Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

Article

On not going to Davos
Corriere della Sera - January 25th 2007

Every year at this time, the gathering that is the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, generates contradictory emotions. One set of emotions make me wonder whether I should be there, for surely I might be missing something by not attending an event that attracts such celebrities as Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, Bill Gates, who needs no introduction, the geniuses behind Google, and Narayan Murthy, the force behind India’s outsourcing giant, Infosys. Actually, everyone who does go to Davos also feels they might be missing something, because they fear they might at any moment have chosen to go to the wrong dinner, or the wrong seminar, or are networking with the wrong people. My other emotion, though, is relief that I am not there. Because I know it would have been a waste of time.

            For there is something bizarrely paradoxical about Davos. The event epitomises the idea driven by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, himself a Davos devotee, that “the world is flat”, to quote the title of his global bestseller, a title said to have been inspired by the aforementioned boss of Infosys. Davos is a celebration of globalisation. But if globalisation has truly made the world flat, why must everyone rush each year to the Swiss mountains to meet each other? In a “flat” world, they would be constantly connected in any case.

            They are not, and the world is not in fact flat. Distance and local culture still matter hugely, and the world remains deeply divided in terms of its economic and social development. The internet and the mobile phone do not make it unnecessary for us to meet people face to face. They actually have made us hungrier for direct contact with each other, for we know that meeting and talking are the real thing, totally different from e-mails and blogs. Hence the appeal of Davos. But there is a big difference between meeting people over a pizza with Beppe Severgnini and doing so at the World Economic Forum.

            One is that there are 2,400 people at the Davos pizza session. It is too many. We all want to talk to Bill Gates or Larry Page or Angela Merkel, but we cannot make ourselves heard if 2,399 others are also trying to do so. The second difference arises from the method the Davos organisers have used, over several decades, to attract all these famous politicians, billionaires and celebrities. It is that they have made the event safe. I don’t mean safe from terrorism, though I hope that is true. I mean safe from surprises and controversy. Things are arranged to avoid argument, confrontation, provocation. It makes for pretty television pictures, but not much else. The discussions at Davos are too safe to be truly interesting.

            Perhaps I have become cynical, maybe even jealous. But on the occasions I have attended Davos I have also found that far from looking at the future, as its publicity claims, it is an excellent guide to last year’s issues. This is because an event of such size and complexity, involving the delicate egos and sensitivities of all those powerful people, has to be planned so far in advance and negotiated carefully with so many governments and business people.

            This year, for example, it is said that a big concern at Davos will be energy and other natural resources: are they running out, how to live in a world of high prices, how to make your supplies secure. These would have been good questions—last year. But since last summer, the oil price has fallen by 35%. The price of copper, which was supposedly going to be permanently expensive because China is installing so many electricity cables, has fallen by 30%. The reason is that the supply of both oil and copper is increasing, thanks to new investment, and demand has not been rising in the way that people imagined. That is how business works: when prices soar, investors rush in to supply the market, and consumers look for cheaper alternatives. Then the price falls. You don’t need to go to Davos to find that out.

            In fact, you don’t need to go to Davos at all. You won’t be missing anything important. At least, I don’t think you will be.


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