How Davos can go from 'elitist' to 'woke'

Updated 1:47 PM ET, Sat January 26, 2019

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James Bailey is a professor and Stacy and Jonathan Hochberg Fellow of Leadership Development at the George Washington University School of Business. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

Perspectives James Bailey

Tucked in the Swiss Alps, the World Economic Forum's annual Davos gathering brought together international political and business leaders for a dubious combination of luxury, discourse and global policy-making.
There is no end to the irony that globalization 4.0 was this year's theme. For decades, unfettered globalization, or its cousin globalism, has ruled the day. It has benefited elite companies and individuals with its focus on relaxed capital, deregulation and reduced corporate taxes, argue critics, creating volatility in the political, social and economic fabrics of countries around the world.
The world's experiment with globalization, which, true, has reduced poverty and opened borders, is still responsible today for a level of global inequality that has incited populism and protectionism. And for the last decade, Davos elites have continued to promote globalization, while watching the number of billionaires blossom. Fewer people are living in poverty around the world today, but progress is slowing.
Davos has since gotten "woke," to some degree. It is talking more about social and income equality than it used to. Like Hollywood, though, Davos' framework divides the world into "haves" and everyone else. While the 2018 conference addressed income redistribution, the "snag" was finding the proper vehicle to do it. That the money spent on the conference could fund a democratic revolution in a third-world country seems lost on many of its organizers and participants.
This year, Davos elites were searching for a middle ground where they can still claim globalization's net positives while also addressing its divisive consequences, especially its race-to-the-bottom economics that limits the incomes and opportunities of ordinary workers and unleashes unregulated environmental damage.
Admittedly, the world does work better when power brokers and government leaders talk to each other on a regular basis, and, in that sense, we need Davos. After all, attendees have the weight to make real change, especially across borders. And there are legitimate WEF initiatives that benefit people of every economic class and country, whether looking to resolve global health security or food production in the 21st century, two key initiatives supported by the WEF in recent years.
Maybe it is too much to ask the most powerful world citizens to solve the globe's most intractable problems while frolicking in a winter playground. Yet, if not them, who? Davos evolved from being an exchange of business practices in the 1970s to a gathering of influential executives and government leaders advancing economic and political agendas. They should be the people sitting around the table to find solutions to poverty, income inequality and disruption.
    Though, it would help if the voice of the average person were in the room. It is not surprising that NGOs admonish the conference's attendees for their privileged approach to global deal making. In fact, Oxfam International issued a report, Public Good or Private Wealth?, timed to the conference to detail globalization's economic costs and to provoke a rhetorical skirmish with Davos' attendees.
    Let's hope Davos elites are ready for change, because the stakes will soon be even higher. The so-called fourth industrial revolution — built on transformative technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics — promises to be as equally disruptive as globalization, creating new financial opportunities for international businesses while also threatening job losses and economic order for workers worldwide. Too much is at stake for Davos' power players to cleave to the status quo.
      The world of Davos is an isolated resort that remains even more remote from most of our lives. And yet the public forums and cloakroom conversations that unfold there will likely impact us all. Though we don't know how, because we weren't invited.