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. Read more…