Mood Shifts At Davos Economic Conference

The World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, wraps up Sunday. Pulitzer Prize-winning economist Daniel Yergin, a Davos veteran, he tells host Jacki Lyden about the stark difference between this and previous years.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Jacki Lyden. With the week of devastating layoffs at home and angry workers striking and demonstrating across the globe, it's clear people are looking for answers. The world's economic leaders wrap up their annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland tomorrow, and it is still unclear whether those answers will be here anytime soon.

Today in nearby Geneva, hundreds of protesters clashed with riot police. Their argument? The leaders of the conference are responsible for the crisis and not the ones to solve it. Daniel Yergin is in Davos. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and chairman of Cambridge Energy Research associates. He's been attending the Davos Conference for more than 15 years. And he said the change this time around was palpable.

Dr. DANIEL YERGIN (Chairman, Cambridge Energy Research Associates): In past years, the focus has been on globalization and pretty much confidence in it. This year, it's all about what's gone wrong in the world economy and how bad the crisis is. And really it's also a fundamental challenge in a way I've never seen it before to capitalism American style.

LYDEN: One panel was called, "The Death of the Washington Consensus," and that refers to the free market philosophy that the U.S. and international organizations forced on East Asia and Russia decades ago. This year, China and Russia really had a lot to say about that.

Dr. YERGIN: Yeah, I think that it was a really across-the-board critique of what was seen as American capitalism and holding the United States responsible, in one form or another. Some were more strident in it than others.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attacked what he called the economic egoism of the United States and described the whole credit system as basically a giant pyramid scheme. The Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was more polite and diplomatic, but as he went through his list of the reasons for the crisis, every one of them was basically, without quite saying it, laid at the doorstep of the United States.

LYDEN: Globalization, of course, was supposed to be the new greater good that would lift the fortunes of many countries around the world and certainly developing countries. Is globalization itself as a concept now somewhat diminished?

Dr. YERGIN: Well, I think it is somewhat on the ropes, but on the other hand, if you look at a China, hundreds and millions of people in China are no longer poor, they are in the middle class, middle income, and that's because of globalization.

And I think the recognition here is you can't go back very easily to a more fragmented world, or if you do you'll end up with lower economic growth, but that it's not acceptable to have a kind of system without the kind of appropriate regulation and understanding of the risks that are being carried.

LYDEN: In recent years, Davos has come to have almost the feeling of the Oscars for certain business leaders and countries with swag bags of iPods and that sort of thing. This year, I can only imagine that there had to be a lot more sobriety. Could you sort of take us into the hallways and tell us at a granular level what it felt like?

Dr. YERGIN: Yeah, I think that the discussion in the hallways was people swapping impressions about how was your business doing? How hard has it been hit? What is going to happen to the banking system? And the kind of celebration that was marked in fancy parties and lots of goodies and things like that, you didn't see very much of that at all. About the only thing that one really got was here and there was a small box of Swiss chocolates.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Daniel Yergin is the author of "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power." He's just released an updated paperback version of that book, and he joins us from Davos, Switzerland. Thanks for taking the time, and enjoy those chocolates.

Dr. YERGIN: Thank you, indeed.

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