Daniel Gross, of Slate.com, spent three days at the Davos, Switzerland “World Economic Forum,” and among the high powered economists, CEOs, and academics in attendance he could find no optimists about the world economy.
And apparently many of those speaking from the podium were engaging in big time “Casandra-ing.”
Alarmists, from hedge-fund manager George Soros to historian Niall Ferguson, spun elaborate tales of catastrophe. Ferguson boldly concluded that the United States was destined for a decade of extremely lame growth. Economists were universally downbeat, which isn’t totally surprising. (They don’t call economics the dismal science for nothing.) Those who had successfully predicted the debacle, like Nouriel Roubini, New York University’s Dr. Doom, were elevated to prime speaking slots. Last year, the hot topics were sustainability and decoupling—the notion that developed markets could boom even if the United States stalled. This year, failure and depression were the chief subject of discussion.
CEOs were easy to spot by their casual dress. In one of the strange anthropological twists of Davos, the more you make, the more you dress down. Journalists and intellectuals, thinking they’re going to be around a lot of CEOs and money managers, wear suits and ties. CEOs and money managers, thinking they’re going to be rubbing tweed-patched elbows with journalists and intellectuals, dress down. But the encounters I had with CEOs made me feel as if I were an undergraduate reading Waiting for Godot again: lots of non sequiturs, uncomfortable silence, and existential angst.
The Waiting for Godot reference may be saying more than the author was aware, for it was written by Beckett (in France) just after the world had experienced a fifteen year trauma that began with a global economic depression, saw the rise of highly polarized right and left wing politicians in response (including Hitler), and culminated in World War II.
In short, let’s hope we are not living, at this moment, in “Weimar 2.0”, in which, because of economic trauma, moderate and democratic constitutional politics break down, and authoritarians rise to power and plunge the world into global war. Let’s hope that this is not a time when Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming”, is a harbinger of our future (as it was when he wrote it in 1921):
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
As Yeats’s poem suggests, when certain social and economic assumptions, and centrist politics, cease to “hold”, it can lead to “the blood dimmed tide” (wars).
I am deeply sobered by the mood at Davos, for serious international economic troubles can portend cycles of profound political polarization and global violence.
Let’s hope that the mood at Davos is a “lagging indicator” of the world’s actual direction, and that the global economy is in fact poised for at least a modest rebound by early next year.
While we occupy ourselves, like Beckett’s hobos, alongside the metaphorical traintracks of history, and “wait for Godot,” might we at least consider putting on happy faces?
This video was made back in 1988: