TED roundup: if growth is an anti-poverty program, then depression...

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 more people.

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.