Social Injustice & Tax Avoidance, two topics you didn’t think you’d hear at Davos — Sarah Elizabeth Tucker
This week my friend Sarah has written a piece that was inspired by events in Davos. Sarah works across the creative and music industries, with artists, brands and events. From this and her personal views, she has been able to see the growing social injustice across the world.
A Davos panel raises the question of social injustice rather than the usual coded words, self-praise and wielded stats.
“I mean 1,500 private jets have flown in here to hear Sir David Attenborough speak about how we’re wrecking the planet,” was the opener from Rutger Bregman, Dutch Historian, speaking on a panel at Davos last month. “I hear people talking the language of participation and justice and equality and transparency. But then almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance. And of the rich just not paying their fair share. It feels like I’m at a firefighter’s conference and no one is allowed to speak about water.”
For me, the news, excitement and economic trepidation that surrounds Davos really passes by without me getting too caught up (or confused) by it all. I guess, mainly because I’m not an economist, but also because the forum hardly aligns with the values of socio-economic conscious millennials when its keynote speakers are Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new far-right president (2019 keynote speaker), and Donald Trump (2018 keynote speaker). Both not exactly hailed as the healers of social division.
Hearing this opening line from Bregman made my ears prick.
As the discussion continues, another panellist, Oxfam International executive director Winnie Byanyima, forcefully rebuts remarks from an audience member and former Yahoo chief financial officer about the United States’ low unemployment rate. Retelling the story of a worker named Dolores from a poultry processing factory. Dolores, Byanyima said, told Oxfam that she and her co-workers had to wear diapers to work because they were prevented from taking bathroom breaks while working. Byanyima also spoke of a ride-hailing app driver she had ridden with recently in Kenya, who told her he could only afford to share a room with two other drivers; they slept in turns.
“This is in the richest country in the world,” Byanyima said of the United States. “Those are the jobs we’ve been told about, that ‘globalization is bringing jobs.’ The quality of the jobs matter. It matters! These are not jobs of dignity.”
Bregman’s and Byanyima’s comments, on a big stage, where powerful politicians and companies are represented, brought to the centre of attention these challenges that are faced by people every day, yet rarely spoken about. Highlighting a prevailing narrative that has come about in the 20th Century, a narrative suggesting that there is no connection between the super-rich and abject poverty.
It allows us to assume that most wealth is created at the top. It revere’s the visionaries, job creators and go-getters with talent and entrepreneurialism in abundance, helping to advance the whole world.
Idolising those who have “made it”.
“So entrenched is this assumption that it’s even embedded in our language. When economists talk about “productivity”, what they really mean is the size of your paycheck. And when we use terms like “welfare state”, “redistribution” and “solidarity”, we’re implicitly subscribing to the view that there are two strata: the makers and the takers, the producers and the couch potatoes, the hardworking citizens — and everybody else.”
In reality, it‘s really the opposite way around, as Byanyima argues, most real wealth is actually created at the bottom, by the working and middle classes.
Huge companies in oil, agricultural and tech industries are earning their wealth at the expense of others, as those at the top maximise their capital, they, in turn, deprive those further down.
Through this model of wealth destruction and exploitation, it’s really the factory workers, cleaners, nurses, waste collectors and many more who support the apex of the pyramid.
Oxfam’s yearly study on economic inequality found that the wealth of 2,200 billionaires increased by $900 billion last year, while wealth declined for the bottom half of the world population. It found that the richest 26 people in the world own as much wealth as half the world’s poorest population. A stark reminder of the inequality as the study also found that about half of the world’s population lives off less than $6 per day.
In the light of such inequalities, that are inseparable from the cultural backlash against globalisation, surely there is no mystery over the policy areas that need the most urgent attention. As Angela Merkel warns, reform is essential to win back legitimacy in the eyes of people who feel financially insecure and left behind.
Should we be allowing this capacity of multinationals to shop between national jurisdictions and deprive governments of revenue?
Can we enhance the socioeconomic position with the availability of full, fair and decent employment for all at a living wage?
As Bregman’s and Byanyima’s comments reverberate around the world, I wonder if the answers to some of these questions will come about, and mechanisms of social justice, progressive taxation and public investment might function as a structure for social stability.