What Enda Kenny didn’t tell the “global elite” at Davos
Fragility of Goverment due to growing anger over inequality probably not mentioned
Enda Kenny at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: With Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, the Taoiseach met a number of senior executives privately and hosted a dinner for another 45. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos is about as close as the nebulous entity we like to call the “global elite” ever comes to going to their bedroom to have a good think about what they have done.
Part of this annual ritual is the publication by global NGO Oxfam – arguably itself a member of the elite – of its latest review of inequality. There is a weary familiarity to the contents of the report. This year the headline item was that eight individuals own the same wealth as 3.6 billion of the world’s poorest inhabitants. In 2016 it was that richest 1 per cent of the world’s 7.3 billion people own as much as the rest of the world put together. In 2015 it was that the combined wealth of the world’s richest 1 per cent would overtake that of the other 99 per cent in 2016.
The response at Davos to the Oxfam report is equally predictable. There are lots of noises from the participants and organisers to the effect that they are seized of the issue: global inequality and its consequences will be the topic at Davos this year we are told.
And this year was no different with all sorts of sessions scheduled on what are euphemistically referred to as global economic imbalances. It all serves a purpose; reassuring us that the powerful are not out of touch. They feel our pain and are rational and compassionate people. They they are going to rein in the excesses now manifesting in the system that has delivered unprecedented peace and prosperity in the 70 odd years since the end of the second World War.
Sadly, of course, nothing could be much further from the truth. No one – except perhaps Oxfam – goes to Davos to save the system of global capitalism from what is more and more starting to look like a day of reckoning.
They go to obtain whatever short-term advantage they can for themselves. In the case of governments it is about investment and trade. For business it is more often than not a listening exercise; but for the big players it is chance to communicate the current version of their wish list to politicians. This can be summarised as the removal of obstacles to making profit – regardless of whether they contribute to global inequality or not.
Ireland is an enthusiastic participant in this. Both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance were in Davos this year. They met a number of senior executives privately and hosted a dinner for another 45. It would be interesting to know who was on the guest list and how many of them featured in Oxfam’s report.
It would be even more interesting to know what Enda Kenny said and also what he didn’t say. We can make a pretty good stab at what he didn’t say.
Presumably he did not tell his guests that, despite having delivered – to the letter –a prescription for Ireland’s economic ills that the assembled diners would have whole-heartily endorsed, he was all but thrown out of office a year ago.
He will not have told them that his party misread the public mood; they told people they were seeing the benefits of austerity when in fact they felt the opposite.
He will not have told them that the political party that wrecked the Irish economy 10 years ago is on the verge of power simply because it is riding the populist wave of anger over inequality.
Likewise he will have forgotten to mention that he now depends for power on the support of an incoherent disorganised group of Independent TDs also riding the inequality wave by championing various popular causes and local issues.
And you can rest assured he will not be telling them that there was overwhelming public support for left-wing activists who occupied an office block in the centre of the city and turned it into a homeless hostel over Christmas. His Minister for Housing was forced to negotiate with them and concede to their demands.
He will, however, sell them the notion of Ireland as safe haven in these difficult times as Donald Trump turns the USA’s back on the world and Theresa May takes the UK out of the EU. He will have highlighted all the usual stuff. The low tax rate, the educated workforce, the business-friendly government.
And what else should he do? His job is to sell Ireland. It is not to be the conscience of global capital. And the argument can be made that he doesn’t need to spell out the problem.
The people in the room are “super smart” and don’t need to be told about what is going on in front of their noses. Their “people on the ground” in Ireland will have told them that Kenny’s government is desperately weak because of the Dáil arithmetic thrown up by the rising populist anger over inequality .
The default position is that they know all about the dangers posed by exponential inequality and how it is in their interest to address it. You would like to think so. But if you ever spent a morning in the Davos conference centre you would not be so sure.