Davos

Davos

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 31 1997 3:30 AM

Davos

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       Only 38 hours after first setting out, I reach my hotel in Davos. Our flight left on time from Dulles--only a day late. Near the check-in gate, my friend Kim and I ran into a United employee who had been most helpful the night before. She said that never before in her 22 years with United had she left the airport in tears. We know how she felt.
       I am very lucky to get a seat on the plane and to have my luggage in tow. Others who jumped on the midnight flight (originally the 6:30 p.m. flight) to Paris Tuesday night report having endured unspeakable horrors. Their bags are still in Washington. Still others were rerouted through Frankfurt; their bags went to Paris.
       Another poignant note. The pilot who was to guide us to Zurich the previous night was on his last pre-retirement flight. He had intended to take his wife on a tour of Europe. She was the woman we had noticed carrying a large bouquet of roses when she boarded. When she disembarked the aborted flight, both she and her bouquet were quite wilted.

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       The talk in the halls of the Congress Centre, where the World Economic Forum holds its deliberations, is of the remarks made at last night's "pre-opening" session by a high-ranking official of a very large Swiss bank, which happens to control a very large American financial institution, which happens to employ a certain former U.S. assistant secretary of state. The employee in question, one Richard Holbrooke, the main mover behind the Clinton Bosnia peace initiative, told the New York Times earlier this week that the World Economic Forum is "the world's greatest Ponzi scheme." Doesn't Holbrooke realize, asked the Swiss banker in so many words, whom he works for, and that this meeting is very important to Switzerland? The consensus in the corridors is that Holbrooke is just annoyed that he didn't get asked back this year. "He'll be back next year if they ask him," says one seasoned attendee.

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       I lunch with journalists from Sweden, Norway, India, and Great Britian. The Scandinavians and the Indian are discussing the latest rumors surrounding the famous Palme murder mystery. New evidence, emanating from Switzerland--which seems to be caught in an unaccustomed orgy of disclosure--is said to shed new light on the connection between an Indian arms-sale scandal and the still-unsolved shooting of the Swedish prime minister. Thus does the world connect. To my surprise, everyone wanted to talk about SLATE's decision to postpone charging for subscriptions. The representative of British Broadcasting Corp.'s new commercial World TV is especially interested. Like SLATE, the BBC is enjoying a steadily growing audience. Like SLATE, it is trying to figure out how to make people pay for a quality product.

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       You do not want to know about my computer troubles. Suffice it to say that despite the efforts of technicians from four different countries--the Russian is the most helpful--the purchase of two more adapters to add to the collection that I had made before leaving the United States, and the installation of an alternative modem, I will be filing by fax (if I can figure out how to hook up to a printer). The two hours this takes makes me late to the seminar on how global connectivity via the Internet is revolutionizing not only the world's economy but its political structure as well.

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       The speaker at the crowded session is John Nesbitt. He tells us that "bigness" is now in networks, not firms. Networks of franchises, like Visa, are the wave of the future, not the Fortune 500. Small and medium-size firms are the source of all job growth in the United States (he does not explain why, despite this dynamism, the distribution of jobs by firm size has stayed remarkably constant). Not only big firms, but nation-states will gradually give way to networks, whose most important characteristic is that, as in the case of the Internet, no one is in charge. The most successful of the world's current networks is that maintained by the overseas Chinese. As a group, the Chinese diaspora is now the world's third-largest economy--behind only the United States and Japan. The New World is being shaped by Asia and by economics, while the Western media remained fixated on the West and on politics. Will these new economic powerhouses become political forces too? wonders Time magazine's Walt Isaacson. What about the Riadys and the other overseas Chinese caught up in the Democratic National Committee's fund-raising scandal? Not important, says Nesbitt, government itself will be a declining factor in the networked world of the new millennium.

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       My friend Dick Cohen, the WashingtonPost columnist, explains why my computer won't hook up. It's because we're getting near the third millennium--so, every day, we are farther away from the 1950s, "when everything worked." This is known as Cohen's Maxim.

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       Later at the Plenary Opening Session, Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin speaks of the importance of Asian investment, open markets, and Russia's aspirations for integration into the global market; GE Chairman and CEO John Welch predicts that new-wave communications will produce the long-sought jump in global productivity; NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana Madariaga discusses the importance of extending the structure of the alliance--but, of course, with strong assurances of peaceful intention to its Russian neighbor. Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka speaks in poetry of what markets mean for everyday lives and the fates of communities. It is a wistful poem.

Slate Washington Editor Jodie T. Allen is filing from Davos, Switzerland, where she is attending the World Economic Forum, an international meeting of leaders from business, government, academia, and the media.