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What it would take to really rethink capitalism - Davos

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Romina Savoldelli dropped a few Swiss francs into a small wood fire burning on the snowy promenade, near the center of this exclusive mountain resort, reported The Washington Post.
She and roughly two dozen other demonstrators had come to protest the World Economic Forum, an annual conference where prominent figures in government and business discuss international economic cooperation.
Asked why she'd thrown her cash in the flames, Savoldelli, 31, gave a devil-may-care answer.
"I don't know," she said. "We are cold, and I have enough to burn."

It was the kind of reply that, until recently, the elites a few blocks up the promenade might have dismissed disdainfully as lacking in detail and substance. These days, though, such vague gestures of dissent might be cause for trepidation.
As protectionist politicians like President-elect Donald Trump ascend to power around the world, it seems that a nameless rage has seized global politics, and millions of people are voting just to burn it all.

Those gathered at Davos this year are taking notice. A theme has emerged in the speeches, panels and behind-the-scenes conversations here: How can modern capitalism become more equitable and inclusive?

Economies around the world -- especially in the United States and developing countries -- are becoming ever richer, progress that economists attribute to technological advancements and increased international trade. However, some are concerned that that economic progress has benefited the wealthiest without improving the lives of ordinary people.

In the United States, for instance, 52 percent of gains in income since the financial crisis have accrued to the wealthiest 1 percent of households, according to Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. Meanwhile, the typical U.S. household's income remains approximately what it was in 1999.

"We have to grow. Countries have to grow. Economies have to grow," said Brian Moynihan, the chief executive of Bank of America, on Tuesday. "But we have to do it in the right way ... It has to include everyone. It has to deal with inequalities."

Moynihan, who is one of the co-chairs of this year's World Economic Forum, suggested that the "dislocations" associated with technology advancements and globalization might have contributed to the appeal of Trump and other protectionists worldwide.
Some argue that policymakers and corporate leaders should have done more to share the wealth.

"I don't think you can absolve the elites from responsibility," said Guy Standing, an author, advocate and researcher at the University of London. "They're getting very worried about populism. They're getting very worried about insecurity. They know they've overreached."

Standing spoke on a panel on Wednesday about whether governments should unconditionally guarantee a minimum income for all their citizens, which was one example of how the Davos set is entertaining fundamental changes in the structure of the world's economy.

Standing, who has been advocating for a basic income for about 30 years, argued that the system would reduce inequality and allow people to focus on family and civic participation rather than exclusively on work. At the same time, he says, a universal basic income would encourage some to work harder — since in most versions of the proposal the money would also be available for people who earn more, unlike welfare payments.

Another session, scheduled for Friday, is simply titled "Reforming Market Capitalism." Yet there is no consensus among attendees about how to redress economic inequities, and there is plenty of skepticism about new approaches.

For instance, Neelie Kroes, a former E.U. commissioner, subjected Standing's arguments for a minimum income to a careful cross-examination on stage. She asked where the money would come from, exactly who would be eligible to receive payments, and whether a country should reduce funding for other welfare or social programs if it adopts a basic-income scheme.

The notion of a basic income has "clear, tangible costs, but theoretical benefits," Kroes argued.
"We need to be far more precise to have a decent discussion," she said. "I want to know what your model is and what the cost is."

It is a familiar centrist critique of reformers on the political fringes: their plans lack specificity. It would not be entirely fair, however, to say that the protesters on the promenade did not have precise goals.

They talked about placing limits on economic growth, which they said increases inequality and damage the environment, and argued that corporate leaders place too much emphasis on the demands of the stock market and not enough on the needs of workers and their communities.

One activist, Alec Gagneux, was also advocating a constitutional referendum that would drastically reform the Swiss financial system.

In modern economies such as Switzerland's, banks create almost all the money in circulation by issuing loans. Those loans are not wholly backed by money the bank has already, and banks effectively create the money in borrowers' accounts out of nothing.

The proposed referendum would put the supply of money in control of the central bank, and commercial banks would have to back any new loans with cash or other reserves they have on hand, using loans from the central bank or their own profits.

Proponents of this kind of reform, known as “sovereign money,” say it would have extraordinary benefits. They argue banks would be barred from overextending themselves, preventing catastrophic bankruptcies at major financial institutions. Meanwhile, all the money created by the central bank would constitute a vast source of new revenue for the national government.

Icelandic policymakers have also floated the idea, and Jill Stein, the Green Party’s presidential candidate in the United States last year, made sovereign money a plank in her platform.

Gagneux, who lives near Zurich and has been protesting outside the World Economic Forum for 14 years, does not expect the campaign to succeed. He predicted that Swiss financial interests would conspire with the media to dissuade voters from supporting the reform.

"We don't really have a democracy anymore, not even in Switzerland," he said. Sovereign money, however, does not only attract support from political outsiders.

At the World Economic Forum, at least one influential participant favors the idea. Martin Wolf, a straight-laced commentator for the Financial Times, is scheduled to moderate a discussion among the British chancellor, the German minister of finance, the governor of the Bank of Japan and International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde on Friday.

"Printing counterfeit banknotes is illegal, but creating private money is not," Wolf wrote in 2014. "This is a giant hole at the heart of our market economies."
That some at Davos are willing to consider radical ideas does not mollify the protesters outside the forum.
Savoldelli, of the nearby town of Alvaschein, said she had dressed as one of the forum's wealthy, influential attendees, in a pinstripe suit and carrying a suitcase with cash appearing to spill out the opening.
She had covered her face with clown's make-up. She does not take them seriously, she explained.

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