Couldn’t Make Davos This Year? Here Are the 5 Things Everyone’s Talking About

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The topics and tropes fall faster than snowflakes here in Davos, where several thousand of the world’s leading business people, politicians and policy makers gather once a year for an annual think-fest. And with literally hundreds of panels, debates, interviews, workshops and symposia taking place, it would be impossible to capture all of the ideas competing for attendees’ attention. But, still, as in any complex system, patterns start to emerge. With three of  the event’s four days almost over, here are some early bets on what may go down as the major themes of this year’s convocation.

Capitalism needs a fundamental overhaul. That capitalism is somehow broken has become one of Davos’ most persistent themes. Indeed, “Is 20th Century Capitalism Failing 21st Century Society,” was the topic of TIME’s own panel, which kicked off the proceedings here on Wednesday. Since then, no fewer than three other panels have been devoted to some variation of “fixing capitalism” or “remodeling capitalism.” No one here is arguing that capitalism should be scrapped wholesale, of course. Instead, the most rational arguments have pointed out that not only is capitalism the best system yet devised for enhancing the well being of the greatest number of people, but that it is also immensely supple and flexible. In 200 years, capitalism has already gone through several major iterations. But what, practically speaking, will a global capitalism retooled for the 21st century look like? More regulation? Or less? State Capitalism, like that practiced by China, Russia and many countries in the Middle East? Well, no one has quite figured that one out yet. But a surprising number of attendees (and these are the world’s most direct beneficiaries of the current system) seems to agree that something is wrong. And that in itself is remarkable.

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The Arab Spring must end happily. Representatives from the revolutionary movements that recently toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are among the stars of this panel. Many of them are wearing the hallowed holographic badges, which means that they have been invited to some of the very highest-level meetings usually reserved for heads of state, ministers of finance and their ilk. This indicates that the powers at the very core of the World Economic Forum are interested in the Arab Spring as a matter of paramount global importance. (That said, among the regular attendees, the Eurozone is of far more interest. At one panel discussion I attended on “The Future of North Africa,” the auditorium was about 10% full. For a “Future of the Eurozone” panel taking place immediately after, it was standing room only. This is worrying on several levels.)

The Eurozone crisis will continue to muddle along, but muddling may be enough. The European finance ministers in attendance are all staying on message: Eurobonds are not happening, austerity measures are the way forward now, greater fiscal union is the end goal, and Greece will not default or leave the Eurozone. Interestingly, for the first time in a long time, most of the policital/policy/media hive mind is cautiously optimistic that the Eurozone may actually be starting to heal itself. (Note that UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who sharply criticized the euro rescue plans yesterday, is a spectacular exception.) Much credit is being given to Mario Monti, the unelected technocrat Prime Minister of Italy, who has been widely praised as walking the fine line between implementing reforms that will bring results gently enough not to incite mass revolt by Italian society.

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China is still the star. Brazil has come to Davos in a big way. As has Mexico, and India, and Azerbaijan. But the panels on China are packed, and everybody wants to talk about China, and while the cult of the Chinese technocrat has long been on the rise, we are now reaching the full flower of absolute reverence. American business people speak in hushed tones about the new generation of Chinese leaders as if they are supermen: They are well-educated, worldly, wise, and compared to the haplessness and paralysis that western governments have demonstrated over the past two years, they are paragons of good governance. They glide over a lot of complexities, of course, but they can’t help it. They are in love.
Americans and Europeans are pointing fingers at each other. Why is the global economy not in full recovery? The Europeans complain that none of this would have happened if the Americans had not taxed the global financial system when its housing bubble burst. To which, the Americans respond that that may be true, but they claim to have put their house in order and the only thing that’s holding America’s economy back now is European uncertainty. Then, arguments commence.