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Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World by Peter S. Goodman

Published in January 2022

Davos Man is a good reminder of the difference between journalists and academics.

Journalists tell stories, and good journalists contextualize these stories with data.

Academics test hypotheses.

Goodman is a journalist, and in Davos Man, he has a good story to tell.

There is no argument that wealth has become more extreme and concentrated while the middle class has hollowed out. And that overall economic inequality has dramatically increased.

The question—at least the question I kept wondering about—is, are the billionaires really to blame?

For Goodman, the answer is clear. Billionaires have turned their money into political influence and used it to change laws and policies to benefit the wealthy while actively disadvantaging everyone else.

Davos Man is full of stories of efforts by the very wealthy to manipulate public spending and the tax code to redistribute wealth upward to the top 0.1 percent.

Tales of billionaire greed make for hugely enjoyable reading. Goodman is a skilled writer, and his stories of billionaires misbehaving make for good fun.

Goodman is less persuasive in his conclusions that the ultrawealthy are to blame for long-term trends of growing economic inequality.

As a journalist, Goodman asserts a (plausible) causal narrative that it is the decisions of the ultra-high-net-worth class that have resulted in policies and structures that have resulted in ever-higher levels of economic stratification. This causal relationship, running from the actions of the Davos crowd to hourly wage stagnation and decreased economic mobility, is not offered as a hypothesis to test.

Goodman never looks for evidence that may disprove or even weaken his theory. There is no room for doubt, equivocation or even any modest questioning in Davos Man.

Now, Goodman’s thesis may be correct. The billionaire class may indeed be primarily responsible for declining levels of unionization, declining pay for non–college graduates and increasing costs of everything from childcare to education to housing.

The upshot, however, is Davos Man trades being (possibly) right for being (largely) unpersuasive.

The book will not convince economic conservatives to change their thinking. Davos Man will bolster the confidence of those already inclined to see wealth concentration as the root cause of inequality.

This worldview may be accurate. But we will never know unless the story of the relationship between wealth and inequality is told by someone looking for ways to be wrong.

What are you reading?

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