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Does Davos still matter?

Evaluating the Burkean defense of the World Economic Forum.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, at a panel session at the 46th annual World Economic Forum, on Jan. 22 in Davos, Switzerland. (Laurent Gillierron/European Pressphoto Agency)

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts did not pay too much attention to the World Economic Forum in Davos because in an obvious oversight he was not invited yet again a few weeks ago. Fortunately, the forum took the trouble to aggregate the 36 best quotes from the forum and, um, well….

…sorry, I passed out from all the vapidity.

Look, it’s a Friday, and it’s been a long week. Do I really need to go to the trouble of mocking these aphorisms?

Fortunately, the Financial Times’ Lucy Kellaway got to this bunch of banalities first, so Spoiler Alerts will just outsource to her:

When I first read the collection I thought it was a spoof. Then I thought the quotes were real but selected maliciously to make the speakers look foolish. I now discover they were specifically picked by the World Economic Forum not as the stupidest things famous people said at Davos 2016, but as the smartest….
What are we to conclude from these worthless soundbites? Do they prove that world leaders are fools? Not at all. I think they establish the truth of a new law that was proposed to me recently by a smart European Commission functionary. He has noticed that the amount of guff talked is always in direct proportion to the size of the audience.
Business leaders like talking to big audiences as it’s good for their prestige. Equally, they know it is bad form to say anything new or interesting to lots of people as it would mean giving away something for nothing. All the other important speakers are equally reluctant to cast pearls before swine, and so forgive each other their dull platitudes.

Kellaway raises a valid point. Is there any credible defense of Davos in 2016?

Actually, Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf offers an interesting attempt:

Davos has been going on for almost half a century. Since professor Klaus Schwab established it, the forum has grown into the most prominent global conference of any kind, anywhere. Each year, people write stories proclaiming its imminent demise. And each year a couple of thousand corporate leaders pay tens of thousands of dollars each for themselves and their staff members to attend because whatever the flaws of the meeting, it is still the place they can get the most done in the shortest period of time. And frankly, if they are not there, they are likely to miss their best chance at getting a concentrated glimpse of the world in the year ahead they are going to get anywhere.
Because — and for my money, much more importantly — Davos is in its own extremely earnest, rather dry way, actually serious about its mission of making the world a better place. Davos, more than any other similar gathering, shifted the debate of world leaders toward taking climate issues more seriously. It has focused attention on regions in crisis, the need for better infrastructure, and on emerging issues that are worthy of debate — like this year’s discussion on the “fourth industrial revolution.” In my few days there, I sat with world leaders who took a break from their usual intellectual fare as they discussed issues of faith, archaeological evidence as to why civilizations fail, the big questions associated with intelligence in the cyber-age (I actually moderated that discussion), and the future of the Americas.

Now Rothkopf has never attended a confab that he hasn’t loved, but the pragmatist in me kinda sorta understands what he’s saying. In short: Davos is here, it ain’t going away anytime soon, and it still attracts a unique mix of attendees. It matters because it exists as a unique focal point that lets civic elites mix with business elites… who mix with So there. It’s the Burkean logic of “something that’s been around for forty years has to serve some purpose.”

Rothkopf might be correct (although good luck trying to prove that Davos affected the climate change debate). But this is a pretty depressing justification to outside observers. It implies that Davos is just a giant green room for politicians to meet plutocrats. And it’s not like the plutocrats lack other opportunities to power-schmooze or have their voice heard in the corridors of power.

I’m about as neoliberal as you can get when it comes matters of political economy. I think statements like, oh, I don’t know, “the business model of Wall Street is fraud” are puerile, simplistic, and ridiculously over-the-top. So when I read banal Davos quotes like the ones above and think to myself, “they’ll be the first ones up against the wall when the revolution comes,” maybe it’s time for Klaus Schwab to consider whether their confab is doing more harm than good to his cause.

Or, to put it another way, if the forum really believes in the “Spirit of Davos” and “the stakeholder theory,” then they’re going to have to do a better job with that whole inclusion thing.