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#WBF09 Economists – World Business Forum and Our Economic Future

It’s taken me a while to pull this blog together after the World Business Forum 2009.  I specifically left out the economists (David Rubenstein, Jeffrey Sachs, and Paul Krugman) because they really made such an impact on me.  And in some ways, this wasn’t a positive experience.  Needless-to-say, I have incredible admiration and respect for each and every one of the economists who spoke.  On the other hand, collectively they made me really question what their real role is and what it should be in guiding our economy.  I really questioned what each of you were trying to achieve.  Information without action just doesn’t seem enough to me.  (Nothing would thrill me more than to have them comment on this blog – actually, I dare ya.)

First we had David Rubenstein of the Carlysle Group. He’s obviously well educated and thoughtful of what he sees and says about what he sees.  However, he can also deliver most negative news in such rapid fire that you don’t know what hit you.  At one point I couldn’t believe there was more…and more…and more.  His likening of the recession to a hurricane made me pray we weren’t in the eye of the storm because the way he described it would only be tolerable if it passes soon.  He claimed, “The dollar is going to be less and less significant to the global economy and that’s going to be a problem for Americans.”  More over, the nation will have to cut its debt and increase taxes to fix the problem.  In contrast, he’s demonstrated what a great American he is by purchasing and donating Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, and Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln to the National Archives.  Not sure I understood what went wrong but rather that everything just is wrong.  Although I was numb by the end of the discussion, he did fondly remind me of my Econ 101 professor who I could swear was on speed at 8 AM in the morning.  Who needed coffee?

Also speaking day 1 was Jeffrey Sachs of the The Earth Institute.  He’s very likeable and therefore easy to listen to throughout the talk.  My only issue was two economists in one day is just a lot of economists in one day.  I felt he took on topics that are side-stepped on a regular basis. Although his, too, was a very negative dialog, he was truly dealing with the issues no one seems to discuss.  For example, he hit bipartisanship right between the eyes as a key catalyst for economic failure in the U.S.  Sachs described policy-making as something that happens behind closed doors and by parties focused on their own interests. Sachs also addressed climate change and population growth as even bigger issues as the competing demand around the globe continues.  Clearly, he believes that good global citizenship through cooperation is the only path forward. It’s more than policy or good will, rather a need for our own survival. This economist had the most impact on my perspective until his politics started to show.  I just want facts and perspective, and not politics. 

This same theme of failure in Congress was carried forward by Paul Krugman on Day 2.  He has a very smooth style with lots of numbers and charts.  Plus, his talk was quite long.  At one point I tweeted it was like being in one of my 800 student classes at Penn State where I was still looking for the point because it might show up on the exam.  Incredibly brilliant for sure. Quite arrogant as well. At one point he told the audience, “Only economists understand globalization.”  He sees the Government as an economic stabilizer putting the Apocalypse on hold.  Yep.  Another cheery discussion. He does love his work as he claims, “As an economist, I love it because problems make great analysis for an economist.” At the same time, he could be funny.  When discussing trade with China, he says it’s a fair exchange, “They send us poison toys and we send them fraudulent securities.” Skeptical, smug and funny.

Ok. So here’s my take away.  Although incredibly smart and able to connect dots the normal public doesn’t connect (or know how to connect), they were all way to negative to be heard.  Comments like “shoot me.  shoot me now!” permeated the Twitterverse.  Is there no hope in this science? 

What’s the point of truly modeling the history events if the variables upon which the future will be based will change?  At what point does the economist community’s unique knowledge of what happened help us prevent it from happening again?  The whole retrospective approach seems unfair unless you use that information going forward.  But I can’t hear you because you’re too exposed in your political views (yes, I turn off always).  A catalyst speaks the truth they know rather than carry the agenda of others.

And, if it’s true that normal people can’t understand global economics then what are you as a group of scientists doing to fix that?  None of you speak English – well, I believe Jeffrey Sachs can if he wants to.  Isn’t it your responsibility to help us make a difference in our behaviors? After all, isn’t that the economic variable you can’t predict with reliability?  Wouldn’t one conclude that if I actually understood the ramifications of my choices, I might make different choices? I can’t sit through lectures with slides to get this detail – doesn’t work.  Oh, media!  You’re part of this issue, too.

And my final question.  Where were you?  If you have all this data, saw the recession coming, and saw the fall of the housing market, then why did it happen? And don’t give me a political response.  I don’t care about sides and agendas.  I want facts without blame – that’s the easy way out. 

As a business person, I think corrections are always necessary and healthy.  So, maybe I see the opportunity in the current crisis and hope it makes some better. Therefore this negative line of thinking really does bother me.  I didn’t get an ounce of where opportunity might be other than in scarce natural resources in Sachs talk.  In other words, these talks were informative, but not actionable for me.  Maybe that’s why I never hear them, yet they seem to have lots of really good stuff (that’s a technical economic term).

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