At the same time, they panned the idea of higher tax rates for society’s wealthiest
Leaders of the world’s largest and most powerful companies are on edge. A decade after the financial crisis, their businesses are thriving and their pocketbooks are overflowing, but they worry about populism and the threat it poses to the global order they helped build.
Many executives gathered at the exclusive World Economic Forum this week acknowledged that inequality is a major problem fueling populist backlash, and that some middle-class jobs in the West are being lost to trade and automation (even though more jobs overall are being created around the world).
A few business leaders in Davos went so far as compare today’s situation to the late 19th century, an era when tycoons like Andrew Carnegie, Andrew W. Mellon, and John D. Rockefeller amassed huge fortunes while most in the working class toiled under harsh conditions.
“We’re living in a Gilded Age,” said Scott Minerd, chief investment officer of Guggenheim Partners, which manages more than $265 billion in assets. “I think, in America, the aristocrats are out of touch. They don’t understand the issues around the common man.”
The solution to inequality, many in Davos said, is “upskilling” people so that they can obtain better jobs in the digital economy.
“The lack of education in those areas in digital is absolutely shocking. That has to be changed,” Stephen A. Schwarzman, chief executive of Blackstone, told a panel. “That will very much lessen the inequalities that people have in terms of job opportunities.”
Schwarzman, whose net worth is estimated at $13 billion, said it is “up to the grown-ups” to make digital upskilling happen in K-12 schools.
.. His calls were echoed by others, including Ruth Porat, chief financial officer at Alphabet, Google’s parent company; Keith Block, co-chief executive of Salesforce; C Vijayakumar, chief executive of HCL Technologies; and Michael Dell, founder of Dell Technologies.
“All of us collectively can do quite a lot to create opportunities so that everybody is included in this growth,” said Dell, who is worth an estimated $28 billion. “It’s going to require lots of new skills, capabilities.”
Dell said the issue goes beyond K-12 education and that companies need to train workers continuously. His own company struggles with finding enough skilled workers, and poaching them from other companies doesn’t work, Dell added. “You need to hire and train and grow them from within.”
.. In a report released earlier this month, the forum estimated it would cost the United States $34 billion to reskill the 1.37 million workers expected to lose their jobs to automation in the next decade. The forum said 86 percent of the cost “would likely fall on the government.”
“Upskilling is not going to alter the insecurities and inequalities,” said Guy Standing, author of “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class,” who spoke on four panels at Davos this year. He said most executives still don’t understand what is needed.
Standing said calls for more education and training were a “cop-out,” and that the result would undoubtedly help only a small number of people, which in turn could bring down wages and status in whatever new jobs they went on to obtain.
A study in 2015 by economists Brad J. Hershbein, Melissa S. Kearney and Lawrence H. Summers postulated what would happen if 10 percent of American men, ages 25 to 64, who did not have a bachelor’s degree suddenly obtained one. They found that it would improve pay and job prospects for the men who earned the degrees, but would do little to reduce the inequality gap because the richest Americans have so much more income and wealth.
But millionaires and billionaires in Davos panned the idea of higher taxes, arguing that the private sector does a better job than the government of spending money wisely.
“No, I am not supportive of that, and I don’t think it would help the growth of the U.S. economy,” Dell responded when asked about his views of Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a 70 percent marginal income tax on earnings above $10 million.
Dell noted that he and his wife contribute most of their wealth to a foundation. “I feel much more comfortable with our ability as a private foundation to allocate those funds than I do giving them to the government.”
Others argued that their tax rate is already high and that raising tax rates could push people to move abroad or not invest.
“If I look at my tax rate now, it’s probably well into the 60s,” said AECOM chief executive Michael S. Burke, adding that he pays federal taxes, California income taxes, sales tax and a significant property tax. “I think we ought to have a competitive tax rate.”
.. When asked whether corporations should pay higher taxes, executives again criticized the idea. In 2017, President Trump and the Republicans in Congress passed a sweeping tax bill with the largest corporate tax cut in U.S. history.
“It’s an easy fix, I think, for many people to say, ‘Well, let’s just tax,’” Block said during a panel.
By contrast, leaders from academia and the nonprofit world were quick to call for higher taxes and a redistribution of income.
.. An Oxfam report this week found that the share of wealth held by billionaires was increasing by $2.5 billion a day, while the share of wealth among the 3.8 billion of the world’s poorest was decreasing by $500 million dollars a day. While some quibble with the methodology of the Oxfam report, there’s widespread consensus that inequality is getting worse in many parts of the world.
.. “Davos is always in favor of reducing inequality and poverty: locally, nationally and globally — but not if they have to pay for it,” tweeted economist Branko Milanovic who studies inequality at the City University of New York (CUNY).
However, others said it was not practical to look for solutions to the problems of the common man from the top echelons of society.
“There’s an uncomfortable awareness that things are not right, the ecological crisis, the angst out there, the Brexit vote, the Trump vote, but then they come up with these bromide platitudes,” said Standing. “But in a sense, we can’t expect them to provide the answers. They are part of the problem.”
The “best” outcome of President Donald Trump’s narrow focus on the US trade deficit with China would be improvement in the bilateral balance, matched by an increase of an equal amount in the deficit with some other country (or countries). In fact, significantly reducing the bilateral trade deficit will prove difficult.
.. macroeconomics always prevails:.. if the United States’ domestic investment continues to exceed its savings, it will have to import capital and have a large trade deficit... because of the tax cuts enacted at the end of last year, the US fiscal deficit is reaching new records – recently projected to exceed $1 trillion by 2020 – which means that the trade deficit almost surely will increase, whatever the outcome of the trade war. The only way that won’t happen is if Trump leads the US into a recession, with incomes declining so much that investment and imports plummet... The “best” outcome of Trump’s narrow focus on the trade deficit with China would be improvement in the bilateral balance, matched by an increase of an equal amount in the deficit with some other country (or countries). The US might sell more natural gas to China and buy fewer washing machines; but it will sell less natural gas to other countries and buy washing machines or something else from Thailand or another country that has avoided the irascible Trump’s wrath... But, because the US interfered with the market, it will be paying more for its imports and getting less for its exports than otherwise would have been the case. In short, the best outcome means that the US will be worse off than it is today... The US has a problem, but it’s not with China. It’s at home: America has been saving too little. Trump, like so many of his compatriots, is immensely shortsighted. If he had a whit of understanding of economics and a long-term vision, he would have done what he could to increase national savings. That would have reduced the multilateral trade deficit... There are obvious quick fixes: China could buy more American oil and then sell it on to others. This would not make an iota of difference, beyond perhaps a slight increase in transaction costs. But Trump could trumpet that he had eliminated the bilateral trade deficit... As demand for Chinese goods decreases, the renminbi’s exchange rate will weaken – even without any government intervention. This will partly offset the effect of US tariffs; at the same time, it will increase China’s competitiveness with other countries—and this will be true even if China doesn’t use other instruments in its possession, like wage and price controls, or push strongly for productivity increases. China’s overall trade balance, like that of the US, is determined by its macroeconomics... China has more control of its economy, and has wanted to shift toward a growth model based on domestic demand rather than investment and exports. The US is simply helping China do what it has already been trying to do. On the other hand, US actions come at a time when China is trying to manage excess leverage and excess capacity; at least in some sectors, the US will make these tasks all the more difficult... if Trump’s objective is to stop China from pursuing its “Made in China 2025” policy – adopted in 2015 to further its 40-year goal of narrowing the income gap between China and the advanced countries – he will almost surely fail. On the contrary, Trump’s actions will only strengthen Chinese leaders’ resolve to boost innovation and achieve technological supremacy, as they realize that they can’t rely on others, and that the US is actively hostile... If a country enters a war, trade or otherwise, it should be sure that good generals – with clearly defined objectives, a viable strategy, and popular support – are in charge. It is here that the differences between China and the US appear so great. No country could have a more unqualified economic team than Trump’s, and a majority of Americans are not behind the trade war.Public support will wane even further as Americans realize that they lose doubly from this war: jobs will disappear, not only because of China’s retaliatory measures, but also because US tariffs increase the price of US exports and make them less competitive; and the prices of the goods they buy will rise. This may force the dollar’s exchange rate to fall, increasing inflation in the US even more – giving rise to still more opposition. The Fed is likely then to raise interest rates, leading to weaker investment and growth and more unemployment... Trump has shown how he responds when his lies are exposed or his policies are failing: he doubles down. China has repeatedly offered face-saving ways for Trump to leave the battlefield and declare victory. But he refuses to take them up.Perhaps hope can be found in three of his other traits:
- his focus on appearance over substance,
- his unpredictability, and his
- love of “big man” politics.
.. Perhaps in a grand meeting with President Xi Jinping, he can declare the problem solved, with some minor adjustments of tariffs here and there, and some new gesture toward market opening that China had already planned to announce, and everyone can go home happy.
.. In this scenario, Trump will have “solved,” imperfectly, a problem that he created. But the world following his foolish trade war will still be different: more uncertain, less confident in the international rule of law, and with harder borders. Trump has changed the world, permanently, for the worse.
Even with the best possible outcomes, the only winner is Trump – with his outsize ego pumped up just a little more.