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‘Most important forum ever’ opens in Davos

Are billionaires the problem? An important new book argues that outsize wealth is an outsize threat to democracy and has created an economy that now works only for the wealthy.  This week, 2,500 of the world’s richest and most powerful people will gather in a small town in Switzerland. They will listen to speeches and discussions. In private they will discuss business deals. This is the World Economic Forum. It is usually called Davos, after the town where it is held. Davos is an annual meeting of the global elite. It includes presidents and princes, super-rich businesspeople and influential celebrities.  Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, this is the first time it has been held in more than two years. Klaus Schwab founded the event in 1971. He argues that this year’s conference is “the most timely and consequential yet”. He thinks Davos can help find solutions to “disruptive forces” like “war, epidemics and the climate crisis”. Davos is supposed to bring the world’s most powerful people together so that they can cooperate in solving problems. But not everybody has such a positive view of Davos. It has long been the focus of false conspiracy theories that portray it as a sinister and hugely powerful secret society. Experts say these theories are completely untrue. But some experts also have more serious criticisms. The journalist Peter Goodman has written a book called Davos Man attacking the very rich people who go to this event. He argues that billionaires are “amassing monopoly power and applying it to crush competitors; relentlessly squeezing workers for productivity; and gaming the tax system to avoid surrendering money to the government." During the pandemic, the money owned by the world's ten richest people has doubled. It is now £1.5tn. At the same time 160 million more people descending into poverty. Some critics have praised the book. Others say that its portrayal of “Davos man” is unfair and unrealistic. “He’d be terrifying,” wrote one “if he existed”. Are billionaires the problem? Filthy rich? Yes: Millions are starving as hoards of wealth rot in the secret bank accounts of the super-rich. They won’t solve the world’s problems by hobnobbing in the Alps for the simple reason they are the cause. No: There’s a reason these people are rich: their brains and ambition have led to innovations that we all rely on. If they can apply those same skills to the crises we face then the world will be all the better for it. Or... This whole debate focuses too much on individuals. What really matters is the political and economic arrangements that allow problems like climate change and poverty to persist.   KeywordsConspiracy theories - Theories that explain world events by blaming shady groups of powerful people operating in secret. Some conspiracy theories have a basis in fact, but many more of them are completely invented. What is more, they often play on dangerous prejudices such as antisemitism. It's worth being especially cautious and critical when you come across accounts that ascribe enormous agency to small and secretive groups.

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