gratitude and validation that he’s doing his part to make the world a better place, even if he’s doing nothing of the kind, the author claims.
Goodman, who’s attended every year as a journalist since 2010, calls the contrast between the Forum’s noble packaging and crude reality “surreal.”
He writes that he’s seen billionaires blindfolded and yelled at by angry officials in group exercises to simulate the Syrian refugee experience — and then afterwards nibble on truffles at dinners hosted by global banks. He has watched venture capitalists, fresh out of panel discussions about human trafficking, “fist-bumping over having scored invites to the bacchanal thrown by a Russian oligarch who flew in prostitutes from Moscow.”
During the 2020 gathering — the last time the Forum was held in person since the pandemic — the collective net worth of the attendees was $500 billion, including President Trump. (The Forum will be returning to Davos again this May.) Today’s attendees — who are predominantly white and male — pose for photos with Matt Damon and congratulate Bill Gates on his philanthropic efforts while attending seminars about how to tackle global warming or economic inequality. They come for “earnest discussions on 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 gave an address to world leaders and billionaires at Davos, urging them to get serious about saving the planet, after flying there via private jet. An estimated 1,500 individual private planes jetted into Davos for the Forum in 2019, up 11 percent from the previous year, according to an analysis by the Air Charter Service. Andy Christie, a private jets director for the ACS, said in a statement that the increase was due to “business rivals not wanting to be seen to be outdone by one another.”
Marc Benioff, the founder of Silicon Valley software giant Salesforce, who spoke during a virtual panel at the 2021 Forum, has long been one of the biggest proponents of the forum, and Schwab in particular, whose stakeholder theory he’s called “one of the greatest intellectual contributions to the world of business.”
Benioff perfectly encapsulates the Davos Man aesthetic, Goodman writes. He earned his wealth not by privilege, but by being “smarter and more innovative than the next guy. He is fine with handing over a little of his money, but on his terms alone, through branded philanthropic efforts, and especially if it puts his name on a hospital wing, or yields a photo of himself surrounded by grateful children in some wretched country made slightly less wretched by his generosity.”
During a 2020 interview with Goodman, Benioff admitted: “Davos is not perfect, but what is the alternative?”
If his focus on doing good was meant only for publicity, Benioff argued, then his employees would see through it. “They would go elsewhere, gravitating toward companies that were genuinely infused with social purpose,” Goodman writes.
Meanwhile, it’s not just the Forum that’s become overblown over the decades. So has Schwab’s sense of self-importance. Now 83, he expects to be treated like a visiting head of state when he travels, complete with “welcoming delegations at the airport,” Goodman writes.
Once, when a Forum employee inadvertently pulled into Schwab’s parking spot at the Forum’s world headquarters in Switzerland, the boss caught wind of the insubordination and, despite the fact he was overseas at the time, demanded she be fired. He relented “only after senior staff intervened to save her,” Goodman writes.
It didn’t help matters when, during a Forum gathering in South Africa during the mid-1990s, Schwab delivered an address in front of Nelson Mandela in which he borrowed heavily from Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington speech, including at one point dramatically declaring, “I have a dream.”
“Several of us almost threw up,” recalled Barbara Erskine, who then ran the Forum’s communications, mortified that her boss was trying to pass off MLK’s famous words as his own. (Schwab didn’t respond to requests from The Post for comment.)
Schwab has often bragged to colleagues that he expected to receive a Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Forum, Goodman notes. He has yet to receive that honor.
But while he may be “something of a ludicrous character,” he also has a special talent for catering to “the narcissistic tendencies of the powerful,” Goodman writes. “He displays faith in the veracity of his statements, even when they are at odds with reality and the ethos of the Forum.”
This has allowed Schwab to invite keynote speakers like China president Xi Jinping, with his reputation for encouraging human trafficking and forced labor, and brutally cracking down on dissent.
“In a world marked by great uncertainty and volatility, the international community is looking to China to continue its responsive and responsible leadership,” Schwab said while introducing the Chinese leader in 2017.
It was a moment that put a spotlight on the central irony of the Forum.
“The founding Davos Man was hosting an event crammed with lectures about transparent governance,” Goodman writes. All while “bowing to a Chinese dictator.”