A global gathering of world elites is taking place in Davos, Switzerland, this week, claiming—as it does every year—to “define priorities and shape global, industry and regional agendas.” The World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting, held in the rarified elite space of the snow-capped Swiss Alps, consists, in its own words, of “leaders of global society.” In reality, it represents no formal body. There is no public mandate, no accountability for crafting goals or achieving them. It is a private, invitation-only gathering bringing together corporate elites and liberal technocrats, along with elected representatives and nonprofit leaders, for discussions about how to solve the world’s problems—on their terms.
The WEF’s attendees are so cut off from the rest of society that of the 3,000 attendees, about 1,500 flew into Davos in their own private jets. Most are men, and a majority are either North American or European. The WEF does not like to focus on how wealthy private interests dominate the forum, boasting instead of the myriad high-profile political officials and human rights leaders who have been invited. They will tout speeches by Jane Goodall and David Attenborough—but not by the CEOs of GE or ExxonMobil. Indeed, more than half the attendees are from the business sector—a fact that is revealed on the WEF’s website in only a fragment of a sentence: “… the private sector will be represented by more than 1,700 leaders.” The influence of these representatives on the WEF, and by extension, on government policies, is as invisible as their identities.
Among the human rights leaders invited to Davos is Oxfam International’s Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima, a woman who pulls no punches in the presence of global elites. She wrote ahead of the forum, “Every January I get a glimpse into a different world. A world of billionaires, of business and political elites.” Byanyima explained, “For Oxfam, Davos is an opportunity to take stock of the crisis of extreme inequality.” In fact, each year Oxfam releases its report on global inequality to coincide with the start of the WEF, and this year’s report clearly blames global inequality on the continuously lowered tax rates of the wealthy.
In “Public Good or Private Wealth,” Oxfam asserts that “While governments are under-taxing the wealthy and big corporations, public services are suffering from chronic underfunding or being outsourced to private companies that exclude the poorest people.” Oxfam America’s Vice President for Policy and Advocacy, Paul O’Brien, explained to me in an interview that “If you want to address poverty in this economy, you’re going to have to deal with global tax rates and structural inequality.”
The entire gamut of public services that ordinary people the world over are entitled to—free of charge—are going unfunded or underfunded thanks in large part to the insatiable greed of the fabulously wealthy. Access to services like education and health care, and the stockpiling of cash by billionaires, are two sides of the same coin. One stark example of the impact of dwindling government revenues is that “262 million kids are not going to be able to go to school somewhere in the world because their public institutions don’t have the funding to put them into school,” O’Brien said.
The example of underfunded education drives home the fact that inequality is not just the scourge of so-called Third World nations, but affects the world’s wealthiest nation as well. Think about the wave of teacher-led revolts across the U.S., such as the Los Angeles public teachers strike about which I wrote last week. Wealthy elites like school superintendent Austin Beutner and several of the Los Angeles Unified School District board members have been reluctant to fully fund the school system, leading to poor-quality education. This, in turn, has forced teachers to take a stand, lose pay and risk their livelihoods in a fight for the basic rights of the kids they teach.