South Korean President Park Geun Hye listens Wednesday as World Economic Forum Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab addresses the gathering in Davos. / Eric Piermont, AFP/Getty Images
DAVOS, Switzerland - Just as Spain has its Running of the Bulls each summer in Pamplona, the annual meeting of the global financial elite in this Swiss ski resort has its own annual tradition, which could be called the griping of the lucky.
As the World Economic Forum kicks off its 44th annual meeting this week, come forth the perennial columns and stories about how it never accomplishes anything. How it's simply a boondoggle for the rich. A brainstorming bacchanalia in the snow. A Woodstock for the 1%.
And still they come.
The group of about 2,500 CEOs, top academics, journalists and world leaders didn't predict the financial crisis six years ago. Nor did they solve it. And still they come. They didn't forecast the Arab Spring, the global commodities collapse or the changes that shale gas has made to world energy patterns. And still they come.
And not only did they not anticipate the disastrous rise of inequality in many of their countries, it is reasonably argued that the forces of globalization which helped propel them to this elite status also contributed to the widening gap between rich and poor. And still they come.
One columnist for the Financial Times pointed out that if they had met in January 1914, they probably wouldn't have even seen World War I breaking out later that year.
So why does Davos still exist? Why do Bill Gates and George Soros and Shimon Peres and Bono and Wall Street's top CEOs keep coming? Indeed, its success has spawned other big global events, such as the Clinton Global Initiative in New York and the Milken Conference in Los Angeles each year.
A chance to meet and greet, sure. And it's a lovely little place in darkest January. But not as lovely as any member already can afford to go anytime. There's more to it. Klaus Schwab, the founder of the WEF, has preached from the beginning that the forum is not a deal fest, like the Allen Conference in Idaho each summer, dedicated to media biggies. Instead, it's a chance for various leaders from different walks of life to sample what others are doing. People used to having their thoughts echoed back to them and orders carried out can hear other points of view, about subjects they normally don't pay much attention to. And that can resonate.
When I first started going to Davos in the mid-1990s, Peres and Yasser Arafat were the big political draws, the latter frequently buzzing the small resort in a military helicopter. Then one year, Nelson Mandela came. The arguably most jaded people on the planet were suddenly reduced to quaking schoolgirls in the presence of real greatness. Who knows if Mandela's stirring talk of hope in South Africa helped move Soros or Gates to dedicate huge parts of their lives to philanthropy. I like to think it helped.
Davos is exciting, beautiful in setting and passionate in discussion. A few years back, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan stormed off stage during a discussion about Israel with Peres. This year's main event will be the presence of Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu and Iran's Hassan Rouhani, though not together.
Wall Street leaders such as Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs will be sneaking around the halls, trying to keep a low profile.
Geopolitical drama, to be sure. But don't expect this group to solve world problems here. Elites can't predict the future any more than any of us can. Still, the need to share ideas, at least once or twice a year, remains.
The civil war in Syria and the rise of Iran carry on the Middle Eastern powder keg. Europe remains an economic time bomb, despite the recent calm spurred by central bank spending. In Asia, the growing belligerence between China and Japan over disputed islands in the South China Sea threatens territorial hostilities we might have thought had died out in practice more than a century ago. The Korean Peninsula grows scarier by the day.
Like most of us, leaders can be bogged down by day-to-day crises in their companies, their families, their own national politics. These events offer a brief chance to raise the head from the sand, or snow and discuss the rest of the world with those who are there. If it helps change a mind or create a job or fend off violence, even a little bit, it's worth the trip.
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