Opinion | The distressing disconnect of the Davos Man today4 min read . Updated: 13 Nov 2019, 11:43 PM IST
Davos’s appeal as a forum where global problems are debated and resolved is in question
In January 2020, the Davos elite, a group of privileged people, companies and institutions, will meet for the 50th time in as many years. The World Economic Forum (WEF), as it is officially called, has over these years served the interests of the 1,000 firms that are its members rather well.
The deregulation of economies espoused by the WEF opened the floodgates for large corporations as they rushed to invest and dominate businesses across the globe. In the last 50 years, corporate power and market share has got increasingly consolidated among fewer companies in most industries, often to the detriment of consumers and workers. For these mega corporations, membership of the WEF has paid off handsomely.
India too made its big splash at the summit in 2006. It was a coming-out party for an economy that was growing at around 8%, much to the delight of the world, and the Indian publicity campaign, dubbed “India everywhere", saw the movers and shakers of business and Bollywood shaking a leg under the watch of policy mandarins. At Zurich airport that January, visitors who landed were greeted with huge billboards which trumpeted the “world’s fastest growing democracy" as a counterpoint to China’s growth.
In the following decade, the promise of India has considerably dimmed, even as China seems to have gained from the WEF’s charter. In 2006, India’s rank on the WEF’s annual Global Competitiveness Index was 43, while China was at 54. By 2019, India had slipped to 68 while China has risen to 28.
Next year again, Indian CEOs, celebs and officials will be present at the mega show. It is debatable if anything useful will come of their presence, though business individuals still find it a convenient place to network. But beyond an expensively mounted getaway for the rich and powerful, Davos’s appeal as a forum where the world’s problems are debated and resolved is in question.
Much of the criticism over the years has been directed at hedge fund billionaires and CEOs with million-dollar pay packages flying into the alpine resort in private jets to discuss such issues as climate change and growing inequality. Beyond the irony of that, there is a far grimmer reality. The world in the 1970s, roiled by an oil shock induced by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and dominated by oil and automobile companies like Exxon Mobil, General Motors and Ford, looked vastly different from the one today, in which the most valuable companies, Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft, operate in areas that existed only in the realm of science fiction then. Somewhere along the way, Davos Man (Samuel Huntington’s delicious term for the archetypal attendee of the annual gathering in this Swiss resort town) lost touch with developments on the ground, even as capitalism, the very bedrock of the lobby group, increasingly came under pressure.
Indeed, if its original objective was a commitment to “improving the state of the world", it is clear the forum has failed to deliver. Even Klaus Schwab, its visionary founder and executive chairman, has been forced to concede that “people are revolting against the economic ‘elites’ they believe have betrayed them". With good reason.
At this year’s Davos meeting, Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, presented a report claiming that the gap between rich and poor had only increased. Titled Public Good Or Private Wealth, it stated that the fortunes of billionaires increased by 12% last year—or $2.5 billion a day—while the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity saw their assets decline by 11%. Byanyima was scathing in her assessment of this concentration of wealth: “The billionaire boom is not a sign of a thriving economy but a symptom of a failing economic system."
Next year’s conclave is focused on the “fourth industrial revolution". Ironically, the Davos corporate elite is facing its biggest challenge from these very disruptors who continue to poop the party of big business in ways they seem unable to anticipate when they ponder the future at such events. The gig economy, the very fulcrum around which business fortunes turn today, is the creation of men and women who have barely heard of Davos.
The problem, of course, is that today’s disruptors quickly turn into tomorrow’s establishment. In 1999, Wired magazine placed Jeff Bezos in the “arriviste" category of its listing of Davos attendees. Within two decades, he was right up there. In 1997, when the Davos theme was “Building the Network Society", Bill Gates and Andy Grove were its two major “digital revolutionaries." Today, a whole new generation of such revolutionaries is taking centre stage.
As for debate-worthy subjects for the world’s elite, wealth is increasingly coming into focus. At a recent New York Times DealBook conference, Bill Gates took on US presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren’s proposal of an additional 3% levy as wealth tax on billionaires, saying: “When you say I should pay $100 billion, then I’m starting to do a little math about what I have left over." That Gates, whose generous philanthropy has gone some way in making the world a better place, should be conflicted about the issue is itself revealing.
A reordering of the world’s wealth to make it more equitable is not a simple matter. It is what you would expect the WEF to discuss at Davos. Instead, the theme next year is a rather dull, “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World".
Sundeep Khanna is former executive editor of Mint