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Davos Notes: State of the Union Shrugs, Burnout Davos Style, and the Spirit of RFK Hovers Above the CNBC Unemployment Debate

My day started with a debate focused on global employment. The most memorable part was a powerful video highlighting the global unemployment crisis. Watching it leaves you feeling like you have to do something before it's too late.
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Day One:

What State of the Union?

Davos 2011 is off and running. I've been surprised how little talk there's been today about the president's State of the Union speech. I know it aired here at 3 in the morning, but people here are rarely asleep at 3 in the morning (a Davos sleep challenge would be, well, a major challenge -- more on that in a bit). Plus, everyone here has an iPad, laptop, or mobile phone (and often all three), so it wouldn't be hard to watch a replay. But it doesn't seem to be on people's radar screen. At a reception hosted by Yale President Rick Levin, I ran into the Chamber of Commerce's CEO Tom Donohue and asked him what he thought of the speech. "I liked parts of it," he said. "What didn't you like?" I asked. "With gasoline prices headed to over $4 a gallon," he replied, "there was no reason to demagogue oil companies." And a TV producer, who asked for anonymity to protect his chances of ever playing basketball with Obama, was focused on the president's makeup: "It was dreadful," he told me. "He looked so yellow, it was like he was jaundiced. It was so bad, John Boehner looked natural by comparison." But other than smatterings, not much post-speech chatter.

The Video That Must Be Daily Viewing at the White House and Congress

My day started with taking part in a CNBC debate entitled "The West Isn't Working," focused on global employment. The debate was divided into two parts. The first part was on the motion, "For a dynamic workforce, go East!" and centered on the rise of China and India and the decline of the West as an engine for growth and employment opportunities. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the chairman of Biocon, argued in favor of the motion while Barry Silbert, the CEO of SecondMarket, argued against. Laura Tyson, a member of Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, Philip Jennings, the general secretary of the UNI Global Union, and I challenged both sides with our own comments and questions.

The second half of the debate addressed the motion, "Education is a failing industry," looking at the mismatch between demand for skilled workers and education supply. Jeffrey Joerres, the CEO of Manpower Inc., made the case that the education system needs to change, because it isn't filling the needs of employers. Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, argued that education is doing many things right, and that while "training prepares people for the jobs of 2011, education prepares people for the jobs of 2021." After each motion was debated, there was a "Call to Action" segment where everyone was asked to offer tangible solutions to the problems being debated. The debate was taped and will air on CNBC on Feb. 4.

It was a lively debate, but for me the most memorable part of it was a powerful short video (posted below) highlighting the global unemployment crisis that was shown at the start of the program. Before the audience was let into the auditorium, the CNBC crew was doing a technical run-through with Maria Bartiromo, who was moderating the debate. So I got to watch the video five or six times in a row. And each time its potent mix of doomsday music, depressing statistics, and images of global unemployment (especially among the young) and political unrest really hit me. So when the debate started, I told the audience: "This video should be played at the White House and in every Congressional office every single morning until unemployment drops to pre-recession levels." Watching it leaves you feeling like you can't just sit there -- you have to do something before it's too late. It reminded me of the time Bobby Kennedy, as Attorney General, brought his brother's Cabinet to his office at the Justice Department and locked the door, forcing them to stay there for four hours discussing how to best address the crisis of poverty in America. I was ready to lock the doors of the Congress Centre auditorium until we had determined to do something concrete about unemployment.

Bursting at the Seams

The Congress Centre, the official hub of the World Economic Forum, has been expanded and renovated, but there is still the feeling of a crowded, buzzing beehive -- especially in the main executive lounge outside the Sanada room where many of the sessions take place. Today, the lounge was so packed -- with people who instead of attending panels and speeches were schmoozing -- there wasn't a seat to be found. So, when I met up with Justin Webb and Sareen Bains, who were interviewing me for the BBC's Today show, we ended up sitting on the floor and doing the interview there. As we sat there, a constant stream of people walked by -- including Jamie Dimon and Larry Summers. I wonder if they thought I was having a 60s moment and had decided to start some sort of Davos sit-in as part of my "doing something about unemployment" drive.

Burnout, Davos-Style

As I said, getting enough sleep isn't the highest priority among Davos participants. It's partly the active, after-hours scene (many of the parties don't even start until 10 or 11), and partly the way lack of sleep has become a sort of virility symbol for many of the world's movers and shakers. In the cult of no sleep, 7 a.m. is the new 9 a.m. Despite the late nights, trying to make a breakfast appointment in Davos is an exercise in sleep deprivation one-upmanship. "Oh, hi Arianna, yeah, 8 is a bit late, but it's fine because that'll give me time to have gotten in a couple of ski runs and a conference call with Moscow first." The WEF organizers have apparently noticed the trend and have put together a panel to explore the question, "Why is it the latest fashion to be a burnout victim?" The panel description defines burnout as "a condition of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion" that results when "striving for recognition and success is exaggerated and the balance between work, family life and leisure is lost." The panel is fittingly scheduled for Saturday, the last day of the forum, in the middle of the afternoon, which seems like a missed opportunity -- how much more resonant it would have been if it was held at 3:30 a.m. instead of 3:30 p.m.

Make of This What You Will

It's worth noting that the only panel on the entire program that directly addressed poverty, a session entitled "Making Poverty History," and featuring A.R. Rahman, the award-winning composer of the score for Slumdog Millionaire, was canceled. According to the WEF website: "No contributors could be retrieved for this session." Maybe they were afraid the ghost of Bobby Kennedy would show up and lock them all in.


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