What the Men Who Run the World Are Thinking

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A laser beam projects an artist's message onto a Davos ski slope

The straphanger standing on the bus because he couldn't get a seat is George Soros, the global financier who has the power to destroy a whole Asian economy with the click of a mouse. That guy in the pizza parlor who looks like Bill Gates — chances are it in fact is the world's richest man. The bearded guy who just skidded awkwardly by on the icy sidewalk — Saudi oil minister Ali Bin Ibrahim Al-Naimi, who with a couple of words into his a cell phone could drive up the price of gasoline at your local pump by 20 cents within a month.

There's something more than a little surreal about the World Economic Forum's annual get-together in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, which opened on Thursday. Davos is a conspiracy theorist's dream. Its participants — scores of heads of state and senior ministers, representatives of 1,000 of the world's biggest corporations and an eclectic assortment of economists, social critics, writers, artists and thinkers — may reflect an unparalleled concentration of political and economic power, and yet the event has no formal mandate or decision-making power. In fact, it's not even strictly a conference, by the organizers' definition, but rather a more informal gathering of the people who run the world to discuss the big picture — the really, really big picture, about where the world is headed. And attendance is strictly by invitation only, a fact underlined by the largest deployment in decades of the traditionally neutral Swiss army, to keep at bay the thousands of anti-globalization protesters who would dearly love to spoil the party.

Organizers this year are making a concerted effort to focus on some of the concerns of the demonstrators they're working so hard to keep away. The focus is on bridging the gap between rich and poor, addressing the debt burden on developing countries and engaging critics of globalization. Representatives of African governments are expected to promote their development plans and make a pitch for investment. Many of those topics may have been conceived after last year's event, which was dogged by protesters and at which President Clinton sounded a note of caution amid a celebration of the wonders of the New Economy. Clinton had been burned only months earlier by the World Trade Organization debacle in Seattle, in which the combination of anti-globalization street protests and discord among the member states had prevented any progress in negotiating a new round of trade liberalization measures. He devoted his acclaimed speech to the need to ensure that the world's impoverished majority benefited from the promise of globalization.

The minds of the participants may be even more acutely focused this year, on the anticipated slowdown in the U.S. economy and its global implications. And, of course, the veterans of those failed WTO trade talks will be inclined to use the demonstration-free environment to huddle over ways of resolving the disputes that divide the world's two biggest trading blocs, the U.S. and the E.U. The Europeans are concerned that the incoming Bush administration — which won't have a high-profile presence at Davos — plans to prioritize trade agreements with Latin America, and they fear that a U.S. economic slowdown may increase pressure on the White House to play hardball in future trade talks.

The conference's program may be structured to help focus the minds of the men who run the world (and yes, it is run mostly by men) on the problems of poverty, the digital divide, environmental challenges and other challenges of the future. But the organizers may find that such concerns are more easily dealt with at moments when the power brokers are feeling flush and confident. This time around, most of their attention may be focused on trying to read the message in the clouds gathering on the horizon of the world economy.