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Star Struck By Trump?

German Business Leaders Praise U.S. Economic Policies at Davos

The World Economic Forum in Davos can often predict future developments in politics, technology and finance. This year, it showed us that some European captains of industry are quite pleased with Donald Trump's economic policies.

By and
Wednesday, 2/7/2018   05:46 PM

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, there isn't just one global economy and one business world. There are several worlds and layers, a bit like the different levels of a company headquarters, but with escalators between some floors and others connected by wobbly ladders and others with no link whatsoever.

The politicians converge on their floor, they hold speeches, meet with or avoid each other and then leave to continue their travels either inspired or exhausted. Their importance is measured by whether they get to speak in the big auditorium and for how long, and whether they will be welcomed and interviewed by WEF founder Klaus Schwab.

The stars of the financial world, along with many lobbyists, also come to Davos to cultivate their networks, cut deals and celebrate at nighttime parties, like the one held by consulting firm McKinsey with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Making public appearances at Davos isn't always crucial and some guests never even enter the congress center. The gathering's prominent finance-world guests include executives from major banks and hedge fund managers.

Multinationals like Apple, Google and Facebook show up with entire armies in the hopes of divining new trends and steering public opinion.

Centers of Power

Davos has a geographical focal point, the congress center, with its large and small auditoriums and cloakrooms overflowing with coats, caps and snow boots.

People here tend to spend a lot of time in the hallways with mediocre cups of espresso in their hands. That's where you can chat with people like Marty Baron, the editor-in-chief of the Washington Post, or A.G. Sulzberger, the freshly minted, wintry pale publisher of the New York Times, and talk about their plans in these times of structural transformation. People can approach Benjamin Netanyahu, who wants only to enthuse about Donald Trump; Justin Trudeau walks around mirthfully; German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen defends the European Union against a discordant Poland, while avoiding condemning the Poles in multiple languages; and so on.

And then there's the WEF's unofficial center -- the promenade located a little higher up, where one hotel after the other has been rented out by corporations and where Eric Schmidt, of Google's holding company Alphabet, and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook invite groups to lunch and Bill Gates has guests over to dinner -- generally pleasing, verbose and very precise affairs. Although the conversations are generally only for background, reporters can pepper some of the details they learn into their stories.

Some years, WEF can be a staid, seemingly irrelevant affair. But then there are years like 2018 when the major issues of our time seem to collide here -- and some answers to them might even be found.

King Donald

When he was just a businessman, Donald Trump was never invited to the WEF, but this year his presence could be felt long before his helicopter set down in the snow on Thursday. When he appeared, he was overly tanned with an comb over, as always, but also more tentative than usual, seemingly tamed by his speechwriters and the teleprompter.

Trump read his speech without making any errors, with the proper intonations. With narrowed eyes, he boasted about each new record that has been achieved on the stock markets since his election as well as falling unemployment, which he also claimed as his own achievement (even though it has been sinking for more than eight years, since around the time his predecessor Barack Obama entered office.) So, was Trump's speech, the WEF finale, a sensation?

It was by all means a political one. The sentence, "American first doesn't mean America alone" will endure.

Socially, it was also a sensation. The self-confident Davos types who like to project importance and wealth, and those of them who already have both, turned their attention to Trump as soon as he entered a room. They pulled out their mobile phones and photographed the doubtlessly more important (and possibly richer) Trump. Their main objective was to get a selfie taken with King Donald. Only the quartet of New York Times reporters -- Peter Baker and his crew -- sat, casually and impassively in the fifth row, watching what was unfolding around them.

Unfortunately, this year's Davos was more submissive than the last, as people were star struck and dazzled by Trump. On Thursday, at a reception held for around a hundred captains of industry, and later at a dinner for 15 corporate bosses, the U.S. president celebrated the return of neoliberalism and was even hailed by the corporate leaders - with very few acting even the slightest bit sheepish about it.

Favor Among German Top Executives

Attendees at the reception later shared how Trump had praised some CEOs for their investments in the United States, which drive billions in revenues and employ thousands of workers. They, in turn, shouted "Yes, Sir!" to thank him. Later, at dinner, the heads of German multinational firms Siemens, SAP and Bayer each tried to outdo each other with their praise for Trump's tax plan. Joe Kaeser, CEO of engineering giant Siemens, was the chummiest with Trump, but all courted their supposed savior by enthusing about their own business activities in the United States.

Many of the business-world elite see in Trump a savior. Managers at the U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs, executives with Deutsche Bank and CEOs of major European industrial firms all said in off-the-record interviews that, even though they aren't fond of Trump's style, they do like his policies. "His deregulation campaign is the best thing that has come out of Washington in a long, long time," said one. "He's an executor and you have to give him his due," said another. "A little more Trump would do German politics a lot of good," said a third.

The post-financial-crisis period in which politicians more or (often enough) less seriously tried to regain the upper hand on markets that had spun out of control by imposing new regulations and closing tax loopholes is now drawing to a close. Trump now wants to deal the fatal blow to these policies and the global consensus over them. In Davos, it became clear that he is far from alone in this wish.

Echoes of Trump could even be heard during the appearance by Siemens' Kaiser at the Belvedere Hotel, where he was asked what Siemens is today. His answer: "The greatest company in the world." He said he had to make Siemens strong, because that was the only way he could help the weak -- after all, he claimed, somebody has to stand up against all the hedge funds who think exclusively about their investors' profits. But aren't they the same investors driving Siemens to cuts jobs and into Trump's arms in the first place?

Is Germany's model company really all that far removed from a Trump whose policies favor the super-rich, including himself, through tax cuts and deregulation, while claiming to fight the elite and help the people who have been left behind?

'Europe Is Back'

For months, Trump has placed a question mark over the international system of multilateral trade treaties and institutions, and it was apparent in Davos this year just how fragile loyalties and convictions have become. But Davos also showed what other leading economies can do to counter that trend, reflecting a renaissance in international agreements and a European Union eager to establish social equity.

Angela Merkel used the large stage in the congress center to give a real, suspenseful speech drawing an image of the Germany and the Europe that she would like to strive for. Her serious and alert mien seemed to underscore an understanding that the foundations of liberal democracy are no longer safe from collapse. But just what, exactly, she meant in her address by the snazzy sounding "Social Market Economy 4.0" would be the fitting topic for a second address, perhaps one that she could give before she forms her new government. The chancellor didn't go into concrete details and was inconsistent -- including on the question of how Germany, France and others can come to agreement on decisive issues.

Justin Trudeau, wearing his usual colorful socks, sought to campaign for multiculturalism, as well as for trade deals and women's issues, spurred by the #MeToo movement. He also emphasized family policies, pay equity and education, and said that everyone in the auditorium should be driven to make the world a better place. For women, he said, this change needed to begin now.

"France is back at the core of Europe," French President Emmanuel Macron declared from the stage in the conference center. Macron acted almost as vehemently humble at Davos as Trump had done, although perhaps even more innocently and wishfully. The longer Macron spoke -- pirouetting as he did between English and French -- the more the fear crept in among his audience, who wanted to be enthusiastic, that the Frenchman, whom the Davos people had praised as an embodiment of the spirit of this year's summit, was promising more than he could deliver. How many priorities can one person have, even if that person is a Macron?

"Trump is actually doing stuff, whereas Europe has so far only stirred hope," one powerful banking boss said after the appearances by the leaders. Nevertheless, it had been a very long time since the words "Europe" and "hope" had been heard together at Davos. "Europe is back" turned out to be one of the most oft-repeated phrases at the forum. Between meetings and appearances, German Defense Minister von der Leyen could be found sitting in the discreet Public Persons Lounge, where she requested lots of water after each discussion. Von der Leyen says that the tremors in trans-Atlantic relations have created a sense of urgency in Europe. She says Europeans need to act and close ranks to cushion America's withdrawal -- and that they have indeed understood all this. Then she described Macron as the antithesis to Trump.

The elderly man who was led to the lectern at the Hotel Seehof on Thursday night looked behind the times. All day long, managers had expressed their optimism about the course of the global economy and the promise of new technology. It was a thoroughly euphoric Thursday -- one with plentiful snow and spectacular winter light. Then came George Soros. The billionaire and speculator, who has profited more than most others from the blessings of free markets and societies, was all doom and gloom.

"Open societies are in crisis," Soros said in a fragile voice -- and "our entire civilization is at stake." Various "forms of dictatorships and mafia states, exemplified by Putin's Russia, are on the rise," he said. "In the United States, President Trump would like to establish a mafia state, but he can't because the Constitution, other institutions and a vibrant civil society won't allow it."

Even more than Trump, it's the excesses of digitalization that trouble the 87-year-old philanthropist most, "the rise and monopolistic behavior" of the giant IT platform companies. He argued that Google and Facebook are becoming a danger to democracy because of their ever-growing power over the market, and the fact that they influence peoples' thinking without them even realizing it. The situation could become dangerous if these "data-rich IT monopolies" were to comply with authoritarian states. "This may well result in a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even Aldous Huxley or George Orwell could have imagined," Soros warned.

Technology at a Turning Point

Most other Davos attendees didn't hold nearly as grim a view of the digital future. But numerous panels and speeches made it clear that the IT industry once again finds itself at a turning point. In the same way that governments have sought to tame banks and financial markets, they could (and should) turn their attention to reining in the tech corporations, though that could prove to be considerably more difficult.

Even business representatives now recognize that the speed with which the digital platforms and artificial intelligence are transforming society threatens to overstrain people. "The dimensions of the changes taking place in the working world are different than in the past," said Norbert Winkeljohann, the head of consulting and auditing firm PwC in Germany. "The pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again," Canadian President Trudeau said.

It was clear in Davos that the labor market is but one facet of the problem. The fundamental questions that need to be answered are about who controls the world's digitalization, who determines how it is used and who it serves. Robots and artificial intelligence are so highly developed, experts report, that they already have the capabilities of human ears and eyes. They still don't have feet and hands as sophisticated as ours, but what happens if, in three to eight years, robots are playing on sports fields and even in the different levels of Davos -- and they prove to be more competent than humans? What if robots can kill and make life-or-death decisions? What if these robots are as error-prone as Google Photos is with its facial recognition software? Yes, Soros' worries are justified.

Some technology companies have already recognized that their most important foundation is starting to erode: namely the trust that users and government have in them. "In Tech we Trust" was the name of one event focusing largely on the mistrust of Facebook and others. The panel featured a laid-back Dara Khosrowshahi, the new CEO of the taxi platform Uber, who argued that a "real cultural change" has taken place in the wake of the company's scandals. Facebook, for its part, offered a similarly clear Davos strategy: humility. Officials from Facebook wanted to learn by asking questions and listening. Accustomed to success, the company's executives are suffering from the fact that they have been blamed by many for the spread of lies and the rise of President Trump. Right-wing radical websites like Breitbart had greater impact with their fabrications about Hillary Clinton than the New York Times did with its factual exposés on Trump because Facebook users helped spread the site's dirt.

Other Takeaways from Davos

There were some additional takeaways at Davos this year.

Followers are now the digital equivalent of status, and fake news is the digital equivalent of paramilitary troops. All future wars will begin with cyberattacks. The West still doesn't seem to have grasped the impact with which China's government and the country's companies are going to dominate the area of artificial intelligence. But democracies are self-correcting -- China is not. Digitalization is going to create conflicts at the tribal level because it provides small groups with loud voices. Identity, meaning the obligation to state a person's name, is not leading people to behave in a more civilized way, either. Algorithms have prejudices against blacks and foreigners. It was also a mistake for Bitcoin to have been authorized given that central banks need to retain their status as the financial policy authorities. Work is not the fundamental purpose of humanity, and at the point that the machines start doing our work for us, a basic income needs to be introduced -- which will be possible if global prosperity continues to grow as quickly as it has been.

Publicly, at least, Facebook does not share the belief that the company allowed the rise of filter bubbles, in which users only affirm their existing opinions. The company's line is that people have tight connections and loose connections and that Facebook ensures that those loose connections are identified and strengthened in a way that should expand a person's frame of reference rather than narrow it.

It became clear on the promenade at Davos that managers at Facebook and Google haven't reached the point where they feel a responsibility for what is published on their platforms. They still refer to their companies as "platforms" and not as a part of the "media," but they do want to strengthen their system of "rankings," meaning the ratings of the factuality and seriousness of news sources. "If we don't solve this problem, others will do so for us," is a sentence you could hear often.

But you could also just as frequently hear calls for increased regulation. "Davos is a good place to announce that their days are numbered," billionaire investor Soros said in comments directed at the American tech giants. But is that even realistic? There were few links between the levels of the tech giants and world leaders here. And although people often talk at Davos about how important the strange, virtual world is, many have little understanding of it and are quick to turn around and forget about it again.

It's also conceivable that the global dominance shown by Google, Amazon and Facebook in February 2018 could end, only from the bottom up. Countless start-ups are working on technologies like blockchain, the digital ledger that records Bitcoin transactions, and even on artificial intelligence, and they are convinced that the tech giants' technologies can be made superfluous when there won't be anything standing between producers and users. Wealth and prosperity are going to be taken from the platforms and put back in the hands of producing companies and their customers, said Jeff Schumacher, founder and head of the venture capital firm BCG Digital Ventures.

In any case, the most likely scenario is that the same worlds we are seeing in 2018 will be there when the next World Economic Forum rolls around in 2019.

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