Davos 2014: In search of food, warmth and mind expansion

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One of the reasons the World Economic Forum exists is to try to generate discussions between people who wouldn’t normally communicate. In other words, part of the idea is that you bump into people you wouldn’t normally, and get to have conversations that you wouldn’t have in the path of your everyday existence. One dark and snowy night, while attempting to satisfy my sophisticated palate with some good ol' pizza, I had exactly one of these conversations.

When it gets dark in the northern latitudes. it really does get dark. And cold, very cold. So I wandered down the main road here in Davos, looking for food. Quite frankly, anything would do, so long as it wasn’t too expensive, and the place where it would be eaten was warm. Walking down the main road, known as Promenade, I came across a small sign, in the colours red, white and green. It was a sign. Pizza it would be! Up the small side street I scurried, taking care not to slip (again) on the icy tar.

Once in the warm embrace of the entrance hall, my first port of call was, of course, that room in any public place in Switzerland where you stash your jacket. As I was led upstairs in the intimate restaurant, I thought that this could actually be quite a miserable meal. I would have to content myself by re-reading that day’s Daily Maverick pieces on the web. That would cheer me up!

A few minutes later, a well-dressed man wandered in, and was led to the table next to mine. We nodded a quick unspoken greeting. Both of us were eating alone tonight. Eventually, we moved onto actual verbal communication. The pizza had arrived by now, thin and hot, with the infusion of cheese that marks all pizza in this part of the world, and which somehow Debonairs just can’t match.

Being at Davos is a bit like being on the Gautrain. You know that if someone is there, they cannot be someone about to ask you for money. You know they are middle-class (or above) and thus safe to talk to. On the Gautrain it’s because it costs a hundred bucks a ticket; in Davos it’s because they’re, well, in Davos.

There was the usual question you get here: Where are you from, and why are you here? Which is simply a quick way of placing you. As a journalist, it’s often better to get it out the way quickly, so that you can’t be accused of getting information under false pretenses later. Ah, said my dinner companion, and what do you think it takes to be a good writer? [Like you’d know – Ed]

That kept us busy for quite some time. My answer revolved around honesty, telling the audience where you’re from, and having an opinion.[Really? You. Having. An. O-p-i-n-i-o-n? – Ed]

Then I asked him. Frankfurt was the reply. I’m a banker. Ah. A German banker. An identity made to be turned into a band name, if ever there was one. And what does it take to make a good banker? Caution, I suggested.

No, came the reply. Maybe fifty years ago, yes, but now it’s different. It’s aggression, the willingness to take risks.

The 2008 Financial Crisis in one sentence, you might say.

A little later, being from Europe, he handed me his card. I decided my glass was now officially empty, and he thought his glass was in a similar state. More wine was ordered. As it arrived, I noticed the word “Dr” on his card. Being curious, I asked what exactly he was a doctor of. “Economics,” came the slightly rueful reply. “Did you study economics?”

“Briefly,” I said, thinking now was not the time to bring up my distinct lack of success in the subject at university. Of course, I had to ask what exactly he wrote his thesis about. “Institutional Economics,” he said, to be met with the ever- intelligent “huh”.

I’ll paraphrase here, so if I get it wrong, it’s entirely my fault. Basically, he had studied two aspects of how economics works. Firstly, the size of the ideal firm. It depends on transactional costs, and what exactly you do, but basically a company buys another company whenever it does so much business with that company that it’s just cheaper to buy the thing. That part I followed.

The second part was that in order to have a properly functioning economy, people need to know what they’re buying. If they buy headache pills, they need to know it’s not going to have the unfortunate side-effect of killing them. For that to work you need regulation. But you need it in the money-markets too. And what went wrong in 2008 was that people were buying debts and bonds and things [That’s a nice economic phrase, Stephen, “things” – Ed] that contained side-effects they didn’t know about. And the reason for that was the way Bill Clinton de-regulated Wall Street in the ‘90s.

Light was slowly beginning to dawn. In a nutshell, then, the global recession was Clinton’s fault. Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but that was certainly part of it.

Somehow, in the way that happens when two fathers meet away from home, that led us on to the subject of our children. At this point a lone American, sitting just across from us, decided this was the moment he could now enter the conversation. His children were much older than ours. But the real reason for his intervention was that he wanted to know if I were South African, and if I had heard of a singer called Rodriguez. He had, of course, seen the movie Searching for Sugarman, and wanted to know if was all true.

To an outsider, it must seem completely impossible that such a thing happened, but I was happy to reassure him, and then, of course, had to tell the entire story to my German companion.

But the atmosphere had now changed. It’s difficult to go back to hard economics when you’ve just told the story of listening to Rodriguez, and how maybe he wasn’t quite the right accompaniment the night before your economics exam.

As we stumbled off into the night, we shook hands, and promised to look each other up if we were in each other’s cities again.

All in all, it was one of those nights that had started so bleak, and ended up expanding my mind. It was, if you like, Davos in a nutshell. 

By Stephen Grootes

Source: Daily Maverick

Grootes is the senior political reporter for Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk

Photo: The Swiss Alps are seen from a helicopter near Davos, Switzerland January 23, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron