Overheard At Davos: "So Many People Feel That This Is One Of The Most Dangerous Times"

One of the better summaries of the tense mood at this year's Davos proceedings, where globalists from around the world are confronted with the new protectionist, populist reality that was unleashed in 2016, comes from the NYT which recounts a dinner conversation on Monday evening as the forum got underway, in which Ian Goldin, a professor of globalization and development at Oxford University, celebrated the connectedness of the global economy and the technological advancements that have liberated humans from disease, poverty and the drudgery of manual labor.

Here are some of the highlights of what he said:

“There’s never been a better time to be alive, and yet we feel so glum,” Mr. Goldin said. “So many people feel anxious. So many people feel that this is one of the most dangerous times.”

 

He denounced the frightened retreat from globalization manifest in Mr. Trump’s threats of a trade war with China, and in Britain’s abandonment of Europe, commonly known as Brexit.

 

“You can’t stop managing an entangled environment by disconnecting,” he said. “This is the fundamental mistake of Brexit, of Trump, and of so many others. We are not simply connected. We are entangled. Our lives, our destinies are intertwined. What happens in China, what happens in Indonesia, what happens in India, what happens across Europe, and what happens in North America, across Africa and Latin America will affect all of us in dramatic new ways. The idea that somehow we can forge our future in an insular way, even for the biggest countries like the U.S., is a fantasy.”

And yet, Mr. Goldin said, if the benefits of globalization are not spread more equitably, the world could be in for a replay of the Renaissance, an extraordinary period of scientific progress, commercial growth and artistic creativity in Europe that ultimately yielded popular resentment.

The gold leaf landing on cathedrals was not bettering the lot of the peasantry. The spices coming in from Asia were too expensive for most. The Medici family that ruled Florence was sent packing by the mob. Intellectuals were persecuted and books burned.

 

“We need to learn these historical lessons and realize that this is the most precious moment in human history,” Mr. Goldin said. “We need to make the choices to ensure that globalization is sustainable, that connectivity is sustainable, that we deal with the intractable problems that are worrying people.”

Perhaps a more apt analogy is the gilded age, which ended with mixed results for America's captains of industry.

Goldin's speech led into the previously highlighted panel on Wednesday morning, in which Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, "injected a rarely heard word into a conversation about the crisis for middle-class households: redistribution." It is also the most hated word of any person present at Davos: “There are things that can be done,” she said. “It probably means more redistribution than we have at the moment.”

But then the conversation moved on to other subjects. Ray Dalio, founder of the American investment firm Bridgewater Associates — who took home $1.4 billion in compensation in 2015 — suggested the key to reinvigorating the middle class was to “create a favorable environment for making money.” He touted in particular the “animal spirits” unleashed by stripping away regulations.

The biggest irony is that for years economic inequality has ranked as one of the most discussed issues at Davos, both in the formal conference agenda and in the conversations that fill hallways and the private parties and dinners held throughout town. And yet, for years, little to nothing has changed. Which prompted the following statement from Joseph Stiglitz, a vocal critic of economic inequality. 

"That agenda is anathema to a lot of Davos men and women. More rights to bargain for workers, that’s the part where Davos man is going to get stuck. The stark reality is that globalization has reduced the bargaining power of workers, and corporations have taken advantage of it.”

 

"People talk about inequality, how it’s a major problem, the greatest threat to globalization and the global economy. You have to recognize that the way we have managed globalization has contributed significantly to inequality. But I have not yet heard a good conversation about what changes in globalization would address inequality.”

That is not an accident, he surmised. Any sincere list would have to include items that involve transferring wealth and power from the sorts of people who come to Davos to ordinary workers via more progressive taxation, increased bargaining rights for labor unions, and greater protections for labor in general.

Which brings us to the NYT's conclusion:

Same as every other year, Davos is again plastered with the slogan of the World Economic Forum: “Committed to Improving the State of the World.” But whatever improvements are supposed to be made, one can safely assume they will not conflict with those in attendance continuing to enjoy the state of the world as it is now, with canapés and aged Bordeaux and private jets at the ready. Which means that the global populism insurrection is unlikely to lose momentum anytime soon.

Here's to looking at Davos 2017 where we expect the echo chamber will be in full force for one more year, even as the world's rapidly shrinking middle class gets angrier with each passing day.