This essay is adapted from the new book “Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World.”
By Peter S. Goodman
Marc Benioff seemed to be having an amazing pandemic.
The lockdowns were adding to his wealth — estimated at more than $10 billion — as his company, Salesforce, tallied record sales of software that allowed people to work from anywhere. The experience was nourishing his soul, delivering a poignant reminder that humanity was really one enormous family, united by its common vulnerability to a virus. And the ordeal was affirming a faith that Mr. Benioff had been preaching for decades: that business leaders were the ultimate guardians of human progress.
“In the pandemic, it was C.E.O.s in many, many cases all over the world who were the heroes,” Mr. Benioff said. “They’re 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.”
Mr. Benioff issued that declaration a year ago, the last time the World Economic Forum convened — not in its usual venue, the village of Davos in the Swiss Alps, but virtually, over a clunky videoconferencing platform. He was speaking during a panel discussion dedicated to “stakeholder capitalism,” the idea that businesses were no longer ruled solely by the imperative to enrich shareholders, but were answerable to a broader array of interests — employees, the environment, local communities.
The word “stakeholder” is a talisman at Davos, and among the predominantly white, male billionaires who flock to the Forum. Throwing “stakeholder” into a sentence is a demonstration that they care about loftier matters than private jets, oceanfront mansions and the other paraphernalia of wealth. They empathize with their workers and their workers’ children. They worry about the vitality of the communities down there, in the shade of their skyscraper headquarters. They prefer that polar bears not succumb to heatstroke, and that homeless people be housed somewhere — a particular concern for Mr. Benioff.
He was pointing to the pandemic as proof that companies like his were genuinely dedicated to the cause, and not just indulging high-minded argot as a prophylactic against the redistribution of their wealth. He and his fellow corporate leaders had banded together to secure protective gear like masks and gowns for hospitals. Pharmaceutical companies had developed Covid vaccines in record time. Bankers had unleashed credit, preventing bankruptcies.
“C.E.O.s stepped up,” Mr. Benioff said, later adding: “We would not be where we are in the world today without the outstanding leadership of many, many C.E.O.s who did heroic work all over the world to basically save their communities.”
There was some truth to his depiction. Mr. Benioff had located protective gear and delivered it to American hospitals by working his connections in China and then coordinating with fellow executives. It was fair to assume that his initiative had saved lives.
But it was also fair to ask a pertinent question: Why was the wealthiest, most powerful country on earth dependent on the charity of a profit-making software company to outfit medical personnel with basic protection in the face of a pandemic?
Individuals like Mr. Benioff had benefited from public goods financed by taxpayers — the schools that educated their employees; the internet; roads, bridges and other infrastructure enabling commerce. Then they deployed lobbyists, accountants and lawyers to master legal forms of tax evasion that starved the system of resources. He and his fellow billionaires could crow about giving back in part because of how comprehensively they had taken.
Marc Benioff, who runs Salesforce, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2020.Credit…Fabrice Coffrini/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Mr. Benioff is an archetype of a species that has come to be known as Davos Man — people (mostly men) whose wealth and power are so vast that they are able to write the rules for the rest of us. The term is derived from the ultimate gathering place for billionaires, the World Economic Forum.
This year, Davos Man has been forced to ground his jets as the pandemic has again scotched plans for an in-person gathering. Instead, a series of virtual conversations billed as State of the World sessions are being held.
“State of the world” is another classic phrase from the Davos vernacular, one that invokes a single domain of universal experiences, while shrouding the reality that the billionaires occupy a realm of their own.
The world that most of us inhabit is dominated by the worst pandemic in a century, which has killed more than five million people worldwide while consigning hundreds of millions to poverty and hunger. Wage earners have endured prolonged torment — fear, isolation, shuttered schools and threats to their livelihood.
At the same time, the tribe of Davos Man has thrived like never before. Billionaires have snapped up real estate, shares of stock and other companies at distressed prices. They have applied their lobbying muscle to turn gargantuan, taxpayer-financed bailout packages like the CARES Act and a perk engineered for real estate developers into corporate welfare schemes for the wealthiest people on earth.
Laurence D. Fink, the world’s largest asset manager, has broadcast his own dedication to stakeholder capitalism and social justice while squeezing poor countries to pay impossible debts in the midst of the pandemic.
Jeff Bezos has amassed enough wealth from his e-commerce empire to blast himself into space, as the employees left behind on earth spent the first months of the outbreak laboring in Amazon warehouses without adequate protective gear.
These were not outliers but the story of the pandemic writ large.
Between March 2020 and the middle of October 2021, America’s billionaires saw their collective wealth soar by 70 percent, exceeding $5 trillion, according to an analysis of Forbes data by Americans for Tax Fairness and the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies. That mountain of money was controlled by a mere 745 people.
The beneficiaries have succeeded in sharing little of their gains with the government, a wildly successful mode of tax avoidance that is largely legal. In a triumph of lobbying, the billionaire class has salted the tax code with boondoggles and starved tax collectors of resources.
Pharmaceutical executives and the pandemic make for an interesting case study in how one might construe heroics. The industry harnessed publicly funded research to develop lifesaving coronavirus vaccines in record time. But it has sold most of its wares at the highest prices in the most lucrative markets, reaping hundreds of millions of dollars in profits while leaving the bulk of humanity unprotected. Executives unleashed lobbyists to kill attempts to ramp up production and distribution — an ideal recipe, it turns out, for the Omicron variant.
But Mr. Benioff prefers a different depiction — one in which he and his peers are not the cause of societal distress but the solution.
“C.E.O.s are gathering every week to figure out how can we improve the state of the world and get through this pandemic,” he said during last year’s Forum. “And look against the dysfunction of governments and nongovernmental organizations over the last year. They were not the ones who saved us.”
No one on his panel challenged that characterization.
Improving the State of the World
Officially, the Forum is a series of discussions on the weightiest subjects of our time — climate change, the future of work, racial and gender inequality. But much of the real action — the deal-making and networking — takes place outside the conference center, at an array of cocktail parties and dinners hosted by corporate behemoths.
The contrast between the earnest fare of the program and the broader reality might make some people uneasy. Not Davos Man.
In a decade of attending the Forum, I have seen billionaires engage in what was billed as a simulation of the Syrian refugee experience — being led around in the dark while blindfolded, as angry officials demanded papers — before savoring truffles at dinners thrown by global banks.
Outside conference rooms featuring discussions on human trafficking, I have watched venture capitalists fist-bumping over having scored invites to the bacchanal thrown by a Russian oligarch who purportedly flies in prostitutes from Moscow.
Pharmaceutical executives begin their mornings in meditation sessions led by mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn before retiring to private suites to plot their next merger engineered to lift drug prices.
Mr. Benioff, 57, sits on the Forum’s board of trustees. Reared in San Francisco, he is an apostle of a faith with no shortage of adherents in the technology realm, the blend of bohemian mysticism and ruthless entrepreneurialism that connects the venture capitalists of Sand Hill Road to the costumed hordes at Burning Man.
His mode typifies the contemporary billionaire packaged as vanguard for social progress. He is at once a social activist, a philanthropist and an executive keenly focused on serving shareholders while stiffing the government. He presents an especially pronounced example, yet he is in no way alone.
Partial to Hawaiian shirts, Mr. Benioff embraces the concept of ohana, a Hawaiian term that loosely translates to “family,” and that supposedly forms the central organizing principle governing Salesforce — a spirit of kinship connecting its tens of thousands of employees.
“We love being together as one ohana” is an affirmation he has uttered on conference calls with Wall Street stock analysts. During corporate retreats in Hawaii, he leads his executive team into the surf as they dig their feet into the sand and join hands for a group blessing ceremony.
The spread of Covid-19 has only amplified Mr. Benioff’s bent. “It’s a tremendous spiritual message for us to remember,” he said in April 2020. “Through all of the illusions of our borders, and the illusions of our separation between us as human beings, in reality we are actually all one, and this is a tremendous moment for us to come together, as one humanity, to serve everybody, and also to express my love to all of those that are going through this horrible time.”
The notion that the pandemic was an equal opportunity menace was belied by the simplest observation about who was delivering the packages, who was stocking shelves at grocery stores and who was emptying bedpans in nursing homes, where residents were dying in alarming numbers. In the United States, Black and Latino workers — especially women — were overrepresented in such jobs, just as they have been overrepresented among the dead.
Mr. Benioff, on the other hand, was appearing on television that day in April from his $28 million home overlooking San Francisco Bay.
One Big Family
Mr. Benioff has been known to wander the ohana floor at Salesforce’s 61-story San Francisco headquarters — the tallest building in the city — in the company of his golden retriever, who bears the title “chief love officer.”
He frequently tells the story of his supposed inspiration for founding Salesforce. Despite success at Oracle, where he worked early in his career, Mr. Benioff was plagued by existential doubt, prompting him to take a sabbatical to southern India. There, he visited a woman known as “the hugging saint,” who urged him to share his prosperity.
From the incorporation of Salesforce in 1999, Mr. Benioff pledged that he would devote 1 percent of its equity and product to philanthropic undertakings, while encouraging employees to dedicate 1 percent of their working time to voluntary efforts. Salesforce employees regularly volunteer at schools, food banks and hospitals.
“There are very few examples of companies doing this at scale,” Mr. Benioff told me in an interview. He noted that people were always talking to him about another business known for its focus on doing good, Ben & Jerry’s. He said this with a chuckle, clearly amused that his company — now worth more than $200 billion — could be compared to the aging Vermont hippies who had brought the world Cherry Garcia ice cream.
Mr. Benioff is by many indications a true believer, not just idly parroting Davos Man talking points. In 2015, when Indiana proceeded with legislation that would have allowed businesses to discriminate against gay, lesbian and transgender employees, he threatened to yank investment, forcing a change in the law. He shamed Facebook and Google for abusing the public trust and called for regulations on search and social media giants. Early in the pandemic, Salesforce embraced remote work to protect employees.
“I’m trying to influence others to do the right thing,” he told me. “I feel that responsibility.”
I found myself won over by his boyish enthusiasm, and his willingness to talk at length absent public relations minders — a rarity for Silicon Valley.
His philanthropic efforts have been directed at easing homelessness in San Francisco, while expanding health care for children. He and Salesforce collectively contributed $7 million toward a successful 2018 campaign for a local ballot measure that levied fresh taxes on San Francisco companies to finance expanded programs. The new taxes were likely to cost Salesforce $10 million a year.
That sounded like a lot of money, ostensible evidence of a socially conscious C.E.O. sacrificing the bottom line in the interest of catering to societal needs. But it was less than a trifle alongside the money that Salesforce withheld from the government through legal tax subterfuge.
The same year that Mr. Benioff backed the ballot measure, his company recorded revenues exceeding $13 billion while paying the modest sum of zero in federal taxes. Salesforce deployed 14 tax subsidiaries scattered from Singapore to Switzerland, moving its money and assets around in a masterful display of accounting hocus-pocus that made its taxable income vanish.
Salesforce repeated the trick in 2020, paying no federal taxes despite reporting $2.6 billion in profit.
Mr. Benioff did not invent this tax avoidance contrivance. He inherited it from his Davos Man forebears.
During President Bill Clinton’s administration, the Treasury Department opened up a loophole that enabled executives at multinational corporations to set up subsidiaries in foreign countries that beckoned with low taxes — Ireland was a popular choice — and then legally transfer their intellectual property there. Their new international outposts charged the rest of the corporation exorbitant licensing fees to use the intellectual property.
The net effect: On their American earnings statements, the wealthiest corporations looked like money losers, paying taxes accordingly.
In the decade and a half after Mr. Clinton’s Treasury bestowed this gift on American corporations, their effective tax bills dropped to 26 percent of their revenues, from 35 percent. So-called profit shifting has been costing the American Treasury $60 billion a year in lost taxes.
Compared with this legalized form of tax evasion, the $10 million that Mr. Benioff helped secure to attack homelessness in San Francisco was a rounding error. His individual compensation the next year would exceed $28 million, most of it in stock grants and stock options. These sorts of pay packages — typical for executives of technology companies — were a key driver for the astronomical housing prices of the Bay Area, a primary cause of the very homelessness that Mr. Benioff was intent on eliminating.
Mr. Benioff and his wife, Lynne, appeared genuinely concerned about the state of American education and children’s health. They had demonstrated their concern with their checkbook.
But what happened to programs like Medicaid and Head Start — key sources of health care and early childhood education for low-income Americans — when the largest companies paid no federal taxes? What happened to mass transit, to job training, to roads and highways, to public-health research?
When I asked him this very question — noting the possible point of tension between his championing of stakeholder capitalism and the way he actually runs his company — Mr. Benioff insisted that he was eager to see the government do more.
“I’m the one who is advocating for more taxes for companies,” he said, pivoting back to the story of the San Francisco ballot initiative for homeless services. “I agree that companies don’t pay their fair share.”
Salesforce was a member of the Business Roundtable, a Washington lobbying organization that played a pivotal role in delivering a $1.5 trillion collection of tax cuts during the Trump administration — a measure that Mr. Benioff later celebrated for boosting his company’s sales.
Mr. Benioff’s version of compassionate capitalism airbrushed key “stakeholders” out of the picture. His endless talk of the ohana did not include labor unions. At the center of his vision for his company — at the core of Davos Man thought in general — was the assumption that the most affluent people could be relied upon to do the right thing. The wealthy were magnanimous, so unions were an unnecessary intrusion on business, and taxes represented money seized by the government — money that could otherwise be showered on the fortunate people who would benefit from his philanthropy.
This was an idea that went back to the 19th-century industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, whose monopolistic tendencies and brutal crushing of labor movements earned them an enduring moniker — robber barons. They proffered grandiose public works projects like libraries and concert halls as societal compensation for their overwhelming share of the economic gains.
Mr. Benioff relished his identity as a digital disrupter intent on turning business into the driver for social change. But his philanthropy, his genuine likability and his commitment to improving the state of the world obscured the central reality of his enterprise: He was an enabler, a beneficiary and a custodian of the world as it was.
The day after Christmas, as many Americans absorbed the alarming rise of Omicron cases while struggling to purchase home Covid test kits, Mr. Benioff tweeted a photo of himself on what appeared to be a sailboat, a tropical island behind him in the blue-green sea. He sported mirrored sunglasses as he grinned triumphantly alongside Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica.
So much for the talk of humanity unbounded. Here was Davos Man reveling in his private domain.