My Brief (but Valuable) Visit with the 1% at Davos

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Michel Euler / AP

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde speaks during a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 28, 2012

As my train pulled into the station at a snow-covered Davos a few days ago, I was prepared to be cynical. I’d had dinner the night before with an old friend, a former chairman of a major American company, who was usually a regular at Davos. But this year he stayed away, even though he was in nearby Zurich. The World Economic Forum, he told me, had lost its original spirit. It had become a forum for ritzy parties, not a place to achieve any good for the world. My friend figured his time was best spent elsewhere.

That impression only solidified as soon as I left the train station. My wife and I decided to stop into a small, nondescript café for a quick lunch, expecting a coffee and simple sandwich. Not in Davos. The waiter recommended a $75 vegetable pizza. (We didn’t order it.) The pizza turned out to be symbolic of that showy and self-indulgent side of the Davos forum my friend had come to detest. Everyone spends too much time partying, or networking to get into parties, or scrambling for access to the most-prized dinners and sessions. I began to see Davos as no more than a playground for the high and mighty 1%.

I can assure you, as a journalist, my annual income places me well below that 1%. The world of Davos seemed like an alternate universe. The global leaders of government and business chatted and joked like old high school buddies; I felt like I graduated from a different class. Yet I have to admit the experience is a bit of a rush. I met IMF chief Christine Lagarde wandering through the snow. Not watching where I was headed, I nearly banged into former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. I debated North Korean policy with John Negroponte, former U.S. representative to the U.N., had dinner with Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and discussed trade with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk. If I walked up to most of these people out on the streets of New York City or London, I’d probably get hit by a Taser; but at Davos, people aren’t on guard. You can just reach out and talk to them, and they’ll talk just as freely back. Even to someone like me, a complete stranger to most of them.

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So it began to dawn on me as the days passed that something grander was going on at Davos. Yes, the forum is coated in a distasteful glaze of elitism. It is a forum for showing off your connections, your wealth and your influence. Yet Davos is also more meaningful than that. By putting the policymakers and opinion leaders of the world together in one place — a place where they can take off their ties and drop the usual formalities — Davos is a forum for the open discussion of important ideas unlike any other. Over the course of the conference’s five days, government officials, economists, business tycoons, bankers and, yes, journalists, debated everything from the reform of capitalism to food security. There were hard discussions about youth unemployment, income inequality and poverty alleviation. Of course, some participants went to Davos simply intent on defending and forwarding their own, predetermined positions. Yet I was surprised at times at how freewheeling the conversations actually were. I spent one dinner sitting with a U.S. CEO, an American hedge-fund manager and a young Swiss NGO founder talking about free markets, information technology and globalization. I can’t imagine being in another environment where I’d have such a dinner. As one friend of mine put it, if Davos didn’t exist, someone would have to create it.

So on Sunday, as my train pulled away from Davos, I departed without the same degree of cynicism. That’s a hard switch for a journalist. There is something about Davos that, despite its flaws, can give you hope — hope that the free exchange of knowledge and opinions can actually produce some good results. I am hopeful that the people who went to Davos did so not only to ski and drink free wine, but also to find solutions to the world’s problems as well. Perhaps the 1%, returning to their corporate suites and ministerial offices, have at least got one or two new ideas to make the world a better place. As I return to my normal life, with the rest of the 99%, that’s the best outcome for a world in crisis.

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