Friends, welcome to Part IV of this Davos Journal, wherein we explore some of the Annual Meeting–the 34th–of the World Economic Forum, held in a Swiss village so beautiful, you think it was stolen from a hot-chocolate ad. (For Parts I-III, please go here, here, and here.)
Care for some economics? There is an interesting panel, moderated by Bill Rhodes, chairman of Citicorp and Citibank. On it sit the U.S. commerce secretary, who’s Don Evans, a Midland guy, and one of President Bush’s best friends; Martin Feldstein, the Harvard prof and all-around sage; Steve Newhouse, president of Morgan Stanley; John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO boss; and maybe my favorite CEO, Alston D. “Pete” Correll of Georgia-Pacific, a southerner whose sweet drawl can’t conceal an exceptionally sharp mind.
He says, “Like most CEOs, I look at the world economy from the perspective of my company”–and he goes on in this modest vein. He says that Georgia-Pacific is in very good shape, recovered from the doldrums of earlier years. When you sell “bathroom tissue,” notes Correll, you have a pretty good idea of how the American people are doing. It’s a funny line, and probably true. (Incidentally, it was interesting to hear toilet paper described as “bathroom tissue”–must be the proper company term.)
Correll observes that interest rates are so low, “Americans can’t afford to rent”–no, this is a time to buy, and the housing stats reflect that. This is probably an overlooked point of pride about the U.S. economy. Indeed, everything is great–relatively sparkling–in this economy “except jobs,” according to Correll. Even so, “we’re hiring for the first time in a long time.”
He declines to say anything about what the economy may be like in the future–even the near future–because “every economic forecast I have ever made has been wrong. All I can tell you is that today is significantly better than yesterday”–which is good enough. Tomorrow will have to take care of itself.
Don Evans begins by crowing just a little bit: saying that the atmosphere in Davos is different from last year, in part because the American economy is robust. He recalls an economist “who will go unnamed” who, twelve months ago, “called into question” everything the administration was doing, claiming, for instance, that tax cuts would provide no stimulus.
The administration’s defense–as articulated by Evans and others at this Meeting–is this: “When we came in, we inherited a recession. Then we had 9/11. Then a march to war. Then war–or wars–themselves. And corporate scandals. Thanks to George W. Bush’s bold and decisive action, we got out of the doldrums fairly quickly, and we’re doing remarkably well now.” But, to use Evans’s words, “we faced a pretty good headwind for three years.”
The commerce secretary assures the audience that “we will be making some very tough spending decisions” in budgets to come. Later in the discussion, he repeats: “You will see from this administration a tough, tough stance on spending.”
Remember where you heard it.
Marty Feldstein is so clear on economics–as you know from his writings in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere–that anyone can learn from him. His students are lucky. He predicts that jobs will increase significantly in ‘04. Quite simply, “the U.S. labor market works well, year after year, decade after decade.” The comparison with Europe–poor, unlearning Europe–is dramatic.
I wish to share also this tidbit from Feldstein: “Economic expansions don’t just run out of steam. They don’t die of old age. They’re killed off.” And by what? By misguided policies.
John Sweeney is a piece of work. He looks like a charming Irish elf–or garden gnome–but, of course, he’s a tough old SOB. You don’t get to be head of the SEIU–which is even worse than the AFL-CIO at large!–without being so.
After much enthusiasm and optimism about the U.S. economy, from the five previous speakers, he says, “You’ve got to have one troublemaker on a panel, and that’s why they invite Sweeney.” He paints a picture of the economy that is Dickensian in the extreme. For Sweeney, America is a collection of Hoovervilles. Hearing him, you might think that people were starving in the streets, oozing sores as they lapped at mud puddles. Sweeney makes a special demon of Wal-Mart, the Left’s most-hated company, and probably the best company in America (as well as its largest employer).
One thing about Sweeney, he’s a treat to listen to–I mean in a linguistic, aural, almost musical sense. He has an accent that is rarely heard anymore. It’s such a shame. As regular readers well know, I lament the loss of speech distinctions in America. Sweeney tells me he’s from the Bronx–I was thinking it was Greater Boston, somewhere. To my knowledge, no one in the Bronx talks like Sweeney anymore (certainly no one in subsequent generations). If you ignore the content and just listen to the music, Sweeney is a real pleasure.
An interesting moment occurs in the Q&A. Sweeney has decried–among other things–the sending of jobs from America overseas, particularly to China. (The pattern is: America to Mexico to China.) A young man with a thick accent, who identifies himself as from the Shanghai Stock Exchange, says to Sweeney: “Don’t you think that workers in China, too, deserve a better life?”
Sweeney, to his credit, gives an excellent answer, stressing his commitment to labor and environmental regulations, his status in the international labor movement, his support for dissidents and political prisoners. Still, it was a hell of a question and a hell of a moment.
‐King Abdullah–King Hussein’s kid, who runs Jordan–makes a favorable impression. Most of his education took place in Britain, but he sounds like an American. (Georgetown U is in his background–he and Clinton share that!) He is articulate, modulated, and assured. Speaking in the Congress Center, before a large and alert crowd, he appeals to the world to help Iraq’s transition. That transition will go more easily, he says, if everyone pitches in. It will also go faster. But no matter how long it takes–one year, five, ten, whatever–it must be done. A lot is riding on it.
Forum father Klaus Schwab, who sits onstage with the King, says, “Last year, you said that 9/11 had been a wake-up call for Islam. The main conflict was within Islam itself. How do you see that conflict going?”
Abdullah confirms that, indeed, he regards the current drama as a conflict within Islam, not a conflict between cultures–he is not a Huntingtonian. He says that religion is used by extremists as a means of obtaining power, and it is these extremists who must be opposed, must be beaten. And the progress of that effort? Not bad, Abdullah suggests. Not bad at all.
You may not like kings, but if you have to have a king, you could do a lot worse than Abdullah. And, of course, by the standards of the Arab world, he is practically Henry David Thoreau.
‐Iraqis are here–those stirring representatives of a new and better order. Particularly touching is Adnan Pachachi, the octogenarian member of the Governing Council. He symbolizes what Iraq used to be, before Saddam and the Baathists ruined it, creating a “republic of fear,” in Kanan Makiya’s phrase. He was a diplomat in the old days, and his exile was long. In his Davos remarks, he is steady and wise. Listening to him, you can believe that things are going to be just fine in Iraq, after considerable effort. And how fortunate for him that he has lived long enough to see his country liberated, and have a second chance.
The man’s English is beautiful and correct (“the media have . . .”), and he presents such a picture of civilization–language aside–that you almost weep for what the Arab world lost, when people of real quality were swept aside by crackpots and sadists with guns.
Also here is Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister. He is the one who so thrillingly told off the U.N. Remember what he said? “The United Nations as an organization failed to help rescue the Iraqi people from a murderous tyranny that lasted over 35 years. Today we are unearthing thousands of victims in horrifying testament to that failure.” (I Impromptued that performance here.) In my view, Kofi Annan has yet to recover from Zebari’s audacity. It was an unforgettable instance of truth spoken to power. And I believe–along with others–that it was Zebari’s words, his tongue-lashing, that got Annan & Co. moving on the help-Iraq front.
Zebari is a Kurd, and he was once a militant in the Kurdish movement. He now represents an Iraq that is open to all, not just to the privileged Sunni minority. The prospect of a democratic Iraq is more exciting, for Iraqis ordinary and elite, than most Americans appreciate, I believe. Imagine being given a chance to have a decent, modern country, after a long night of barbarism. To walk and talk with democratic Iraqis here in Davos, who actually have political power and responsibility, is inspiring.
‐Turn to Europe for a bit? Okay, how about New Europe, in the person of Aleksandr Kwasniewski, president of Poland. He’s making the rounds, drumming up business for his country and talking up Poland as a rising European nation. He sort of looks like a jock, and talks in a candid, open manner. Poland, he says, is like Spain 15 years ago: poised to develop, ready for a kind of take-off. “We have to eliminate this huge [economic] gap,” he says.
It was interesting to hear him use the term “political correctness” (in reference to sensitivity over remarks he made about Germany). He says that political issues and political differences should be discussed frankly, in an unfearful and honest atmosphere.
He says he is eager for the United States to have good–or at least better–relations with France and Germany. Why? Because, if not, those European countries will turn to Russia, and an alliance of Paris, Berlin, and Moscow “is something that would endanger us.” It would be “a repetition of history that’s not very nice to us.”
And, my goodness, he sounds like an NR editorial when he talks about the European Union: that it must not be “for bureaucrats, commissioners, and elites,” but for all Europeans. (Actually, an NR editorial would say that the EU is sort of bunk anyway.) (Although if the EU can keep that bloody continent war-free–all the headaches and idiocy would be worth it.)
‐To close this installment, I’ll say a little bit about a reception for Dick Cheney, held at one of the local hotels and hosted by the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, Pamela Willeford (who’s from Austin, Texas–why wouldn’t she be?). This is the social part of the Davos Journal–indeed, let’s do bold-faced names! A Who’s Who is present–it’s an A-list D.C. party high in the Swiss Alps.
You got your cabinet members: Don Evans, Tommy Thompson, John Ashcroft (I may be missing a couple). You got some senators, including Richard Shelby, whose arm is in a cast. (Why, I don’t find out.) You got some House members, including Rob Portman, Christopher Shays, and Jim Leach. (In an interview, Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey once told me that he’d like to see Portman president.) You got the odd Democrat, like Barney Frank.
And you got that influential and brainy couple, Phil and Wendy Gramm. A friend of mine and I approach Gramm, and I recite some of my favorite sayings from the Book of Gramm. About “compassionate conservatism”: “Freedom is compassionate, dammit!” About Democratic demagoguery concerning Grammite economic policies: “I’m sick of being lectured to about poverty by people who have never been poor.” When I remind him of this latter remark, Gramm says, “I never had an opponent, in any of my elections, who wasn’t rich”–a nice advantage.
Steve Forbes? He is a delight, purveying information and opinions in his bright and modest way. If there is a more modest billionaire, I don’t know him. (Granted, my list of billionaire acquaintances is not long. Whose is?) Ideally, Forbes would be Treasury secretary in a second W. administration. For that matter, Phil Gramm would be chairman of the Fed. And Wendy could do whatever the heck she wanted.
But enough fantasizing and socializing–I’ll see you tomorrow, for Part V.
Oh, I should really say something about Cheney himself. He is relaxed, laconic, and engaging, as he usually is. He likes Davos all right, but it runs second to “my valley in the Grand Tetons”–close, though.
Tomorrow, I’ll have something on Cheney’s big Davos speech, and on Bill Gates, and on the astounding Musharraf–and more.