One sees in this annual Alpine pilgrimage of Davos fragments of the grainy black and white movies showing the imperial families of Europe gathering in their toy soldier costumes and opulent surroundings, oblivious to the marshaling clouds of change and discontent that would bring their primacy to an end.
Fortunately, the annual spectacle known as the World Economic Forum at Davos has folded its tent for another year. It occurred not a moment too soon, as my supply of antacids was running dangerously low. There is, of course, nothing wrong or surprising about elites from business and government getting together. Having worked with these types for many years, I am well aware that many need constant reassurance and affirmation of their significance. Being among other CEOs or heads of government is the way these people remind themselves of their importance and remind the world that they are still running the show –even in en era of YouTube and WordPress. Such vanity is best taken with a large grain of Swiss salt, I suppose. As Philip Barry sardonically observed: “One of the prettiest sights in this pretty world is the privileged classes enjoying their privileges.”
What is galling is the pretense that these events are actually transforming the social and economic landscapes. It is the disguise of social gravity, the spin that seeks to turn global CEOs into crusading St. Georges slaying the world’s evil dragons, that makes these events so offensive. These forums have become the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) of CEOs –a gigantic trade show of, by, and for the self- impressed who visit one another’s booths to see how each measures up. Sure, there are earnest proclamations about the problems of the world. And everybody has to be seen embracing Bono. The Irish have that effect on people. Everybody loves embracing my Irish Setter, too. But real change requires constancy of effort, not candlelight and wine. What affronts the reasoned mind is the idea that this gathering actually makes a difference. Restating the obvious about the problems of the world does not make a difference. Talking about issues long ago advanced by others does not make a difference. Listen, if Davos actually had the level of influence it claims over CEOs and kings, presidents and dictators, the world would rightly be jumping up and asking who elected these people and how are they held accountable for their decisions. And if it doesn’t –which is my thesis– why do we, and especially the world’s media, encourage the pretense of these people by paying so much attention to them year after year?
Here’s an idea: Since so much discussion at Davos seems outwardly, at least, to center on issues of Africa and global poverty, how about a World Economic Forum that takes place in an impoverished region so that it can be experienced first-hand. True, there might not be the luxurious surroundings of Davos or the glittering parties, but surely that’s not really the purpose, as the organizers of the event take regular pains to point out. And if the growing economic divide is really as troubling as some Davos participants argue, how about the wealthiest CEOs at Davos volunteering to freeze their own pay for a few years as a sign of leadership and as a model for others? These things won’t happen because Davos is not really about correcting terrible wrongs. And it is certainly not about leadership. It is about contacts and connections, knowing the right number to call and how new deals can be won.
As German steel baron Jürgen Großmann admitted, “The spirit of Davos doesn’t just float around. You have to look for it in the conversations…Furthermore, we’re interested in wealthy clients. The richer our client countries are, the more stuff we sell them, especially cars and machines that Germany makes lots of.”
Of all the deficits and shortages in the world today, it is the lack of genuine character in so many leaders and the absence of truly transformative leadership that is the most striking. In this, Davos is an apt mirror. One sees in this annual Alpine pilgrimage to Davos fragments of the grainy black and white movies showing the imperial families of Europe gathering in their toy soldier costumes and opulent surroundings, oblivious to the marshaling clouds of change and discontent that would bring their primacy to an end. Those who are trying to make the world better are doing it anyway, regardless of Davos. And for those who are not so inclined, going to Davos won’t likely make any difference.
This year, Davos organizers attempted to make use of social media –blogs, videos, podcasts and the like- to bring ordinary people into the tent –but at a safe cyber-distance, of course. The effort bombed. Did they really think that people back on planet Earth would be impressed by the opportunity of clicking on the comment button of a blog in order to send back a short message in small font to some big poobah? YouTube can do many things. But making imperious titans more trustworthy or sympathetic as they schmooze or answer an amateur videographer’s questions on the fly are not among them. By the way, the really big players didn’t bother to post on any blogs. And very few mortals at the bottom of the mountain bothered to send any comments. This one certainly hits a note:
The Davos Conversation was a total failure. The end of a demagogue is when the mob pulls a no show.
And so the overfed princes and business potentates exited as they came, in a mist of mutual admiration and private jets, all the while lamenting the vexing issue of global warming –this year’s topic du jour. What is saddest about Davos is that these leaders have a chance to make a real difference. Some would argue, and I count myself among them, that they have a moral obligation to do so. Instead, they have become actors in a predictable side show of self-indulgence and extravagance –two vices which one might think would be incompatible with the ills they claim to be fighting.
Which is why the spectacle known as the World Economic Forum at Davos is the Outrage of the Week.