Opinion

Felix Salmon

The relational aesthetics of Davos

By Felix Salmon
February 27, 2012

Nick Paumgarten was told repeatedly, both before and during his first trip to Davos, that he couldn’t possibly get it right after going only once. But he had to try, and he ended up delivering what might be the best description of Davos yet: accurate, well-written, keenly observed.

The Davos of Niall Ferguson, for instance, tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Niall Ferguson:

“What this is is Brownian motion, with human beings,” Niall Ferguson, the financial historian, said one morning, outside the Congress Hall, as his eyes darted about. Vikram Pandit (Citigroup) marched by, and then Brian Moynihan (Bank of America). “Last year, I bumped into Tim Geithner, and he said, ‘We’re going to prove you wrong with our fiscal policy.’ ” At that moment, Ferguson was jostled by a woman who was pushing swiftly through the center, with an entourage of journalists and aides. “Hello, Christine!” he said. It was the I.M.F. chief, Christine Lagarde. She touched his shoulder in greeting. Ferguson turned back to me. “See there? Right on cue.”

Paumgarten decided not to fillet Davos, in the end, although he easily could have done. He goes surprisingly easy on Richard Stromback, for instance, the founder of the you-couldn’t-make-it-up Piano Bar Partners. Stromback’s LinkedIn page identifies him first as “Davos” and second as “YGL”, which is another way of saying “Davos”; his current positions include both “Managing Partner at Piano Bar Partners” and “Young Global Leader at World Economic Forum”.

And Paumgarten also went easy on the Global Shapers, the new set of ultra-earnest twentysomethings who infested Davos this year but who in the end didn’t even get mentioned in his piece.

He even ends with a scene which could have been dictated to him by Klaus Schwab, the Forum’s founder. Davos is glistening; “The mountains, newly covered in snow, sparkled beyond the rooftops. Snow misted down from the pines like pixie dust; now and then, as the sun warmed the boughs, clumps fell noiselessly to the street.” Two men, leaders in their respective fields, engage in a fruitful interdisicplinary conversation about what each can do for the other, after the executive had attended the scientist’s WEF panel earlier in the day. Finally, the two “exchanged cards, shook hands, and parted ways.”

Such genuine and useful encounters do happen in Davos, normally at the rate of once per attendee per year. But they’re not really what Davos is about. Paumgarten gets that the monks and the scientists are “window dressing”, but I think what he misses is the way that that they’re being wheeled out as brain-ticklers for the financiers and plutocrats who actually pay for the whole thing.

In the case of Victor Pinchuk’s annual panel discussion, the power relationship is clear: many of the people up on stage (Jeff Koons last year, Chelsea Clinton this year) are not invited to the WEF meetings at all, and have simply been summonsed by Pinchuk in a highly-conspicuous display of just how rich and important he is. Other famous people flit in and out of Davos while barely being noticed: this year, for instance, Paumgarten’s New Yorker colleague Malcom Gladwell was flown in by Deloitte, gave a speech to a select group of clients at dinner, and then immediately left.

But even within the Forum and the conference center itself, the economics are clear. Paumgarten says that the big spenders “subsidize the scores of academics, scientists, artists, journalists, and N.G.O. chiefs who attend for free” — but that’s putting it politely. The truth is that the academics, scientists, artists, journalists, and NGO chiefs are there for the big spenders, and would immediately be uninvited if the big spenders didn’t want them to be there. And the genius of Klaus Schwab is to persuade those academics, scientists, artists, journalists, and NGO chiefs that being invited to Davos is a great privilege, rather than something they should charge for.

Schwab tells Paumgarten that “you cannot buy your way in” to Davos, but the astonishing number of hedge fund managers with white badges puts the lie to that. The hedgies are ubiquitous at Davos, and they love to talk about how brilliant it is to be able to organize a private dinner with Larry. And when Paumgarten says of the meetings at Davos that “all that’s missing is the hourly rate”, I think he’s wrong twice over. For one thing, companies justify the immense cost of Davos by working out the cost per hour-long meeting, and working out how much those same meetings would cost to organize elsewhere. And for another thing, certain big-name “gets” really do ask for money if you want them to attend your dinner. One of them even included the contact details of his speaking agency in the “Not for Distribution” press release announcing his attendance.

All of which explains the power dynamics of Davos. The CEOs and hedgies might be paying for everything, but in a sense that just makes them the punters, rather than the stars of the show. It’s the people who don’t pay, but whom everybody wants to get, who have the power — whether they’re politicians or Nobelists or rock stars. And then of course, always, above it all, is Klaus Schwab himself, manipulating the puppet strings and keeping everybody on their toes, convinced that they’re missing the real action, wherever that might be. It would be a masterful exercise in relational aesthetics, if only anybody but Klaus himself were able to actually observe it.

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