A funny thing happened Enda on his way to the Davos forum


LEAVE ENDA alone. Stop blaming him for blaming us for the mad spending frenzy.

It is true that he told us only weeks ago that none of us were responsible for the crisis. But when he told the world in confidence that we all went mad borrowing money, he was speaking in Davos, a meeting and concept so bizarre that not even Frank McNally could have made it up.

He can’t be held responsible for speaking out of one side of his mouth on national television and the other side on Bloomberg, if he was speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

At the forum, they had an allegedly serious panel discussion about whether 20th-century capitalism is failing a 21st-century world. Klaus Schwab, who, unlike Frank McNally, really did come up with the idea for the forum, wanted participants to discuss the dangers of income inequality.

Discussing income inequality at Davos is like criminal lawyers discussing the regrettable rise in crime, or cosmetic plastic surgeons decrying people’s reliance on appearance as a route to self-esteem.

To be a full participant in Davos, you have to be a poster child for income inequality.

The values that underpin the meeting were summed up for me last year by Indra Noyi, the chief executive of PepsiCo. She was talking about the lack of women at Davos.

Surprise, surprise, the gender balance is so bad that when companies were told they had to allocate their fifth ticket to a woman, many of them opted to forgo it and just to bring four men instead. Bet they still got charged $622,000 (€474,225) – the price for five tickets.

However, Noyi felt that relaxing Davos’s elite criteria could be counter-productive. “You’ve got to make sure they’re the right level of women. If you get a lower level, you’ll find the men won’t talk to the women.”

Well, that explains it. No wonder they don’t let the poor women attend. No one would talk to them.

You are most likely to get the coveted white badge at Davos that gets you in everywhere if you work for one of the world’s top 1,000 companies, you are a prime minister, or your name is Bono. Oh, and there’s always the few token religious leaders like Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, really did want to talk about income inequality at the opening debate. She said that capitalism had lost its moral compass.

She didn’t get much support from the four men chosen to discuss the issue. They seemed to think that capitalism is just fine, really, just a bit misunderstood and undervalued.

In contrast, Klaus Schwab, founder of the forum, thinks that capitalism is over, and that talent will drive the agenda from now on. George Soros thinks the EU is over, unless Germany stops pushing punishing levels of austerity.

While such pronouncements were being made, and Enda was letting down the side, the real business of Davos was business, with many participants avoiding all the panel events and just getting on with making contacts that make them money. Andrew Ross Sorkin of Dealbook at the New York Timestalked about one executive who conducts more than 20 meetings a day with people from all over the globe. He gets more done than he would in three months of red-eye flights.

All that capitalism on steroids is enough to make your head hurt very badly, so I took refuge in reading Michael D’s speech at the NUI conferring in Dublin Castle instead. Michael D has a particular style that will never be accused of being concise, but the points he makes are very important.

You see, Michael D has this idea that universities should nurture thinking citizens, and that academics should challenge the consensus and find new ways for people to live well in this world.

He says things like: “Intellectuals are challenged, I believe, now, to a moral choice: to drift into, be part of, a consensus that accepts a failed paradigm of life and economy, or to offer, or seek to recover, the possibility of alternative futures.”

He believes that there is an intellectual and moral crisis that is even more significant than the economic crisis. He is right.

Funny how everything Michael D says will be written off as naive and unworldly, while the certifiable loons at Davos will continue to be applauded as realistic and pragmatic.

Yet as George Monbiot says: “What is realistic is what happens. The moment we make it happen, it becomes realistic.” Conversely, when we declare that something is the only possibility, that becomes reality, too.

The contradictions of Davos show us that not only do most of the emperors have no clothes, but they also have nothing new to say, either. If President Higgins can manage to mobilise people in his forthcoming seminars to look at ways of actively putting citizenship and selflessness ahead of market demands and shareholder value, he will have made a step towards freeing us from what he called “the fatalism of bogus inevitabilities”.

Criminal capitalism, with its cynical exploitation of people and resources, led us into the mess we are in. But it was not inevitable. Unjust income inequality is not a natural event. It happens because of the decisions that are made by individuals, communities, governments and corporations. It can change in the same way.