Economy

How Male Global Elites Work Hard to Fix the Economy - In Their Favor

On Sunday, 1 percenters left the World Economic Forum at Davos with bold plans to stay fat and happy while the world falls apart.

The pomp and the platitudes. The champagne and the canapés. In the tony ski resort of Davos, Switzerland, the gemütlich gathering of global leaders for the World Economic Forum seemed like business as usual…five days of hobnobbing and male-dominated, Euro-centric jaw-flapping on the economic state of the planet. A rich and rewarding experience for the rich and rewarded.

But what about this year’s theme? Billed as “The Great Transformation,” the WEF promised sessions on rethinking capitalism, reducing inequality and solving Europe's financial crisis. Founder Klaus Schwab opened the forum with a wise observation that capitalism needs to be fixed "to serve society." Was it possible that these leaders wanted change? Had they opened their ears to the 99 percent?

Guess it depends on which society and what you mean by fixed. Because in reality, the brochure should have read: "The Great Retrenchment: with sessions on denying capitalism's failures, staying rich despite inequality, and dumping Europe's financial crisis onto the backs of ordinary people."

The Song Remains the Same

In the midst of a crippling European debt crisis, some 2,500 business leaders, intellectuals and politicians strolled among the five-star hotels and plush conference rooms of the WEF. There was much talk about how economic turmoil in Europe could spread to the rest of the world. There was much networking. Much giddy tweeting (Inspiration! Youth! Social entrepreneurs!) and much partying among ice sculptures.

Outside, Swiss police sprayed tear gas at demonstrators protesting youth unemployment, Occupiers camped in igloos protested the event’s elitism, and a group of Ukranian women decried the sexism by going topless and wielding signs that read “Poor because of you!”

Yes, there were some reports of elites feeling a bit “besieged” and security was accordingly beefed up. Strategies to maintain the status quo varied by industry and sometimes country. But when you start reading that bankers felt “cautious optimism” about how leaders were responding to their plight, you know that the 99 percent was never really part of the agenda. That Vikram Pandit, CEO of the global bank Citigroup, who blew up the company and sent the bills to taxpayers, was co-chair of this year’s forum spoke volumes.

The Davos Man

“Davos Man” is a nifty term that refers to the global elite of wealthy men whose members feel themselves to be part of a cozy fraternity where national affiliations mean little next to their membership in monied circles (see helpful phrenological chart for additional information on this species). Arriving from Zurich by private jet, the typical Davos Man enjoys the high altitude as a great place to look down upon the world’s woes -- and have another glass of bubbly.

You would not be surprised to learn that the foundation that puts on the WEF is funded by its 1,000 member companies, the typical firm being a global enterprise with over $5 billion in turnover. Representatives of small businesses and cooperatives, which constitute much of the global economy, are naturally unwelcome in Davos Man's habitat. You will be even less shocked to know that all of the 30 video messages from Davos co-chairs and partners posted ahead of the meeting featured men, most of them western and white. Columbia University’s Anya Schiffrin commented on the notable lack of female participants, saying, “I understand there are not a lot of women running hedge funds, but in that case change your category, maybe don't only have CEOs.” A bold idea. But a bit too innovative for Davos Man.

The takeaway of the 2012 Davos Man was that the eurozone was in trouble and that countries like Greece, and maybe Portugal, will be leaving. German chancellor Angela Merkel, a rare Davos Woman, spoke of the urgent need to restore confidence in Europe and improve “competitiveness” (read, screw workers in other countries) but admitted that Germany doesn’t want to put more money up to underwrite weaker countries (read: have-nots can continue to enjoy the fiscal austerity death-spiral).

At a time when, according to the Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the earnings gap between the rich and poor had reached its highest level in 30 years, non-elites got little airtime here, and when they did, they generally expressed dismay. Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo was on hand to call bullshit on the summit's "transformational" rhetoric, observing that "it's more about system recovery than system redesign.” And the system, as we know by now, is one designed so very carefully for the benefit of the 1 percent. So things like, for example, prosecuting financial fraud, redesigning incentives for corporate predation, and, well, reining in a capitalist system that is sucking the world's real economy dry, are just not on the table.

“We Don’t Realize What We Don’t Realize”

A session titled “Pundits, Professors, and Their Predictions” neatly encapsulates what went wrong at the WEF. Watch the video, and you will see six men on stage, including the moderator. They are: TheNew York Times’ conventional wisdom avatar Tom Friedman (taking a break from resurrecting 1 percent whisperer Adam Davidson); Yale economist Bob Shiller; NYU economist Nouriel Roubini; Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times, and public policy expert Kishore Mahbubani of Singapore, the sole representative of a non-western country.

The moderator opened the session sagely acknowledging that in addressing the world’s ills, “We don’t realize what we don’t realize.”

You can say that again.

Not a single female voice could be heard in the entire hour. If you realized, for example, that women constitute half the world’s population, perhaps you would not be sitting there discussing its fate without finding out what they think. But this is the WEF, after all.

And how is the leadership class responding to current “global unrest"? asked the moderator. Noting that “top-down leadership is dumb and slow,” Friedman pointed out that global leaders have gone from having a one-way conversation to a two-way conversation. What about a two-gender conversation? In disgust, someone finally sent a tweet to the moderator: “Where are the women panelists? The Occupy panelists?” The moderator: “I don’t know, you’ll have to take that up with other people.”

“Other people” did not comment.

The panelists went on to talk about how leaders are “kicking the can down the road” in the Eurozone, which was helpfully described as a “slow motion train wreck.” And it was pointed out that elites were disagreeing on everything from monetary policy, fiscal policy, global climate change, international trade, and food security. But they were certainly in harmony with the notion that they would not be doing anything transformational, and thus 2012 was shaping into a do-nothing-useful year, concluded Roubini. But just wait until 2013, he warned, when things will really get ugly. Oh, and social media was really screwing up the ability of elites to get their plans implemented. And for all-male panels to come off without looking dumb and slow.

Truthfully, everyone looked a bit weary. But wait! There was that Google party happening across the way…and didn't someone say they have a dance floor and swordfish canapés? Cheered by this news, Davos Man could be seen to loosen his tie and get started on a long night of vodka spritzers and bringing back the White Man's Overbite.

Slow curtain. The End.

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet contributing editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of 'Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.' Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.
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