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Big Ideas in Davos

Thirty heads of state and government and 2500 business and academic elite hammer out ways to fend off new storm clouds hanging over the global economy at the World Economic Forum. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images.

DAVOS, Switzerland — If you kept your ears open here, at the 2013 meeting of the World Economic Forum, this is what you heard:

The situation in Europe continues to be bad…really bad.

The Euro is saved, but not yet safe.

There’s money, a lot of money, to be made in the developing world.

…And for the time being, that’s where all the growth is.

It got a lot more complicated than those four simple statements, but if you were otherwise engaged and could not make it over to this little town in the Swiss Alps, that will allow you to fake it at the coffee machine.

Of course, there was a lot more, fascinating stuff that made the trip worthwhile. For instance, getting a quick romp through the state of the world economy from George Soros over dinner, as the financier gave his diagnosis of the rich world’s economies and the rising might of China.

I sat with a small group of corporate leaders, United Nations officials, and NGO leaders as they hashed out the state of play in human rights. Not all that long ago, that might have been a conversation more appropriately conducted with government leaders who defended and violated human rights around the world. However, as global supply chains reach from North America, Asia and Europe to every corner of the world, employers have a great deal more responsibility for the quality of life of the working people of the world.

Over a quick cup of coffee, I took a romp through the many arms of a fascinating new business created by the drive to reduce health care costs, and further nurtured by the Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act. This giant record-keeping service operates at no charge to doctors, and makes its money by connecting physicians to pharmacies, providing aggregated individual medical records to researchers and pharmaceutical companies, and connecting the patient to his or her own medical history — all in a few keystrokes. They do it, the company maintains, monetizing vast pools of collected data, without violating and laws or pledges governing patient privacy.

And I got the briefest answer I’ve ever gotten from an elected official in a long career of interviewing them. I asked, “Do leaders in the United States do an adequate job of explaining to the country’s citizens what the U.S. is up to in the rest of the world, and why?” Rep. Darrell Issa, Republican of California and the Chairman of the House Governmental Affairs Committee answered, “No.” (But we talked plenty before that.)

During a bus ride, the producer of the upcoming Nelson Mandela cinematic bio, “Long Walk to Freedom,” explained how on a tight budget he only had two takes to get a grand aerial walking shot at sunset using a helicopter…since there was no more money for the helicopter. They got it.

People struck up conversations in lines for coffee, during waits in the snow for shuttle buses, and while waiting to grab a set of headphones for translation. People who normally have an impenetrable wall of answering machines, assistants and other gatekeepers human and mechanical, could be approached and engaged. I am not self-deceived about all this…they may very well blow me off back in Washington, but four days in Davos is a non-stop smorgasbord for the curious. And surprising.

The normally taciturn Prime Minister of Italy Mario Monti ably joked in English (the real test of whether you really speak a foreign language is whether you can tell a funny story) about the discomfort of having a Persian Gulf royal lecture him on corruption in his country, “After all,” Monti said, “it wasn’t like I was talking to the King of Norway.”

There was, from foreigners, puzzlement and impatience over American government deficits, and the protracted fight over officially raising the federal government’s capacity to borrow. People from the global North and South would wish the outside world, especially the U.S., would be more involved in bringing an end to the Syrian civil war, and then ruefully concede that the menu of choices for action was lousy all the way from the appetizer to dessert.

At a packed school auditorium, the scene of one of the “Open Forum” sessions welcoming the general public to attend, a panel of very heavy hitters, the finance ministers of Germany, Italy, Spain and Belgium, and the head of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD, gave sobering assessments and laugh out loud funny observations of the continuing crisis in the Eurozone. When one panelists suggested there were misgivings about German domination of the Euro after Chancellor Angela Merkel put a huge tranche of German money on the line to save the currency, finance minister Guido Westerwelle recalled a quotation from the towering European intellectual and writer Thomas Mann, “I do not want a Europe that is more German, what I want is a Germany that is more European.”

London-based think tanker Robin Niblett pointed out that the sluggish economies were causing great damage inside European workforces, with too few old people and young people in the workforce, straining government finances and burdening national productivity.

All in all, a fascinating and exhausting week. I’ll have one more dispatch from Davos, discussing climate change and one young organization’s strategy to marshal the world’s will to push back against rising temperatures and tides.

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