Davos reminds us that smart people are dumb

Imagine being one of those exalted personages, graduates of our finest universities, global citizens equally at home in Manhattan, San Francisco, Paris, Tokyo, and Bombay, for whom “Creating a shared future in a fractured world” is a highly erudite proposition, a paradox of chin-scratching complexity. Imagine going every year for decades without realizing that this year’s “theme” and “The Power of collaborative innovation” (2008) and “Global cooperation and megacompetition” (1990) and “Competitive cooperation in a decade of turbulence” (1988) are virtually identical. Imagine thinking that “Responsive and responsible leadership” (2017) is not a meaningless phrase. Imagine having any idea what “Resilient dynamism” (2013) even means. Imagine thinking that “globality,” as in “Responsible globality: managing the impact of globalization” (1999), is a word.

At Davos each year the world’s richest and most powerful people travel in private jets to an expensive resort in an expensive city in the world’s most expensive country and pretend to ask one another whether those policies that have made them worthy of attending something called “the Crystal Awards” with Sir Elton John are right and just. It turns out they always are. For them it is a simple matter of taking a handful of meaningless abstract words — “impact,” “norms,” “leadership,” “network,” “growth,” “context,” “models,” “agenda” — and combining them in vaguely pleasing patterns. Here are the spells that turn man-made ecological and humanitarian crises in Africa into “challenges,” the talismans that absolve the owners of sweatshops in Bangladesh from being guilty of anything but “transformation.”