National Security & Defense

Step away from That Ledge, Davos Man

A session at the Davos forum, January 17, 2017. (Reuters photo: Ruben Sprich)
The wave of populist change sweeping the West doesn’t have to be a bad thing for global elites.

Judging from the media coverage, the mood at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland is a mix of fear, despair, and panic. The forum’s panel-discussion topics certainly suggest as much, from “Squeezed and Angry: How to Fix the Middle Class Crisis” to “Politics of Fear or Rebellion of the Forgotten?” to “Tolerance at the Tipping Point?” to “The Post-EU Era.”

This much is certain: Political and economic change is coming to many countries. But that change doesn’t have to be painful for the corporate titans, lawmakers, and culturally elite movers and shakers who descend on Davos each year. They just need to look at the world through the lens of the angry populists and figure out how to satisfy their concerns.

We don’t need to enter an era of tense trade wars and dwindling international commerce; voters in the West just need to believe that they’re getting a good deal. Very few people oppose all international trade in all forms. Specialization fuels economic development and prosperity. Not every country needs to make airplanes the way Boeing does in the United States or batteries the way Samsung does in South Korea. Certain countries and workforces are going to be better at making certain products than others, and certain countries will have resources that others don’t.

But it is reasonable for a country to want as many of its able-bodied citizens employed as possible. Maintaining societal stability requires maintaining a certain level of economic opportunity for your citizens. Perhaps not every mill, factory, plant, or mining town can be revitalized and saved, but mass layoffs warrant more than a shrug.

If politicians want trade deals, all they have to do is clearly and convincingly lay out to the public who will prosper and how and why: This particular manufacturer will be able to sell its products for this amount less, which should increase sales by about this much, which should lead to higher profits and higher wages for these employees. The argument needs to amount to, “Here’s how you, personally, will profit from this new arrangement.”

There doesn’t need to be a ban on immigration. There just needs to be respect from newcomers for their destination country’s laws. Wait your turn. Fill out the proper forms. Accept the necessary background checks. It is reasonable for a host country to expect a certain amount of cultural and linguistic assimilation, so that an immigrant doesn’t remain segregated from the rest of society in a separate, overlooked enclave. Immigration is not a right but a privilege, and those entering the country need to recognize as much.

There doesn’t need to be endless cultural hostility between elites in the national and financial capitals and voters in rural areas. The Davos set just needs to look at and speak to those rural citizens with respect: Salute their hard work, respect their beliefs, stop depicting them as a mass of hicks, ignoramuses, and lunatics in fiction and nonfiction.

There doesn’t need to be an endless collapse of public trust in all kinds of institutions: government, business, media, NGOs. All that’s needed is increased transparency and accountability. Our leaders must communicate less through anonymous leaks and more on camera, taking tough questions and giving honest answers. They must stop making excuses when things go wrong and admit their mistakes. They must level with people about what they know and what they don’t know. And they must hold their underlings accountable for screw-ups.

This isn’t rocket science. It should certainly be doable for a global elite full of talented and intelligent people. All it will take is a willingness to adapt and see the world from another perspective.

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