THE SEEDS OF DYSTOPIA: Roubini & Co. Scare The Crap Out Of Davos

nouriel roubini

[credit provider=”From Nouriel Roubini’s yfrog page” url=”″]

An uplifting post-lunch session at Davos entitled GLOBAL RISKS 2012: THE SEEDS OF DYSTOPIA…Professor Nouriel Roubini’s on the panel, along with the head of Amnesty International and a few other non-profit organisations.

Some key points made by the panelists:

  • Two of the panelists confessed that they had to look up the word “dystopia” when they heard the title of the session. It means the opposite of utopia.
  • Roubini thinks the term accurately describes today’s world
  • Social unrest, Roubini says, is tied directly to economic uncertainty
  • What is connecting everyone in the world these days, continues Roubini, is economic and financial insecurity, the rise of income and wealth inequality, challenges from poverty, unemployment effects of financial crisis. 
  • Freakouts about debt loads, moreover, are leading to budget cuts — which, in europe, at least, are making the recession worse.
  • 225 million people worldwide are unemployed
  • 1 in 3 people on the planet are poor or unemployed
  • 1% of the world’s families own 40% of the wealth
  • Wages as a per cent of GDP are at an all-time low
  • Corporate profits as a per cent of GDP are at an all-time high
  • Current policies will lead to explosions
  • This inequality is “Great Gatsby revisited”
  • We’re in a “vicious circle”… fiscal austerity to solve debt problem is making everything worse

So, how do we fix this?

Some ideas from the panel:

  • More unionization, more power to the worker
  • More investment in education
  • More investment in “human capital”
  • More investment in infrastructure
  • Less austerity, more investment in growth (Europe)
  • Redistribution of power in society — power to the working people 
  • Mandated standards instead of voluntary codes of conduct (for business, presumably)
  • Need a “Tahir Square” moment in corporate board rooms to get away from short-termism
  • Mandate that 50% of boards must be women
  • Deal with massive CEO-to-employee pay inequality with taxation
  • Be courageous with financial regulation

(Not a lot of Republicans on the panel, apparently.)

Some problems with these solutions… One cause of the inequality that was not addressed until late in the panel was globalization — millions of jobs moving to China and elsewhere where it’s easier and cheaper to do business. Making it even harder and more expensive to do business in the United States and Europe will probably only exacerbate that.

One solution that should work is to shift the goal of corporations from a sole focus on profit to a more balanced focus on profits, employees, and customers. After 30 years of focus on making companies more efficient and profitable, the pendulum appears to have swung too far that way.

Put differently, in the perpetual tug of war between labour and capital, capital is running away with the game. That needs to change.

Roubini brings up the example of Henry Ford choosing voluntarily to raise the pay of his workers — so they could afford to buy his cars. If more companies voluntarily did this today, employees would have more money to spend. And that, in turn, would help drive the economy.  Jody Heyman of the Institute for Health and Social Policy cites a study that says this does NOT hurt individual company performance.

SEE ALSO: UNBOXING: The Davos Swag Bag