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Pope Francis to the Davos wealthy: Stop thinking only of yourselves

Jamie DimonInsuranceJPMorgan Chase & Co.

Never let it be said that Pope Francis doesn't know how to bring the battle to the battleground. In an address to the CEOs and assorted financial hangers-on gathered this week in Davos, Switzerland, for the annual World Economic Forum, he admonished that "modern business activity," for all its virtues, often has led to "a widespread social exclusion."

He continued, "Indeed, the majority of the men and women of our time still continue to experience daily insecurity." In the speech read by a proxy, he observed that the business community often fails to take into "the dignity of every human person and the common good. I am referring to a concern that ought to shape every political and economic decision, but which at times seems to be little more than an afterthought."

The pontiff's words largely replicate the critique of capitalism in his apostolic exhortation last November. ("Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.") What was special this time around was the audience and its setting, the faintly ridiculous yearly financial glamorfest of Davos. 

Originally conceived as a conference aimed at broadening business managements' concerns to "all stakeholders," including workers, customers, and society at large, Davos has devolved into a see-and-be-seen gathering for the corporate elite and whatever top government officials and Hollywood stars they can persuade to join them for a few days as decorations in the fetching Swiss Alps. 

The framework is of a high-level business conference, with panel discussion and keynote speeches galore. The whole thing ends with a communique, which is often useful only as a rich lode of unintended irony to be mined by unsympathetic journalists after the fact. As Martin Wolf, a Financial Times journalist who has been a fixture at Davos for a decade, observed in moderating a panel discussion in 2008, the rap on the "Davos consensus" every year is that it's invariably wrong. 

More accurately, irrelevant. The final report from the January 2008 meeting quoted Klaus Schwab, the Forum's founder, as defining its them thusly: "The Davos Man and Woman are aware of all the challenges and, in a pragmatic way, they do what they can to mitigate the risks and address the challenges. They also see opportunities in the world...But if we don't address the challenges, even the greatest opportunities will not be enough to guarantee the future of humankind."

Only at conferences like this do you hear verbal balls of yarn like that. Of course, a financial cataclysm was building at the time, but you wouldn't know it if you relied on the Davos consensus.

My favorite moment from Davos 2008 (viewed, alas, only on video) was provided by JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon, who told his fellow panelists about his rigorous devotion to risk management at JPMorgan. "The first rule of risk management," he said, "is to have people that you know, that you trust, they're transparent, they have character...If they even shave the truth, they shouldn't have that job."

Just four years later, of course, Dimon's bank was staggered by a $6.25-billion loss from trading that was poorly supervised, packed with risks the bank couldn't see coming, and minimized by Dimon, before the full story came out, as a "tempest in a teapot."  

So in that context, at least, Pope Francis's words stand out. His sentiments aren't faked, he's not posing, he's not claiming to be something he's not. He's not likely to be proven wrong by events. His message was, "the growth of equality demands something more than economic growth, even though it presupposes it. It demands first of all 'a transcendent vision of the person.'" 

The Pope's words last November caused a rich Catholic businessman or two in the US to grouse that he was picking on them, and their media mouthpieces to echo that he doesn't know what he's talking about anyway. Pope Francis may have to repeat his message a few more times to get it across to Davos Man and Woman, wherever they hang out.

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email. MORE FROM MICHAEL HILTZIK

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