There probably aren't going to be a lot of grinning-banker photo ops this year out of Davos. Organizers of the World Economic Forum – where scholars, titans of finance, regulators and the business press rub shoulders at high altitude every winter – are said to have draped events in a subdued tone.
Felix Salmon, for one, is skeptical as to whether it will be an effective performance. Salmon writes a scathing dispatch today under a dateline from the Swiss town, saying he's on the lookout for contrition but that he isn't hopeful. "What I see none of in the program is an indication that much if not all of the crisis was caused by the arrogance of Davos Man and by his unshakeable belief that the combined efforts of the world's richest and most powerful individuals would surely make the world a better, rather than a worse, place."
Davos, he adds, is a "an annual symposium of smug sermonizing" that over time grew so influential that it became a kind of embodiment of the emperor with no clothes, providing "a crucial reinforcement mechanism" that helped allow the banking industry get out of control.
Indeed, among all 234 sessions (if I counted right), there aren't many that have an apologetic whiff or that delve, say, into compliance or moral hazard, although one that's titled "Being Responsible for the Future" has potential at first blush. Its panel, however, is made up of the archbishop of Canterbury and six people from Global Changemakers, a U.K. community-activist organization. It's embarrassingly easy to make fun of some of the topics, and to wonder at their relevance. If this is the World Economic Forum – World as in planet Earth – how come there's a panel titled "Life on Other Planets?" Talk about emerging markets. There's also "The Power of Music," "Better Food for Better Health," and "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Reconnecting With Children."
These are all important and legitimate topics somewhere in the fabric of things a civilized society discusses, no doubt, but this is supposed to be the event at which pressing economic issues are seriously addressed. Isn't it?
To its credit, the forum does have some of that stuff on the agenda. There's an hour devoted to "Redesigning Financial Regulation," an hour on "The U.S. Legislative Session: A Global Perspective," and a whole hour and 15 minutes on "Rethinking Systemic Financial Risk" that includes on its panel an number of influential bankers who could in some way help shape public policy, although you have to wonder if maybe they could've devoted a whole day to this one. There's also 90 minutes set aside toward the end of the six-day conference to sum up what everybody's learned. It's called "The Global Agenda 2010: The View from Davos," but the problem I anticipate is that it'll be hampered by a Tower of Babel syndrome. There are 134 people on the list of discussion leaders (if I counted right). Imagine the cacophony.
I don't know what it costs to put on the World Economic Forum, but you have to wonder what would've been lost – and maybe gained – if they'd just cancelled it this year and given the money to something like Haitian relief efforts. There would be an act of contrition.