Top-down solutions from Davos elite out of step with populist anger: Don Pittis

Voters seem to think it's time to stop counting on the rich, famous and powerful to tell us what to do. But the populist backlash against elites is no substitute for working out solutions from the ground up.

No substitute for letting ordinary people think for themselves

A member of the Swiss special police guards the Congress Hotel as the rich and famous gather at the World Economic Forum that officially begins today in the ski resort community of Davos, Switzerland. (Ruben Sprich/Reuters)

In the Swiss resort town of Davos amid the glare of media attention, movie stars, billionaires and politicians have gathered once again to tell us what we are doing wrong and how to start doing things right.

It's like the Oscars in the Alps, a glimpse of the one per cent in their opulent element taking their mittens off to shake their fingers at us.

This year's theme for the high-powered talking shop, "responsive and responsible leadership," seems somewhat ironic given the appearance of Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the conference, a first for a Chinese president and Communist Party general secretary.

The autocratic leader of the world's most populous country, who has shut down voices of dissent, Xi may be a perfect example of the Davos model: Listen to your betters. Do as they say, and all will be well.
Chinese President Xi Jinping will be the first president and Communist Party general secretary to attend the annual conference. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

The improbable image of billionaires instructing us on inequality, of world-spanning jet-setters warning us about climate change and autocrats advising on responsible government would be funny if their words weren't reported so seriously.

And the citizens of the world are taking note.

Populist unrest

The election of Donald Trump, the British vote to leave the European Union, and gathering populist unrest around the world are all evidence of an anti-elite reaction.

Tired of condescension from the U.S. political class, many U.S. voters think they have found themselves a champion.

Others would say that Trump, despite his common manner and simple turns of phrase, is just a representative of another kind of elite, a self-interested billionaire with a chip on his shoulder who doesn't play well with other billionaires. 

The fact is, elites of all kinds have different interests from the rest of us.

Global movie stars depend on mass audience. Billionaires depend on entire populations buying the same electronic product or software. Voters are forced to choose between candidates in a process that often fails to address the issues ordinary people think most important.
A member of the global arts elite, Colombian singer Shakira smiles after accepting a Crystal Award yesterday in the run-up to the Davos conference. (Ruben Sprich/Reuters)

Globalization, one of the principles that Davos has consistently championed, is an example of that top-down thinking that fails to appeal to an increasing number of voters.

Yes, globalization may have helped the world economy grow, as the IMF reported yesterday, but what difference does that make to the average voter when statistics repeatedly show that working people are not the beneficiaries? 

Canada is an example of the problem seen in the U.S. and elsewhere. Economists celebrate growing economies, but the share of productivity increases going to wages has plunged since the 1970s. The quality of Canadian jobs continues to fall

Urgent reform needed

The rich and famous in Davos may have things right. Capitalism needs urgent reform, they say.

"The combination of economic inequality and political polarization threatens to amplify global risks, fraying the social solidarity on which the legitimacy of our economic and political systems rests," says the World Economic Forum report issued in advance of this week's Davos gathering.

They've said similar things before and still the trend worsens.

It may be that by representing and perpetuating a top-down way of thinking, Davos has become an example of the flaw in our system of political economy.
Rich people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Amancio Ortega, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Carlos Slim and Michael Bloomberg see the world differently from the rest of us. (File photos/Reuters)

Starry-eyed voters have been waiting for someone to step in and fix things for them. In the U.S., they got Trump.

The move to Trump may be a step in the right direction in that it represents an intentional rejection of elite thinking. But for U.S. citizens it may only be a first step.

The true anti-elite solution may be frightening to the comfortable and the elite — that is, for ordinary people to shake up the political and economic system, rebuild it and make it work again from the bottom up.

Save yourselves

Social media is already laying the groundwork. It is something political thinker Benjamin Barber describes as strong democracy. Rather than just passively voting and thinking you've done your civic duty, Barber says, the only anti-elite solution is a strong participatory local democracy.
Maybe those who can't afford to attend the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos should look for local solutions rather than waiting for rescue from the top. (Ruben Sprich/Reuters)

And that may mean setting aside some of the global values that Davos wants to promote.

Rather than international stars we need local musicians. Rather than global elites we need local heroes, local politicians, local ideas, local solutions. 

Rejecting globalization seems like a backward step, but it may represent a repair phase, the same sentiment that led to Brexit and Trump, and is still not complete.

Growth is meaningless if the wages of ordinary people stagnate while the rich take their opinions to Davos.

Follow Don Pittis on Twitter @don_pittis

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Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.