DAVOS, Switzerland—I started falling asleep only three hours into the World Economic Forum.
Klaus Schwab, the impresario behind the WEF, had just officially opened the group’s annual meeting, which brings 2,500 politicians, CEOs, and academics to this ski town in Switzerland each January. The theme for 2013 meeting, which runs through Saturday, is Resilient Dynamism.
Klaus kept trying to explain what those words mean, and he kept failing, perhaps because they sound like nothing so much as an expensive new makeup brand for middle-aged women: Resilient Dynamism. Because your smile is priceless!
Then it was Christine Lagarde’s turn. Lagarde must use Resilient Dynamism. Her skin looks great. She is the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and is one of the most powerful people in the world. She began to tell us what she’s against and what she’s for.
She is against climate change.
She is in favor of economic growth.
She is against income inequality.
She is in favor of social media, or thinks it’s unstoppable, or something.
She is against financial gamesmanship and forum shopping. I don’t think she’s referring to the mall at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas; I can’t be sure.
She is in favor of long-term thinking.
She is against too much debt.
She is in favor of women’s rights … and presumably puppies.
At this point, I had to force my eyes open before I started to drool on myself. I will be resilient, I told myself. I will be dynamic. I will stay awake.
Remember the most boring freshman-year bull session you ever had? Lagarde seemed determined to recreate that, all by her lonesome. She made Tom Friedman, the patron saint of Davos, sound like an original thinker. And she couldn’t even pepper her speech with “humanizing” anecdotes like Friedman does: I was talking to a cab driver in Bangalore, a caddy in Buenos Aires, a fisherman in Ulan Bator, a teenage beauty queen in Riyadh, a double-amputee Iraq veteran in San Antonio—no, strike that last. Friedman would never talk to an American soldier. Too depressing.
But the real problem with Lagarde’s speech was substantive, not stylistic. Every idea she proposed falls into the category of Who could be against that? Who could be against long-term thinking? Who could be against women? Who could be against ideas that have nothing to do with the real-world choices that politicians—and the rest of us—face every day? Climate change might be disastrous, but does that mean we want carbon taxes that raise the price of a gallon of heating oil to $10? And how exactly will those taxes affect economic growth?
Lagarde had nothing specific to say about which ideas she thinks are most important—much less what compromises might be required, much less which specific countries, companies, or people might have to suffer to reach those compromises. Her speech was worse than tiresome. It was almost Orwellian in its vacuity. By its end, I couldn’t tell if the head of the International Monetary Fund was as stupid as she seemed or merely pretending to be stupid because she believes we have no right to hear what she really thinks. I am not sure which would be worse.
Welcome to Davos.
* * *
I am at Davos because …
Well, my wife says I’m on vacation. Which isn’t entirely true. My badge is orange, the color given to the “working press.” The preferred badge at Davos is white. For all its talk about equality, the World Economic Forum is an incredibly classist place. If you don’t have a white badge, you can’t attend about 90 percent of the conference sessions and about 100 percent of the potentially interesting ones. For example, I would love to know what the president of Guatemala and the head of the United Nations office on drugs and crime think about the drug war, but that session is closed to reporters. With a few exceptions (this means you, Tom Friedman!), the WEF prefers to keep the media at a safe distance. Thus I am in at least one way the platonic ideal of a WEF journalist. For the most part, I have no interest in wasting the attendees’ time by trying to interview them:
What’s the mood at Davos this year, Mr. CEO?
Equally resilient and dynamic, I’d say.
Do you think the economy is finally back on track?
2013 will be a challenging year, but we’re well-positioned to meet those challenges.
Can you talk about your $12 million bonus last year?
Maybe “working press” isn’t the right way to define me. What I really am is a spy novelist who’s thinking about setting a future book in a World Economic Forum-like conference. I wanted to see the Davos ecosystem and the security arrangements, which haven’t disappointed. There are thousands of private security guards here, along with hundreds of Swiss police and a detachment of soldiers, who are strategically positioned across from the media center. Even with a badge, you must pass through a metal detector to enter the Congress Center or the major hotels. I’m assuming that the police checkpoint on the road into Davos had a radiological detector, though I can’t be sure. (Note to the WEF—if you and the Swiss police don’t have one of those going, you might consider the investment. Maybe the IMF can provide a low-cost loan.)
But spy novelists don’t even rate orange badges, so I am technically here on Slate’s behalf, trying to make sense of this place and what it means. I didn’t know much about Davos before I arrived, but I’d read Nick Paumgarten’s piece in the New Yorker last year, wherein Mick Jagger danced. Nick spent a lot of time discussing Davos’ extreme status-consciousness (while noting that he’d managed to attend the best parties)—and gamely tried to answer the question why anyone comes here.
After all, many of the 2,500 participants don’t bother attending any sessions, and the conference is incredibly expensive. A single white badge costs more than $70,000. A company that wants to bring five people must spend upward of $500,000 to become a “strategic partner.” That doesn’t include any travel or lodging costs, which can be enormous—I counted myself lucky to find a basement apartment on the edge of town for $1,200 for the week—or the time required to get here. There’s no scheduled air service to Davos, so anyone who doesn’t have a private jet must take a more than two-hour ride from the Zurich airport.
But being anointed as one of the global elite has value, especially if you are just on the cusp of being one of the gang. That’s why Google isn’t bothering to sponsor its Friday-night party this year and why Yahoo has taken the slot over. And though the costs of the conference may seem exorbitant, for a billionaire or a Fortune 500 company, they’re meaningless, less than a private concert with Bon Jovi or a single Super Bowl ad. So fancy people keep coming to Davos, and that makes the conference a chance to network efficiently, and that keeps other fancy people coming to Davos. They’re just smart enough to skip the public events.
Plus the skiing’s apparently kick-ass. Maybe after reading this the WEF will pull my sad little orange badge, and I’ll get to check it out myself.