The Great Reset

No conspiracies, no rumours, just facts. What exactly is the World Economic Forum proposing? How will it impact Canada's federal budget and politics? And why is it conjuring so many dystopian ideas?

I wish you a happy and prosperous 2021. It’s not quite a new year anymore, but it’s still mostly ahead of us. 2021 has the dubious privilege of not having to do too much to be better than 2020, but I still have great hopes, dreams and plans for this year, and I trust you do too. COVID is still a strong reality among us, but life goes on, and other relevant news are becoming more prominent. In late November last year, the so-called Great Reset was one of those items. I’ve had several friends reach out asking for my thoughts on this, and that’s what I’ll talk about today.

The One-Liner

According to Google Trends, in Canada interest in this topic peaked in late November, but it’s making a bit of a comeback. We all expect 2021 to be a recovery year, and since the Great Reset is a recovery proposal, this feels like a good time to brush up on what this is all about and to review its philosophical and worldview implications as well.

As a heads-up, this episode is a bit longer than usual, and also a bit heavier on preliminary context, so here’s a one-line summary before we dive in. At its core, the Great Reset is about tackling climate change, inequality and social support along with economic recovery. This has triggered fiscal, social and philosophical debates, mostly along traditional conservative versus liberal lines; but in our polarized world, it’s also dragging plenty of baggage that doesn’t seem to be part of the proposal itself, which raises interesting questions on how do we adopt and defend our world views.

With that, let’s go into details. The Great Reset is a proposal by the World Economic Forum (or “WEF”) to rebuild the economy in a different way following the COVID-19 pandemic. The proposal was unveiled in May 2020. In July, WEF director Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret published a book titled “COVID-19: “The Great Reset”. The topic flared up again in late September, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the United Nations General Assembly using language similar to that of the Great Reset proposal. As I mentioned earlier, in Canada interest in this peaked in late November, when two things happened. First, a petition launched by Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre to “stop the Great “Reset” hit 80,000 signatures in less than 72 hours. Then, the government released its Fall Economic Statement, which features concrete proposals on themes similar to the Great Reset, such as “green recovery” and fighting inequality.

Going to the Source

There aren’t too many more details on this, neither on the global nor on the domestic front. As I tried to learn more, I seemed to oscillate between very abstract, almost too benevolent high-level speeches and articles, and a fairly contested series of almost vitriolic articles and videos against it. Which left me with no alternative, in my mind, but to actually read the book by Schwab and Malleret. Go figure! Who would have thought of going to the source, right? What I found is, for a 280-page book it doesn’t say a lot more than we already know, but there are a few details that are worth highlighting.

The first thing I’ll say is this. On page 20, the authors describe the book as “a hybrid between a light academic volume and an essay,” and I think it’s important to keep that in mind as we read it. At face value, I think the term “Great “Reset” is an attempt to apply a unifying label to a myriad different changes or re-prioritizations that are underway or expected to stem from the shock that COVID-19 has inflicted on our world.

That unifying labeling attempt doesn’t always work well, and the book itself acknowledges it. For instance, on page 224 it talks about the impact on mental health, and it acknowledges that the coronavirus has reinforced, not reset, mental health issues. But it goes on to say that if this topic, which was already on the radar of policy makers, now receives the priority it deserves, that’ll constitute a reset in that area.

Most of the book comes across as an overview of the impact of the pandemic on a wide number of concerns at the time of writing, which is again around June last year. It describes and categorizes many facts and situations, but it doesn’t necessarily assess them. It doesn’t always attempt to predict an outcome, and in most cases it doesn’t even advocate for one. As an example, on the current conflict between the US and China, the book summarizes views into three possible outcomes: the US wins, China wins, or none of them wins. But it isn’t clear what the authors actually think will happen; they just summarize the current state of affairs for us.

It’s not that the content is bad. It just isn’t very comprehensive in terms of proposals. There is an interesting discussion about measuring economic outputs. Historically, we have used the Gross Domestic Product for that, or GDP. But the GDP doesn’t account for social and natural resource depletion; it doesn’t account for future growth capacity; it doesn’t account for unpaid work that creates economic value, among many other factors. One more time, COVID is not creating this conversation – it’s simply accelerating pre-existing conversations on this topic. Nations and organizations may choose to expand the definition of economic growth, perhaps also catering to social concerns such as inequity and general well-being. You see options laid out, but no concrete proposal is advanced. Other examples along the same lines are the conflict between technology adoption and privacy, the tension between supply chain efficiency and resilience (which I’ll revisit later), the threat of job losses from automation, and the value of investing in caregiving and stronger social supports.

But much of it comes across as, “this can happen,” or “that may happen instead”. There is a fair bit of a holding pattern throughout the book. However… There are a few themes that are clearly advocated and which, to me, help explain the core of the actual Great Reset proposal.

The Actual Proposal

First, on a more ambiguous and almost aspirational level, the book does advocate for better global governance and addressing inequalities. There isn’t a lot of specificity on how the authors see this happening, and there is even a realisation that this may be tactical and fractured.

Second, by contrast, there is a very clear push to connect the pandemic with climate change. At the beginning of the book, the authors lay out a framework explaining how the world is more interconnected than ever, and how risks compound and domino into sometimes unexpected ways as a result of this. They see the pandemic as the perfect example of this: an environmental risk, triggering a health risk, in turn triggering an economic risk.

The full argument goes like this: coronaviruses are zoonotic, which means that they spread from animals. According to the book, some experts estimate that these diseases have quadrupled over the last 50 years due to the increased exploitation and urban encroachment on wildlife habitats. Along with coronavirus, dengue, Ebola and HIV are thought to be zoonotic. Furthermore, air pollution levels in an area seem to correlate to its COVID hospitalization and death rates. Therefore, the book argues that the post-pandemic recovery should focus on climate concerns, as well as other ancillary measures to reduce the blast radius of potential future pandemics, which are expected to be more common as well going forward.

It’s an interesting argument. If you think about it, in just the last two decades we’ve had SARS, avian flu, H1N1 (which was also behind the Spanish flu pandemic), and now COVID – which probably blew the others out of the water because it happened at a time of massively common air travel compared to previous decades. And I suspect that airlines and most people are actually itching to travel at that scale again, or even more.

So, thus far we have global collaboration, fighting inequality and climate change defining the Great Reset. I see a fourth strong argument in the book connecting the handling of the pandemic to economic recovery. On page 41 there is a header that reads: “The Economic Fallacy of Sacrificing a Few Lives to Save Growth.” Pretty strong, eh? On this hotly debated topic, WEF is clearly of the view that public health measures, including lockdowns, should be prioritised. They believe that societal fallout from these measures should be addressed by providing better safety nets on unemployment, health insurance, and social services. This is because in more individualistic societies, unemployment causes so-called “death by despair” as people spiral down into depression, drug use, alcoholism and suicide. Thus, WEF argues that economists have long debunked the idea that economic recovery calls for lifting restrictions before a pandemic is fully controlled, and that public policy should be adjusted to allow proper health measures to remain in place as long as needed.

The Political Angle

So there you have it: the Great Reset is about driving the recovery in a way that addresses climate change, social justice and a better safety net, giving governments more tools to control the pandemic. Hopefully you can now see how this is bound to dominate most political and economic discussions in Canada and elsewhere this year. Consider the known plans of our federal government. Language aside, whether intentionally or not, these plans closely follow the Great Reset. Last fall’s economic statement predicted that the federal deficit will hit 381.6 billion dollars by the end of March, an almost tenfold increase compared to March 2020, as a consequence of supports provided due to the pandemic. The update also outlined a recovery short-term stimulus package that could see the government spending between 70 and 100 billion dollars over the next three years.

These investment levels haven’t been heard of since the end of World War II. Concrete proposals include “laying the “groundwork for a Canada-wide child care system”, a Black entrepreneurship program, grants to “help homeowners make energy efficient improvements to their homes,” infrastructure investments to improve electric vehicles' charging networks, “redevelopment work for large scale [clean power] transmission projects,” and planting two billion trees by 2032.

Naturally, the way we react to this will inevitably depend on our political and broader viewpoints, and it’s where battle lines are being drawn. If you don’t like big government, aren’t convinced that we must act fast to curtail climate change, or think the government’s already going too far with lockdowns (and even curfews now!), you will oppose these measures. If, on the other hand, you are a self-declared “climate-” or “social justice warrior”, you’ll support them.

Of course, it’s not that black and white. Many of the debates seem to hinge not so much on what to do, but on how to go about it. In Canada there’s broad consensus that climate change must be tackled, and that social inequality must be addressed. We are farther down the line, compared to other societies, when it comes to ensuring basic health care and sustenance regardless of employment status.

But the debates will nonetheless be heated. How large and present should governments be? What are the trade-offs between increasing nationalism and increasing international cooperation? How do we adjust our policy based on what other actors do? What is the most sustainable way to leverage recovery investments? And many other questions.

Some of these decisions may be tactical and driven by private capital more than by governments. Take, for example, supply chain evolution. Current supply chains are almost single-mindedly optimized for efficiency: low cost and just-in-time logistics. Something like COVID is very disruptive to that approach. Witness the delays last year in the usual consumer electronic cycles, like the latest iPhone or PlayStation launch dates.

So the question becomes: is this likely to happen again? If so, it may be worth investing in supply chains that sacrifice a bit of efficiency for the sake of resilience. Perhaps supply chains will become more regional and less distributed. If, however, this is deemed more of a once-in-a-century event, things may not change much.

This discussion isn’t limited to phones and gaming consoles; it can also affect a government’s ability to procure personal protective equipment, ventilators and vaccines. And at that point, the debate does move back to the geopolitical arena.

The Eschatological Angle

And of course, aside of all this, there’s the whole topic of freedom. The petition to “stop the Great Reset” that I mentioned earlier was founded on concerns of “empowering the elites at the expense of the people,” and “protecting our freedom.” As if WEF’s strong advocacy for hard lockdowns to control the pandemic and the social supports this requires weren’t conflictive enough, being traditionally liberal or progressive ideas, their detractors have also conjured concerns about the establishment of a “new world order,” a global government with extensive surveillance and repressive powers and even elements of Communism and Marxism such as a centrally planned economy.

One source of this seems to be libertarian or far-right academics and politicians. I don’t have much to say about that right now. Curiously, there’s also a Christian element to some of these claims. But these views are not universally held among believers. As a Christian, you may support these views, or you may loathe them. As a non-believer, you may find them amusing or… confusing. Let me try to explain this.

The biblical book of Revelation, combined with some other passages, constitutes what’s known as apocalyptic literature. Apocalypse, or Revelation, means just that: an unveiling, almost like an unmasking or expose. A disclosure or revelation of an alternate reality. In the context of the biblical book when it was first written, it refers to the situation in late first-century Rome, where the empire and the emperor were being elevated to state religion, and that came into conflict with the tenets of Christianity. So the book is a revelation of the fact that through that situation God remained Lord and in control, and would ultimately triumph over evil.

So that was the context when the book was first written, and of course it has rippling implications for the church of all times. However, in general English the term “apocalyptic” came to refer to the world-ending destruction that stems from the symbolic images and visions in the book. In fact, the COVID situation has been described as apocalyptic.

This viewpoint has entered mainstream culture in numerous ways. You may remember the “Left Behind” books and movies, and the 1991 bestselling book “The New World Order” by televangelist Pat Robertson, among others. This viewpoint stems from a school of interpretation that seeks to “decode” current events in light of the envisioned prophecies in biblical apocalyptic literature.

This is not the only school of interpretation for these sections of the Bible, so it’s a somewhat contentious topic in Christian circles. Just keep that in mind as you parse these thoughts in your public squares.

Insights and Conclusions

As we come to an end, here are a few conclusions and insights I got out of this research process. Just as we’ve seen so far throughout the pandemic, the moral and philosophical stances that feed our reactions to this situation will continue to manifest throughout the recovery. But we already knew that. What I find more interesting here are three related things.

First. How do you choose a worldview? Let’s say I’m a libertarian. When I see an authority – an academic, politician or religious leader upholding one of my views, I may feel stirred. “Hey! There’s my view being validated.” Do I then adopt the whole package that person offers based off of that one data point? Or instead, should I develop a fact- and evidence-based framework to shape my world view, even if it means I have to run my own inclinations and desires and opinions, and those of people I admire or join causes with, through the same filter I’ll use for external ideas? Which of course can be fairly unpleasant.

This is important, because we seem to have a tendency to “join tribes” through our worldviews, and we don’t necessarily question or challenge all elements in those worldviews. As a Christian, I could join a community and sort of assume a number of opinions on various aspects of my faith without necessarily understanding them in depth. It doesn’t have to mean I’m lazy; it could be a matter of trust. Similarly, I could label myself as a politically conservative person, or progressive person, and consciously or not support a number of related causes that I haven’t necessarily analyzed in depth.

And this brings me to my second point. In steady times, this could happily go unnoticed. Worldviews tend to serve us well when everything’s okay, but crises have a way of shattering world views – and the methods we use to select them. Imagine that I’m very conservative and I learn about this Great Reset thing. What are my options? Do I reject it on principle? Do I accept every counterpoint from every person who claims to share my “conservative” label? Has my worldview failed me? How do I even reason through my options? What framework does my worldview provide to seek compromise where that’s reasonable, instead of polarization?

And that brings me to my third and last point. We seem to be forced to have a polarized opinion these days. But that’s a fallacy. I refuse to bow to the artificial pressure to quickly and decisively say, on every single topic, “It’s true,” or, “It’s not true”. “It is so,” or, “it is not so.” In reality, in many cases the best I can actually say is, “I don’t know,” or, “I have no evidence.” Look at people whose jobs involve identifying the truth as best as they can, like scientists and lawyers and judges and good journalists, and you’ll hear that phrase often: “I have no evidence.” I don’t know when these predicted positions will materialize; right now, I can’t tell if they will stem from the Great Reset or something else.

In conclusion, the Great Reset will influence a lot of political and philosophical conversations this year. I think we will have to hone our worldviews, and tackle what’s evidently before us, on the horizon. I look forward to talking about this, and I hope you’ll join the conversation.

Published: January 11, 2021