A woman who helps compile Forbes magazine's annual rich-persons list counted 45 billionaires--before even getting to the Americans (her boss, durable U.S. presidential candidate Steve Forbes, was on hand to flog the virtues of a flat income tax). With so many egos clashing and points of view contending, consensus was naturally difficult. Mealtimes were difficult as well. Gingrich showed up a few minutes late for the opening lunch session and was turned away in the crush. Yet amid all the glitter and palaver, a few generalizations can be made. A Davos sampler:
If a meal was being served--there were about 650 on the schedule--chances are it featured veal, the official dish of the World Economic Forum and the nation of Switzerland. Veteran participants sympathetic to the plight of calves knew to call ahead and ask for the vegetarian alternative. Neurobiologists in attendance quietly pushed all European cow products to the side of their plates, mindful of the continent's experience with Creutzfeld-Jakob disease.
The future of the world economy lies in online commerce. Many Silicon Valley sultans were on hand to stress that message: Microsoft's Bill Gates and Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos (whose firms together are worth more than the GDP of Kumaratunga's country), Dell Computers' Michael Dell, Sun Microsystems' Scott McNealy, Intuit's Scott Cook, visionaries Esther Dyson and Michael Dertouzos, and venture capitalists Ann Winblad and Joseph Schoendorf. Gates shocked one audience by declaring that the recent run-up in Internet-related stocks was unsustainable. If the tech moguls needed proof that the online revolution is on shaky ground they needed to look no further than their Davos hotel rooms. Surprisingly few had direct-dial telephones. So the lords of the Internet spent the week fuming that they couldn't get their e-mail.
The Year 2000 computer-bug problem surfaced at many panels, to general agreement that the U.S. was ready, Europe would get by and Asia was in for trouble. Mostly, though, nobody was worried about Y2K. Economists fretted that all the canned goods and spare parts stockpiled in anticipation of disruption would produce an inventory bubble that could slow the global economy next year. Tech experts at a private dinner organized a pool about what would happen at midnight on Dec. 31; the direst prediction was for scattered outages of electric power. In Davos, such disruptions will probably pass unnoticed. The lights went out at least twice during the week.
As the Davos meeting has grown in gravitas over the years, more and more participants have been showing up for panels in suits and ties. Alarmed, the World Economic Forum issued a bulletin that Friday would be a "casual day," during which delegates could return to the confab's original traditions of ski-sweater informality. Like so much else at last week's session, the message was largely ignored.
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