The Weekly Dispatch: Wisdom from Pope Francis for the billionaires meeting in Davos
This Weekly Dispatch takes a deep dive into breaking events and issues of significance in our world today, providing the background readers need to make better sense of the headlines speeding past us each week. For more news and analysis from around the world, visit Dispatches.
The ironies quickly abound at an event like Davos, the World Economic Forum convening this week at a ski resort in the Swiss Alps. If you are lucky enough to be an attendee, you are no doubt enjoying five-star hospitality at night while you discuss the many woes of global poverty during the day with like-minded well-to-do and well-connected folks.
The global climate crisis will surely be among the many grave matters discussed as the international community continues its one-step-forward, two-steps-back approach to mitigating the worst effects of global warming. There will be many pounds of carbon offsets to pre-order, of course, for the folks flying on private jets into Davos.
Oxfam, the global anti-hunger relief and advocacy group, delivers an annual appraisal of the excesses of worldwide wealth each Davos season. This year’s analysis, “Inequality, Inc.,” finds that the five richest men in the world have doubled their fortunes since the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020.
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world’s billionaires have become $3.3 trillion or 34 percent richer than they were before Covid-19 threw the world into upheaval.
During the same period, “almost five billion people globally have become poorer.” (For those keeping score at home, the world’s fabulous five are booze-billionaire Bernard Arnault, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Berkshire Hathaway seer Warren Buffet, Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Tesla’s Elon Musk.) Oxfam’s researchers calculate that at the current rate, it will take 230 years to end global poverty, “but we could have our first trillionaire in 10 years.”
That is probably not what anyone would describe as progress.
The W.E.F. was first held in Davos, Switzerland—the town now synonymous with the event—in 1971, with the lofty goal of reframing the aims and practices of the global economy so that all its stakeholders could benefit from worldwide wealth creation. That remains the ambition of the annual meetings at Davos, though in recent years the forum has also become an opportunity for celebrity-sighting, as prominent figures from the corporate, high-tech and financial worlds converge on its slopes.
Eric LeCompte is the executive director of Jubilee USA Network, a coalition of religious, development and advocacy groups focused on debt relief for the world’s poorest economies. He believes “from a Catholic point of view,” there is good reason to look askance at some of the “false promises” coming out of Davos, including “the idea that artificial intelligence, better technology and the economic system as it is can deal with global poverty, deal with inequality, create the jobs we need as well as protecting our planet.”
“These are messages that the church has been skeptical about,” he says, “knowing that throughout human history, unless we have an ethical economy, no matter what technology we have or what new systems or new businesses we have, we’re not going to create the world that is…promised, where we all have enough.”
Davos is an experience, Mr. LeCompte says, where important ideas are discussed, business relationships secured and deals made, but in the end not much is practically achieved in terms of addressing global poverty and inequity. Its relevance has been even more diminished, he believes, since the arrival of tech giants on the Davos scene, who use the conference to showcase their digital wares and vision. To many it is merely “the best party in Europe.”
There is good reason to look askance at some of the “false promises” coming out of Davos—the idea that better technology and the economic system as it is can deal with global poverty and care of creation.
Anthony Annett, visiting scholar at the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University in New York and the author of Cathonomics: How Catholic Tradition Can Create a More Just Economy, holds out some hope that for all its faults the forum can still do some good in the economic world. “To put on my more optimistic lens, I would say that [Davos participants] have come up with some good stuff in recent years—the need to move beyond a kind of rough-and-tumble capitalism into something more humane.”
“They have focused on things like inequality and climate change and shareholder capitalism, and all that stuff aligns well with Catholic social teaching,” Mr. Annett says. “The problem is, [Davos is] frequented by the billionaires and the bankers, who, outside of Davos, don’t show much concern for these big, lofty topics that they love to talk about in the ski resort.”
International organizations or national governments, he argues, will always play the most direct role in reframing economic and social welfare systems that are more humane. But Davos makes a nice “talking shop.”
“The Vatican has a history of sending representatives there,” he says, “because they believe in dialogue, and it is an important forum for dialogue. A lot of people go there and not just the bankers and the fat cats, a lot of ordinary activists from the left side of the political spectrum also go there to bring their messages.”
But for Catholics looking for real insight on the church’s perspective on how the global economy should work, Mr. Annett suggests skipping pontifications from Davos to go directly to the pontiff himself. He says the pope’s commentaries during the Covid-19 crisis on what an ethically ordered economy looks like are a great resource of Catholic wisdom.
In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, Pope Francis pleaded with global leaders to commit to “building back better,” to use the pandemic as an opportunity to recast relationships in the global north and south.
The plan to combat global poverty that Pope Francis has detailed in recent years is uncomplicated. Francis calls for less war-making and arms production that drains resources to mitigate poverty; he deplores tax avoidance that deprives national economies of the resources they need to address local social needs; and he implores domestic budget makers to keep human need at the forefront when establishing spending priorities—not arms purchases or tax reductions that serve the already-wealthy.
In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, Pope Francis pleaded with global leaders to commit to “building back better,” to use the pandemic as an opportunity to recast relationships in the global north and south and to address the glaring inequities that not only tolerated abominations like global hunger, but enforced them.
The pope’s message apparently reached delegates at Davos, at least in 2020. Many adopted the mantra of building back better, unfortunately recasting it as “the Great Reset,” a phrase that has launched countless conspiracy theories but has so far achieved little else.
In his message to Davos this year, Pope Francis plaintively asks: “How is it possible that in today’s world people are still dying of hunger, being exploited, condemned to illiteracy, lacking basic medical care, and left without shelter?”
“In a world increasingly threatened by violence, aggression and fragmentation,” Pope Francis said, “it is essential that states and businesses join in promoting far-sighted and ethically sound models of globalization.”
Pope Francis plaintively asks: “How is it possible that in today’s world people are still dying of hunger, being exploited, condemned to illiteracy, lacking basic medical care, and left without shelter?”
“The pope’s statement to Davos made strong calls for real development models that lift people [out of poverty],” Mr. LeCompte says. And Francis again criticized many aspects of the financial system and its impacts on “the less developed countries, which should not be at the mercy of abusive or usurious financial systems.”
Maybe his words will penetrate skulls thickened by free market dogma this time. Mr. LeCompte suspects that the primary message of a forum like Davos is that the global elite can resolve deprivation and inequity when they are allowed “voluntary” adjustments to the mechanism of global commerce, tax and labor policy, and finance.
Those policymakers, of course, have always been free to address global poverty and immiseration through voluntary reforms. Somehow we end up with the kinds of results deplored by Oxfam. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the world’s billionaires have become $3.3 trillion or 34 percent richer than they were before Covid-19 threw the world into upheaval.
From his perspective as the director of a global debt relief campaign, Mr. LeCompte says real progress against poverty and the mitigation of social scarcities only takes place when international agreements and national laws are set in place that compel reform.
Few participants at the forum this week, according to Mr. LeCompte, will be advocating higher taxes on the world’s wealthiest people to address the needs of the world’s poorest (with some exceptions). That’s part of what he calls “the great hypocrisy of Davos.” There is enough wealth in the world, he says, to stamp out global poverty and its attendant indignities. There has been for decades. But that will never happen if redressing inequity remains an allotment out of charity and not a requirement of justice.
More on this topic from America:
- Integral development for all is a moral duty, Pope Francis tells leaders at Davos
- Inside Pope Francis’ mission to make capitalism work for the common good
- Pope Francis delivers speech to United Nations about how to build a post-COVID world
- Dawn of the Planet of the 1 Percent
- A Renewed Challenge: Assessing Paul VI's ‘Progress of Peoples’
For a deeper dive:
- Pope Francis’ 2024 message to Davos
- Davos and Beyond
- Message Of His Holiness Pope Francis For The Celebration Of The 54th World Day Of Peace
- What is the Great Reset - and how did it get hijacked by conspiracy theories?
- As elites gather in Davos, they can’t ignore that most high-net worth individuals like me want to pay more tax