Elites Gather In Davos To Rich-splain Poverty As The World Spirals Into Crisis

"The plutocrats who shattered the world order are gathering to make out in the mountains."
A policeman stands on the rooftop of a hotel before the start of the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
A policeman stands on the rooftop of a hotel before the start of the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

DAVOS, Switzerland ― This week, thousands of business leaders, lawmakers and activists will convene in Davos to discuss the greatest challenges facing the world.  

At the yearly gathering hosted by the World Economic Forum, there is much talk of “worrying geopolitical and geo-economic tensions.” But, to its critics, Davos embodies everything that’s wrong with the current moment.

“They gather to talk about making the world a better place. But instead they commandeer our conversation,” said Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, who will not be attending.

The U.S. government is in its longest shutdown on record. Britain is spiraling out of control over Brexit. Flames of rage engulf France. But “the plutocrats who shattered the world order are gathering to make out in the mountains,” Giridharadas said.

According to a report from the anti-poverty coalition Oxfam, timed to coincide with Davos, the world’s 2,200 billionaires grew 12 percent wealthier last year. But the wealth is not trickling down. The poorest half of the world got 11 percent poorer in 2018, and today the top 26 billionaires own the same wealth as the poorest 3.8 billion people.

“The economy we have today is fundamentally inhuman,” Paul O’Brien, Oxfam America’s vice president for policy and campaigns, told HuffPost. “You’re not going to get a decrease in extreme wealth until you have leadership committed to tackling its root causes, and right now we don’t.” 

In the U.S., wages have been essentially stagnant for decades while members of the Davos elite have gotten significantly richer. The fortunes of a dozen 2009 Davos attendees have jumped by a combined $175 billion in the years since, a Bloomberg analysis found.

Among those on the list were Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, who has tripled his net worth since 2009, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose wealth grew 1,853 percent in that period.

Zuckerberg is not scheduled to attend Davos, but Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is using the gathering as a stop on a Facebook “apology tour,” after a slew of bad publicity over its role in the spread of misinformation in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and evidence that the company helped stir violence in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

The problem with Davos is that it provides “a moral glow of heroism to people who should be begging for society’s mercy for their role in breaking our social contract,” said Giridharadas. “No one at Facebook should be on a panel explaining anything. They should be apologizing … for breaking our democracy and for enabling ethnic violence.”

To Giridharadas, Davos amounts to a week of “rich-splaining,” characterized by terms that shift the conversation away from actual social change: “Win-win” replaces a debate about social justice. “Lean in” gets in the way of maternity leave. Talk of “micro-credits” takes the place of a discussion about a wealth tax. “These elites have essentially used the rhetoric of changing the world to prevent change,” he said.

Seemingly taking note of populist protests that most recently have hit France, Klaus Schwab, WEF’s executive chairman, told reporters before the yearly meeting that globalization has to become more inclusive. “Globalization produces winners and losers, and there are many more winners in the last 24, 25, 30 years,” he said. “But now we have to look after the losers, after those who have been left behind.”

But in Davos, it’s business as usual: Schmooze and be schmoozed. 

On the main street, the Russian and Saudi governments have set up shops, advertising that they’re open for business. After pressure from the Kremlin, WEF reportedly reversed its decision not to invite three high-profile Russian tycoons facing U.S. sanctions, including billionaire Oleg Deripaska, known in Davos for his rowdy parties and in the U.S. for his business dealings with Paul Manafort, the now-jailed former Donald Trump campaign manager. Those dealings are now reportedly part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The budget for the World Economic Forum has more than doubled since 2009, to $337 million last year. What WEF sells at this ski resort, of course, is access, and it’s a bit of an inside-Davos joke that the stream of exclusive parties and private events provoke FOMO among even the most high-powered attendees. 

This year, however, the joke may have lost its punch line. The action is clearly somewhere else. President Trump, British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron are all staying home to deal with fractured politics and public anger.

Giridharadas believes the moment has come.

“Davos has to end,” he said.