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Complacency in a Leaderless World

DAVOS – The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos has lost some of its pre-crisis panache. After all, before the meltdown in 2008, the captains of finance and industry could trumpet the virtues of globalization, technology, and financial liberalization, which supposedly heralded a new era of relentless growth. The benefits would be shared by all, if only they would do “the right thing.”

Those days are gone. But Davos remains a good place to get a sense of the global zeitgeist.

It goes without saying that developing and emerging-market countries no longer look at the advanced countries as they once did. But a remark by one mining company executive from a developing country caught the spirit of change. In response to one development expert’s heartfelt despair that unfair trade treaties and unfulfilled promises of aid have cost the developed countries their moral authority, he retorted: “The West never had any moral authority.” Colonialism, slavery, the splintering of Africa into small countries, and a long history of resource exploitation may be matters of the distant past to the perpetrators, but not so to those who suffered as a result.

If there is a single topic that concerned the assembled leaders the most, it is economic inequality. The shift in the debate from just a year ago seems dramatic: no one even mentions the notion of trickle-down economics anymore, and few are willing to argue that there is a close congruence between social contributions and private rewards.