In defense of Davos, or at least its cosmopolitanism

I very much liked yesterday’s Ross Douthat piece, and I agree with most of it, and I regard him as one of the truly great columnists writing today.  Still, there was one tiny part I disagreed with, and I see the point being repeated in varying forms elsewhere, so I thought I would pull it out and add a few comments, namely:

(There is more genuine cosmopolitanism in Rudyard Kipling and T. E. Lawrence and Richard Francis Burton than in a hundred Davos sessions.)

That is Ross, do read the whole piece for context, but here are my worries.  They may be nitpicks, but actually I feel a fair amount is at stake here:

1. It seems unfair to compare Davos sessions to some rather robust, historically important, top-of-the-line explorers.  Virtually all sessions are boring, including or maybe even especially in the 19th or early 20th centuries.  How about comparing the elites of back then to the elites of today?  Then I think the Davos set would look quite good.  Or if you compare the explorers of more recent times — say Jan Morris or Louis Sarno — to the explorers of back then, still the present day looks good and possibly even considerably superior in terms of curiosity, tolerance, and a broad outlook.

Overall, I see a lot of evidence — both cross-sectional and time series — that those qualities are what economists call normal goods rather than inferior goods, or in other words those qualities rise with income.  And do we moderns not in some ways have an overall better and more accurate perspective?  Have we not read much more, learned better social science, and developed a greater facility for spotting prejudices and logical fallacies?

2. I suspect either the elites or the explorers of today are better when it comes to understanding differing perspectives of gender, neurology, sexuality, race, age (should you beat your kids?), and a variety of other dimensions.  Maybe none of these wisdoms fall exactly under the heading of the adjective “cosmopolitan,” but still they seem relevant for whether today’s elite is wiser and broader.  How many of the earlier elite were women, and embodied that set of diverse perspectives, to pose a simple comparative question?

3. I’ve never been to Davos, but I know some people who have.  They’re weird!  And I mean that in a (mostly) good way.  I am reluctant to overgeneralize about them, and I suspect they are more diverse than is often thought to be the case.  Almost by the virtue of having been invited, they are some pretty extreme outliers, consider for instance Bill Gates or Elon Musk.  I’d also like to see data on how many of them have spent serious time in say poor rural villages in less developed nations, or had other strange or diverse experiences.  The answers might surprise us.

Who amongst us knows this about CEO and billionaire Patrick Byrne of Overstock?:

“30 years ago in China I contracted Hep C.  I got a bad head wound and a ‘barefoot doctor’ they called him, sewed me up.  I’ll give you the facts, I went stage 4 last summer, seemed to have gotten through the treatment but it’s been quite harsh on me and it’s on top of a long, I’ve actually had 106 surgeries, 51 times they stopped my heart electrically, another 50 times chemically,”

Isn’t that a kind of cosmopolitanism?  And the medical treatments also have given him some pretty novel perspectives.  Patrick by the way is fluent in Mandarin and has spent years in strange and unusual parts of China, and during a time when it was far less safe and comfortable than today.

Or how about what Jeff Sachs does?  Whether or not you agree with all of his economics, it’s not easy, and I mean on both the mind and the body.  How about those Harvard MBAs who are Mormons and have done missions in exotic locales and gone door to door for two years?

Muhammad Yunus was born in a Chittagong Muslim village into a family of nine children, circa 1940.  Later “From 1969 to 1972, Yunus was assistant professor of economics at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.”  Isn’t that a pretty incredible diversity of life experience?

Thomas Friedman, a classic exemplar of the globalist mindset and whipping boy for many, in fact spent serious time in Beirut covering the civil war, and doing original reporting in situations of very real danger, winning Pulitzers and a National Book Award for the quality of his work.  During one later four-year period, he traveled over 500,000 miles.  Nicholas Kristof is another good example of someone who really “gets out there,” in his case often in Africa but not only.

If you are curious, here’s a basic list of Davos attendees.   Note also that the very real increase in segregation by income in America — mostly a bad development and which Ross mentions — seems to be centered around the upper middle class, not the Davos set, as the very wealthy and the elites always have lived somewhat apart.

Overall I think Ross and many others are somewhat underrating Davos.  I do understand that Davos attendees may, as a whole, suffer from excess hubris, excess complacency, or be excessively fond of technocracy.  And the fact that many (by no means all) of them have not suffered very much does limit some of their perspectives.  But are they not in fact actually about as cosmopolitan as we might hope for?

Addendum: Rob Howse offers some useful remarks, and also notes the connection of the “genuine cosmopolitan” idea — a tricky concept — to Leo Strauss.  Here is his closing bit:

Is it so that the cosmopolitans Douthat despises merely retreat into comfortable and familiar neighborhoods in global cities?…[many are] working in a combat zone with Medicins sans frontiers; or persisting as a foreign correspondent in a country where journalists’ lives are threatened; or setting up a truth commission to heal wounds in a conflict-ridden nation; or soldiering as a social entrepreneur to empower women’s small business in an African village; or confronting traditional community leaders about female genital mutilation.  These are all quintessentially cosmopolitan roles, which involve real risks, real sacrifice, and often wrenching encounters with otherness.

I agree with Ross’s description that the Davos set is very often “liberal Christianity without Christ.”  But maybe that’s the most cosmopolitan philosophy going these days.  The bigger question of course is, given slow economic growth and institutional rigidification, how much that really helps us.


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