The psychology of Davos Man — hunter hypocrites caught between a forager and a farmer world
Sometime in the 80s the rich elite began to change. A class of champagne-sipping billionaires obsessed with nothing but increasing their own wealth and comparing who had the bigger… yacht morphed into an elite that was intellectually curious, more eager to attend TED talks than playing golf and getting invites to Davos. Thus, Davos Man was born. The shift came with the tech entrepreneur. Visionaries who followed new ideas rather than the money and the money followed them. The difference is most pronounced in interest in material wealth vs ideas. If you check out the personality of Davos Man on personality databases you will most often find they have the traits “openness to new ideas” or I in ROLEI (intellectually curious). This is not surprising as it takes intellectual curiosity, innovativeness and vision if you want to make it in tech. What is surprising is their apparent hypocrisy, torn between making money and making the world a better palace, between being business people and being benefactors. Champagne, latte or limousine liberals are only some of the labels this new class gets.
If you want to learn about all their paradoxes Davos Man (2022) by Peter S. Goodman is your go-to book. It provides great insights into how paradoxically the world works in 2022. How populist leaders claiming to fight the rich elite actually benefit them and increase the gap between the poor (who vote for them) and the rich (who mostly do not vote for them). Here is a great characterization of Davos Man from the book:
The word stakeholder is a talisman for Davos Man, its usage evidencing high-minded principles. It is a demonstration that the speaker cares about loftier matters than the crude enrichment of shareholders. 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 would prefer that polar bears not succumb to heatstroke, and that homeless people be housed somewhere.
In contrast to the old rich elite, Davos Man genuinely seems to care. He has all the same values I have and I would love to shout out “Go, Davos Man! Yes, it’s all about stakeholders, not shareholders. Make people’s lives better, save our planet!”. Unfortunately, the reality is quite different, very often Davos Man cares more about his own company than the world. Marc Benioff with his compassionate capitalism is portrayed as a poster child.
Benioff has literally written the book on this-Compassionate Capitalism: How Corporations Can Make Doing Good an Integral Part of Doing Well. That Benioff has emerged as a leading proponent of such principles is ironic, given that he frequently cites Larry Ellison, the founder of the software giant Oracle, as his mentor. Ellison has no truck with the idea that business is about anything more than adding zeros to his net worth. In an exchange in the dot-com era with my colleague Mark Leibovich, Ellison pantomimed gagging in disgust as he derided technology chieftains who describe their undertakings as moral crusades.
Here is the crux of the problem: Ellison, Benioff’s mentor, represents the old rich elite, the ones who were more interested in yachts, great champagne and beautiful women than in ideas and ideals. Ellison’s mindset is easy to describe: life is a zero-sum game, your win is my loss. He doesn’t care about much else than getting rich himself. Davos Man, in contrast, sees life as a non-zero-sum game: my win can be yours too, and we are all in this boat (or on this planet) together, if you drown, so will I.
Ironically, Davos Man gets more criticism, ridicule and distrust than Ellison Man. There are tons of conspiracy theories about people like Bill Gates (another poster child for Davos Man), but none about Ellison. No, Ellison is greedy and just wants to get rich, that’s ok, this is how the rich have always been. However, Bill Gates is certainly not trustworthy, he gives money to charity and then tries to achieve a browser monopoly. Not just greedy, even worse trying to circumnavigate the holy principle of competition itself. I do not believe in any conspiracy theories involving Bill Gates, I genuinely believe he is a good guy, at least a better guy than Ellison. However, the uneasy paradoxes about Davos Man remain.
Benioff is an apostle of a faith with no shortage of adherents in the technology realm-the now-clichéd admixture of bohemian mysticism and ruthless entrepreneurialism that connected the venture capitalists of Sand Hill Road to the naked hordes at Burning Man. “I have been very fortunate10 to have met a lot of what I would call gurus,” he once said. “I’m probably the only person to use Larry Ellison and the Dalai Lama and Neil Young in the same sentence.” Partial to Hawaiian shirts, Benioff frequently celebrates the concept of ohana, a Hawaiian term that loosely translates to “family,” and that supposedly formed the central organizing principle governing Salesforce-a spirit of kinship connecting its tens of thousands of employees.
Surprise, surprise, Davos Man is almost communist and yet he is more often than not part of the problem he tries to solve. Benioff’s philanthropic efforts have led him to support a homelessness programme. At the same time, it is rich people like him who buy up real estate and make it increasingly hard for low-income people to afford their own homes who caused it in the first place.
What is this Davos Man, a mix of capitalist, visionary, intellectual, hippie and New Age philosopher? Is there a way to solve the hypocrisy and the paradox? I think there is. I have argued that these rational tech entrepreneurs are mostly egalitarian hunter types. Traditionally, rich people have been mostly (food-producing) farmer-herder types (Ellison is a herder type).
If we want to solve the hunter hypocrisy we have to understand that hunter types are the providing (male) evolutionary profile of forgers, gatherer types are the caregiving (female) evolutionary profile. While gatherers (like me and Peter S. Goodman) had the task to make sure that there was harmony within the band, which was kept upright by active egalitarianism, hunters had to bring home the bacon, so they are more shifted towards meritocracy (which is actually a kind of egalitarianism, but one which is more tolerant of inequality).
The hunter-hypocrisy actually arises due to them being the most rational people that there are. Hunters are rational because they do not follow the rules of group-think food of the producers who followed. From the point of view of evolutionary psychology the best strategy of a hunter in a forager society would be to share, the best place for a hunter to store his surplus is in someone else’s stomach (who will reciprocate at some stage). Sharing with the whole world makes little sense when the world won’t reciprocate. Around 10.000 years ago, we transitioned to a farmer-herder world, which gravitates more towards zero-sum games than the forager world before them. The most rational thing to do in our modern farmer-herder world is to invest in your own genes, kith and kin. However, in contrast to the kings of the olden days who left countless offspring, hunter-types tend to have fewer offspring (in accordance with their evolutionary programming as foragers have far fewer offspring than food-producers: every 4 years vs every 2 years).
In conclusion, rational hunter types are torn between their evolutionary (sharing & caring) programme and the logic of a farmer-herder world and that’s how you get the hypocrisy and the paradoxes. Bill Gates’ three children won’t even inherit most of his fortune which will go to the Gates Foundation — another paradox as his money would be best spent on his genetic offspring, just like farmers do. However, in a forager world, there is no inheritance, neither of material wealth nor status or power. Is Davos Man evil because he fluctuates between these two worlds — no of course not. Hypocritical? Yes, but that is only human. Forager types are also libertarian (in that they value individual freedom as much as egalitarianism), so it’s up to Davos Man how he wants to spend money.
I can understand Peter S. Goodman’s anger at the hunter’s hypocrisy and frequent complacency and narcissism. I feel saddened by it. Like Goodman, I don’t buy into a trickle-down theory of capitalism and I am cautious about compassionate capitalism. However, while I strongly recommend Goodman’s book, I also want to stand up to defend Davos Man. I want to remind people that rich people in the past, who were far less open to ideas and who did far less for humankind (or at least tried to) were also far less criticised, ridiculed and reviled than Davos Man. Davos Man does have principles, perhaps more than many good burghers: he was reluctant to vote for Donald Trump, even though Trump’s policies made them even richer. Of course, I often would prefer a gatherer-type Davos Man (like Gandhi), but gatherer types rarely become rich and powerful enough to be accepted to the Davos club. The upside of having a hunter rich elite is that they are the best group of people to tackle the problems our planet is facing. Rather than subscribing to any Bill Gates conspiracy theories, I subscribe to his GateNotes. Rather than quitting Twitter because Musk bought it, I will continue to use it to read his tweets.
It’s a crazy world, but hunters aren’t any crazier than the rest of it. If it weren’t for all the money they had, people wouldn’t even take notice of them, so I am happy it’s them who cash in all the dough rather than people who spent it all on yachts and champagne.
For more on the hunter-gatherer neurotribe idea check out my
Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on May 4, 2022.