Davos Notes: Contrite Bankers, Overflow Interest in Philanthropy, Mistrusted Americans

On this, my first day in Davos, I hit the ground running -- literally speeding from the airport in Zurich to my first panel at the World Economic Forum, an "update on North America." Although the session was supposed to center on how the Obama administration will turn its campaign rhetoric into policy, the conversation quickly turned to a rather gloomy overview of all the crises facing the world (Nelson Schwartz of the New York Times' DealBook blog dubbed it "A Tour of the World: Who's Got It Worse?")

Memorable moment: After the panel discussion, moderator Josef Joffe, the publisher-editor of Die Zeit, opened the floor to questions. The first questioner, perhaps responding to my earlier assertion that Wall Street execs and bankers are acting like Marie Antoinettes, rose to his feet and, dripping with contrition, introduced himself by saying, "I am one of these financial guys..." It had the feel of a down-and-out binge drinker who, after finally hitting bottom, shows up at an AA meeting and announces "...and I am an alcoholic."

That is the mood everywhere you go: "these financial guys" walking around, looking a little lost. (Of course, looking lost in Davos is de rigueur. Everyone working at the conference -- especially policemen and drivers -- seems to have been shipped in from someplace else. Maybe another planet. As a result, no one knows where anything is. And they are proud of it.)

After the morning panel, I hurried over to a quaint little Swiss bistro where a lunch discussion was being held about "PhilanthroCapitalism in Action." Maybe it's a sign of the times, but there was an overflow crowd at the luncheon, causing the organizers to open two additional rooms to hold the extra attendees. Matthew Bishop, Chief Business Writer for the Economist, and Nancy Lublin, CEO of DoSomething.org, had to go from room to room to discuss how this moment of crisis for capitalism and for philanthropy could be used to transform both -- how capitalism could be imbued with a social mission and philanthropy with the best practices of capitalism. (Indeed, DoSomething, right around the time Lehman Brothers collapsed, did an IPO that raised money to run a non-profit with real metrics and accountability.)

Next up, an afternoon session featuring a conversation with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. The conversation was off-the-record, but let me just say that the amount of time it took to translate everything he said made me wish I had either studied Chinese at school or gotten more sleep on the plane. It's worth noting that 20 minutes after the session, I wasn't hungry for more time with Wen.

Jeff Jarvis, who was sitting a row behind me, captured one of the prevalent sentiments here: "taking America to the woodshed." In a panel on the falling trust in financial, government, and journalistic institutions, Richard Edelman of the Edelman Trust Barometer, reported that his group had seen a steep drop in trust for American business. The least trusted U.S. industries are automakers and bankers. Imagine that.

So far, the two questions that keep coming up in almost every speech, panel, and hallway conversation are "what went wrong?" and "how did we miss the signals?" The consensus conclusions: 1) Too much faith in the free market. 2) Too much faith in economic models. 3) Too little transparency. 4) No moral compass.

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