Saturday, January 28, 2012

Davos Needs Descartes!

Today’s report from Davos by Tim Weber, Business Editor for the BBC News Web site, can be boiled down to a single sentence summary:

Everyone attending the World Economic Forum is worrying about youth unemployment.

My guess is that most of us 99% folks in the real world will respond to this with the immortal line from Rocky Horror:

No shit, Sherlock!

Even those whose knowledge of history is pathetically myopic probably realize that unemployment may well have been a more significant motivating factor behind the Arab Spring than the more idealistic quest for democracy.

So, having been blessed with a flash of insight into the obvious, what are the folks in Davos doing about it?  Given the length of Weber’s article, it is clear that a lot of people are doing a lot of talking.  Then there is this photograph that gives some indication of what else they are doing:

I used to attend meetings where diagrams like this emerged.  They are supposed to be a product of free-for-all brainstorming, drawn by a “facilitator,” who tries to summarize the results of the meeting in a diagram that is as informative as it is attractive.  It is clear from this photograph that Weber’s camera could not fit the whole diagram.  This is a bad sign.  If you cannot go away from a meeting with an image that “fits the mind’s eye,” you are likely to lose your grip on the whole affair.  Unfortunately, the reason this particular diagram is so crowded is that it is filled with platitudes, all the usual content-free phrases that you learn in business school to “keep the conversation going” without sounding like a dummy.  If the 1% are trying to convince the 99% that they are actually trying to do something about the most serious problem on the table, then Weber’s report seems to indicate that they have managed to invest a day in nothing better than shooting themselves in the foot.

It’s time for a modest proposal to break this logjam.  The problem with brainstorming at Davos is that everyone there has pretty much the same mindset.  Put another way, there is some fundamental set of propositions (which could probably fit on one of those whiteboards) that are simply accepted as axiomatic by all conferees.  What is needed, then, is a strong injection of Cartesian doubt.  For René Descartes reasoning began with the capacity to doubt everything and accepting as truth only that which withstands the challenge of doubt.  Thus, if one can create a whiteboard of “Davos axioms,” one should also be able to run each one of them through a wringer of doubt, driven by the likelihood that no individual axiom is necessarily shared by everyone in the room.  If those axioms can be brought down like a house of cards, then there would be at least a fighting chance that the Davos conferees could shift their attention to finding solutions, rather than drawing a big pretty picture of the problem.

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