World Economic Forum: The elites are collapsing but does Davos still have weight?

Davos at high altitude under the dappled spring sun is an unusual week for delegates from around the world to the World Economic Forum aimed at “improving the state of the world”. Cynics are quick to point out that this free-market form of liberal aspiration mixes environmental pledges to save the polar ice cap with helicopter-borne hedgefunders — and a registration form that politely asks if we arrived on commercial flights ( plus a long train ride from Zurich to the Alps) or by private jet. The meeting, usually held during the ski season in January, has been postponed twice in the Covid era: hence the sandals instead of après-skis this week.

Something else has changed too. Even the official “Forum” communiqués acknowledge that this meeting took place “in the context of deepening global frictions and fractures as the starting point for a new era of global responsibility and cooperation”. Here is the hope. But the Davos of liberal outlook and markets is once again strained as a new spiral of recession and inflation reminds us of the 1970s, when the early years of Davos faced the shock of oil prices and a divided Europe of the cold war.

AFP via Getty Images

The war in Ukraine, post-Covid concerns about how to rebuild economies more fairly and the specter of a possible return of Donald Trump or an avatar of his inward-looking politics haunt the meeting. There is a more fractured mood among the elites themselves: George Soros, the grand old figure of the liberal consensus, blamed Angela Merkel (a former favorite here) for boosting Germany’s economic strength during her reign on the basis of “special agreements” with Russia. for energy supplies, which now seem myopic at best, arrogant at worst.

Hungarian-born American investor and philanthropist George Soros smiles after delivering a speech on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos on May 24, 2022.

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Henry Kissinger, who beats Soros for seniority at 98 and still commands the main stage, pointed to a coming split between Ukraine’s allies – between those who agreed with the video message of President Volodymyr Zelensky that “It’s very simple – Ukraine must win”. and Kissinger’s view that an embarrassing Russian defeat in Ukraine could worsen Europe’s long-term stability.

Overall, however, it has been the “Ukrainian Davos” – with wealthy figures like Victor Pinchuk funding a Russia House takeover to mount an exhibit on war crimes from the killing fields in Ukraine – and Russia was firmly disinvited. China is also sending far fewer guests (around 10) – partly because its Covid check has gone awry, but also as a withdrawal from the pledge. India, on the other hand, celebrates 75 years of independence with a huge presence.

An embarrassing Russian defeat in Ukraine could worsen Europe’s long-term stability, Kissinger says

As much as this elite gathering is derided as an echo chamber, it is beginning to reflect the cracks of a progressive liberalism under strain and with conflicting views on what needs to be done to improve “the state”. of the world” at a time when a food crisis threatens the poorest countries and the global economy is reeling from the shocks of blocked supply chains and soaring energy prices.

Olaf Scholz, who was attending the meeting for the first time as Germany’s new chancellor, showed up on Thursday to defend a mixed message on Ukraine. Others on the international A-list of influence thought it was safer to stay out of the company of billionaires during a cost-of-living crisis – President Biden sent in climate envoy John Kerry ( a man who has racked up a generous stack of planet-saving air miles).

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz addresses a plenary session during the 51st annual meeting of the World Economic Forum


The traditional British Chancellor’s lunch on Tuesday at the grand Belvedere Hotel has been scrapped, which is a shame because Rishi Sunak is the kind of urban, finance-savvy figure Davos loves. Perhaps because of this and the shadow of his own struggles with his wife’s non-dom status and the difficulties of Sue Gray’s report, he was quietly dropped from the program.

Celebrity numbers were slimmer this year, which (unfortunately for me) meant more encounters with Priyanka Chopra backstage, confident she needed to find her hairstylist “urgently”, or the jolly Matt Damon in the cable car up the “magic mountain”, catching up with his former Harvard roommate, economist Jason Furman: “Dude, he was the jerk of all jerks”.

Once I hitchhiked in a shiny black minivan with Bono along icy roads. Under the showers and the sun, we walk. Still, it wouldn’t be Davos without a bit of fun. The “YGL” (Young Global Leaders), referred to here as our future bosses, jumped to the Cloudflare party with electronic duo The Chainsmokers. The classical crowd hung out with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax. YouTube influencers Nas Daily on Tech and Mark Vins, whose animal channel has 20 million subscribers, are now drawing crowds as much as former tech gurus.

Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma

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Finance titans like Bank of America are still here, but Davos 2022 is also dazzled by Blockchain digital currencies, with figureheads like former White House communications boss and New York moneyboots Anthony Scaramucci hosting its annual “wine forum” (AKA late-night party with better vintages than the rest), alongside Jeff Schumacher, a surfer-like blockchain entrepreneur with homes in London and Los Angeles. They hope to “catalyze the adoption of algorand” (which I think means aiming to link traditional currencies and blockchain, although the cryptographic language is now such dense jargon that it requires an official interpreter).

Fintech events are jam-packed, as Davos Man (and yes, far fewer women with white full attendee badges) determine who to support. Adena Friedman, the glamorous head of Nasdaq, tells me that stock markets are so volatile that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for asset managers to find low-risk bets – but for those who make inspired bets, the future gains will be enormous. “In the markets, there is always the day after tomorrow,” she says.

Nasdaq CEO Adena Friedman

/ PA

Not everyone likes the week of late nights and the 6:30 breakfast starts discussing the Fourth Industrial Revolution, even though they regularly attend. Even some of the regulars seem tired of mountain hiking in a hard-to-reach corner of Europe and room costs going absolutely crazy for this week. An acquaintance paid over £10,000 for a two-bedroom apartment for five days. Two-star hotels can command upwards of €3,000 for the week as demand is huge.

FT business columnist Rana Foroohar grumbled: ‘Why do we keep putting ourselves through this charade? The idea that 0.1% saves the world has been discredited. But I’ll stick my head out for Davos, despite all its nonsense and conflicting good intentions and self-awareness. It’s a place where complacent liberalism sees the challenges of new generations like Amanda Nguyen, 30, who founded the Rise movement in the United States to reform the legal rights of rape victims after her own experience following a an assault, and the Sudanese- American rap poet Emi Mahmoud made an impromptu late turn at the Politico party.

Emtithal “Emi” Mahmoud

/ Mike Lawrence/Getty Images for G

It’s also a place where you can hear central bankers swap notes on rising interest rates over coffee, listen to tech stars like Kai Fu Lee reflect on the US-China trade war, but also hear a

talk about medical psychedelics (good for treating lingering depression), growing artificial foods, and how to measure global warming in the Arctic with new devices as portable as a household tape measure. I’m also an advocate for the ‘serious things’ the Forum does between its meetings, such as launching a new ‘Education 4.0’ campaign to accelerate education reforms across the world at a time when Covid has harmed results of millions of children. , public budgets fall and philanthropists find other causes more attractive.

And in a time when the conversation might seem more tribal and narrow, it’s also a place, for all its good-two-(expensive)-shoe aspirations, where there are enough people with fresh, thoughtful ideas. hope to improve the state of the beaten world. , even when the obstacles seem intimidating. So yes, it is of course an often annoying little bubble of privileges. But consider the alternatives to liberalism and economic innovation that Davos represents – there are far worse belief systems haunting the world. The hardest part is making it work when we all come back to the real world, down the magic mountain.

Melvin B. Baillie