This Year in Meta-Davos

Participants listen a panel session in the Congress Hall the last day of the 43rd Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum,
Participants listen a panel session in the Congress Hall the last day of the 43rd Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Keystone/Laurent Gillieron)

It's cold and it's January, so it must be Davos time. That means most of us can mutter away at the power elite and their accompanying staff and journalists, helicoptering into a Swiss ski town to network, party and indulge in long chin-pulling sessions on global improvement. This has been going on since 1971. As always -- or at least over the past decade or so -- the most fascinating thing about Davos is not the empty effrontery of it all (that's old hat) but the fact that it's not what it used to be. It used to be smaller, cozier, glitzier, with better parties, wine and celebrities, and no bloggers. It used to mean something, particularly before the technocratic elite lost their trousers in 2008. Now they'll let anyone in. Like journalists. And some people aren't coming. Like Google.

Is there any other evergreen story so infused by the first person? No one covers Davos; they cover themselves covering Davos, as if the new journalism had come to this snowy Swiss peak to cough itself to death. Indeed, that little observation of wisdom is old news; everything at Davos is old news, including the fact that there are roughly three groups of pundits who prattle on about the meeting annually: the media that recently scored an invite and who are gobsmacked by the awesomeness of it all (fairly small); the veteran Davos media who adopt a world-weary, done-that, what an empty, corrupt exercise I'm forced to endure (larger); and the media stuck at home who get to bitch and moan and belittle the affair (largest).

There is a ritualistic quality to this, like a Borscht Belt routine. Every story seems to mention fondue, the forbidding Klaus Schwab and the party lineup, usually at the Hotel Europa piano bar. Henry Blodget this year posted about a party last year that featured the singing sister of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and the elusive appearance of Google's Eric Schmidt accompanied by a video as dark as a cave. This might have been satire; even so, the headline is a fake job. In fact, the ironic Davos post has become a genre, with its own rules, depending on which group you belong to. The Financial Times' John McDermott confessed that Martin Wolf got the last FT ticket and so he is holding a counter-Davos in snowbound Dalston, outside London. Ironic. Martin Wolf is as much a Davos figure as the New York Times' Thomas Friedman; you can just see Wolf grimly marching through sessions on the macroeconomy. But McDermott gets to bask as a Wolf standby, which, in status-land, isn't a bad thing. It's like getting kicked off Air Force One by Hillary Clinton.

Everyone knows by now that most reporters are embarrassed to be at Davos, to be cheek-to-jowel with elites, at least in their copy. (One exception: the irony-free USA Today, which headlined a dispatch from Davos, "Davos forum tackles economic issues." I mean, what else would they be doing besides gabbing, groping and networking?) They cope with this by focusing on the meta-story, particularly the parties or the celebs (Charlize Theron! Derek Jeter!), as if to yank the tail of World Economic Forum major domo Schwab and thus retain their self-respect.

The New York Times and CNBC's Andrew Ross Sorkin, a long perpetrator of the Davos meta-story (his best: how much it costs to go there), offered one of his perspectives on the meeting this year by wondering whether Davos was in trouble because the party scene seemed subdued. (This was before the party scene actually got started. It also wasn't that many years ago that Sorkin worried about a shortage of actresses.) Reuters' Felix Salmon then chimed in that Schwab often seems to be reining in the party scene, while not really making much difference. Salmon, by the way, is a well-known Davos contrarian, which involves many twists and turns. When he wasn't invited, he snarked it to death. When he did attend, he belittled it some more, targeting fancy-wine chugging at a hedge fund party and pointing out its hollow seriousness in the midst of the Egyptian protests in 2011. Now he seems headed in the opposite direction: He actually got excited by a session on smart cars. Awesome.

Another Davos standby is the Schwab story. Generally, year after year, reporters wonder portentiously how the godlike Schwab pulls it off. No one actually talks to Schwab, who remains as distant as Thomas Mann; thus Schwab becomes a free subject of speculation. Several years ago, The New Yorker's John Cassidy suggested that Davos works because Klaus -- despite his forbidding exterior, Klaus it is -- has made it somehow into a "positional good," that is something that's desired because it's so exclusive. The phrase is a nifty piece of Davos-speak applied to Davos, though Thorstein Veblen, who never attended, got there first. The FT's John Gapper, who's blogging and writing columns at Davos, approached the Schwab story with knowing ambivalence and offered a different spin. The "lugubrious" Schwab, noted Gapper, is "a canny entrepreneur" who has built a kind of proto-social media operation that "is not conspiracy; it's infotainment." Gapper also unearths the single best, if suspiciously polished, back-of-the-hand quote I've read this year about Davos, from David Rothkopf, the well-traveled Beltwayer, author (most recently Power Inc.), CEO of Foreign Policy and thus -- so very Davos -- an expert on elites who is an elite himself: "Davos is a factory where the conventional wisdom is manufactured."

Rothkopf does put his finger on what Davos really seems to do: It essentially tells everyone what they already think they know, and as Gapper notes, in a kind of opaque business-school-meets-corporatese that is well-nigh impenetrable: Schwab-talk. It's true. If you have the fortitude to sit through sessions on smart cars or the macroeconomy, you might learn a thing or two, but you don't really need to go to a Swiss mountain to do that. And the denizens of Davos -- the non-journalistic elite -- are masters of offering the unoriginal, orotund statement of the blindingly obvious as if it's holy writ -- no one more skilled at that than Klaus himself. The conventional wisdom, of course, is fodder for the media, which never wants to get too far from any idea that's not shared widely. (A vast amount of time every year is spent discerning the mood of Davos.) It's all very democratic in that sense for all its elitist trappings. Indeed, it reflects the deep technocratic tendencies in post-World War II Europe, with its heavily bureaucratized Brussels and its welfare-state democracies.

Sorkin provided evidence of this in his column just before Davos began when he noted how poorly predictions at Davos had fared. This was a typical Davos piece: Sorkin seems to believe that the elites at Davos, or the technocrats at the World Economic Forum, should actually be able to read the future. (The headline is unintentionally funny: "Prophecies Made in Davos Don't Always Come True.")The underlying assumption of the piece is that the great experts at Davos were once better at prediction, then foundered with the coming of 2008 and the eurozone crisis. Instead, Davos simply suffered the same fate as the economics profession and central bankers: They had really no idea what was going on, with the legendary exception of party animal Nouriel Roubini. But is that really a surprise? Keynes warned many decades ago about the difficulties of prediction and we've had many opportunities to witness the truth of that ever since. This is why it's a classic bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you Davos story. Let's snuggle up with the folks who don't control the world. And did you check out the swag?