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Mann Meets Humanity in Davos

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As world leaders prepared for the World Economic Forum's annual fête in Davos, Switzerland in January, the event continued to embody what is arguably the most pressing irony of capitalism today. The problem of too much -- over-consumption, excessive rewards for an elite few -- flaunts alongside the problem of too little -- resource scarcity and extreme poverty for a less fortunate many. As politically and economically motivated uprisings sprouted around the world this past year, these problems also coexisted at Davos, one seeking to help solve the other while at the same time being blamed for being its primary cause.

More ironies abound in Davos. The program is replete with sessions on climate change mitigation, yet last year's "Greener Davos" still meant thousands of people flew to Zurich before busing another few hours to reduce carbon emissions, where executives' hired drivers waited to take upwards of 15 trips each day ushering their superiors from session to meal to social gathering. Every day, sometimes two or three times in a day, the same hotel hallways are gutted, rebuilt, and transformed, rebranded with disposable materials for yet another unique corporate host. Side discussions are distracted by outside-world incidents of the less powerful protesting against their leaders, yet the great majority of meeting delegates are elite, well-paid executives, academics, and politicians who, more than to solve problems, are there to make connections. One walks down the hallways and sidewalks overhearing the same dominant bits of conversations: "We are looking to acquire... ," "There's a lot of money to be made there... ," and "Well, there's got to be a business case... " When boasting of their corporate citizenship, executives peculiarly apologize for their compassion, preferring the lower common denominator of economic rationality: "We're not doing it to be good citizens; we're doing it for the money. That's the beauty of it."

Amid urgent calls for greater economic equality, among these elites there is a tangible sense of entitlement, most visible around 10:30 p.m. in the Belvedere Hotel lobby when the coat-check is at its busiest and the tempers shorten among people unaccustomed to waiting for anything. The annual meeting, held in a space-confined Congress Centre, is a caste system of white-badge holders (official delegates invited by the Forum and/or paid for by their institutions), other badge-holders (some of whom have been granted limited participation, and most of whom are delegates' staff), and the rest of the forlorn, badge-less world, who are turned back by a ubiquitous police presence.

As one in the middle category last year at my first Davos, I experienced both the exhilaration of partial belonging and the painful sting of rejection when, in a cold, searing wind and seeking a restroom at the foot of some of the most beautiful peaks I had ever seen, I was forced on a long, winding, and hilly pedestrian detour around the Congress Centre to a place where my kind was allowed.

For my spare time reading, I declined to download to my iPad the day's hot Davos authors diagnosing how capitalism should be fixed. I knew that I would hear enough on that topic without having to read about it, too. Instead, I trudged along the snow-packed sidewalks with my old-fashioned, Modern Library edition of Thomas Mann's 1924 novel The Magic Mountain, the setting for which was a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients set in pre-World War I Davos. Aptly for the 21st century economic transition, the book provided a metaphor for the fall of one Western empire and the rise of the next power. Among other things, Mann diagnoses the problem with the human condition as one of measurement, in which even those who feel healthy stay in the Alpine retreat away from the problems and pleasures of the real world below because the thermometer insists that they are unhealthy. So the problem with the human condition today is that we insist against reason on the need for worldwide growth, when what we really need is for the world of plenty to give up its obsession with economic growth and the rest of the world in need to embrace human development. In other words, we need just reallocation more than we need economic regeneration.

Aside from the poetic symmetry imposed by my interpretation of "this Davos" (as people there are wont to say when they mean for you to know that it is not a once-in-a-while experience for them), I experienced a memorable, serendipitous irony. Getting lost on the walk back to my apartment on my first snowy evening in the dimly lit outskirts of the town centre, I was growing desperate as the time neared 2:00 in the morning. I found the nearest place where I might find someone awake to ask directions: the hospital. Entering the main floor, expecting to meet a robust security presence, all I discovered was darkness, as though I had broken in. Taking the elevator down to the emergency room, I turned the wrong way toward a ward that, as best as I could make out from the red capital letters, should be avoided. I was relieved to be spied through the glass doors by an old, wrinkled nurse, with whom I shared only enough language to explain to her that I was not sick, but rather lost. As she tried to point me toward my destination, she bellowed a deep, doubtful, phlegmatic laugh, as though she was unconvinced of my self-diagnosis: Suggesting that I, and the rest of my ilk, might remain stuck at this altitude for much longer than the short week that was planned.