In Dante's Inferno, sinners were punished by having to continually be reminded of their crimes for eternity. For example, fortune tellers were forced to walk backward with their heads twisted backward as well. And usurers had a bag of money tied around their heads that they could never ever touch.
If Dante had to come up with a punishment for today's global elites, he just might make them attend an endless conference in the town of Davos, Switzerland. Each morning for eternity, commencing at 9 a.m. sharp, the sinner would be forced to listen to an all-day panel discussion -- with Thomas Friedman, Nouriel Roubini, and Jamie Dimon -- on opportunities and challenges facing the global economy. Every once in a while Bono might pop in as well to liven things up a bit.
You're just jealous
Earlier today, the actual meeting of the World Economic Forum began at Davos, and we're already hearing news and policy ideas from the event. Far from seeing this as "hell on earth," the roughly 2,600 attendees will be enthusiastically talking and partying for the next several days. In addition to bankers, politicians, academics, and journalists, there will be plenty of celebrities there too. Just this morning, in fact, we learned that Derek Jeter is attending the event.
In general, I really like conferences, and believe that it's a good idea for thought leaders to get together periodically to share ideas. This particular conference, however, seems seriously flawed on a number of levels. Here are four reasons to be skeptical of Davos:
1. Davos is a huge boondoggle for company executives. In a recent piece in New York magazine, Kevin Roose notes that many of the companies sending big delegations to Davos have also been laying off workers, and cutting back on other expenditures lately. With an average cost per head of $40,000, Davos isn't cheap, even for Wall Street executives.
Despite that hefty price tag, Roose tells us that PepsiCo sent six attendees, even though it had to cut 8,700 jobs this year. And Wall Street bad boy Citigroup sent seven delegates. Even the slumping Washington Post has sent a delegation. Somewhere, Dante is furiously taking notes.
2. Do we really need more chumminess between bankers and politicians? I'm not a big conspiracy guy, and I'm sure the schmoozing between Wall Street executives and government officials is all very professional. Still, you have to admit that the World Economic Forum provides some pretty bad optics from the perspective of Main Street, America. The event brings together Wall Street titans like JPMorgan's Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein along with political leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Even Congressman Eric Cantor will be there this year. I'm not sure what all these folks will be chatting about in the hot tub, but I'm pretty sure they won't be talking about improving our regulatory oversight of too-big-to-fail banks.
3. Is there really a demand for more useless predictions? Just several weeks after the barrage of 2013 financial predictions, we'll be getting another bombardment this week from Davos. Dealbook tells us that most of these predictions will be rubbish. That shouldn't be surprising. I'm pretty skeptical of macro predictions in general, and figure it's an even more difficult task the morning after drinking brandy all night at Sean Parker's chalet.
4. It's in Switzerland. Switzerland? Really? Let me get this straight: The conference for global elites is held each year in a country noted for bank secrecy and extremely loose financial regulation. Surely, our elites are just laughing at the rest of us at this point. I suspect there will be a lot of folks "eating cake" there this week.
The theme of this year's World Economic Forum is "resilient dynamism." It seems like a very fitting theme -- if there's one thing Wall Street bankers have been in recent years, it's resilient.
You can follow the World Economic Forum (if you must) here. On Friday, Congressman Cantor will be on a panel called "Creating Economic Dynamism" with Joseph Stiglitz (and four other guys I've never heard of before). You might want to put that one on your calendar.