It's that time of the year again, when the Great and Good and Rich converge to Davos, Switzerland for the
realpolitik starfucking World Economic Forum. The coverage of this event gyrates wildly between bland pronouncements from attendees and world class snark from the Not as Great and Good and Rich that are not invited to attend. I will certainly confess to my own contribution to the snark pile.
As someone who casually curses way too much to ever score an invitation, I nevertheless wonder if some of the critiques of Davos are just a bit overhyped. Take Timothy Noah, who blogged the following at The New Republic yesterday:
There is no better example of social and economic policy discussion as an idle pastime for the rich than the World Economic Forum at Davos....
Ian Bremmer, who chairs Davos’s Global Agenda Council on Geopolitical Risk reports in the Huffington Post that the unifying theme this year at Davos is, yes, “the increasing vulnerability of elites.” Keep in mind as you read what follows that Bremmer is not a parodist:
We're seeing leaders of all kinds, in the developed and developing world, in politics as well as business and media, answering to constituents who grow more dissatisfied... and information-rich. Look at the riots in India over the recent rape scandal, the U.S. Congress' abysmal approval ratings, or the phone hacking scandal at News Corp. Corruption, special interests, or a lack of transparency will spell trouble for leaders. The same goes for a widening gap between rich and poor.
....if I’m reading Bremmer right, Davos sees inequality mainly as a problem bearing down on elites. The blighters simply won’t shut up about living in mud huts (or enduring weak rape laws, a dysfunctional legislature, corporate malfeasance, etc.) while the rest of us hit the slopes.
Now, much as I'd love to snark along with Noah, I don't think he's entirely reading Bremmer right, and I also think he's making a categorical policy error. To be fair to Noah, Bremmer's geopolitical risk report does have a section on the problems with too much transparency that does read a bit too much like a pity party for the elite ("in developed democracies, scandals involving leaders can distract whole nations for weeks on end, while more important business remains undone.")
That said, I don't think this is my FP colleague's main point. His primary thesis is that tectonic shifts in domestic politics are imposing increasing political constraints on what political elites can do to ameliorate policy problems:
In 2013, this breakdown of international coordination will go increasingly local: in such a world, governments will focus more on their domestic agendas, which will create new risks in and of itself. Most importantly, the growing vulnerability of elites makes effective public and private leadership that much more difficult to sustain. Leaders of all kinds are becoming more vulnerable to their constituents, generating more reactive and short-term governance....
Welcome to ‘the new local,’ where governments are more shackled by regional concerns and their domestic constituencies—at the expense of tackling larger-scale global issues that need collective leadership to solve.
Now I'm on record as thinking that Bremmer overstates the collapse of global governance. That said, if one accepts his premises, then the ability of leaders to address policy problems is more constrained. Whether you think this is a problem or not depends on how much faith you have in public policy elites -- and public policy in general -- to compensate for the vicissitudes of the marketplace.
Stepping back, however, I'm not sure inequality is as big of an issue as either Bremmer or Noah think it is. What we presumably should care about at places like Davos is poverty reduction, which is not necessarily correlated with inequality reduction. And the dirty secret of the post-crisis global economy is that global poverty reduction is proceeding quite nicely, thank you very much.
The primary problem with the current state of the global economy is that the biggest losers are unskilled and semi-skilled laborers in the developed world. That's an issue -- but it's one that I don't think developing country atendees at Davos are gonna care too much about.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.