This year's may have been the gloomiest Davos ever, but TED
maintained its usual optimism. Even the customary predictions of environmental catastrophe were accompanied by faith in activism and change. On the last day, curator Chris Anderson addressed critics who complained that the conference was ignoring the global economic crisis. His main point was to maintain long-term perspective, arguing--with a Keynes quote--that TED
engages the ideas that create a better future once the gyrations of the moment are over. But before he got to Keynes, he said that the world has bigger problems than the economy, the unstated assumption being that this downturn is a trivial matter of smaller 401(K)s and unemployed ibankers--a silly matter for the kind of ridiculously affluent people who can spend $6,000 on a conference registration fee.
Inveterate optimist though I am, I found
Anderson's smug complacency annoying. For starters, there was the
little matter of World War II lurking in the future of the Keynes
quote. Depressions can have non-economic consequences, including
millions of brutal deaths.
Besides, one of the
most optimistic themes of the conference was the rising affluence and
enormous human potential of China and India. On the first day, Nadan
Nilekani, founder of Infosys
and author of the forthcoming book Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation
talked about the ideas behind his country's increasing prosperity. He
emphasized India's vast potential as a young country in an aging world:
"a demographic dividend," he called it. One of the country's most
fundamental changes, he said, has been the shift from thinking of
people as a burden to considering them engines of economic growth. TED
itself is planning a November 2009 conference in India--a conference
premised on an optimistic view of India's future.
"China is the world's greatest antipoverty program of the past three decades," said Alex Tabbarok
in the one talk that directly addressed world economic growth. The
increasing prosperity of these countries, he noted, not only improves
the lives of their own people but promises benefits for the rest of us.
If China and India were as rich as the U.S., he noted, the market for
cancer drugs would be eight times larger. That would encourage more
drug development by allowing the R&D costs to be spread over many
What happens, then, when the U.S. in particular stops buying the goods and services China and India are exporting? Pace Chris
Anderson, a global economic contraction is not a trivial problem
compared to, say, preserving oceans. At least not if you care about the
welfare of human beings.