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The Davos blues: Elites have to create a globalization that won’t leave the masses behind

Davos attendees
Reuters/Ruben Sprich
Participants use their smart phones and laptops between sessions during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland January 22, 2016.…
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

I have been going to Davos, home of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, in various capacities for a decade now. For years, its motto—“Committed to improving the state of the world”—rang like a symphony to my ears. I sincerely believed that globalization was not only unstoppable but inherently desirable; not just for the few, but for the many.

Like many of my relatively privileged, progressive, English-speaking, college-educated friends, I read The Economist and books by Francis Fukuyama and Tom Friedman. I enjoyed listening to speeches by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, and the feeling of self-righteousness that came with it. Davos was indeed an elitist gathering of people with money, power, and influence. But it was the “good” ultra-privileged types who assembled there. The bad guys, the ones who should be feared, were the ultra-rich who didn’t bother coming to Davos.

To acquaintances who pointed out globalization was leaving masses of people behind, I answered by paraphrasing Winston Churchill: “Democracy, the worst form of Government except for all the others.” Yes, of course, globalization was not a purely virtuous phenomenon. True, inequality among and within nations was growing. Still, fewer and fewer people lived in abject poverty. Things were getting better, albeit slowly. And regardless, while this was far from perfect, it was “the best we could do.”

The nerve we had…

It turns out the “best we could do” is a world where the 80 richest people (overwhelmingly men) own as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity; one where things have actually been getting worse for far too many people in far too many countries. Voters in Britain and those in the United States just told us where we could shove “our best.”

Populism, nationalist rhetoric, building walls, and other protectionist measures will not make our world—nor any nation—a better place in the long run. But in the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, as the world looks increasingly like it’s going through a tumultuous, political corollary of the subprime crisis, it is time for us limousine liberals of the world to wake up and smell the coffee.

Like it or not, the people who voted for Brexit and Trump, as well as those who seem increasingly likely to bring to power Marine Le Pen and the Sweden Democrats, are the people whose interests the liberal elite claimed to represent. And we’ve done an awful job at it. It turns out they are not voting for populists in spite of our admonitions and warnings and those coming from media, political, and business elites, but in no small part because of them. Populists thrive on our patronizing discouragements. “Oh, yeah,” globalization’s discontents say, “it’s not right to vote for him/her/them?! Well f— you: I am voting for him/her/them.”

If educated progressive elites worldwide are serious about sharing the proceeds of globalization in a much fairer way, then we need to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk. A few key initiatives would go a long way in ensuring the world becomes a fairer, more socially mobile place. 

Our school system was invented during the first industrial revolution to fill factories with skilled workers. The fourth industrial revolution, as it makes a sizable proportion of our workforces redundant, will require more STEM education and schools like 42—the teacher-less, classroom-less, tuition-free school for coders—so we churn out job creators instead of job seekers. Let’s invest in them now.

Proportional representation of generations in bodies, national and international, that purport to be democratic is a must in the 21st century. After its so-called Pots and Pans Revolution, Iceland gathered a constitutional assembly using a semi-random selection process based on geographical, gender and generational lines. It’s time to emulate the Icelanders.

Above all, we are underestimating the value of movement and travel as a means of emancipation and education. A global youth work visa which would allow young people under the age of 25 to work for up to two years as part of a quota in line with a country’s population would go a long way in building the global citizenry our world so sorely needs. (And people who have traveled to foreign countries while they are young are much less likely to vote for a nationalist demagogue.)

Migration—voting with one’s feet—has always been mankind’s most widely available means of emancipation. But the generation that is coming of age is the first to grow up with as broad an access to low-cost airfares and the data to make informed decisions on where to live, study, work, what languages to learn, etc. The Youthonomics Global Index, for instance, ranks 64 countries across 59 criteria to say where young people are thriving and where they aren’t. We live in a world of nation-states run by baby-boomers and seniors for baby-boomers and seniors. The capacity of young people who are not part of the elite to initiate impactful change if they stay within their own country is extraordinarily limited. But if, with a global youth work visa, we gave our kids the ability to rise above the fray of nations and embrace a new form of nomadism made possible by low-cost travel, a new kind of education and the spread of information technologies, then the world would have to compete to attract young people. 

And that is a world where young people of all backgrounds could potentially thrive. For no country, city, or company can thrive without young talent. Whether you are flipping burgers in Detroit for eight dollars an hour, a hair-dresser in a small French town, a bus driver in Mozambique, or an artist in Senegal, it is not difficult to predict what your salary will be and what your life is going to look like in 20 years if you stay where you are. Think of just how different things might turn out if a global youth work visa allowed you to go open a burger joint in Jakarta, join a trendy French hair-dressing salon in Shanghai, drive around a Brazilian media baron, or open a gallery specializing in African art in downtown Detroit.

If global elites are not prepared to put their money where their mouth is, invest much more effort in pushing policies of this sort, and identify resources to allow underprivileged kids to take advantage of them on a global scale, then they should recognize they aren’t the good guys—they are allies to the global forces of reactionist politics. 

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