Occupy Wall Street: The View from Davos

The World Economic Forum Weighs In

A British acquaintance has sent me a link to one of the background documents to be used when world leaders gather for the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland January25-29. The document is called Global Risks 2012.

The World Economic Forum is a Swiss non-profit corporation that brings together some 2,500 “top” global business and political leaders every January in a remote Swiss mountain resort. Along with the G-7, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, the World Economic Forum has a strong pro-corporate agenda and is a regular target for anti-corporate globalization protests. The latter movement is a loosely knit network of anti-corporate groups that started in Asia and Europe in the 1990s, in response to the international treaty that created the World Trade Organization (WTO). Its American counterpart was born in Novemeber 1999, when 50,000 people marched in the streets of Seattle and thousands committed civil disobedience to derail the WTO Third Ministerial meeting. Currently the WTO and so-called “Free Trade” treaties, such as NAFTA, receive scant coverage in the mainstream media. Nevertheless labor and environmental activists remain deeply concerned about the power these international treaties give corporations to overturn democratically enacted labor and environmental protections.

Since 2001, grassroots activists from all over the world have been holding a World Social Forum in a developing country (usually Brazil) at the same time as the World Economic Forum. The philosophy behind the World Social Forum is that ordinary people have an even greater need for international conferences than corporate elites. It’s only by coming together and organizing that they can resist efforts by global elites to strip them of the limited democratic and economic rights they still enjoy.

Emphasis on Global Social Unrest

When the Guardian article that accompanied the report stated that Global Risks 2012 focuses mainly on economic turmoil and social unrest (as opposed to globalization and free trade), I was extremely keen to read it. Would it mention Occupy Wall Street? It sure does, right there on page 16 under “Case 1: Seeds of Dystopia”:

Two dominant issues of concern emerged from the Arab Spring, the ‘Occupy’ movements worldwide and recent similar incidents of civil discontent: the growing frustration among citizens with the political and economic establishment, and the rapid public mobilization enabled by greater technological connectivity.

The document is full of other surprises. Unlike the mainstream media, Global Risks 2012 is surprisingly sympathetic towards the Occupy movement. The authors are deeply concerned about “dystopia,” the opposite of utopia, which they define as “a place where life is full of hardship and devoid of hope.” They go on to talk about the danger of declining economic conditions in Western Europe, North America and Japan jeopardizing “social contracts” between states and their citizens. These they define as has historic understandings that workers will be guaranteed access to health care (by North America they must mean Canada – this has never been true in the US) and decent pensions in old age.

They express concern (implying that corporate CEOs should also be concerned) about the link between global recession and increasing rates of poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, suicide, divorce, domestic violence and the abandonment, neglect and abuse of children (page 18).

They talk about the large numbers of unemployed young people around the world being a “lost generation” (page 22). Even more surprisingly, they identify huge income disparity as being one of the most serious global risks. They caution that when “social mobility” (i.e. individual ability to advance socially and economically) is attainable, income disparity can spur people to work harder. When it’s clearly not, as in the current global recession, feelings of powerlessness, disconnectedness and disengagement can “take root.” (page 19).

They conclude the dystopia section with the following warning:

The social unrest that occurred in 2011, from the United States to the Middle East, demonstrated how governments everywhere need to address the causes of discontent before it becomes a violent, destabilizing force. (page 19)

Destructive Corporate Lobbying

Global Risks 2012 also talks about destructive corporate lobbying (my translation – they use more obscure, intellectually lofty language) in trying to enact environmental and health regulations: “By their very nature, the costs involved in implementing safeguards, such as quality standards and risk mitigation practices, may give some individuals, firms or organizations reasons to lobby to minimize them and look for ways around them.” (page 22)

They are equally critical of the “too big to fail” banks: “When losses can be passed on to others – as when banks are defined as “too big to fail” – excessive risk-taking is likely to occur.” (page 22).

They conclude with the argument (making the 2008 banking crisis a case in point) that dangerously lax regulations “in just one jurisdiction could trigger global catastrophe.” (page 22)

How Will CEOs Answer the Discussion Questions?

I have to admit my favorite part of Global Risks 2012 are the “Questions for Stakeholders,” inserted at the end at the end of each section to make sure the corporate elites and the politicians who accompany them to these meetings are paying attention. I would give anything to listen in to the answers JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon and Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon, give to some of these:

• What steps can be taken to reduce income disparity? (they need to get Dimon to answer this one.)

• How can appropriate regulations be developed so that firms will undertake effective safeguards?

• How can business, government and civil society work together to improve resilience against unforeseen risks? (the report uses the word resilience, which they borrow from the sustainability movement, a lot).

• How can fostering entrepreneurship prevent the seeds of dystopia from taking root? (this wouldn’t be my approach, but at least they admit urgent action is needed)

How Global Risks 2012 Came to Be Written

The World Economic Forum’s Risk Response Network (RRN) was launched in 2004 to provide public and private sector leaders with “an independent, impartial platform to map, measure, monitor, manage and mitigate global risks.” This is the RRN’s seventh annual report. It’s based on surveys completed by 469 international experts in industry, government, academia and civil society about 50 potential global risks across five categories: Economic, Environmental, Geopolitical, Societal and Technological. Risks in each category are rated according to both the potential damage they could inflict and their likelihood of occurrence. In addition, a specific risk in each category is identified as “the center of gravity,” which feeds other risks, both within the specific category and across categories.

How 469 Experts Rated the 50 Risks

Economic
• Most damaging: chronic fiscal imbalances (translation – debt) and severe income disparity.

• Most likely to occur: chronic fiscal imbalances and severe income disparity.

• Economic “center of gravity” around which many other risks cluster: chronic fiscal imbalances (debt).

Environmental
• Most damaging: rising greenhouse gas emissions and failure of climate change adaptation (acknowledging that climate change is already occurring)

• Most likely to occur: rising greenhouse gas emissions

• Environmental “center of gravity” around which many other risks cluster: rising greenhouse gas emissions

Geopolitical
• Most damaging: terrorism, followed by critical fragile states and pervasively entrenched corruption

• Most likely to occur: critical fragile states and pervasively entrenched corruption

• Geopolitical “center of gravity” around which many other risks cluster: global governance failure

Societal
• Most damaging: water supply crisis, followed by food shortage crisis

• Most likely to occur: water supply crisis, followed by food shortage crisis

• Societal “center of gravity” around which many other risks cluster: unsustainable population growth (highly controversial, but a growing number of sustainability activists agree with this view)

Technological
• Most damaging: cyber attacks

• Most likely to occur: cyber attacks

• Technological “center of gravity” around which many other risks cluster: critical systems failure

Is There a Split in the Ruling Elite?

It’s clear from the spelling (using “our” instead of “or” and “re” instead of “er” at the end of words) that the authors of Global Risks 2012 are either British or Canadian. I find it extremely hard to imagine a report emphasizing carbon emissions and income inequality coming out of the US. I also think it’s it significant that three of the four companies listed as report “cosponsors” are insurance companies.1 If Exxon had helped write this document, it would surely minimize the risk of increasing carbon emissions, if it mentioned them at all.

At times there are divisions in the ruling elite – between the banking/insurance and the energy/military sectors – over specific issues. Climate change seems to be one of them. Owing to deregulation, there is significant overlap between insurance companies, which derive most of their income from reinvesting premiums, and other financial institutions. AIG, for example, is supposedly an insurance company but had to be bailed out because they owned a substantial chunk of subprime mortgages.

It’s clearly in the interest of oil, natural gas and coal companies for consumers to continue to buy and burn up as much fossil fuel as possible. Insurance companies, on the other hand, serve their shareholders best by reducing carbon emissions. They already face growing claims losses due to a massive increase in weather-related catastrophes. In this context it makes sense for them to cosponsor a World Economic Forum risk assessment document emphasizing the need for international agreement about reducing carbon emissions. It also helps explain why Wall Street investment banker (and New York mayor) Michael Bloomberg has given a $50 million donation to the Sierra Club’s Anti-Coal Campaign.

  1. Marsh and McLennan, Swiss Reinsurance Company, University of Pennsylvania Wharton Center for Risk Management, and Zurich Financial Services. []

Dr. Bramhall is a retired American psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. She has published a free, downloadable non-fiction ebook 21st Century Revolution. Her first book The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee describes the circumstances that led her to leave the US in 2002. Email her at: stuartbramhall@yahoo.co.nz. Read other articles by Stuart Jeanne, or visit Stuart Jeanne's website.