The Wacky World Economic Forum The mountain enclave of Davos, Switzerland, seems hardly big enough for the 1,000 corporate CEOs and 27 heads of state gathering for the World Economic forum. Slate's Daniel Gross squeezes in.
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The Wacky World Economic Forum

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The Wacky World Economic Forum

The Wacky World Economic Forum

The Wacky World Economic Forum

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The mountain enclave of Davos, Switzerland, seems hardly big enough for the 1,000 corporate CEOs and 27 heads of state gathering for the World Economic forum. Slate's Daniel Gross squeezes in.

ALLISON STEWART, host:

Hey, thanks, Rachel. So we're back from Sundance. Now, if you think the small ski town on Park City, Utah is a scene overrun with celebrities and celeburatti(ph) and - you should check out the scene in this tiny Swiss enclave of Davos, which is just lousy with the global power elite. Just replace Robert Redford and Jared Leto with Henry Kissinger and Bill Gates. Okay, it doesn't quite translate, I know.

(Soundbite of laughter).

TOURE: Not quite as good-looking.

STEWART: Each January, for the past 38 years, the World Economic Forum hits Davos, Switzerland, where chief execs from the world's top 1,000 companies and some 27 heads of state, as well as leaders form academia are contemplating the world's financial markets, where they go from here. Whoo, whoo, party.

Live from Davos is Daniel Gross, a senior editor at Newsweek and columnist for Slate, who's been blogging about the forum.

Hi, Daniel.

Mr. DANIEL GROSS (Senior Editor, Newsweek; Columnist, Slate): Hi, guys. How are you?

STEWART: Doing great. So as you read the guest list at Davos, it's a sort of this who's who of I am insanely wealthy and influential. You had George Soros, the Google guy, even Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair. Who were some of the other headliners?

Mr. GROSS: Well, let's see. Tony Blair, Kissinger, Bono was here this morning, Al Gore, Condi Rice, Jean-Claude Trichet, the head of the European Central Bank, various sheikhs, sultans, pretty much every…

STEWART: Oh, my.

Mr. GROSS: …type of authoritarian dictator. They've got some of those here, too. So it runs the whole gamut.

TOURE: Is there somebody that you can assert is the alpha among alphas?

Mr. GROSS: That really hasn't asserted itself, in part, because so many of the financial bigwigs, you know, like, the CEOs of the giant banks who usually come and make a big splash, they're all in pretty big trouble. In fact, some of them aren't coming here at all.

It's been a parlor game among journalists to kind at, you know, is John Thain, who's the - he's the new CEO of Merrill Lynch. Is he going to show up? Henry Paulson, the U.S. treasury secretary, cancelled because, as you reported, they're working on this fiscal stimulus package.

STEWART: Hmm.

Mr. GROSS: A year ago, there was a sense the CEO of Citigroup said, you know, the economy is so benign, you know, and within a few months, he was out of a job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROSS: So a lot of, like, the big shots who see this as a time to sort of unwind, literally feel like they can't leave the office because their job might not be there when they get back.

STEWART: Yeah, seriously. Let's talk about the markets in the past week. I'm sure it wasn't necessarily on the agenda for discussion. I'm wondering, has it wormed its way into every conversation, or is everybody just deciding to look the other way and say, oh, look at the pretty mountains?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROSS: Oh, absolutely. You know, for - strange as this may seem, because journalists are really jaded about Davos, but a lot of these executives who, you know, actually have to work all day and don't have time to sit around reading blogs and reading magazines, they look forward to Davos as a time to, you know, think and talk about things they never can. You know, what's going on in Sub-Saharan Africa, you know, the latest in sort of consumer information technology products, you know, the talks about the world water supply.

It's a chance for them to kind of get outside of their quotidian little lives and look at these big-picture topics. But, of course, this year, everyone's thumbing their BlackBerries to see what's going on in the stock market. So the world has really kind of intruded into this alpine haven.

STEWART: Although I don't think all those people have quotidian little lives…

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: …or their quotidian little lives is like the corporate jet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Let's just put that in perspective. I think it's interesting, though, you describe talking about all these big, serious issues. One of the panels up there is the Science of Love panel quote, "How can neuroscience and anthropology explain why, how, with whom and when we form attachments, experience passion and fall in love?" So I can imagine being…

Mr. GROSS: And, you know, Bill Clinton was supposed to be the headliner on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Oh, no.

Mr. GROSS: No. I kid.

STEWART: I kid. I kid. So, but what does that have to do with the global economy, exactly?

Mr. GROSS: I think it doesn't. I think they like to build in a certain amount of kind of intentional (unintelligible). And, you know, which as you may guess, that's a panel discussion that is tightly scripted, and where entry is very tightly controlled.

STEWART: There's a former reporter, who I was reading his blog, and he just finally seems like he could unleash about Davos. And he calls it a PR miracle. And he said what he really loved about it, not the panels, not discussion, he loved the spectacle of the whole thing.

Mr. GROSS: Oh, it this absolutely is. Yes.

STEWART: Can you describe what he means?

Mr. GROSS: You sit here in the Congress Centre with your laptop, and they have good Wi-Fi. And there's free coffee everywhere, and the world goes by. I was sitting yesterday, and within 20 minutes, Henry Kissinger comes through looking for a country to bomb.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROSS: Condi Rice walks by, Tony Blair, and, you know, they're all on their cell phones…

STEWART: Wait. Did he tell you that? Did Henry Kissinger, I'm looking for a country.

Mr. GROSS: No. He just had that look in his eye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Oh, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROSS: We did Laos. We did Cambodia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROSS: How about Slovenia?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: My goodness. My goodness. These are the opinions of Daniel Gross from Newsweek and Slate, by the way.

Let's see, we're talking to him about the Davos conference, and just really what a spectacle it is. After all these meetings, though, what happens with all this information, all these great minds, some people who have run countries as you said, run corporations, what happens with all the information they share with each other? They just go home?

Mr. GROSS: Basically. You know, there is a certain amount of, I think every year on Saturday, that there tend to be some actual trade negotiations. I don't think it's quite evolved into a deal-making summit. You know at these - there's this famous media executive summit out in Idaho in Sun Valley every year, where, you know, Warren Buffet will be on the golf course with Michael Eisner, and they'll decide to sell, you know, ABC to Disney.

I don't get the sense that that happens so much here. I just think there's a lot more networking, face time and very rapid-fire exchanging of business cards. Among the instructions to Davos newbies like myself was to pack more business cards than you ever thought you'd need because people tend to run out.

TOURE: What is Bono's role out there?

Mr. GROSS: You know, I actually saw him. He was - Google and YouTube have a thing set up where they pose the Davos question. The Davos question is what one thing can you do to make the world a better place? And they get all these people to stand in front of the Web cam and talk - you know, for 40 seconds. So they had, you know, Henry Kissinger and Shimon Peres. And one of their big guests this morning was Bono, who went after he did his panel, and he looks in the camera and goes - you should check it out on YouTube - and goes, my name's Bono, and I'm a rock star. So his job is to be a rock star here.

STEWART: All righty then.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: At least he knows. Newsweek and Slate columnist Daniel Gross, live from Davos at the World Economic Forum.

Hey, thanks for sharing your reporting.

Mr. GROSS: Anytime. Take care.

TOURE: Stay tuned. I got the best song in the world today. The big reveal is coming up next. This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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