Economy for all

'We need to change the rules': Billionaires at the World Economic Forum only pretend to care about inequality

Billionaires and the politicians who enable their wealth gathered for several days at a luxury resort in Switzerland to offer their puzzled concerns about why they keep getting richer at everyone else’s expense.

The World Economic Forum (WEF), which took place this year from May 22 through 26 in Davos, Switzerland, brought together elected officials and corporate executives from all over the world to tackle global problems. The annual meeting was delayed, first by two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and then by five more months due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The forum calls itself an “independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world.” WEF attendees are representative of global elites who wield both political and economic power, and, in superhero fashion, seem to have adopted a do-gooder attitude of, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

The last time the group of elites met was in January 2020, at the very start of the pandemic, when Professor Klaus Schwab, WEF’s founder and executive chairman, said, “The pandemic represents a rare but narrow window of opportunity to reflect, reimagine, and reset our world.”

Like most of the words emerging from WEF speakers, such a sentiment, reflecting the deep concerns of civil society, was worn as a cloak to disguise the source of many of the world’s problems: profiteering and obscene wealth redistribution from the bottom of society toward the top.

The advocacy organization Oxfam, which every year is allowed to send representatives to the annual WEF meetings, releases reports regularly highlighting these obscenities and reflecting back to attendees the culpability that politicians and CEOs bear for inequality as they routinely conspire to fleece the world.

Irit Tamir, director of the private sector department at Oxfam America, shared with me in an interview the results of this year’s WEF-related report, which proved that rather than using the pandemic as a way to reset priorities—as Schwab had in 2020 claimed was his intention—wealthy elites used it as a springboard to accumulate heretofore-unimaginable levels of riches.

“Inequality,” said Tamir, is “one of the top problems that they’re looking to solve” at Davos, “which of course is rather ironic because many of the reasons we have inequality today is because of the influence of these very people.”

Still, media outlets have portrayed the sentiment at Davos as one of deep concern over the current situation. “Davos gathering overshadowed by global economic worries,” said one Associated Press headline, while the Washington Post labeled its coverage with the words, “Economic uncertainty and ongoing war cast a cloud over Davos.” But, according to Tamir, “Those that are gathering in Davos this week have so much to celebrate because they are doing very, very well.”

According to Oxfam’s report, entitled “Profiting from Pain,” a million people around the globe are being pushed into “extreme poverty” every 33 hours during the pandemic. And, in roughly that same time period, “a new billionaire has been minted.”

“The pandemic has been very good to the billionaire class,” said Tamir. Oxfam concluded in its report that the world’s 10 richest men owned more wealth than the world’s poorest 40 percent of humanity. Such an absurd global arrangement of wealth ought to be the nail in the coffin of our current economic system.

The key areas of pandemic profiteering that Oxfam highlights in its report are food, medicine, energy, and technology—all basic human necessities.

For example, take James Cargill II and his family, who are majority stakeholders in a global food trading business that bears their family name and made nearly $5 billion in pure income last year alone. Food prices around the world have sharply risen, contributing to the Cargill family wealth.

Moderna, the pharmaceutical company whose CEO Stéphane Bancel was on the speakers’ list at this year’s WEF, has, according to Oxfam, been “immensely successful at converting public funding into private wealth.” Additionally, “The company has created four new vaccine billionaires who are worth a combined $10bn.”

In the energy sector, we see a similar level of unbridled greed as the costs of energy have gone up, which in turn has meant that, as per Oxfam, “Big oil’s profit margins have doubled during the pandemic.”

And, lastly, the technology sector has been a boon to billionaires. Oxfam reports that “Seven of the 10 richest people in the world made their money from technology,” including Elon Musk, who surpassed Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest man.

If market capitalism has reorganized wealth so that it flows from the bottom half of humanity into the hands of increasingly richer individuals, there is either a critical design flaw in a system that was supposed to be fair, or the system is working precisely as it was designed to work. WEF attendees have convinced themselves it’s the former. Others, like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders—famous for his claim that the economy is “rigged” in favor of the rich—believe the latter. Either way, the undeniable conclusion is that it’s time for a new system.

There is no need for the sort of deep introspective panels that WEF convenes as elites pretend to scratch their heads, asking questions like, “How can leaders make ethical decisions in times of crisis to maintain social cohesion and the trust of citizens?” or “How can we include everyone in the conversation for gender equality?

Oxfam points out that the no-brainer solution to obscene global inequality, one that requires no complex analysis or discussions between thought leaders, is this: If there’s too much money at the top, it’s time to redistribute that money to the bottom.

That’s it.

In the United States, home to many of the world’s wealthiest individuals and corporations, there are already well-crafted pieces of legislation like President Biden’s billionaire minimum tax, or tax provisions in the Build Back Better bill—both of which have failed to pass Congress.

“This is not a new concept,” said Tamir of a tax on rich people in times of crisis. “We’ve done this before in wartime. Other countries have also done it with great success. It is time that we get revenue from the excess profits that are being made from crises.”

WEF attendees did not convene any panels to discuss how political leaders—with whom they rubbed shoulders all week in Davos—could make tax legislation a reality. While most agree that inequality is bad for the world, their solution, according to Tamir, is philanthropy, not taxation.

“Philanthropy is at the whim of the individual’s will. It’s whatever they choose to donate to, and when they choose to donate, and how they choose to donate.”

In other words, billionaire philanthropists have not only more money than the rest of us can imagine having, but they also have the power to decide what should or should not receive funding.

“We need to change the rules,” said Tamir. “We need governments to step in, and we need them to do it immediately.”

Author Bio: Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.

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