The Davos Devotee: Day Two

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New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg acknowledged the obvious at the opening plenary session of Davos-in-New York on Thursday night; the weather stank. Outside the Waldorf-Astoria, demonstrators and cops shivered in a cold, persistent drizzle; inside, delegates sweltered in the over-heating that seems to tempt every hotel manager. As they negotiated the temperature gradient between Park Avenue and the Waldorf's Peacock Alley, you could also almost see, as well as hear, a thousand snuffles. The mood of attendees was not helped, either, by the never ending line for the hand-held gizmo that enables you to sign up for sessions remotely; I got mine at the third attempt.

Still, the first day of the conference had good stuff on the world economy and the "Clash of Civilizations" thesis, and, I'm told, on artificial intelligence. To an extent, the week got off to something of unexpected start. Every pudding needs a theme, and most conferences do, too. But the idea that is emerging, quietly, as the guiding text of Davos-in-New York is not, I suspect, the one that most people in the Waldorf-Astoria — to say nothing of those outside — would have anticipated.

As this year's conference was being planned, there was an assumption that it would be dominated by two topics. The first was the state of the international economy, as the U.S. finally tipped into recession; the second was the impact on international affairs of Sept. 11 and the ensuing war against terrorism. Obviously, there has already been plenty — and there will be more — on both subjects. On Thursday, for example, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times moderated the annual update on the world economy, with a cast of analysts from China, Japan, the U.S., Britain and Germany. For those convinced that a strong recovery in the U.S. is already under way, Stephen Roach, chief economist of Morgan Stanley, had a pitcher of cold water ready, pointing out that no economy had ever been able to maintain a buoyant recovery from a recession while running such an enormous deficit on the current account, and while household and corporate balance sheets are overloaded with historically-high levels of debt. The most frightening thing, perhaps, was this: it's only the U.S. that is likely to provide real growth in the foreseeable future, as Europe's economy continues to perform with a sort of muddling disappointment, and Japan's stumbles from stasis to crisis.

But a world without vigorous economic growth — and this was a theme picked up at the afternoon session on "Bridging Cultures and Civilizations" — is a world in which the best spur to modernity is missing. Relative wealth enables societies to make the wrenching transition from traditional, rural norms to modern, urban ones; without the lubrication that prosperity provides, that transition can easily dissolve into political chaos and terrorism.

The underlying message of both the economic and the security sessions on Thursday, then, was that poverty matters. That theme was picked up and made explicit at the opening plenary — the best I've ever seen at a Davos. Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said "Terrorism and poverty are twins of each other." Bono, in a series of interventions, nagged away at what he called the "annoying" phenomenon of inequality, and challenged the WEF delegates to commit themselves to ameliorating poverty as a goal for this year's conference. He was, of course, warmly applauded. Cynics will tell you that that reveals everything you need to know about Davos — that it is a collection of fat cats congratulating themselves on their good intentions while those doing the real work of easing poverty shiver in the rain outside. I don't think that's right; in one day at Davos-in-New York, I've had as many good conversations on economic development and poverty reduction as I expect to have in the rest of the year. Bono was quite right to remind delegates that most of the demonstrators outside the Waldorf are passionate in their search for a better world, that only a few of them are looking for trouble. By the same token, most of those inside the hall, if my experience at these conferences is a guide, are genuinely looking for ways to spread the benefits of globalization more widely. After one day, the degree of common ground is encouraging.