You might be forgiven for thinking the World Economic Forum (WEF) is not something you’d be interested in. After all, the annual event better known as “Davos” for its posh ski resort location is not a gathering you were invited to. It’s strictly for the top economic leaders of the world, aka, “The 0.00001%”.
While it may seem reasonable that this is where the great conspiracies to defraud and enslave the masses are hatched, it isn’t. The agenda and discussion is much more like what you’d hear at a Bernie Sanders rally than you might expect. This year’s topic is “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” and there is far less concern about making it happen than the nasty side effects when it does go down – leaving behind billions of starving people and a ruined planet.
While Davos conference attendees might not need much of an introduction beyond, say, calling them the plutocracy, the Fourth Industrial Revolution does. It’s nothing more than the full potential of a digital and often virtual world. The four known “revolutions” are described in this handy li’l graphic provided by the WEF.
Hasn’t this topic been done to death? Where trillions of electrons have been pushed through LEDs for the sole purpose of describing this phenom very little has discussed the potential downside. If there’s one thing we should have learned through this Managed Depression it’s that any major technology change does indeed have a downside.
Where millions were employed as recently as 2000 pushing around and filing paper networked computers now do it effortlessly. Yesterday’s “productivity gains” are today’s “unemployment”. That’s not to say there aren’t new opportunities opening up, that’s to say they aren’t opening up right away and the skills needed are very different. A generation which used to shuffle paper is now lost in the shuffle.
Effects like this have been noted at Davos far more than the benefits. One of the best parts of the agenda is the succinct and brilliant “What are the 10 biggest global challenges?” These include food security, leaving entire nations behind, the challenges of global banking, and proper public investment. In the latter category the US is seen as being short about 1% of GDP per year, or about $170B in infrastructure investment.
Another great talk came from Joe Biden, who insisted on universal gender preference rights during part of his time. But the balance of his talk was how the digital divide could destroy the middle class now stabilizing democracies old and new across the globe.
I believe the underlying question for world leaders, civil society, academia, the media, for all of us, is the defining challenge of our time: How do we ensure wide access to a middle class which is being hollowed out in the 21st century?
There is a lot more to it than this, but these are the highlights. The problems of the global banking system are not exactly being solved here, but they are being fretted over. Banks don’t like thinking the other banks they rely on are “too big to fail” especially when they are located in other nations – making them “too big to bail”. The fragility of the world banking system is big worry to bankers, which should surprise no one.
There are other things going on at the conference, of course. A gathering like this is a time when a reporter eschewing the slopes for just a few minutes can gather many great quotes from the truly quotable, so a lot of buzz is inevitable. Most of it this year revolves around the fragility of equity markets and whether it makes any sense or not to be paranoid about a collapse in China. Even more worried talk centers around the idea of Trump being elected somehow – an event no one believes is likely but is still something like an economic and political disaster of unknown proportions in the making. Basically, everyone wonders what’s wrong with the US at this point.
Through it all we have frank panel discussions about gender equity and climate change and a host of other issues that are more of a concern than ever before as we all live much closer together.
It’s not quite the same as a Sanders rally given that the language is decidedly different and much less inflammatory. But the concern is just as real – and given that these are world leaders it’s worth reading about.