The Big Problems with Big Solutions

We inch forward, and then we stop. Then we inch forward again. Then, for half a mile or so we speed up, and it seems we are actually going to start making real time. Then we stop. A few more inches forward , and then we stop again.

Snow is falling, but that isn’t the only explanation for this traffic jam: The more experienced passengers in our car assure me that this sort of thing happens outside Zurich every day. The drive from Davos—for we are traveling from that fabled mountain resort to the airport—is supposed to take two hours, but sometimes it takes four. The drive from Bern is always double what it is supposed to be as well. Don’t think you can get from anywhere else to Zurich in a hurry, either.

The traffic is the result of a paradox. Extraordinary construction skills were needed to build Switzerland’s long Alpine tunnels; meticulous planning was required to create those pristine highways through remote valleys, those clean and precise road signs. The Swiss highway system is one of the engineering wonders of the modern world, and that’s why everyone travelling across the country, or across the continent, wants to drive on it. Build a really good road, and sooner or later you get more traffic.

This phenomenon is well-known among those who study the science of transportation, but it also reflects a more general truth: Sometimes, if you fix one problem, you create others. Coming from the World Economic Forum—which I attended in the exalted capacity of trailing spouse—it was hard not to see a deeper metaphor: Davos is a conference that specializes in generating Big Ideas, preferably Big Ideas that can be outlined in a single sentence and thus translated into a single language. At these sorts of gatherings, there is always a Big Problem looming, too: Poverty is growing, or Europe’s influence is waning, or the climate is changing.

Usually there’s a Big Solution on offer: The United Nations must act, or the European parliament must act, or the White House must do something. At dinner one night, I sat next to a woman who was convinced that Western civilization would be saved by massive government investment in green technology. I suspect she stole this idea from Tom Friedman, but never mind: The Chinese government, she declared, had already invested billions, and they were going to leave us behind unless we lobbied our respective governments to do the same. She dismissed all counterarguments with real passion, and a version of her thesis appeared the next morning on the front page of the International Herald Tribune.

Maybe she was right, and maybe green technology will save us. Or maybe massive state investment in the wrong sorts of technology will bankrupt us, send us scrambling in the wrong direction, and waste years that could have been spent, say, getting people to use more trains. Or maybe both will prove true. Myself, I favor a carbon tax that would raise the prices of oil and gas across the board, forcing markets to find the most logical solutions. But I’m willing to concede there would be unfortunate side effects, and I’m willing to hear other arguments.

But Davos, an event dominated by a strange combination of business tycoons and international bureaucrats, is a conference for people who don’t have time to hear other arguments or worry about long-term side effects, which is probably why it so often generates headline news. For the same reason, it is a conference whose participants like to draw grand conclusions based upon the annual guest list. The first time the Russian oligarchs showed up, back in the 1990s, the resident press corps declared a Russian Revival. This year the Chinese attended in large numbers, and thus this is the Year of Asia. Americans were thin on the ground, so it is the Year of America’s Decline, as well.

And if you’re really short of time, you can even reduce those one-sentence solutions to three-word phrases. I learned this at another dinner, where the man sitting next to me declared he was “long on Iceland,” the man across from me was “short on America,” and a third was “long on China.”

Myself, I’m short on conferences, long on complexity, and suspicious of single-minded plans to save Western civilization. And yes, I made the plane, barely.

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