When my flight from Los Angeles touched down in Aspen, Colorado I counted 80 private jets parked at the airport. I had come for the annual Aspen Ideas Festival and what follows is a critique written with some affection for the institution but with the full knowledge that I may never be invited to speak there.
Aspen aspires to be an American Davos–a meeting in the mountains of top government policy makers, important pundits, authors and academics; all interacting with the corporate elite. Thus the enormous private jet fleet. It seemed to this first time attendee that the whole program was built on three suppositions.
- That the economics of globalization are as inevitable as water flowing downhill on Frying Pan River.
- That technological innovation is the salvation of society.
- That American politics are so polarized that nothing can be accomplished at a national level.
These assumptions lead to a kind of philosophy of inevitability. Leadership is reduced to management and so problems really can’t be solved, they can just be managed. The pundits, politicians and managers on the stages of Aspen are there to tell us they know how to manage through crisis. This leaves the audience feeling as if there are no choices left other than the personal choice between eating steak or fish, wearing khakis or Levis, buying a Gulfstream or a Bombardier corporate jet. The notion of the political choice of fundamentally changing our society seems to be in the realm of the Higgs Particle. Does such a choice really exist and if so, how would we know?
On the stage the pundit interviewers were obsequiously polite with the politicians. Gillian Tett of the Financial Times never bothered to ask Larry Summers if he regretted eliminating Glass-Steagel at the behest of Citibank’s Sandy Weill. Charlie Rose sat mute as Mitch Daniels poured forth Romney talking points about how government regulation inevitably inhibits growth and how Obamacare was a tax on all Americans. The Atlantic’s David Bradley never challenged Pervez Musharraf’s assertion that military Coups were necessary to save Pakistan’s fragile and corrupt democracy. Tom Friedman allowed Ehud Barak to ramble on for minutes on why Iran’s joining the nuclear club would be different than any other previous nuclear aspirant, despite convincing evidence to the contrary by Kenneth Waltz in this month’s Foreign Affairs.
It was as if no one could even bother questioning the basic assumptions of the current political moment. For all the eminent economists at the Ideas Festival, why was the word monopoly or duopoly never mentioned? Would no one even acknowledge that the digital age brings forth the “winner takes all” principle on steroids. Would no one concede that Google was a monopoly in the Internet search business? Or that to try to compete with Facebook’s 1 Billion user base in Social Networks would be an act of folly? Would no one concede that both RIM and Nokia are basically roadkill in the face of the Apple-Google smartphone OS onslaught? It may be that these are “natural monopolies” with as much benefit to society as the Bell System was to the growth of 20th Century America, but then they should be regulated like the Bell System was.
Ultimately the notion of inevitability leads to the kind of political paralysis that seemed to be the main focus of the Aspen event. If the average citizen feels they are but a spectator in events in which they have no choice, then the very idea of voting seems like a joke. No one doubts that both the husbands and wives arriving in their private jets will show up at the polls in November, but for the working class couple who have seen their wages never rise over the past two decades because most of their jobs have been shipped to China by the owners of the private jets, the very idea of citizens exercising power over the direction of the society seems like a dream that only their grandparents experienced. And just to make sure this is a self fulfilling prophecy, the oligarchs are pouring $1 Billion into negative super pac advertising and millions into a coordinated vote suppression operation to target the young, the old and the people of color.
So I left Aspen feeling sad. Sure it was fun to rub elbows with Peter Orzag, David Brooks and Howard Schultz. Yes it was inspiring to hear Elaine Pagels make her quiet plea for the importance of studying the sacred texts or Elizabeth Diller pleading for a more challenging civic architecture. But in the end we need real leadership, not just more effective management. But leadership involves showing people they have real choices that can change the world. That was the missing piece at Aspen.