The Breakdown

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My favorite quote from the big New Yorker Davos piece

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34150 full

It's already been widely blogged about, but I'll throw my two cents in. Nick Paumgarten has a lengthy article in the March 5 New Yorker about his first trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It's something of a picaresque, in the sense that Paumgarten seems to take it all about half seriously and hangs out with a fair number of Davos attendees who might not fit Samuel Huntington's classic definition of Davos Man. But that's the social-whirl-party-down-oh-look-it's-Chelsea-Clinton aspect. 

It's fine, but there are some more interesting parts. Here's my personal favorite:

I walked into a panel one morning in time to hear Kumi Naidoo, the South African human-rights activist who now serves as the executive director of Greenpeace, intone, melodiously, “Those in power ignore the growing frustration and desperation at their own peril.”

Naidoo had been to Davos eleven times, the first eight as the secretary-general of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty. “When I came in that capacity, I never could get a C.E.O. to talk to me,” he told me later. “I used to follow them into the toilet. I met Bill Clinton in 2003, when we were standing next to each other at the urinals. When I came as Greenpeace, two years ago, I was amazed how keen they were to meet me. A C.E.O. told me, ‘Some of my peers are eager to have you at their table so they won’t be on your menu.’ ”

He went on, “The problem here is the preference for incremental thinking—baby steps. They talk more about system recovery than about system design.” [my emphasis]

Okay, now that's something you can chew on. I don't think I've read a better and more succinct analysis of the "Davos problem," post financial crisis. Obviously, the WEF has been meeting in Davos almost uninterruptedly since the 1970s. It has come to express a point of view (as Paumgarten notes) about dealing with global problems and — in theory — advancing the cause of democracy and enlightened capitalism.

But none of the meetings, panels, or parties could head off the meltdown in 2009. And ever since, Davos has been trying to figure out what to do next, if not overtly then in marginal discussions about whether the WEF is still worthwhile or whether it completely blew it and is now rightfully disgraced.

Naidoo is correct in his analysis. Davos is doing Humpty Dumpty, trying to put the global economic order back together again when the correct approach is to begin developing a successor framework. System recovery versus system design. Simple.

Except of course that system design isn't really what Davos Man does. He — and even sometimes she — has been engineered for the incrementalism that Naidoo identifies. It starts early, in college, and never really ends. This is why Davos has become about fixing the wrecked boat rather than trying to figure out how to build an airplane. The flavor of the event remains overstimulated conservatism: a burble of ostensibly disruptive ideas that in the end need to be plugged into a familiar order.

I have a hard time believing that system design can happen in a staged environment. These days, the design process has become far too distributed. As Paumgarten points out, the movers and shakers of the world use Davos as a kind of grand Alpine meet-up opportunity. But they're just jetting in and jetting out. Absent are the system designers who are trying to articulate alternatives, based on their experience with many different global nodes and an exposure to time frames that could be measured in decades.

A lot to extract from one little quote. But it's all there if you read closely.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.

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