I’m in Davos, Switzerland, to cover the World Economic Forum (WEF), the yearly shindig where global VIPs and world leaders — Marissa Mayer, Eric Schmidt, David Cameron, Hassan Rouhani, etc. — and “thought leaders” convene on the Magic Mountain to think Big Thoughts. (The latter, consultants and business types, pay up to $250,000 a pop to rub shoulders with top leaders.) I will be running around in my toasty new microfiber boots and warmest hat trying to see if they can answer the following questions:
- Is the U.S. recovery for real? America will probably outgrow the global economy this year for the first time since the financial crisis. But is that because everyone else is in bad shape — the Chinese now require $4 of debt to create every dollar of GDP growth, Europe is turning Japanese, and Japan seems set for another lost decade — or because we’re really turning a corner? In short, can we create something aside from $15-an-hour jobs, which make up six out of the top 10 fastest-growing categories, this year?
- Is China going to blow up? See debt numbers, above, as well as growing human-rights clampdowns, more journalists being jailed and the fact that spending on internal police forces dramatically outpaces external-defense spending. China’s leaders are worried about hanging on to power. To do so, they have to upend their growth model in a way that will severely cut into the wealth potential of the top 2,000 or so party officials and business leaders that run things. President Xi Jinping is talking big about reforms, but will it be too little, too late? And if China blows up, what are the global impacts?
- What will the political impact of inequality be? The annual WEF global-risk report, which surveys academics and other experts in 70 countries, lists the growing wealth divide as the biggest geopolitical risk today. Elections are coming up this year in many countries with growing inequality, like India. Will populist leaders emerge, and can they carry out the structural reforms necessary to bolster growth and shrink the gap? When does the discontent of the global millennial cohort, nearly half of whom are underemployed or unemployed, finally bubble up into rage with serious social ramifications? Closer to home, how will inequality affect the debate over things like raising the minimum wage and finishing the re-regulation of the financial sector?
- In millennials vs. baby boomers, who wins? These two massive groups are squaring off over who gets the largest slice of a shrinking public pie. Look for fierce debates over things like health care benefits vs. education and workforce training. Will millennials finally push a realistic debate over things like entitlement reform in rich countries like the U.S.?
- Technology: friend or foe? Big Data is at the heart of many of today’s biggest stories — from security and privacy, to the disruption of nearly every business model on the planet. Will the Silicon Valley VIPs in attendance at Davos be lauded for greasing the wheels of growth, or vilified for not protecting our data and killing off white collar jobs? Watch this space.