Politics & Policy

Davos Journal, Part II

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the second installment of these scribbles from Davos — more formally, the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum here in Davos, Switzerland, quite near where Heidi lived. (You remember that heart-tugging little Swiss girl, from the movie.) For yesterday’s opening installment, please go here.

Where were we? Well, let me take you to a lunch for a bunch of journos. The theme is refugee children, and we are informed of a website: www.ninemillion.org. This is a project of the U.N. High Commission on Refugees. The literature says, “nine million faces. nine million names. nine million stories. nine million children are refugees right now.” (This project is big on small letters.) Before these media lunchers, several speakers tell stories of individual refugees, and we see films of a couple of them. Needless to say, these kids are winsome and touching.

Moreover, there is live entertainment. This comes in the form of a band, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. They play on large African drums and other instruments, and their music is a kind of Afro-rock. Their songs have such titles as “Living Like a Refugee.” Speaking to the audience, the lead singer tells how happy he is that peace has returned to his homeland, Sierra Leone.

Throughout the lunch, we hear how important it is to help refugee children — to give them simple soccer balls with which to play, for example. And I have a couple of thoughts: While we can all agree on helping refugee children, we should also remember that refugees in general should be helped — even the middle-aged, who make very poor poster children.

And while refugees of every age should be helped, it would be an especially nice help if the “international community” opposed those oppressive and tyrannical regimes that actually make refugees: for instance, the one in Sudan. (One of the kids featured in the films was forced from her Sudanese village into Uganda.)

As we are leaving the banquet room, something amusing occurs. One of the speakers has been Antonio Guterres, the U.N.’s high commissioner. Someone gets his attention by saying, “High commissioner . . .,” and I think, initially, that she has said, “Hi, commissioner . . .”

Maybe you had to be there, but, to me, it was hilarious — something out of a Monty Python sketch.

‐A few hours later, Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, addresses his invitees in the Congress Center. As usual, the Professor is erect, dapper, and dignified. And, again as usual, he speaks sensibly and agreeably. He finishes by quoting Gandhi — and it is a non-silly quote. Most of us sound silly when quoting Gandhi, but not Schwab.

He turns the podium over to Micheline Calmy-Rey, president of the Swiss Confederation. Frau Calmy-Rey proceeds to tackle the world situation (no less). She begins by naming victims, and the first among them are “victims of suicide bombing.” Wow. Victims of suicide bombing are too seldom acknowledged — and the remark may be interpreted as pro-Israeli. She then names the “victims of armies using the most advanced technologies.” Ah, okay: One sees what she is up to.

The speech is in English, and a delightful, Swiss English it is. When the president says “armchair pundits,” the word “pundits” is Clouseau-like — I mean, Peter Sellers, playing his inspector, would say it much the same way. You have to smile.

Frau Calmy-Rey is not the big speaker in this session, however: That is Frau Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany. She has a long history with the World Economic Forum. Sitting there, waiting her turn, she looks as she always does: thoughtful, modest, a little worried. In her very plainness — or unassumingness — she is attractive, endearing. I feel like giving her a hug.

Rest assured I refrain.

Her speech is intelligent, practical, and semi-uplifting. She speaks of her growing up in a Communist country, and the ultimate fall of the Wall. And she marks the changes in the world economy: “Economic potential,” she says, “is resting on many more shoulders than ten years ago.” She cites the heavy investment of the Chinese in Africa, a remarkable fact. And she makes the usual point — though the important point — that globalization holds “hope” for some, “anxiety” for others.

This reminds me of a couple of basic things: first of all, Tom Sowell’s axiom that, as there are winners and losers in a courtroom, there are winners and losers in an economy — even the best, most equitable of economies. (This truth doesn’t originate with Sowell, of course, but I associate him with it.) I also think of an old expression from golf: “Every shot pleases somebody.”

In the middle of her speech, Merkel makes my ears prick up by quoting one of the American Founders. Merkel likes to do this: quote great and key Americans. This time it’s Benjamin Franklin, who said — something like — “He who gives up freedom to gain security ends up losing them both.”

Merkel calls for a new trans-Atlantic partnership — a partnership between Europe and the United States — and notes that Euros and Americans have long been entwined, including financially. In the 19th century, Europeans funded the American railroad system. And she gratefully recalls the Marshall Plan, particularly what it did for Germany.

There is, inevitably, the meditation on global warming, or “climate change” — take your choice. The more sophisticated insist on the latter term. Merkel warns of encroaching “desertification,” and she cites approvingly the Club of Rome. I have always thought the CoR a bit of an embarrassment. Apparently they are in again.

But, to be green, says Merkel, you don’t have to “limit growth” — you simply need to grow responsibly.

And Frau Angela Merkel, this would-be Thatcher from East Germany — who is unfortunately hamstrung by the realities of German politics — is nothing if not responsible.

‐On the subject of Klaus Schwab, our Founder: The headline in a local paper declares, “Klaus, du bist Davos” — Klaus, you are Davos. And there seems little arguing with that, especially in the last week in January, when Schwab et al. make their home in this pretty village, for a high-powered week.

Oh, the skiers among you may want to know how the snow is: good, I’m pretty sure.

‐One of the charms of non-native English? When you say “Thank you,” they say, “Thank you too.” I enjoy that, for some reason.

‐There is a dinner — a talking dinner, if you will — on the subject of “Getting the Message Across with a Story.” I serve as moderator, running around with a microphone not unlike Oprah Winfrey. (Well, I should not exaggerate.) There are many interesting speakers on this evening, among them Charlie Denson, president of Nike; Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the founder of easyJet (and more); Orville Schell, dean of Berkeley’s journalism school; Robert Polet, president and CEO of the Gucci Group in the Netherlands; and Paulo Coelho, the famous author from Brazil.

Before we begin, I have a little talk with Coelho about the pronunciation of his name: You can pronounce it Englishly, as when we refer to that former congressman from California who went on to make a zillion dollars; or you can pronounce it Portuguesely, which comes out (something like) “Co-AIL-yo.” I do a little of each (while noting my inconsistency, or options).

In his remarks, Coelho observes that there are only four stories — four types of story: 1) love between two people; 2) love concerning more than two; 3) a struggle; and 4) a journey. Every story we’ve ever encountered, he says, belongs to one or more of those categories. Some of the dinner’s participants try to refute this, or find exceptions, but they cannot.

Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou is known to one and all as “Stelios”: Like Madonna, Cher, or Pele, he is a one-name star. More particularly, he is a young, burly, incredibly charming and charismatic business leader. Among his qualities is self-deprecation: He says that, as the heir to a Greek shipping fortune, he was just “a rich kid, a spoiled brat.” But he found his way in life, magnifying that fortune, and providing services all the while.

Robert Prolet of Gucci is charismatic too, though more understatedly. He is also amusing. He says that his company sells dreams, and luxurious ones. “Who needs another pair of shoes or handbag?” he asks. “No one — unfortunately.” That line is beautifully delivered.

And I have a little fun of my own — hackneyed fun, I’m afraid. I say to him, “You know what executives of your company say when tickling their children, don’t you? ‘Gucci, gucci, gucci.’” “Yeah, yeah,” he replies, indulgently.

Let me mention another charismatic, amusing, extremely likable executive: John Osborn, president and CEO of BBDO, described in our literature as “the world’s largest advertising and marketing communications company.” Osborn is a “Young Global Leader” here in Davos. (So is Stelios.) If he ran for office, Osborn would win in a landslide, I believe. He must have been the leader of every club he ever belonged to, starting in kindergarten.

In the course of the evening, there is at least one political note, jarring to me. Someone says, “What was WMD, other than a good story?” Yeah, buddy, tell me another one. But you can’t go wrong with talk like that at Davos.

And there are numerous, unstoppable mentions of global warming — it is on everyone’s brain. One participant says that he knows of someone who fears he will never be a grandfather: because of global warming.

It is hard to keep still. What kind of madness has crept into such bright and influential minds? An intelligent concern is one thing, but a millenarian fever is another thing. If you’re worried about your life expectancy — turn your attention to nuclear proliferation, to the most destructive weapons in the hands of the most hateful and violent.

But global warming holds a great power over this audience. As someone else points out, last year a big topic was bird flu; this year, there is no mention whatever of it.

Oh, incidentally, I want you to know that someone, via e-mail (of course), has sent me an article: here. The headline is, “Global warming possibly linked to an enhanced risk of suicide: Data from Italy, 1974-2003.” Knock yourself out.

And before leaving this dinner, I wish to draw your attention to one more of our speakers: Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp, of the Jewish Institute for Human Values in the Netherlands. He tells the following story:

During the war, a man knocks on the door of a woman. They don’t know each other. The man is carrying a suitcase. It contains a baby. He says to this woman, “Will you take him?” She is German-born, though living in Holland, and she already has a son. She takes a few minutes to think about it. And she says yes — she accepts the suitcase.

And the baby inside was Awraham Soetendorp, saved. And that story, clearly, is untoppable.

‐But, speaking of babies, I wish to tell you about another one — one born on January 27, 2006. A Young Global Leader, having his first Davos, is a noted American composer, Michael Hersch. He is a brilliant guy, musically and otherwise. Davos does well to include him in its ranks. Just before I left home, I received a new CD from the Naxos label: It features Hersch’s First and Second Symphonies. You may find it here.

Anyway, his daughter Abigail is one year old — having been born on the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth.

Kind of wonderful, huh?

‐After that “Getting the Message Across with a Story” dinner, I trot over to the Forbes party: the best party of any Davos week, in my opinion. Welcoming their guests are three Forbeses: Steve, Bob, and (from a younger generation) Miguel. Steve is, as always, shyish, modest, and kind. If there is a nicer billionaire, I have never met him. Keenly aware of the political atmosphere here, he says to me, “Keeping the faith?” Oh, yes. And he is, too. He is predictably smart about the economy, politics — you name it.

Maybe he won’t be president. But wouldn’t you like to see him as Treasury secretary or Fed chairman?

‐Friends, that’s enough of my gabbing for this installment. These notes will continue next week. The conference itself ends on Sunday, but the journal will go on, in the present tense, and it will deal with the prime minister of Pakistan, the president of the Palestinian Authority, the leader of the British Conservatives, the king of Jordan, an American pol or two, and more.

Have a good one.

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