Guess What Just Happened in Davos?

I‘m not even going to pretend that I pay serious attention to the World Economic Forum (WEF), which is held annually in Davos, Switzerland and which attracts thousands of the world’s rich and famous — including political, business and cultural leaders — to the tiny ski resort to carry out the WEF’s mandate of “improving the state of the world.”

The Cost of Inequality Panel, World Economic Forum 2019, Davos. L-R Moderator, Edward Elsenthal; Winnie Byanyima, Jane Goodall, Alicia Bárcena Ibarra, Rutger Bregman, Shamina Singh (Source: YouTube)

The Cost of Inequality Panel, World Economic Forum 2019, Davos. L-R Moderator, Edward Elsenthal; Winnie Byanyima, Jane Goodall, Alicia Bárcena Ibarra, Rutger Bregman, Shamina Singh (Source: YouTube)

What I assume would normally be quite a staid and sober gathering was rocked this year by Dutch historian — and author of Utopia for Realists — Rutger Bregman, who participated in a panel, moderated by Time magazine editor-in-chief, Edward Falsenthal, on “The Cost of Inequality.”  It was Bregman’s first appearance at this illustrious gathering but far from being intimidated, he came out with guns blazing, especially after hearing what he considered to be too much talk about philanthropy (or “bullshit” as he called it) on the part of the super rich and not nearly enough about that group’s reluctance to pay their fair share of taxes.

As far as Bregman is concerned, the richest people in the world should be forking over much more of their wealth in the form of taxes so that programs like a guaranteed annual income (GAI) for the poor could become a reality, but as he said to his fellow panelists and his audience, “[I]t feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water…” That got him a good round of applause (and an outburst of laughter as well).

 

 

An outspoken proponent of a GAI, Bregman has no time for the richest of the rich who manage to amass their fortunes while avoiding paying taxes at a level that would actually provide money enough to raise millions out of poverty. He started by saying that he found the conference’s mix of indulgence and global problem-solving a bit bewildering:

I mean 1,500 private jets have flown in here to hear Sir David Attinborough speak, you know, about how we’re wrecking the planet. I hear people talking the language of participation and justice and equality and transparency. But then, I mean, almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich just not paying their fair share.

When Bregman talks GAI, he is referring to an income that would provide the necessities of life: food, housing and clothing; in other words, that would provide the poor with an income that would allow them to reach the poverty level. However, it would also give them the freedom to take a job or refuse one that paid too little or demanded too much of workers. A person receiving a GAI would be able to relocate to a place where better jobs were available, to return to school and acquire education or training that would allow them to improve their lives and those of their families. For Bregman, “Poverty is not a lack of character, but a lack of cash,” so it seems obvious to him (and to me) that a GAI would provide at least a jump-start on securing a better life.

Interestingly enough, in researching GAI, Bregman came across the story of the basic income pilot program run in Dauphin, Manitoba in the ’70s — a story which captured my interest two years ago. The experiment was introduced in 1973 by then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Manitoba’s NDP Premier Edward Schreyer, but as the headline in a 2014 Huffington Post article about the experiment stated: A Canadian City Once Eliminated Poverty and Nearly Everyone Forgot About It. Unfortunately, when the Conservatives were elected provincially in 1977 and federally in 1979, the experiment was cancelled, much as a similar one in Ontario was cancelled by incoming Premier Doug Ford last year.

But I digress. Back to Davos.

 

When the moderator opened things up to audience questions, former Yahoo chief financial officer Ken Goldman rose from his seat to decry the focus on taxes and complain that the panel was “very one-sided.” He stated, as does Trump so often, that US unemployment was at its lowest level in years — including unemployment for Blacks and youths — and argued the panelists should be talking about what “beyond taxes” we can “really do to help solve inequality over time.”

Winnie Byanyima

Winnie Byanyima

Goldman’s remarks triggered an avalanche of response, not only from Bregman, but from others on the five-member panel (all of whom were women, by the way). Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam’s international executive director, picked Goldman up on the US employment figures, arguing that it wasn’t enough to say everyone had jobs, it was necessary to look at the quality of those jobs. This led her to describe the situation of poultry workers (women) in the richest country in the world, the United States of America, one of whom told Oxfam that they wore diapers to work, as they were allowed no toilet breaks.

“Is that a job with dignity?” she asked Goldman, looking down at him from the stage. Byanyima later told the Washington Post that she had been leery about bringing up the story of the poultry workers, but having been told by Davos officials that it would be better not to tell it because it would make people “uncomfortable,” she decided to go for it.

Byanyima, who has been attending the forum for about five years to help publicize Oxfam’s yearly study on economic inequality, told the WaPo that during an off-the-record meeting at the forum, a “corporate big-wig” was exhorting those around him “to help find a fix for the many issues raised by global inequality, for self-preservation if nothing else.”

He said that “if we don’t solve the problem, they are going to destroy our democracies and solve the problem on the street,” Byanyima said. “There is fear; there is an understanding that this is unsustainable.”

Bregman told the panel and the audience that abolition of the wealth tax in France had helped to create the Yellow Jacket phenomenon. Panel member Alicia Bárcena Ibarra, executive secretary, United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), spoke of the fact that approximately $350 billion, about 67% of GDP in Latin America, is leaving the area and going to tax havens. Ibarra stated that 145 million young people in Latin America could benefit immensely from a GAI.

Jane Goodall, another panel member, replied to the moderator’s question as to why the smartest creatures on the earth seem unable to find solutions to their problems. Her response (typical Goodall, I suspect) was that “love and compassion” are missing “when the intellect and wisdom are no longer connected.” She insisted that “head and heart must work together” and that the indomitable human spirit,” present in the poor as well as the wealthy, when endowed with wisdom, causes humans to seek out and assist those in need where intellect alone seldom sees the need.

Although Bregman said there was little reaction from the crowd in the room following the panel, he arrived back home to discover that the video had been retweeted more than 20,000 times. He’s been widely interviewed and his push for higher taxes on the rich has, of course, been compared to that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress in the United States, who also advocates a high marginal tax on the rich (as high as 70% on earnings over $10 million, if “earned” is indeed the proper verb at that point).

Farewell Lunch at the Schatzalp at the Annual Meeting 2019 of the World Economic Forum in Davos,January 2019 ©World Economic Forum / Pascal Bitz

Farewell Lunch at the Schatzalp at the Annual Meeting 2019 of the World Economic Forum in Davos,January 2019 ©World Economic Forum / Pascal Bitz

Of course, there was pushback too: billionaire Michael Dell, founder and head of Dell Technologies (called out by Bregman for asking an audience in Davos to “name one country” in which a top marginal tax rate of 70% had worked — unaware, apparently, that under President Eisenhower the top marginal tax rate in the US was 91%) said during another Davos panel:

I feel much more comfortable with our ability as a private foundation to allocate those funds than I do giving them to the government.

Will Hutton, who reviewed Bregman’s book in 2017 for the Guardian, calls GAI a “non-starter,” an argument he grounds in “basic psychology”:

[W]e humans believe that reward should follow proportionate effort. It is our just desert. Trying to reconfigure our core hard wiring so we don’t object to anyone anywhere getting a guaranteed income for no better reason than they are alive could only be devised by a fifth columnist anxious to consign liberalism to oblivion.

That analysis sounds to me intellectual but not wise — lacking, as Jane Goodall might say, in both love and compassion.

Featured image: Farewell Lunch at the Schatzalp at the Annual Meeting 2019 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 2019 ©World Economic Forum / Pascal Bitz

 

 

Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.

 

 

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