It's that time of the year again, when the Great and Good and Rich converge to Davos, Switzerland for the
realpolitik starfucking World Economic Forum. The coverage of this event gyrates wildly between bland pronouncements from attendees and world class snark from the Not as Great and Good and Rich that are not invited to attend. I will certainly confess to my own contribution to the snark pile.
As someone who casually curses way too much to ever score an invitation, I nevertheless wonder if some of the critiques of Davos are just a bit overhyped. Take Timothy Noah, who blogged the following at The New Republic yesterday:
There is no better example of social and economic policy discussion as an idle pastime for the rich than the World Economic Forum at Davos....
Ian Bremmer, who chairs Davos’s Global Agenda Council on Geopolitical Risk reports in the Huffington Post that the unifying theme this year at Davos is, yes, “the increasing vulnerability of elites.” Keep in mind as you read what follows that Bremmer is not a parodist:
We're seeing leaders of all kinds, in the developed and developing world, in politics as well as business and media, answering to constituents who grow more dissatisfied... and information-rich. Look at the riots in India over the recent rape scandal, the U.S. Congress' abysmal approval ratings, or the phone hacking scandal at News Corp. Corruption, special interests, or a lack of transparency will spell trouble for leaders. The same goes for a widening gap between rich and poor.
....if I’m reading Bremmer right, Davos sees inequality mainly as a problem bearing down on elites. The blighters simply won’t shut up about living in mud huts (or enduring weak rape laws, a dysfunctional legislature, corporate malfeasance, etc.) while the rest of us hit the slopes.
Now, much as I'd love to snark along with Noah, I don't think he's entirely reading Bremmer right, and I also think he's making a categorical policy error. To be fair to Noah, Bremmer's geopolitical risk report does have a section on the problems with too much transparency that does read a bit too much like a pity party for the elite ("in developed democracies, scandals involving leaders can distract whole nations for weeks on end, while more important business remains undone.")
That said, I don't think this is my FP colleague's main point. His primary thesis is that tectonic shifts in domestic politics are imposing increasing political constraints on what political elites can do to ameliorate policy problems:
In 2013, this breakdown of international coordination will go increasingly local: in such a world, governments will focus more on their domestic agendas, which will create new risks in and of itself. Most importantly, the growing vulnerability of elites makes effective public and private leadership that much more difficult to sustain. Leaders of all kinds are becoming more vulnerable to their constituents, generating more reactive and short-term governance....
Welcome to ‘the new local,’ where governments are more shackled by regional concerns and their domestic constituencies—at the expense of tackling larger-scale global issues that need collective leadership to solve.
Now I'm on record as thinking that Bremmer overstates the collapse of global governance. That said, if one accepts his premises, then the ability of leaders to address policy problems is more constrained. Whether you think this is a problem or not depends on how much faith you have in public policy elites -- and public policy in general -- to compensate for the vicissitudes of the marketplace.
Stepping back, however, I'm not sure inequality is as big of an issue as either Bremmer or Noah think it is. What we presumably should care about at places like Davos is poverty reduction, which is not necessarily correlated with inequality reduction. And the dirty secret of the post-crisis global economy is that global poverty reduction is proceeding quite nicely, thank you very much.
The primary problem with the current state of the global economy is that the biggest losers are unskilled and semi-skilled laborers in the developed world. That's an issue -- but it's one that I don't think developing country atendees at Davos are gonna care too much about.
Being a moderator on a conference panel is a thankless task. By implication, you're the least important person on the dais (otherwise you'd be on the panel rather than moerating it). If you're good and you're lucky, no one notices you. For every other scenario, however, you get noticed for bad reasons.
Reading this New York Times account by Katrin Bennhold, I feel some small measure of sympathy for Washington Post columnist David Ignatius:
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey walked off the stage after an angry exchange with the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, during a panel discussion on Gaza at the World Economic Forum on Thursday, and vowed never to return to the annual gathering.
Mr. Erdogan apparently became incensed after he was prevented by the moderator from responding to remarks by Mr. Peres on the recent Israeli attack. The panel was running late and Mr. Peres was to have had the last word, participants said....
In a news conference immediately following the panel discussion, Mr. Erdogan said that he was particularly upset with Mr. Ignatius, who he said had failed to direct a balanced and impartial panel.
By all accounts, the discussion of the Gaza incursion was a lively one, with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, joining Mr. Peres and Mr. Erdogan. For the most part, participants said, Mr. Peres was alone in defending the Israeli role in Gaza, which is why he was given the final 25 minutes to speak. Earlier, Mr. Erdogan had spoken for 12 minutes about the sufferings of the Palestinians.
In an ideal world, as a moderator you always want each panelist to have two minutes apiece for closing remarks. In that same ideal world, politicians are capable of limiting their remarks to 120 seconds. In the real world, Ignatius was between a rock and a hard place.
Davos -- a.k.a., the World Economic Forum -- is upon us, and there are conflicting reports about the overall attendance at the conference. There is a general consensus, however, that politicians will be overshadowing businessmen at this year's conclave.
This is all to the good. World trade is shrinking for the first time since the early eighties. Perhaps getting the best political telent on the planet together in Switzerland will shake the policy gridlock loose.
Consider, for example, New York governor David Paterson. Fresh from his meticuluous, classy, and error-free selection of Hillary Clinton's replacement for the Senate, Paterson is headed for Davos. Here are his deep thoughts on why he is going:
[The] question involved Mr. Paterson’s trip to Davos, Switzerland, which his office announced on Saturday. Much of the five-day forum will focus on how countries and central banks can address the global downturn, and Mr. Paterson said the United States stood to gain by lending money to other countries.
“There’s an immense opportunity if we use some of those resources to try and make loans available to other countries,” he said. “It would give us bigger resources for the taxpayers.”
“There’s a desire to have leaders from around the country be in Davos to talk about the interests of a lot of countries right now whose exports are limited,” he said, before leaving the hotel.
A contest for readers: convert Paterson's answer into coherent prose. Bonus points if you can convert it into prose that justifies Paterson's trip.
UPDATE: Apparently Paterson couldn't convert this answer into plain English either -- he's changed his mind about going to Davos.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.