Opinion

Anya Schiffrin

The plight of the economist’s wife

Anya Schiffrin
Mar 8, 2012 18:14 UTC

As a wife, I am always interested in other wives. So I couldn’t resist reading an email that came in this week from Columbia University professor Myrna Weissman calling on Nobel laureates and “intellectual leaders” to write to President Obama and urge him to appoint our Columbia colleague Jeffrey Sachs to the position of president of the World Bank.

In her letter she argues that:

Professor Sachs has been a trusted advisor to dozens of heads of state for two decades, and is the foremost expert on tackling poverty and promoting sustainable development in a globalized world. His vision for the World Bank is one the world desperately needs — making the World Bank the nexus of a global network of government, the private sector, academia, science, and civil society, working together to deploy innovative technologies and solutions for development. He has an astonishing track record of helping to scale up the fight for public health, disease control, food production, and access to basic lifesaving services such as clean water, always using a science-based approach, and consistently getting powerful results when the ideas are actually carried out (such as the scale-up of malaria control in the past decade).

Signing off as the “Widow of Marshall Nirenberg, Nobel Laureate 1968,” Professor Weissman adds: “I know that Marshall would have been a supporter as well and he often would sign letters for issues he felt strongly about.”

The informed reader seeing this letter would immediately think of the important questions of economic development, how to end world poverty and the sustainability of Professor Sachs’s Millennium Villages project. I, of course, thought about wives and what role they have to play in the pressing debates that preoccupy their husbands. My mind drifted to famous spouses: Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Callista Gingrich, Denis Thatcher and Elaine Wolfensohn, wife of former World Bank President James Wolfensohn. All have had to find a way to balance their interests with those of their powerful spouse and to carve a niche for themselves.

It’s not easy. Some have been treated with derision and scorn. Others, like Denis Thatcher, have been praised for keeping a low profile and quietly supporting their partners. Some wives cultivate an interest in causes that are “acceptable” for women, such as education, obesity or, in the case of Sarah Brown, wife of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, maternal mortality.

Excitement and democracy come to Burma

Anya Schiffrin
Feb 23, 2012 20:33 UTC

After the heady days of the Arab Spring last year, it is now Burma’s excitement that’s in the news. Aung San Suu Kyi is hard at work on the campaign trail, political prisoners are being released, and there is talk of the European Union lifting sanctions and the World Bank returning to this Southeast Asian country, which has been isolated from the West for decades.

Visiting Burma for the first time in 1994, I found it the most frightened place I had ever been. I wandered alone for a week in this gorgeous country, the only tourist admiring the historic Buddhist paintings on the walls of the famous temples of Bagan. I visited the market in Rangoon, where women whose faces were decorated with white circles of crushed bark sat smoking fat cigars. In whispered conversations, people  told me how afraid they were of the military government and then moved away quickly because they did not want to be seen with a foreigner. Everyone who went to Burma in those days was haunted by it: the lush landscape with its thatched huts, the gentleness of the people, the loneliness of their existence and the quiet desperation. The problems seemed intractable: the poverty, the corruption and the total lack of freedom.

I returned in 2009 and sat in on a conference organized by United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific aimed at discussing development policy. Government officials showed up wearing their military uniforms, and the conference delegates were advised not to mention poverty lest they offend the regime. The delegates spoke in euphemisms but gently urged the government to spend more on health and education. There was a blackout of official media, but even so we were told the meeting was a breakthrough because it was one of the first times that development policies were discussed in a (somewhat) open forum.

The fine art of the Davos snub

Anya Schiffrin
Jan 27, 2012 17:57 UTC

To my great surprise this year, the Davos registration forms arrived with a space for Davos Wives to fill in our institutional affiliation. Having written last year about the humiliations of the blank badge, I’ve decided to take full credit for this major step forward for womankind: the recognition that we have lives outside our existence as the Wives of Davos men. My editor Chrystia Freeland is now waiting for a change in policy that would allow Davos mistresses to also list their affiliations.

When I wrote my column last year, I didn’t expect the outpouring of responses from Davos Wives, but I was delighted to find myself buttonholed by many in my cohort who longed to share their experiences of being snubbed at Davos.

While walking down the Promenade of Davos Platz on a sunny winter morning looking for a place to have a decent cup of hot chocolate (tip: better wait till you are in Zurich), I was approached by a Davos wife I’d never seen before. She thanked me for saying in my Reuters columns what she and other white-badged wives had been thinking for years.

Davos Man behaving badly

Anya Schiffrin
Jan 25, 2012 22:10 UTC

It’s a well-known fact that men behave badly at Davos. The alcohol, the chance to rub elbows with and even talk to other VIPs, the excess amounts of testosterone, and in some cases the joy of a limo ride from Zurich Airport all give rise to a competitive atmosphere in the hothouse known as the World Economic Forum.

Less widely discussed is the fact that the edgy atmosphere sometimes crosses over into overt unpleasantness and sexual aggression. Single women at Davos report that at times they are prey to unwelcome advances that range from annoyingly uncomfortable to downright threatening. It’s not that surprising, given the fact that Davos is a truly male-centered event.

In quiet corners of the Convention Center, I’ve heard a few ugly stories whispered to me by the women involved, and the men in question don’t come out at all well. There is the former U.S. government official who spent a couple of days trailing around after a decidedly-not-interested single friend of mine — to the merriment of onlookers, who could not avoid seeing the unwholesome spectacle. There was the evening at the gala dinner, when I saw a glamorous blonde being hotly pursued by a drunk Swiss man who spent hours with his arm draped over her shoulders trying to entice her into joining him at a nearby piano bar where they could be alone together.

How to navigate the Davos maze: Ask a wife

Anya Schiffrin
Jan 24, 2012 16:38 UTC

I am starting to think that the average lily-livered man may not be able to face the vicissitudes of life at Davos and that we women are much better suited for the event’s rampant paranoia, ego smashing and petty humiliations.

Because we are Davos Wives, we know how to cope. A more important husband means more blatant snubs for the spouse and that means more hilarity. I loved the  gorgeous prime minister’s wife  who , after reading one of my columns last year, approached me, laughing. “Thank you so much,” she said. “This stuff happens to me all the time. Often the security people won’t even let me get into the car with my husband.”

Meanwhile an aggressive and hard-hitting London QC came to Davos one year and folded after only a few days. He refused to return the following year despite the entreaties of his friends who were attending. “It’s awful. I don’t even want to like it,“ he said. “And besides it’s probably passé and Klaus Schwab is just sooooo……”  Yes ? And what exactly  is your complaint? We Davos regulars all know these things, but they are beside the point.

Confessions of a Davos spouse

Anya Schiffrin
Jan 17, 2012 16:57 UTC

What is the pre-Davos season like in your household?

Planning for Davos starts quite early in the year. Months before it actually begins there is the inevitable jockeying for spots on desirable panels with important people, a frantic glance every day at the e-mail to see if any interesting dinner invitations have come in, and a hunt for a hotel room in a location not too far from the conference venue. Wives like me don’t have to do any work at Davos so I just think about packing. Moisturizer is crucial, since the mountain air is so dry, and I will try to rustle up a couple of respectable outfits that I can wear by day and at the evening dinners as well. Then there is footwear. You can carbon date Davos Wives by their shoes. Newcomers tend to wear attractively dainty heels. Veterans like me have given up. I don sturdy shoes and try not to slip on the ice.

What are likely to be the main themes at Davos this year?

Davos tends to be more interesting during periods of social upheaval. Confronted with facts that threaten his worldview, Davos Man loses some of his smugness and becomes a bit more confused. Founder Klaus Schwab is always interested in the zeitgeist, so there will doubtless be many panels about the global protests, the euro crisis, the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall Street. How Davos Man will respond I don’t know. My favorite comment during a panel on global warming a few years ago came from a businessman who reminded his audience that one upside to global warming is the ease of drilling for oil under glaciers. This year there will be more security, plenty of gloomy observations about the state of the world economy, questions about whether China can maintain its expansion, and so on. We’ll also see a lot more conservative heads of state at Davos this year, since so few social democratic governments survived the elections and turmoil of 2011.

How do Davos Wives occupy themselves while Davos Man works?

We go to any panels we can actually get into. Usually that means the ones about art and science, which Davos Man tends to skip. Last year’s panel on the pollution of the world’s seas was packed with wives. When we can’t get into a panel we may repair to a local café for hot chocolate or sign up for the perennial horse-drawn carriage ride to a fondue restaurant up in the hills. If all else fails, we can always prowl the halls of the conference center, hoping for a sighting of Bono or Tony Blair.

The joys of Chinglish

Anya Schiffrin
Oct 24, 2011 16:09 UTC

We roared with laughter yesterday at David Henry Hwang’s latest play Chinglish which is in previews at the Longacre Theatre after a successful run in Chicago. Anyone who has been to meetings in China, done any business there or met a government official will recognize the hilarity of the miscommunication that results from two countries divided not just by culture but by language. The folly of poor translation has not been rendered so incisively since the famous scene in “Lost in Translation” in which the extensive instructions given by the Japanese director of a whiskey commercial that Bill Murray is acting in is reduced to just a few words.

Chinglish is about the adventures of a befuddled businessman from Cleveland who tries to get a contract to produce signs for Guiyang City’s new arts center. He is taken to meet a Minister who can hand out the contract but the Minister is being pressured by his wife, who insists that the contract be given to her sister’s husband. Not wanting to offend, the Minister dissembles, the vice minister steps in and the play effortlessly moves to its final conclusion. Along the way there are promises of long meals which are interrupted by the inevitable trill of the cellphone, massive misunderstandings about everything and translations that just make it all the more confusing.

The interpreters veer from repeating things that aren’t mean to be said. Translating the friendly remarks about the Midwest made by officials of Guizhou province, which is in the center of China, one interpreter announces, “We despise the coastal cities of Shanghai and Beijing.” Key points in the contract negotiations are muddled up by an interpreter who turns out to be the Minister’s smart alecky nephew and the help given by an English teacher turned  business consultant only makes things more confusing.

Another day, another protest?

Anya Schiffrin
Oct 3, 2011 17:30 UTC

By Anya Schiffrin
The opinions expressed are her own.

Things have come to a pretty pass when the right to assembly is respected more in Egypt and Spain than it is in the US of A. I am of course referring to last week’s  pepper spraying of a group of women who were enclosed in a police pen and the Saturday arrest of 700 people who strayed into traffic as police ushered them on to the Brooklyn Bridge. The police responded by saying they had warned the protestors away from traffic lanes.

The fact that it took the New York Times more than a week before they started treating the protestors seriously was also shameful.

Having read the press reports my husband and I decided it was time to see the protests for ourselves so we went down to Wall Street yesterday and found about 1,000 slightly-drenched but enthusiastic people carrying signs, making music and being careful not to step on the flowers in the middle of the square. The protestors were clustered in groups listening to several speakers. One of the speakers was from the 15-M protest movement in Spain and another was Jeff Madrick, the lefty economist who has written extensively on the financial crisis.

Traveling with parents

Anya Schiffrin
Sep 26, 2011 17:28 UTC

By Anya Schiffrin
The opinions expressed are her own.


I love my parents. I love traveling in India. I am dreading taking my parents to India in November. It turns out that everyone who has traveled with her parents has a horror story. Financial Times US editor Gillian Tett’s parents came to rescue her once from the Sindhi desert when she was 17 and then later in Tajikistan when she was doing her field work. Of course she refused to budge. The intrepid anthropologist-turned-journalist gave me some mysterious advice. “Bring lots of ziploc bags and a clean knife.”

My friend Kent recalls bringing his father hiking in Queensland last summer. Worried about deep vein thrombosis his Dad wore those special socks that restrict circulation. The only problem was he wore the black knee-length socks every day he was in Australia. With shorts.

Why am I dreading this trip-of-a-lifetime and the chance to show my parents one of the greatest countries on earth? For starters my mother is a tremendous coward. As children, we took the ocean liners to Europe every summer to visit my grandmother because my mother was too scared to fly. In the early sixties, the SS France was cheaper than the plane so we were regulars on the New York-Le Havre route. We  kids were scared of the strict French nannies in the playroom so we spent the days wrapped in blankets on the deck chairs, reading books in the ocean breeze and stopping for 11am cups of bouillon. The SS France went out of business and so it was the QEII until that was taken off to fight in the Falklands War.

Arab spring turns to gloomy summer

Anya Schiffrin
Aug 4, 2011 19:02 UTC

By Anya Schiffrin
The views expressed are her own.

The mood at dinner in Alexandria last week was so gloomy that the only time anyone cracked a smile was when I told them about Donald Trump being roasted at the White House Correspondents’ dinner in April. Everyone vowed to get on YouTube straight away to see the look of agony that crossed the visage of the legendary stubby- fingered vulgarian as he was mocked for his hideous taste in architecture.

Architecture is very much on their minds, because among the casualties of the new controlled chaos in Egypt are the historic Alexandrian villas that are being torn down at night by property owners who realize they can now get away with turning their storied houses into apartment blocks. With the police more or less out of commission, these law-breakers are no longer punished and architectural preservationists said that in the new Egypt they are viewed as “snobbish elitists” clinging to a nostalgic past.

The lamenting of the needless cultural destruction was just one sign that, in some quarters, the excitement of the Arab Spring has given away to gloom. Egyptians are riding an emotional roller coaster and this past week has been grim.  The news coverage of tens of thousands of bearded men entering Tahrir square last Friday, and on Monday clearing out the liberal protestors who had been camped there for weeks, shocked the intellectuals of Cairo and Alexandria. “Those pictures. That’s just not who we are,” one economist told me.  ”I see Iran before my eyes. It is frightening,” said one woman who is already trying to figure out where to emigrate.

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