Wasting Time At Davos

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David Paterson, the governor of New York State, will be attending the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, along with aides and several state troopers, sparking rumors that Switzerland is a hot bed of extremists who might cause Paterson physical harm. The press is unhappy that he will be there, instead of staying home, where he could be working to find solutions to the severe economic crisis in New York State.

It is noteworthy that so many CEOs of failing companies and heads of faltering governments are showing up in Davos to exchange pleasantries and listen to lectures which are unlikely to offer even modest clues about how the recession might be halted or reversed. Why should a group of economists or business titans travel to Davos to hear commentary about why the economy is broken when there are so many intelligent and conflicting opinions in their home countries?

So, it is alarming that Michael Dell, the founder and CEO of Dell (DELL) will be at Davos. He cannot lay off people fast enough back in his hometown of Austin. The chairman of Lloyd’s will be there. Lord Levene can say he was away from London when the UK nationalized his company due to massive losses. John Thain, who was the head of Merrill Lynch and was fired from its parent, Bank of America (BAC), is scheduled to attend. After Merrill reported a $15 billion loss no one expected, he may decide to cancel. BAC will certainly not cover the cost of his travel..

A very large number of government officials will also attend. This list includes the heads of Germany, Japan, and the premier of The People’s Republic of China.

The president of Senegal will be at Davos. So will the prime minister of Albania and the president of Azerbaijan. While these people would not knowingly or maliciously waste the time of the other attendees, they almost certainly have nothing useful to say to the CEOs of Coca-Cola (KO) and PepsiCo (PEP) who will be among those flying to Switzerland for the gathering.

The Forum’s description of its own goals is magnificent: "The Meeting will be focused on managing the current crisis and shaping the entire post-crisis agenda, from economic reform to climate change." The organizers add: "The objective of the Annual Meeting 2009 is to catalyse a holistic and systematic approach to improve the state of the world in a manner that integrates all stakeholders of global society." Since no one has any idea when the "post-crisis" period will begin or what will usher it in, that portion of the program should be unusually well attended.

The global economic crisis will not be helped by listening to people like Michael Dell who have failed at their own enterprises. It will only fuel the mistaken belief that collections of important people are essential to solving problems that cannot be solved if they stay in their offices. In those offices, executives would actually have to do the brutal work required to keep people employed and politicians would have to keep the populations in volatile regions sullen rather than mutinous.

For those exercising poor enough judgment to spend several days in Switzerland, all that can be said is "how can we miss you when you won’t go away."

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Douglas A. McIntyre