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The Ambrosetti Forum: Economic brainstorming, Italian-style

ItalyBusinessPoliticsDick CheneyHeads of StateNobel Prize AwardsGiorgio Napolitano

It’s been a hangout of intellectuals and politicians for about 450 years, and for the last 40, the gorgeous Villa d’Este on Lake Como in Italy has been the place where other politicians and intellectuals, joined by the modern-day aristocrats -- capitalists -- still gather to chew the very expensive fat about the state of the world’s economy.

The firepower at the annual Ambrosetti Forum is big caliber: industrialists and political leaders from Italy and beyond its borders. In years past, Joe Biden, Dick Cheney, Henry Kissinger, Bill Gates and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, have shown up to speak and nosh.

Under the forum rules, none of the speakers could be identified or quoted unless they chose to themselves, and some of them obligingly talked to the swarm of European business reporters, print and television, thronging the terrace and lobby of the hotel. (As much frustrating heel-cooling as the assignment required, it also meant three days of milling around on expense account at a five-star hotel on the shores of Lake Como. Not hardship duty.)

On this year’s list: former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and, by video, Sen. John McCain; Alejandro Toledo, the first indigenous president of Peru, who talked with me at dinner one evening; Nouriel Roubini, the Cassandra who foresaw the 2008 economic collapse; Italy’s new prime minister, Enrico Letta; former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar; former Finnish Prime Minister Esko Aho; former World Bank head Robert Zoellick; former European Central Bank chief Jean-Claude Trichet; and political economist Ian Bremmer -- in sum, old hands whose hands have been on the world’s economic tillers for at least a quarter of a century.

As you’d expect, then, it was economics that dominated the conference, the four-level interchange through which every other topic was routed. Withal, they sounded pretty optimistic -- even Panglossian -- in their hopes for their best-of-all-possible worlds. What I didn’t hear was as significant as what I did:

When the question of population arose, it was about encouraging markets and angst about individual developed countries’ low birthrates; virtually nothing about the growing billions all over the overtaxed planet and the unsustainably huge consumption habits of those same developed nations.

Energy concerns homed in on future supplies and Europe’s high energy costs and its implications for manufacturing. Not much was said about either alternative energy or the potential shifts in geopolitics that new supplies of fossil fuels or alternative energy could create.

Not many female panelists or big-name women were in evidence among the invited guests. IMF chief Christine Lagarde and Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo both spoke. The untapped potential of women as an economic force -- as realized, for example, by micro-banking Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus -- I didn’t really hear about.

The closest any panelist came to being anti-establishment, I suspect, was Gianroberto Casaleggio, the dandelion-haired Web guru who, as the Guardian newspaper put it, is “the most distrusted man in Italian politics” who “turned a comedian's fan club into Italy's second-biggest political force.” His fox-in-the-hen-house presence guaranteed a mob of journalists that one Italian paper likened to the arrivals of Yasser Arafat and Cheney at past forums.

The arrival of the president of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, occasioned another kind of flurry. The president is the head of state, not the head of government, and he was accompanied by an honor guard of NBA-sized carabinieri, looking even taller in bicorne hats with feather cockades, white gloves and swords -- bright plumage indeed among all the gray suits in the Villa d’Este lobby.

This was networking at the most exalted level. For me, I was inspired to start noodling away on an Ambrosetti version of “Hiawatha,” mostly because of the poem’s beginning:

“By the shores of Lago Como, by the shining G20 water …”

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