Category Archives: Uncategorized

Greece versus Rome

No, I’m not going to offer a view on Greece’s economic plight, or anything about the PIGS. Go to A Fistful of Euros for that.

What provoked this post was the coincidence of reading two recent novels inspired by the classics. One is a likely bestseller, but the other is one of the most thrilling books I’ve read in ages.

Start with the bestseller. Robert Harris’ Lustrum (retitled Conspirata for some reason in its US edition) is the sequel to Imperium, and follows the machinations of Cicero’s reign as consul in the Roman Senate, followed by his period as Pater Patriae (father of the nation). As with all of Harris’ novels, it’s a great read, with enough warp and weft from ancient Rome to tickle readers who care about classical history.

Before you put your feet up with Harris, however, run to your nearest bookseller to buy Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey. I read Michiko Kakutani’s scintillating review in The New York Times (“stunning and hypnotic”) and went straight to my local bookstore. The conceit of the book is that it uncovers 44 lost episodes, fragments, dead ends, reimaginings from Homer’s epic. If you’re a Homer freak like me, your head will be spinning in amazement and awe. If you only have a passing knowledge of Homer, I’m sure you’ll still find the invention wonderful.

I can’t recall the last time when, in the process of reading a book, I’d finish a chapter and then go back to the beginning of the chapter to re-read it. That’s how gripped I was by Mason’s art. Unmissable.

The Times also did a profile of Mason, who is a computer scientist working at an unnamed start-up in Mountain View. If his programs have a tenth of the wit and inventiveness of his first novel, I’d love to use them.

"The Pepsi of Austrian writing"

I’ve written before about my father’s unfashionable taste for Lion Feuchtwanger. Another Mittel European whom he favored was Stefan Zweig, for his fiction more than for his historical works. Many are sitting on my shelves now, part of the library that was divided between my sisters and me. But I’m going to have to take another look, with some trepidation, after reading Michael Hofmann’s evisceration of Zweig in the London Review of Books:

Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing. He is the one whose books made films – 18 of them, and that’s the books, not the films (which come in at a stupefying 38). It makes sense: these are hypothetical and bloodless and stiltedly extreme monuments and monodramas for ‘teenagers of all ages’, as someone said, books composed for the bourgeoisie to give itself culture or a fright, which needed Hollywood or UFA to make them real, to give them expressions, faces, bodies, rooms and dialogue; and to drain some of the schematic grand guignol out of them. Of course he failed the Karl Kraus test – who didn’t? Kraus quotes some yea-sayer to the effect that Zweig with his novellas had conquered all the languages of the world, and adds two words of his own: ‘except one’. The story went the rounds that Zweig had his manuscripts checked for grammatical errors by a German professor, which gets most things about Zweig: the ineptitude, the anxiety to please, the respect for authority, and the use of others.

If you enjoy the virtuoso display of a critic tearing a reputation to shreds, read the whole thing. Feuchtwanger makes a guest appearance, incidentally: “Thomas Mann and his family spent diverting evenings – this in 1939 – debating which of Zweig, Ludwig, Feuchtwanger and Remarque was the worst writer.”

I’m curious what Hofmann, a great translator from German to English, think about the Zweig my father particularly rated, Arnold Zweig (no relation to Stefan, as far as I know). His The Case of Sergeant Grischa was regularly hailed in our house as the greatest anti-war novel ever written. I struggled through it with little reward 35 or so years ago. I should return to it and see what I think.

Undercover Boss — good and bad

I just watched the first episode of Undercover Boss, the new reality show from CBS. The idea is that a corporate executive goes “undercover” to find out what work is like on the frontlines of the company.

Tonight’s episode followed Larry O’Donnell, president and COO of Waste Management, the $13 billion group that handles all sorts of dirty jobs — garbage collection, recycling, waste disposal, and so on. Waste Management made Wayne Huizenga‘s first fortune, growing enormously as municipalities in the US and internationally contracted out services like garbage collection and recycling (an aside: isn’t Huizenga’s success with Blockbuster after WM the oddest one-two success in entrepreneurial history?).

O’Donnell donned WM’s drab uniforms to spend a day on a recycling line, on a garbage route, picking up paper in a landfill, cleaning toilets at an amusement park, and shadowing a woman who seemed to do a half dozen jobs at another landfill. There were some aspects to Undercover Boss that I thought were brilliant. It gives a glimpse of just how repetitive and dreary working life is for so many people. Not only are jobs routinized, but the demands of ever-increasing productivity mean that workers are forced to do more and more and more, to keep up with the requirements of the distant corporate office. Larry, in his undercover role as Randy, couldn’t come close to filling two plastic bags with paper in 10 minutes on the landfill. He was fired.

Local management often came across as the villains. They spy on employees, they sit watching video monitors, they seem to have little connection with the people doing the hard labor.

Undercover Boss also showed how some workers really make the best of whatever confronts them. I wonder how set up the triumph over tragedy stories in this one episode were. Did the producers, for example, know that the supervisor on the landfill went for weekly dialysis? That the woman who juggled several jobs for WM was facing a house foreclosure? It’s possible Larry didn’t know, but someone did.

I cheered along with most of the audience, I’d guess, as Larry learned the lessons of the frontline, and brought the insights back to the head office. Good leaders have been “managing by walking about” for many years, but it certainly helps that the corporate world sees the benefit of a reality check. Bosses are generally far too insulated by salary, perks, distance, fawning executive teams, and so much else, no matter how well meaning they may be.

Needless to say, in the end Larry did the right thing. The woman from the landfill site was promoted to a management role and hired two people to fill the jobs she was doing alone. The great guy helping out with the toilets at the amusement park was celebrated. The tough supervisor on dialysis is now a health mentor for the whole company. And on and on. But is the company going to do anything to spot the thousands of people who are probably just as good as those lucky enough to be plucked from obscurity? Will the lessons endure past the airing date of the program?

I think I can guarantee that the producers of Undercover Boss will have every corporate communications advisor in the country clamoring to get their boss on the next series. It’s brilliant TV, but it also enables a media-savvy boss to paint himself in the best possible way in an hour of prime time.

O’Donnell, by the way, made just short of $3 million in the last reported year for WM, and has about $11 million in options. The program somehow didn’t mention that.

Davos redux

Felix Salmon responds to my defense of Davos the other day.

I agree with almost everything Felix writes. I suspect we generally share a world view, and I’m certainly suspicious of people who are convinced of their own righteousness (I never thought invading Iraq was a good idea, by the way). Where I disagree is the notion that there is some kind of singular Davos crowd or mindset (exemplified in Sam Huntington‘s phrase “Davos man”). Felix writes:

My point isn’t that Davos is influential or powerful in itself, just that it inculcates a mindset in its delegates where they’re convinced that they’re doing good (the oath is a prime example of this), and never stop to modestly wonder whether they’re wrong. And that kind of mindset can be very destructive: if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then Davos is the road crew keeping it smooth and fast.

First, I’m never going to support the idiotic oath that is an innovation in the Forum’s Young Global Leaders project. Felix is right to ridicule it.

What I was trying to point out in my post the other day is that there is a strong group of Davos participants who spend a lot of time questioning premises, intentions and outcomes. They may not make the headlines, particularly of the US and British press, which understandably concentrates on homegrown stars. I think the Davos crowd that Felix decries don’t need help with the paving of the road to hell — they arrive in the Graubunden utterly convinced of their superiority and rightness. There are others who are far more questioning and skeptical. They bridle at the Washington Consensus and other signs of the dominance of an American flavor of capitalism.

My contrast of Percy Barnevik and Jack Welch wasn’t to point out that one of them was nice to my wife. It’s that Welch — and there are other corporate grandees of the same ilk — flew into Davos, said his rehearsed piece, and flew out. The likes of Barnevik seemed more willing to be discomfited and challenged.

Of course Davos is a highly protected environment. It’s highly elitist, while at the same time scurrying for a comfortable middle ground on too many issues (particularly in the kinds of cultural figures it tends to celebrate).

For all that, my view remains that good intentions are rare in that kind of environment — slapped down by Felix as asserting that good intentions are rare in the world, which is a very different statement. It’s a huge flaw that there are too many assumptions there that go unquestioned. It’s very disturbing to read reports that the Google/China dispute was a forbidden topic this year. In my day I never encountered such taboos, and we genuinely tried to foster real debate.

I’ve tried hard on occasions in the last few years to summon up the kind of Davos contempt that Felix is good at. It would be easy to paint Davos in the style of George Grosz or Otto Dix, all decadence and grotesque capitalist bloodsuckers. But even when it might have been commercially valuable to me (there’s a market for tales that the emperor has no clothes), I thought it wasn’t true to the reality of the event I knew. Perhaps I’m too naive or compromised by years of association. Perhaps it’s the difference between a harsh Manhattan outlook and a sunny California one.

The story of Davos


When Davos Newbies was launched in 1999, it was all Davos, all the time. I haven’t been back to Davos since 2001 (and the New York “Davos” in 2002), and so the blog has understandably drifted into other areas.

But reading some of the reports from this year’s Davos there are some things that I think deserve comment.

My friend Felix Salmon posted a very critical view of Davos and the World Economic Forum the other day:

Is anybody here seriously examining the idea that Davos was institutionally responsible, at least in part, for the economic and financial catastrophe which befell the world in 2008? I’ll be on the lookout for that over the next few days. But I suspect that the preening potentates will be far too busy giving themselves the job of rebuilding the world to stop and ask where they went wrong in building the last one, and whether they might actually owe the rest of us a large collective apology.

There’s a more pointed critique by James Gibney on one of The Atlantic’s blogs:

Here’s what’s potentially dangerous about the Forum’s worthy-sounding ventures on climate, global education, corruption, and health etc. For starters, they reflect the needs and goals of the Forum and its members, not the world. The sponsors of the Global Redesign Initiative (GRI), for example, are Qatar, Singapore, and Switzerland. Why them? Will the emerging grand master plan pay extra attention to the priorities of a sharia-bound absolute monarchy, a one-party state that bans chewing gum, and a minaret-bashing, tax-dodger-protecting bastion of chauvinism, or did those countries  just happen to have some no-strings-attached money to burn? Schemes like the GRI are spawned and shaped outside the public view. The biggest job for the staff members running them is to keep the people paying the bills happy.

I have sympathies with Felix’s view, but I think it’s a stretch to hold the Forum “institutionally” responsible for what happened. For me, that’s overrating the Forum’s influence and power.

As Gibney makes clear, there’s a lot that has changed at the World Economic Forum since my time. When I first became involved with the Forum, there were 60-70 staff members. A decade later, when I left, there were perhaps 120. Now, from what I hear, there are more than 300, and the numbers continue to grow. But that’s still a very small organization. Whatever the Global Redesign Initiative concludes, I think it is a very good bet that it will have no impact whatsoever on anyone.

Part of Klaus Schwab’s brilliance in creating and developing the Forum over the years has been sustaining the illusion of power and influence. I remember some newspaper article calling Klaus the world’s greatest concierge. People within the Forum bristled. But there’s no shame in being the world’s greatest concierge. The Forum is great at bringing business and political power together, with a leavening of intellectual power (the dancing bears, as some of the academic superstars called themselves in my day). The Forum has always worked incredibly hard to be more than that, with its endless stream of initiatives and agendas and councils. But, as far as I can tell, there’s not a lot of there there, even today.

There’s another reason why I hesitate to wholeheartedly endorse the more dramatic criticisms of Davos and so-called Davos Man. The biggest noise, particularly in the last decade, may have been made by the American financiers and the advocates for a capitalism red in tooth and claw. But the roots of Davos are very firmly in what some call Rhineland Capitalism.

Gibney, in his Atlantic post, notes that Jack Welch was a long-time Davos holdout. True. (When Welch finally came, I recall he had a session where his staff had really taken over the design and presentation. It was cheesy and over-rehearsed. Very non-Davos.) But that’s partly because the “spirit of Davos” was not the mantra of shareholder value espoused by Welch, but a more nuanced, socially oriented vision of value and values exemplified in that era by a Welch competitor, Percy Barnevik. Barnevik’s creation, ABB, never did become the great rival to GE that it was hyped as, but that was the model that most of the Davos Men wanted to follow.*

That more socially conscious capitalism has been in relative retreat for quite some time. But it never really went away in Davos. It’s very easy to mock the Forum’s grandiose aspirations to “improve the state of the world”, but it’s sincerely held. To my observation, in the world of giant corporations and large financial groups — the Davos crowd — it’s pretty rare to find people who have a primary motivation to do good. It may be overstated, misguided, even delusive, but the Forum is a holdout against the more corrosive elements of that world.

*An aside. I remember attending some cocktail party at The Belvedere one Davos with my wife, who was wearing her spouse’s badge. In the hierarchy of Davos badges, the spouse’s badge hardly ranks at all. But when we struck up a conversation with Barnevik, it was notable that he paid as much attention to her as to anyone else in the group. He didn’t judge on the basis of titles and badge designations. That’s rare.

The Prince of currencies

I recently finished Liaquat Ahamed’s wonderful Lords of Finance, which hardly needs my encomium on top of the many great reviews it received (you might want to try Joe Nocera or Jonathan Davis).

But I suspect I’m one of the few readers who had an extra frisson when I read the following paragraph, about part of the response to FDR’s 1933 closing of all the banks in the country:

More than a hundred cities and towns, including Atlanta, Richmond, Knoxville, Nashville, and Philadelphia, issued their own scrip. The Dow Chemical Company coined magnesium into alternative coins. That prominent undergraduate newspaper, the Daily Princetonian rose to the occasion by assuming the role of central bank of Princeton and issuing $500 of its own currency, in denominations of 25 cents, which local merchants agreed to accept — a reflection of how adaptable and elastic the notion of money can be.

Thirty-two years ago (yikes), I was the Chairman of The Daily Princetonian, or the Prince as we called it (the post has now been sensibly renamed Editor-in-Chief). But I never knew that I was at the helm of a central bank. Just think, I could have put Central Bank Governor on my resume for all these years.

Would the real Romano Prodi please stand up?

I’m looking forward to reading Brad DeLong and Steve Cohen’s new book, The End of Influence, sometime soon. But I was struck by one of the blurbs from former Italian prime minister and president of the European Commission Romano Prodi (who is also a former economics professor):

I started reading this book and could not stop until I arrived at the last sentence. Really splendid: rigorous, scientifically perfect, and politically accurate.

It’s not the blurb that gave me pause. It was encountering Prodi for the second time in a week, after not really thinking about him since his largely ineffectual tenure as Italy’s leader (although he was certainly infinitely preferable to the odious Berlusconi).

Prodi pops up briefly in the hugely entertaining A View from the Foothills, the diaries of Chris Mullin, which I read over the holiday break. Mullin was a Labour MP who made a few brief forays into the bottom rungs of government during the Tony Blair premiership. His diaries give a wonderful sense of British politics and government from a modest perch, where encounters with The Man (Mullin’s name for Blair) are at best fleeting. Here’s the brief mention of Prodi:

Monday, 29 March 2004

To Carlton Gardens for a ‘political’ lunch. The party pollster Greg Cook gave us the lowdown on the latest polls. The news is not good. Levels of dissatisfaction and cynicism are approaching those of the Major years. There was a discussion on Europe, [Foreign Secretary] Jack [Straw] said that the EC had had ten years of ‘seriously crud’ leaders — Santerre and Prodi. Prodi, he said, would be lucky to hold down even the lowliest government post in this country and yet in Italy he was considered prime ministerial material.

Incidentally, here’s one of the many funny passages on low ministerial rank:

I am besieged with invitations to address conferences organised by obscure but no doubt worthy organisations. Mostly they are the crumbs that fall from the tables of my many superiors and my first instinct is to reject the lot. However, they usually come with notes from officials advising acceptance and, reluctantly, I concede. Before long my whole life will be eaten up by pointless activity. One such invite, originally addressed to Nick Raynsford, came with a note from his Private Secretary still attached. It read: ‘This is very low priority. I suggest we pass it to Chris Mullin.’

The view from my window

Ankara view

I love Andrew Sullivan‘s View From My Window feature on his blog. So why not copy it occasionally?

There’s nothing particularly lovely about Ankara, Turkey’s capital and a city of over 4 million. But I’m involved in a fascinating project here — equal parts economic development and sustainability — which I might be able to write about at some point.

The only other picture I’ve taken on this crammed business trip was an utterly obvious one in San Francisco Airport before I boarded my plane on Monday:


In case you can’t read it, the copy reads: “Opportunity isn’t always obvious.” Today’s New York Times has a good article on the reddened faces at Accenture.

Tenth blogoversary


Well, I missed my 10th blogoversary by one day. But then, I’ve been missing a lot of events here on Davos Newbies recently. It isn’t that I’ve lost the blogging urge, it’s just that all of my blogging energy is being consumed by Berkeleyside. And I’ve had a fair chunk of paying work that needs attention as well in the last couple of months (which is a good thing). I will, I promise, get back to occasional updates here.

The first Davos Newbies post — a kind of Hello World — was on December 12, 1999. I didn’t really get motoring until January 3, 2000, when the run-up to that year’s Davos was ramping up. I then didn’t miss a day of posting until February 5. I think that spate of posts, which was conference liveblogging avant la lettre, stands up pretty well. The Internet Archive didn’t catch up with Davos Newbies until June 2000, but that does mean the original look — thanks Garret! — is preserved in aspic.

old DN

I’ve thanked Dave Winer many times for both pioneering blogging and for encouraging Davos Newbies from my first encounter with him. I’m still hugely grateful for that, even if we decided to take separate paths in our Berkeley hyperlocal efforts.

Photo of a number 10 by Leo Reynolds from Flickr