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Rubbing Shoulders In Davos

At this time each year, the world's center of gravity shifts to a remote ski resort on the Swiss Alp that Thomas Mann used as the setting for his tragi-comedy, The Magic Mountain

For sheer power politicking, no other gathering can match the World Economic Forum in Davos. It's a magnet that attracts some 500 world leaders and statesmen, 500 intellectuals, and 1,000 business heavyweights -- who pay $20,000 each to schmooze with the first two groups.

Call it the ultimate encounter of power and money. The corporate assets controlled by the business executives at this annual super summit -- one observer has calculated -- exceed the net worth of all the member governments in the United Nations.

For a long weekend, they attend seminars and panels on everything from Star Wars to web stars. But what they really come for is the talk -- over drinks, at meals, in the coffee shops and on the ski slopes. Schemes are spun, deals are made. Problems are resolved.

Name tags are hardly needed. Bill Gates and Yasser Arafat wander through the corridors of the conference center.

There are often memorable moments at Davos. I remember one -- at the beginning of the 1990's -- when a small man stood up in the back row of a meeting on foreign policy and identified himself as the president of a country no one had ever heard of. He warned that terrible things would happen in Bosnia-Herzegovina if the world did not take notice. The world did not take notice.

The world leaders who show up each year are a good barometer of what's going on. There are fewer Russian officials this year because the West is no longer willing to hand out large amounts of money to bail out the Russian economy. And for the first time, an American President in office is attending: Mr. Clinton's American Economic Miracle is the talk of Davos.

Hype and hypocrisy flow like the cocktails in the hotel lounges.

Davos is such a tempting target that is hard to resist the urge to take a shot at it. Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's magazine, let loose a wry broadside in a new book that offers a lexicon of Davos buzzwords. It includes these gems:

  • Civil liberties: Favors granted to minorities, criminals, radicals and the undeserving poor. Extremely expensive.
  • Consensus: Preferable to argument. It speaks in a voice not unlike that of the concierge in a first-class hotel.
  • Global economy: Wonderfully ornate mechanism engineered by wise financiers to guarantee mankind's happiness. Requires the participation of investors rather than citizens.

And by the way, there are really serious concerns this year that someone will take a real shot at the Men Who Run the World in Davos. Everyone is worried about a spillover of the protests in Seattle. The Swiss gendarmes are ready, if necessary, to repel an assault on the Magic Mountain.

By Tom Fenton
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