Scranton Comes To Davos: On Biden's Speech in Switzerland

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Scranton Comes To Davos: On Biden's Speech in Switzerland

This week the Davos World Economic Forum meets in Switzerland, from January 17-20. It’s an odd meeting for the age of Trump. Outgoing Vice-President Biden gave a speech. Per the BBC:

With 48 hours left in the role of US vice-president, Joe Biden used his swansong speech at Davos to tell an audience of the world’s wealthiest that they do not pay enough in tax. He said the “top 1% is not carrying their weight”. “You are not bad guys, you are all good guys,” he said. But he argued the money would be better spent paying for every US student to attend college for nothing, which he said would cost $6bn a year and have a greater knock-on impact on the economy.

Who are these people, and why is the Scranton Kid talking to them this way?

THE SWISS MISS

As Bess Levin writes for Vanity Fair in an article titled “Davos Participants Wonder If Donald Trump Is All Their Fault”:

Each year in January, the World Economic Forum holds its annual conference in Davos, Switzerland. For three days, the über-elites of the business and political worlds—policy-makers and heads of state, private-equity chiefs, bank C.E.O.s, and hedge-fund managers—gather in the tiny alpine town to discuss the state of the world and the world’s millionaires and billionaires might address it. Historically, attendees have looked forward to the event, alternatively known as “Burning Man for billionaires” and “the money Oscars,” where they sit on panels by day, guzzle champagne and belt out show tunes by night, and maybe go home with a local afterward.

The Clintons and Bono are regulars at the conference. Notable leaders attending this year are Brit Prime Minister Theresa May and President Xi Jinping of China.

Per de la Merced and Goldman in the Times:

But even world leaders are often seen craning their heads for a glimpse at the boldfaced names in attendance. The singer Shakira and the actor Forest Whitaker are to receive awards this year. Expected attendees include Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook; the actor and activist Matt Damon; the Formula One driver Nico Rosberg; and Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire and founder of Alibaba.

Davos turns into a “veritable fortress” during the two weeks of the conference. “In the past,” the Times reports, “the conference was targeted by protesters associated with the anticapitalist Occupy movement. In 2013, members of the Ukrainian activist group Femen were arrested after a topless demonstration.” Additionally, “The annual meeting runs on a tiered system of colored badges denoting just how important one is, or is not. ”

Opponents of the Davos forum use the occasion to launch their own counter-campaigns. Per the British charity and advocacy group Oxfam:

“Eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity, according to a new report published by Oxfam today to mark the annual meeting of political and business leaders in Davos.”

THE SCRANTON KID WAS RIGHT

The central contradiction that lies at the heart of Davos is the same issue that rests in all of us: most of us want to do good. We all have the power to change the world. Some of us, the Davos people, have a great amount of power indeed. And they want to do good with that power. It seems perverse and contrarian to attack such a gathering, doesn’t it? If powerful people want to use that power to benefit humanity, who could possibly object?

In his speech, Biden said:

Here in this exclusive Alpine tower, where CEOs of multinational corporations rub elbows with leaders of nations, it is easy to embrace the intellectual benefits of a more open and integrated world. But it is at our own peril that we ignore or dismiss the legitimate fears and anxieties that exist in communities all across the developed world. The concern mothers and fathers feel about losing the factory job that has always allowed them to provide for their families. Parents who don’t believe that they can give their children a better life than the one they have.

When I think of Davos, I think of the parable of the blind men touching the elephant: some of the Davos attendees touch neoliberalism by the trunk and think it is hollowing out the middle class; others touch neoliberalism’s flank and believe it is repressing the poor; still others touch its ear and say “It is dooming the Earth; all of mankind shall perish under the rising, fishless seas.” And yet all agree the elephant is wonderful. How is this possible?

When the Davos folk say they wish to alter the course of human affairs, I do not doubt that they are serious, much as I believe Silicon Valley is serious when they say they want to disrupt everything. The common line of attack on Davos is that this conference is a place for glad-handing and backslapping, and none of these people are serious or smart. Perhaps this is true for some attendees, but let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it’s not the case for most guests. Let us give the benefit of the doubt, and accept that they are all genuinely working for the good.

Their motives are not in question; their judgment is. They are the representatives of the system that has created the very disparities of the world they intend to save. We are all the creatures of our circumstances; nobody can control where they are from. However, what is in our power is our ability to articulate change, even when it would not be to our benefit. And it is here that Davos falls short.

Per The Spectator:

“If globalisation has a spiritual headquarters, it is the World Economic Forum, to give it its full name. When the political scientist Samuel Huntingdon coined the term ‘Davos Man’, he turned it into a short-hand for the globe-trotting elite that moves seamlessly from business, to policy work, to academia and consultancy. They have, he argued, ‘little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations’.”

Unsurprisingly, when the Davos people design solutions for large problems, the solutions do not deal with major issues: there is no serious discussion of the American interventions, or the West’s long economic exploitation of the world, or of righting economic justice through bold solutions. The solutions tend to be TED Talk-type-stuff: apps and clicking on Web pages. The North American Congress on Latin America writes that the postures of Davos “are functional for current forms of globalization, because they don’t put at risk its structures and dynamics.”

I imagine going to Davos is very much like trying to make it in Manhattan: a place that loves human beings in the abstract, but doesn’t have a lot of time for them in the specific.

What then, is going on? How can the elites come to Davos with such piety? I suspect the answer is simple. Human beings are not wicked, but we have an infinite capacity for self-deception. We build systems of power which solidify injustice and inequality, and then back into them during dark times, surprised that they exist.

I could attack Davos for a lot of reasons, but the greatest point of interest to me is its combination of irony and tragedy. Imagine a meeting of people who ride lions for a living, who are honestly decent people. Suppose they call a conference once a year. You can’t get invited to this meeting unless you’re riding a lion, or have some influence in the world of lion-riding.

As you might expect, riding a lion requires certain sacrifices: it is a huge and mighty beast. Imagine that at this meeting, the lion-riders have long panels about how meat-eating is strangely on the rise, and what is happening to all the herbivores? Why are people upset at us, the lion-riders? We’re only trying to make the world a better place! Yet not one of them suggests abolishing lions, or cutting their claws. If we cannot seriously discuss huge concentrations of power—the lions public and private—then the World Economic Forum might as well disband.

We can be glad for their earnest humanity and disappointed by their lack of self-awareness. That is the contradiction of Davos, and the value of Scranton.

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