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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Davos Draws Social Media Scrutiny

Preparations for the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, were being finalized Tuesday for the gathering that begins Wednesday.Laurent Gillieron/KEYSTONE, via Associated Press Preparations for the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, were being finalized Tuesday for the gathering that begins Wednesday.

It’s January, and for some of the movers and shakers in business and banking, that means it’s time to meet with other members of the global elite at an Alpine ski resort in Switzerland.

But even before it starts, the World Economic Forum â€" which gets rolling Wednesday, after an opening ceremony on Tuesday, and runs through Jan. 25 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland â€" is being scrutinized on social media with an especially sharp eye on one of this year’s themes: economic inequality.

Some of the online discussion focused on how few delegates are women â€" only 15 percent of the more than 2,500 participants attending â€" and whether the profile of the attendees adequately represented the world.

But the issue of economic inequality seemed to spur the greater share of the social media focus, in terms of both worldwide and individual wealth and the forum’s apparent pecking order.

Robert MacMillan, a Reuters editor, noted the stratification of the delegates themselves.

The forum demands a hefty price tag from attendees, who include political figures and those affiliated with some of the world’s largest corporations and banks. Though, as my colleague Andrew Ross Sorkin reports, far from everyone is represented: “Given that one of the themes this year is how to address economic inequality, it would be helpful to have the world’s largest employers participate in that discussion, not to mention a sampling of rank-and-file workers, who never receive an invitation.”

As forum officials and economists noted at a news conference last week, the gathering is meant to share ideas on a wide range of topics that this year will also include climate change, health issues, information technology and youth employment. Other discussions will center on restoring trust between corporations, banks and the broader society.

World Economic Forum news conference last week introduced the wide range of topics the forum is meant to addrress.

By Monday, much of the echo chamber that comes with the circulation of viewpoints on Twitter was fed by a report released by Oxfam International on wealth inequality.

The report said that “wealthy elites have co-opted political power to rig the rules of the economic game, undermining democracy and creating a world where the 85 richest people own the wealth of half of the world’s population.
It called on those gathered at Davos to pledge to:

Support progressive taxation and not to dodge their own taxes;

Refrain from using their wealth to seek political favors that undermine the democratic will of their fellow citizens;

Make public all the investments in companies and trusts for which they are the ultimate beneficial owners;

Challenge governments to use tax revenue to provide universal healthcare, education and social protection for citizens;

Demand a living wage in all companies they own or control;

Challenge other members of the economic elite to join them in these pledges.

In a series of remarks on Twitter, Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace, suggested the gathering was no more than an exercise in self-preservation, and he linked to a 2011 article by Mr. Sorkin that laid out the costs of attending the forum, which reaches about $70,000 for membership and an attendance ticket.

John Williams, the foreign editor at ABC news, highlighted the timing of the Oxfam report’s release, as did others.

The forum has a history of attracting protests from anti-globalization, anarchist and other groups, as my colleagues reported from Davos in 2011 when a four-star hotel was hit with a small explosion.

On Friday, the founder and executive director of the economic forum, Klaus Schwab, said in a statement that some of those opposition voices might have had a point.

Inside the meetings, while condemnation of the violence was unanimous, opinions of the protesters’ grievances, and what to do about them, were not.

Many inside the meetings understood that as the world was becoming more tightly interconnected as it accelerated into the 21st century, it was also becoming more inequitable and volatile. Few were united about what to do. And so the kind of coordination and agreement that would be necessary to manage the complexity of the new world was elusive.

The world is paying the price for that indecision and disunity today.

Online, many shared a Guardian article that mentioned both Mr. Schwab’s remarks and the Oxfam report, suggesting there was a mixed message in play with the title: “Davos Debates Income Inequality but Still Invites Tax Avoiders.”

As the rich and powerful make their last-minute preparations for their week up the magic mountain, they want the message to be sent out that they understand about inequality. They feel the pain. Truly they do.

The evidence for the “Davos gets it” line comes from the annual risk report compiled by the WEF. It asks 700 of its members what they think will be the most pressing threats to the global economy over the coming decade. Inequality is seen as the most likely risk.

It continued, in part:

There will no doubt be plenty of support in public this week for Schwab’s line on inequality. Eyebrows will be raised and hands will be wrung at some of the more striking findings of the Oxfam report, such as that in the US, the wealthiest 1% have captured 95% of post-financial crisis growth since 2009 while the bottom 90% have got poorer.

But don’t expect much support for any of Oxfam’s suggested remedies for inequality: that corporations should stop using offshore boltholes to avoid tax; that business leaders should support progressive taxation, universal provision of health and education, and a living wage in all the companies they control. The CEOs in Davos may be worried about the impact of inequality but they are not that worried, and not nearly as worried as they should be.

Schwab could make life more uncomfortable for his guests by naming and shaming the aggressive tax avoiders, declining to invite them to his annual talkfest. This, though, would leave many empty rooms in Davos.

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.