Davos09: The Davos vacuum

Maybe in some session at Davos or over some dinner table, someone’s discussing substantial ideas and plans for ending the mess. But I haven’t been there. Instead, I was in a CNBC debate this morning as representatives from business, government, markets, and multilaterals were supposed to argue the point. And this most complex of subjects was turned into 2-D cable TV as we in the silent audience were supposed to vote – interactivity’s all the rage, you know – on each of four propositions delivered in about a minute before an irritating clock cut them off. It’s as if we were supposed to say, “Yes, that’s it: Let the stock exchanges take care of it all. Good. Our work here is done. Let’s go skiing.” The snow here is much thicker than the discussion.

We heard protective self-interest, as many of the leaders preemptively argued against what they fear most. Howard Lutkin of Cantor Fitzgerald was the most growly on the point. “Let’s just make banking boring and we’ll go back to a better time, like the 1920s,” he sneered to discussion about regulation. “Boring is good,” said the chairman of Lloyds. It took a long time before we even heard the word transparency as part of a fix and then the representative of corporations snarked that “transparency is OK in principle.” But who’d want to try it in practice?

This was all foreplay. The consummation came when Montek Ahluwalia, a government official in India, listed five reasons why only government can take the lead:
* recapitalizing banks, which only government can do
* fiscal stimulus, which only government can provide
* avoiding protectionism, which only government can have the courage and will to do
* working with the developing world – government again
* cooperating among nations: government.
He pointed out how well India’s regulation and banking systems are working. Government.

Finally, the heads nodded all around, most of them resigned. It’s government’s day. There’s a session here on the the new dawn of government. Even Lutkin knows that’s where it’s headed — his head nodded, too — but he still snapped that once government gets involved in banking, it won’t get out. I wonder why CNBC didn’t start the session with the proposition that governments are in charge now and ask what they should do; it would have saved us and the viewers at home a hot mountain air with little oxygen.

Martin Sorrell made the most important point in the discussion: It’s our money being used now and we must have more of a voice in how it is being used. Someone else pointed out that at least politicians — unlike CEOs or nongovernmental commissioners or market bosses — are answerable to their publics every few years.

And that’s supposed to make us feel better — somebody is in charge now — until we remember everything that government fucked up. It didn’t watch, didn’t regulate, and encouraged the madness. Once disaster came, governments have squandered billions — soon trillions — of our money without goals or accountability, with our money going to dividends and salaries for those who already skimmed too much off the latte that was our economy. Where’s the plan? I haven’t seen it here.

I’m talking with other people who are getting more depressed as the day goes on and here, I think, is why: We are surrounded by the leaders who fucked it up: bankers, marketeers, regulators, and the press. They were in charge. That’s what Davos is: the people in charge. So who’s to say that we’re going to find the answers in Davos? Well, the people in Davos will. But I think the evidence is strong that the answer is not here.

I’m going skiing.