Defending the party of Davos
Isn't it healthy that there's a growing class of people worldwide who see their interests as intertwined?
NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - You may know the scene from the bitterly satiric 1976 movie "Network:" The CEO of a big media conglomerate, Arthur Jensen (played by Ned Beatty), calls raving anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) into a darkened boardroom for a tongue-lashing.
Beale has been regaling TV viewers with outraged tirades against, among other things, Arabs using oil money to buy up America. (Sound familiar?) The ratings have been great, but Jensen announces that it has to stop.
"There is no America, there is no democracy," he tells Beale, "there is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon ... The world is a college of corporations inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale, it has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there's no war or famine, oppression or brutality. One vast and ecumenical holding company for whom all men will work to serve the common good, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused."
I recount this because I went to hear Jeff Faux talk recently about his new book "The Global Class War," an account of how the corporate elite has been selling out American workers. I don't entirely buy his argument, but as I tried to formulate responses in my head, I kept wondering, "Am I going to sound just like Ned Beatty's Arthur Jensen in 'Network'?"
This is at least better than sounding like Ned Beatty in "Deliverance," but it's still a big problem for those who would defend globalization and corporate America's role in it.
Faux is founder of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank usually characterized as "liberal" or "progressive" but which I think is best described as "gloomy."
There is no economic news that the EPI can't find a way to spin negatively. (When I last checked, the top headlines on its Web site were: "Living standards not keeping pace with productivity," "Earnings premium for skilled workers down sharply," "Bush tax and budget policies fail to promote economic growth.") That said, the work the group does is always meticulous and usually thought-provoking.
The same can be said of Faux's book. His main point is that there now exists a global "party of Davos" (Davos being the Swiss ski resort where politicians, businesspeople, journalists, and scholars gather every January for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum), whose members have more in common with each other than with the peoples of their home countries.
I can testify that there is truth to this. I am a member of the junior auxiliary of the party of Davos (for more on that, click here or here), and as a result now count among my friends an Indian pharmaceutical executive, a Singaporean law school dean, and the deputy CEO of South Africa's main stock exchange, among others. Meanwhile, apart from people I've interviewed for articles, I don't know a single American factory worker.
Faux's point is not that people like me are sinister and evil -- there's no Trilateral Commission/Council on Foreign Relations/Bilderberg Group conspiracy nonsense in his book -- just that the interests of corporate America aren't necessarily the same as America's interests.
When former Treasury Secretary and Goldman Sachs chief and current Citigroup director Robert Rubin makes the case for a strong dollar, Faux said during the Q&A session after his speech last week at the New York think tank Demos, listeners should be aware that he and his Wall Street peers benefit from such a policy. "If you want to buy up banks in China, you want as strong a dollar as possible."
So okay, we probably shouldn't let the nation's economic policies be determined entirely by the needs of Citigroup (Research). But isn't it healthy that there's a growing class of people worldwide who see their interests as intertwined? Isn't it good that Western businesses are investing in developing countries? Won't more global economic integration eventually bring more global prosperity? Isn't the party of Davos simply steering us toward a perfect world in which there's no war or famine, oppression or brutality? Oops, Arthur Jensen alert!
My chief solace is that Faux doesn't seem to have an obviously better alternative ("democratizing the North American economy" of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico is his big prescription). Or maybe that shouldn't be a solace -- because Faux is right that a global economic system designed entirely by corporations, without any democratic input to speak of, isn't what anybody really wants. Not even Arthur Jensen.