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What If Davos Actually Worked?

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Later this week, the world's elite will once again gather in Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting. For those of us not attending, you can think of the Davos conference as a kind of Olympic Village for the powerful. In any given year, there will likely be no greater concentration of influence, sheer talent and wealth than at Davos.

Which makes it all the more disappointing that, by many accounts, little is actually accomplished there.

World-class networking opportunities aside, there's considerable gloom surrounding this year's events, even from the normally supportive media. "Who needs a World Economic Forum?" the BBC asked, while the U.K.'s Telegraph grimly wondered, "Does all the talking make a difference?"

Even the WEF's founder, Klaus Schwab, alluded to the weariness of the tone at Davos this year by warning that the economic recovery may be hindered by "global burnout syndrome." "We have in the world a situation where the political system and the institutions are just overwhelmed by the complexity which they have to face," Schwab told Reuters last week.

This may explain why, sprinkled amid jargon like "Global Risk Response Mechanism" and "Inclusive Growth," the WEF's theme this year is the dreary "Shared Norms For A New Reality."

But what if Davos actually worked? Below, we've suggested -- okay, not entirely seriously -- a few ways the world could benefit if the Davos attendees dropped the rhetoric and got down to business:

  • Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, slated to be the conference's opening speaker, would realize that his country can't use Davos to solicit private investment shortly after imprisoning a billionaire in a trial widely viewed as a sham. Many Davos attendees would be dumbstruck upon their first introduction to the concept of "hypocrisy."
  • The conference's title would change to "How We Can Help."
  • Chastened by the 2010 words of Greek prime minister George Papandreou, who told a Davos crowd "We need no bilateral loans" -- just a few months before his country received a massive bilateral loan -- the world's elite would collectively agree on the meaning of "no."
  • With two "strategic partner" tickets to Davos costing somewhere near $301,000, per Andrew Ross Sorkin's estimates, the nonprofit WEF would prominently display a statement of the total revenue pulled in each year, as well as the cost to put on the soiree. Conference attendees would then be able to property assess the value of their Davos swag.
  • Despite Medvedev's fielding questions via social media, the Davos crowd would realize that just because you're on Twitter doesn't mean you're transparent. Or support human rights.
  • The Davos organizers, recalling their "inclusive growth" theme, would stop prevaricating about a shortage of qualified female attendees and realize they can't become an "unrivaled platform to shape the global agenda" without full representation from the group that makes up roughly half the world's population.
  • World leaders would agree that though there are "dumb regulations" and bad taxes, there are just as many dumb, if profitable, business ideas and bad CEOs. In a burst of inspiration, the Davos crowd would agree to ditch the Manichean framing of taxes and economic growth. For a lesson, the attendees would consider the entrepreneurial haven of Norway.
  • Instead of waiting until 2019, the bankers in attendance would agree to adopt all of the Basel III requirements, including rules increasing the amount of capital banks must hold against losses. The move would set off a global race to become the healthiest bank in the world. On the news, stock prices would magically rise somehow.
  • Climate change, on the heels of the U.N.'s recent meeting in Cancun, would be recognized as a environmental, social and political threat -- and, crucially, a threat to ski conditions at future Davos conferences.
  • Journalists would recognize the terms "pro-business" and "pro-growth" for what they are: euphemisms for a specific set of interests shared by large and powerful corporations. Still, conference attendees would unanimously agree that a "pro-business" global agenda is necessary.
  • Bankers like Barclays chief Bob Diamond would realize that blaming the banking industry for what the IMF has estimated is a $2.28-trillion loss in global wealth is both necessary and deserved -- even if he skipped a bonus or two.
  • After widespread worries about his emotional well being, conference founder Klaus Schwab would stop warning of "global burnout syndrome" and begin cautioning about an excess of "reasoned optimism."
  • Even if the world is heading into, as one top analyst put it, a"super cycle" of economic growth, the Davos-scenti would realize that the bust from our last period of hyper-growth exacted enormous social costs on much of the world. Including, but not limited to much of Africa and Latin America and a tiny group known as the American middle class, which has yet to send an envoy to Davos.
  • Noted Davos grinch Felix Salmon's faith in conferences would be gloriously restored. And, by extension, we'd all feel better about attending our next panel on establishing a "multistakeholder community."

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