Once upon a time, the World Economic Forum was the place to be. The great, the rich and the powerful flocked to the tiny town of Davos in the Swiss mountains to talk about the great issues of the day. Davos hit its peak during the dot-com boom, when it seemed that 25-year-old paper billionaires in T-shirts were going to change the world.
The dot-com guys swaggered about the event in their Birkenstocks and torn jeans, spouting off about frictionless distribution, disruptive technologies, and obsolete business models. The old guys who were running those obsolete business models and actually making money for their shareholders were humbled. After all, you couldn’t talk down to a 25-year-old whose 50-person company was valued at $50 billion, despite the fact that it had no prospect of ever making a profit.
Then the dot-com boom came to a crashing halt. One trillion dollars of investor money disappeared in a blink, and most of the dot-com companies vanished as fast as they had risen. The techies lost their prominence. So the organizers of Davos, ever sensitive to the hot trend of the moment, turned their attention to the next big thing: the financial wizards of the new millennium. The hedge fund guys and the credit–default-swap guys took to swaggering around Davos in their khakis and polo shirts talking about how they were going to change the world.
Then the financial bubble exploded and splattered all the geniuses and almost brought down the world economy. Since Davos is a kind of bellwether for fashionable, intellectual trends among the rich and powerful, looking at it now gives us a hint about what the rich and powerful want to put at the top of their agendas in the coming year.
As the New York Times reported, the complexion of the World Economic Forum has changed in recent years. I mean complexion as in color of participants. One impact of the global recession may be a reset of the distribution of power around the globe. After all, the disaster of the last two years has undermined the credibility of the traditional powers and the free-market, cowboy approach to regulation that the United States championed all over the world for so long.
Back a few years ago, power was centered on the G8, which basically consisted of the United States, the old European powers (France, Germany, Italy, the UK), Russia, Japan and Canada. Since the financial crash of 2008, the elite club has been expanded into the G20, which finally includes Brazil, India and China, countries with large and fast-growing economies that have grown weary of the little Western club telling them what to do—especially when they’ve been so wrong so often.
According to a New York Times report, the makeup of biggies in speaker slots and panels at Davos is also expanding to deal with this new reality. Once almost exclusively dominated by American and European executives, now corporate heads and government leaders from India, Brazil and China are popping up in coveted speaking slots on the World Economic Forum program. China has sent its largest delegation ever. India and Brazil are there in force.
In a speech Wednesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy predicted that the G20, a more inclusive club of the powerful which he will head later this year, is a harbinger of a more participatory decision process about the big issues that affect the world. His comments about excessive compensation for executives received a cool reception from the excessively compensated at the event.
Of course, the Western media has been slower to respond to change than the politicians. Much of the U.S. coverage Thursday focused on a speech by investor George Soros, an icon of the financial wizards who once flocked to Davos. As Daniel Gross points out in Slate, the opinions of Soros and other billionaires on a large variety of subject are fairly mundane. But that’s a result of an attitude shared by too many journalists and wealthy people: that because someone is rich, they must also be wise. All too often, they’ve also been lucky—and in the right place at the right time.
Maybe that is one reason that in all the years the World Economic Forum has been staged, it has not produced much lasting impact. The rich meet with the bright, talk ideals, make deals on the side, ski a little, and go back to running the world just as they have in the past. So for those of you who are not at Davos, my guess is that you’re not missing much.
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.