The More Things Change...
You may have noticed that this week many news stories are being filed from Davos, Switzerland. That is because the World Economic Forum (WEF) is being held there this year – as it has been almost every year at this time – and reporters important enough to be invited can write about almost nothing else. I wrote the post below in 2006; but, since it sounds like the WEF has changed less than the world itself, I'm re-posting with only minor edits.
In 1999 (before the IPO of our dotcom era company) and in 2000 (just after our IPO), Mary and I were invited to the WEF. Our stock which had debuted at $12 was near its all time high of $120. The dotcom bust was still months away. In many ways, this trip was the apogee of our lives inside that fantastic bubble and Davos is the setting for a chapter of my book hackoff.com: an historic murder mystery set in the Internet bubble and rubble.
The World Economic Forum is an organization “committed to improving the state of the world”. It’s members are some 1,000 of the world’s largest corporations. They pay large dues, rumor says up to 300 thousand per year. And their executives are appropriately invited.
But many other people are invited as well. Political leaders are invited and come; for Davos 2000 they included Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, former Israeli Prime Minister Simon Peres and young King Abdu’llah of Jordan, and many, many more. There was an expectation that deals would be made; peace and commerce advanced.
The anointed thought leaders from the press were invited; Thomas Friedman, of course, but also David Kirkpatrick of Fortune and — much to the point that year — Tony Perkins of Red Herring and Upside fame. No one who hadn’t read both of these was anywhere near an IPO.
The corporate leaders for 2000 included Bill Gates of Microsoft and Scott McNeally of Sun (they had less use for each other than Barak and Arafat). Jeff Bezos from Amazon was here as well as Michael Dell. Michael Bloomberg — who was not yet a mayor — attended as a business leader. [Bloomberg and I were on a committee together which was chaired by Carly Firiona. His open contempt for her inanities would have made you believe he never could have a political career.] There were Asian billionaires as well; Richard Li of Pacific Century Cyberworks and Masayoshi Son of Softbank were the most prominent. European business was represented mainly by the third to tenth generations of old companies with a sprinkling of telecom executives. South America and Africa were “underrepresented”.
To the discomfort of some the members, a smattering of Internet IPO CEOs had been invited as well. We were thought of as nouveau riche, which we were; some of us didn't stay riche very long. We were not asked to participate in the major panels but were on small panels. Some of us were invited in 1999 and 1998 before most of us were rich but when wewere already hard at work changing the world. Most of us were not invited in 2001 or ever again.
The scene below is from the book I wrote about my strange time in the Internet bubble. I’m going to extract some of it in this post and some in a subsequent one. The fictional characters are Larry Lazard, CEO of hackoff.com, who, in this flashback, has not yet been found dead in his office; his wife Louise; and a Israeli friend Chaim Roslov, who Larry met while chairing a small session at the WEF. Simon Peres, of course, is an historic character and a meeting very much like the one I describe in the book actually did happen except for Larry and Chaim’s contribution which is fictional.
We join them just after a meeting which Larry chaired:
Chaim buttonholes Larry as they leave the luncheon: “You are going back to the Congress Center.”
“Uh … yeah, my wife and I are.”
“So we’ll share a taxi.”
“Yeah, sure,” says Larry, not sounding sure. “This is my wife, Louise.”
“Hello, Louise,” says the Israeli. His name is Chaim Roslov, pronounced with a guttural like Chanukah.
The driver of their cab doesn’t speak English but the multi-lingual Israeli establishes Spanish as a lingua franca and directs him to the Congress Center.
“You are Jewish,” says Chaim to Larry. It is not a question.
“Only half,” says Larry. “How do you know?”
“I know,” says Chaim. “Your mother was Jewish.” Apparently question marks are not in his English vocabulary.
“Right,” says Larry.
“Then you’re Jewish.”
“Right,” says Louise, amused.
“But I don’t practice,” Larry objects.
“I’m not asking you to synagogue,” says Chaim. “Practice does not matter. But you are a Jew.”
“You are free for breakfast tomorrow,” Chaim asserts.
“I think so,” says Larry. “For what?”
“There is an important meeting. Simon Peres is coordinating this. We must do something to create opportunity for Palestinians. There must be hope for them or there will be no peace. We have a plan; we want your help.”
“I don’t even know any Palestinians,” says Larry. “I don’t think I can help.”
“You can help,” says Chaim. “You must come to the meeting.”
“We will come,” says Louise.
“Only your husband may come.”
“Why?” asks Louise. “Are you orthodox? Are you afraid of women? I’m Jewish — all Jewish.”
“Your husband is the principal. It is he who must come. If you are the principal, you would come. It must be that way.”
“Why must it be that way?” asks Louise.
“It must,” says Chaim flatly.
The breakfast meeting is in another hotel in a medium-sized conference room. The chairs have been arranged in an oval, and Simon Peres sits in the middle of one of the long sides of the oval. Larry takes an empty chair near one of the ends. Chaim is towards the other end but there is no seat open near him.
A young, black-haired functionary from the WEF speaks first. “The World Economic Forum has a proud history of being the venue for progress on otherwise intractable issues. Much of the discussion that led to the Oslo Accords began here in this neutral territory where direct communication is possible. In the midst of unparalleled global prosperity and relative peace, we must do what we can to solve the world’s most intractable problems. We may not succeed, but we have no excuse not to try. Prime Minister Peres has been kind enough to host this breakfast so we may discuss part of what we can do. Before we start, I’d like to go around the room and ask each of you to identify yourself, your country, your company, and state briefly why you are here.”
When the introductions reach Larry, he says: “I’m Larry Lazard; I’m an American. My company is hackoff.com; we do security for e-commerce. I don’t know why I’m here. Chaim asked me to come.”
Peres turns his large gray face to Larry: “We’re glad you’re here, Larry Lazard,” he says. “You’re here because you can help.”
After the introductions, Peres himself speaks: “We are here because there are problems which must be solved,” he says. “The greatest obstacle to peace in the Middle East is the lack of hope among young Palestinians. We are doing something about that. The danger is that, in the Middle East, hope is its own worst enemy. There is a story about an asp and a camel who meet on the banks of the Suez Canal. ‘Take me across on your back,” said the asp to the camel.’
“‘I can’t do that,’ said the camel to the asp. ‘You will sting me.’
“‘I won’t sting you,’ said the asp. ‘If I sting you, you will die and I will drown.’
“‘Okay,’ the camel said and the asp got on his hump. Halfway across the canal, the asp stung the camel.
“‘Why did you do that?’ asked the dying camel.
“‘Because this is the Middle East,’ said the asp before he drowned.
“We cannot allow ourselves to be drowned — to remain trapped in this cycle of despair and violence,” continues Peres. “We must create hope where there is no hope. We must give young Palestinians an alternative to violent death. That alternative comes from jobs. We must export some of the potential of the Israeli economy and the world economy to the Palestinian territories.
“We are doing that. We are establishing businesses and factories there. We are creating jobs and we are creating hope. But there is great resistance to this when it is perceived to come from Israel. There is a brave Palestinian woman who has risen to be the plant manager of one of the enterprises we created. She has risen above the squalor and despair she was raised in. But her own father has called for her death; a local imam has declared a fatwah against her. She may not live long although this brave woman does live today.
“So we need you who are not Israelis to create jobs in Palestinian territory, in the West Bank and in Gaza. We need you to create hope. We need you to create an alternative to violence and death. We will help you; we will put you in touch with the right people; some of them are here at the conference. But we must be invisible and you must be visible. Otherwise this remains the Middle East. The asp will bite the camel. And both will die. Will you do this?”
Many say they will. Names are taken; appointments are made.
“Will you help, Larry Lazard?” asks Chaim, who is now somehow seated next to Larry.
“I would like to,” says Larry. “I mean this sounds like a very good thing, but I’m not sure how I…”
“My friend Larry Lazard and I will help,” says Chaim. The great head turns toward them. “We will work to create jobs in the territories. We will outsource there. We will create well-paying programming jobs there and we will save money for our companies doing this. It is what our friends the Americans call a win-win.”
“So,” Larry explains to Louise later, “I’m going to be put in touch with a Palestinian who’ll be our contact for contracting some of our programming to a group in Jenin. They’re supposed to be good; they can do it cheaper than we can get it done in the US. And we save them from being suicide bombers.”
“Was Barak at the meeting?” asks Louise.[She meant Israeli President Barak, of course. She wouldn't have heard of the Illinois state senator with the funny name yet.]
“Isn’t that strange?”
“The whole thing is strange,” says Larry. “Davos is strange. Being a billionaire is strange. I don’t know.”
“We’re there any Palestinians at the meeting?” asks Louise.
“Does that tell you anything?”
“No. I told you; I’m going to meet a Palestinian. This is a good thing.”
“We’ll see,” says Louise.
“Why are you so negative?” asks Larry. “You’re the JAP. You’re the 100 percent pure Jew. You had a Bat Mitzvah, for Christ’s sake.”
“I don’t know,” says Louise. “I don’t know. We’ll see. I am glad you’re trying. I’m glad that chauvinist pig Chaim recruited you.”
“So that’s it; you’re still pissed off that you weren’t invited to the meeting.”
“No, that’s not it,” says Louise, then: “Yes, it is. I AM pissed off. But that’s not what’s bothering me. I don’t know. Try. It’s the right thing to do. Meet the Palestinian. And remember the camel.”