Looking for contrition in Davos

By Felix Salmon
January 26, 2010
this year.) The official "purpose" page is full of claptrap of the highest order -- a "Network of Global Agenda Councils" "driving the rethink" over here; "an unprecedented multistakeholder dialogue " over there; and on top of it all, naturally, "a collaborative platform that integrates Web 2.0 technology".

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So I’ve arrived in snowy Davos, where with typical modesty the miscellaneous moguls will attempt to “Improve the State of the World: Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild”. (Seriously, that’s the official slogan this year.) The official “purpose” page is full of claptrap of the highest order — a “Network of Global Agenda Councils” “driving the rethink” over here; “an unprecedented multistakeholder dialogue ” over there; and on top of it all, naturally, “a collaborative platform that integrates Web 2.0 technology”.

Or, to put it another way, there’s no indication whatsoever that anybody at the World Economic Forum actually Gets It. Davos is great at throwing a couple of archbishops onto a panel with Niall Ferguson entitled “Restoring Faith in Economics” (geddit?) — but what I see none of in the programme is an indication that much if not all of the crisis was caused by the arrogance of Davos Man and by his unshakeable belief that the combined efforts of the world’s richest and most powerful individuals would surely make the world a better, rather than a worse, place. Excitement about the opportunities afforded by the Great Moderation (as the credit bubble was known before it burst), financial innovation, the rise of the bankers — Davos was ahead of the curve on all of them. And as the annual symposium of smug sermonizing became increasingly established, it served as a crucial reinforcement mechanism.

It’s not like CEOs and billionaires (and billionaire CEOs) need any more flattery and ego-stroking than they get on a daily basis, but Davos gives them more than that: it allows them to flatter and ego-stroke each other, in public. They invariably leave even more puffed-up and sure of themselves than when they arrived, when in hindsight what the world really needed was for these men (it’s still very much a boys’ club) to be shaken out of their complacency and to ask themselves some tough questions about whether in fact they were leading us off a precipice.

Now that it’s clear that many of them were leading us off that cliff, there’s still no sign of contrition, although you can be sure that a few fingers will be pointed at various past attendees who aren’t here to defend themselves. Is anybody here seriously examining the idea that Davos was institutionally responsible, at least in part, for the economic and financial catastrophe which befell the world in 2008? I’ll be on the lookout for that over the next few days. But I suspect that the preening potentates will be far too busy giving themselves the job of rebuilding the world to stop and ask where they went wrong in building the last one, and whether they might actually owe the rest of us a large collective apology.

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