The Davos Devotee

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Memo to the World Economic Forum: youre not popular on Metro North. Cruising in to Grand Central on the 7:39 from Bronxville on Wednesday morning, the conductor announced that the north entrance of the station was going to be closed until next Tuesday, on account of Davos-in-New York. Cue for groans and muttered oaths from my neighbors, and that was before theyd stepped out on to Madison, where New Yorks finest were out in force, checking identities and blocking off half the streets of midtown. In the mid-afternoon, when I had to walk from the Time-Life building to the Waldorf-Astoria, the conferences headquarters, I had to show my passport five times during what is normally a ten-minute cross-town stroll. By the evening, the security had gotten even tighter. At 5:15 there was a cop in riot gear, wielding a sub-machine gun (Ive never, ever, seen that before in New York) at the corner of 49th and Park; two hours later the boys in blue were five deep outside St. Barts church. And the conference hasnt even officially started!

The WEF moved its annual conference from Davos, Switzerland (hence the nickname) to New York City this year, in homage to our citys resilience after the attacks on Sept 11. It was a noble gesture, though to be quite honest, Im not sure that ordinary New Yorkers — who will have to cope with the security cordon around Midtown — feel exactly honored. Still, for those of us lucky enough to be invited, the Forum will, as usual, provide a cornucopia of intellectual stimulation, even if those of us who pack our skis for the annual trip are feeling somewhat cheated. Davos is an easy event to make fun of — theres something ripely comic about the masters and mistresses of the universe making their way to a Swiss mountain town, to stay in bad hotels and eat Schweissdeutsch food, which, to put it politely, has never figured in any book on the worlds great cuisines. All that said, youll find little of the carping tone in these columns. Ive never been disappointed at Davos; for years, Ive found more things to think about at this conference — in the fields of science and technology and culture, as well as in global politics and economics — than I have at any other gathering. And the program this week looks as lively and promising as anything we might see in the Swiss mountains.

Its particularly pleasing that the WEF has spent so much time trying to bring religious leaders to New York, and has scheduled sessions that try will try to tease out the role that faith plays on our world. Weve come to think that commerce and trade — the disciplines of the counting-house — determine the way we live now, and thats fair enough; global trade binds the ragged world together. But economics doesnt explain everything in human experience, and since Sept. 11, we have surely come to realize that for countless millions, a belief in the immanent is the unit of intelligence that gives their life meaning. Exploring the ways in which religious conviction inclines political decision-making is something that the Davos crowd should, and with luck will, spend time on this weekend.

Wednesday began with a press conference at the YWCA with the "nice" anti-WEF crowd (not the bomb-throwers) at the Public Eye on Davos, with their earnest pleas for an alternative to "one-sided, corporate, globalization." In the afternoon, I registered at the Waldorf — a predictable zoo, as it remained on Thursday morning.

Then I headed to the Council on Foreign Relations to hear British politician Peter Mandelson, the man who put Tony Blair into Downing Street, explain why Europeans were starting once more to worry about the unilateralist tendencies of the Bush administration. After listening to Peter, I headed up town to the Guggenheim, for a fabulous party thrown by the UNDP and the U.N. Foundation to celebrate their Equator Initiative, all set amidst the Brazil: Body and Soul exhibition. (If you're in New York, go and see it. The 17th century baroque altar from Olinda is one of the great sights in the city this month.) After a couple of those Brazilian drinks that are something like margaritas but pack a bigger kick, it was time to scoot back to the Waldorf, where the opening reception was winding down. The Euros, of course, were still out in force; the great Dominique Moisi from IFRI (with his son); Martin Wolf from the Financial Times, whose column on Enron and corporate social responsibility this week was a must read; Nick Gowing of the BBC; and a trio of Economistas. At the heart of Davos, for those of us who shamelessly enjoy it, are old friends, lively talk, and the chance that youll learn something new. Like religious faith, you cant put a price on that.