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.
* * *