Howard Schultz, Go Back To Davos

The Starbucks CEO is what happens "when the guardians of an unsustainable status quo masquerade as change agents."

Of all the things you could possibly yell at an annoying rich guy considering a presidential run, “GO BACK TO DAVOS” is one of the very best options; “GO BACK TO BEING RATIOED ON TWITTER” is a close second. That a heckler yelled both these things, in succession, at former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in New York this week is testament to where Schultz currently fits in the 2020 election cycle.

He might be the ultimate Davos candidate: an extremely rich man with ambiguously progressive politics, who is as interested in voicing mushy ideas about problem-solving and innovation as he is in making sure his wealth is not more aggressively taxed.

Few people have captured the strange politics of the Davos class better than Anand Giridharadas, the author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. We published an excerpt of his book here last year. The Schultz candidacy, Giridharadas says, is “what happens when those with the most to lose from genuine change seek to put themselves in charge of change, when the guardians of an unsustainable status quo masquerade as change agents.”

In 2015 Schultz announced he would not be running for president, in a New York Times op-ed headlined "Howard Schultz: America Deserves a Servant Leader." Giridharadas hopes Schultz will come to his senses again this year, and recently gave him a signed copy of Winners Take All, "with the hope that these pages inspire you to find ways to serve without having to lead."

We spoke with Giridharadas about the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and the doomed era of the Schultzian plutocrats that gather there. Here’s what he had to say:

You’ve said Davos needs to end. But why do all these rich people get together in Switzerland in the first place?

Anand Giridharadas: One way to think about Davos is that it’s an extraordinary opportunity for laundering the self-interested needs of the ruling class into “ideas.” These plutocrats can acquire a moral glow by going there and talking about Africa and inequality, and then during the same panels they can knock down talk of a 70% marginal income tax. If they just did that as some guy in their robe in a mansion in Connecticut, people would be like, ‘Yeah, you’re just a rich guy.’ But when you’re in a mountain town talking about Africa, you gain a halo of credibility.

It’s a good investment for them, because nobody takes their naked self-interest seriously. These plutocrats have so much to lose from various public policies under discussion around the world, — whether it’s a 70% marginal tax, or a global capital tax, or Brexit and the choices around that — they have a tremendous amount of money on the line, and naked self-interest at play. So there’s a huge need for them to launder all that into selfless-seeming “ideas.”

You know how Trump gets away with doing things publicly that you’d go to jail for if you did privately? Like asking Russia to hack Clinton’s emails? If these people were actually conspiring secretly — thousands of politicians, businessmen, financiers from across the world — it would be the scoop of the year. But when they’re doing so in response to the third question in a panel on saving Africa’s women through fintech, it doesn’t feel like lobbying. It feels like an idea.

So can Davos be redeemed? Could you make a better Davos?

AG: I don’t think there’s any need to redeem it. In theory, you could start with a car and try to turn it into a teacup, but it would be easier to just make a teacup. Davos was made to be a platform for plutocrats to confer and make plans — and yes, to talk about bigger issues — but power and who is centered really matters. If Davos began as a meeting of activists that happened to invite a lot of plutocrats to join them, this would be a completely different event with a different history and a different orientation. Its DNA matters. Even if you end up with a 50/50 mix of activists and plutocrats, it matters whose design it is. Whose concept of power is it built around?

There’s absolutely a need for some kind of global conversation, but it can’t be one where the people with the most to lose from real change are the ones who are centered and in charge of the conversation about change.

What should people do then — just ignore it? Actively oppose it?

AG: Ignoring it would be tempting, and emotionally satisfying. But when power is gathering in a citadel to make plans, I want to know what’s going on. I do think that this year’s Davos should be the last. But if it’s going to happen, I want to know what’s happening.

The mechanisms by which these people rule the world are misunderstood, and this is one mechanism. By being there and getting the glow of being solvers of larger problems, they’re able to color the ideas that would threaten them as unrealistic or wide-eyed.

There’s this really interesting work by these two guys at Stanford, Aaron Horvath and Walter Powell, and they’re asking: In a country this big, how do a handful of billionaires change the conversation? How did Betsy DeVos, before she was education secretary, back when she was a rich person in western Michigan, how did she change the conversation around education? How do you do that?

The answer they find is that it’s not always or only through corrupt deals and influence peddling — it’s also that they’re able to change the conversation we have about change. If you have $100 million to throw at education, you’re spending way less than the US Department of Education. But what you can do is change the conversation we have — you can make some terms sound not good, you can make other terms that are fringy sound legitimate. That’s the leverage that plutocrats have, and that’s what goes on in places like Davos.

Take something like Lean In — you get one of the hardest, most maddening political problems on earth, the exclusion of half the population from opportunity for thousands of years, and you literally try to rebrand it as a posture problem where people need to raise their hands and ask for raises and try harder.

What a lot of folks get to accomplish through things like Davos is this: In the marketplace of ideas about how to make things better, they can put a weight on ideas that would be expensive for them, and they can give a little helium lift to ideas that would be more congenial to them.

Coverage of Davos seems to get more critical every year, and this year it felt like almost pure mockery — like the only things that made news were people saying stupid or totally out-of-touch things. Do you think they understand how it looks to the rest of us?

AG: Part of me thinks that these people, in some deep place, understand that we’re at the end of an era. We’ve lived through a 40-year period defined by our faith in entrepreneurship and markets to change the world — which delivered many good things — but we’re in the death pangs of that era, and the birth pangs of something new. You see it in America and you see it in so many places around the world: This big international political and cultural food fight we’re having right now is happening because what’s at stake is the very character and moorings of our societies.

And how the new era will look is totally undefined. We could live in a kind of Trump–Brexit–Bolsonaro–Orbán future, defined by rage and hatred and tribal nationalism, or there’s a version in which solidarity and reform and justice becomes much more centered.

And for people gathering on mountaintops right now, that’s the issue. The obvious lesson of history is that we’re going to get to another era, somehow at some point, and we can do this the easy way or the hard way. I would even venture that we’ll be living in a rather different era in 10 or 20 years, and the winners of our age have something of a choice about how that goes down. A century ago, we managed to solve women’s suffrage without having a war, without a lot of people dying. Sixty years before that, hundreds of thousands of men died in this country to resolve the issue of slavery. History shows that these kind of exclusions and persecutions and supremacies can go either way — we can resolve them the way we did women’s suffrage, or it can go the way of the civil war. Today so many millions of people feel themselves to be living in a world run by and for someone else, and I really hope we do it the way we did women’s suffrage.

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