Gillian Tett, writing in the Financial Times, reports:
Last week, I attended the Aspen Ideas Festival, the annual gathering of (mostly) American business leaders, scientists, artists and politicians, which is similar to the World Economic Forum in Davos. Like any talking shop, the week-long meeting in the rarefied, beautiful mountains of Colorado was replete with rhetorical posturing. Moreover, the audience was notably elite.
And yet, even allowing for those caveats, the zeitgeist was striking. In sharp contrast to Europe, or earlier Aspen gatherings, nobody was interested in talking about banks or financial regulation. Nor was there much backward-looking debate about the 2008 crisis, or recriminations about the credit bubble. Instead, the focus was forward-looking. There was obsessive interest in technology and big data. There was strong interest in educational reform and medicine. And there was extensive debate about the nature of the American political system, geopolitics and the state of the energy sector.
… what was equally noticeable was that every note of gloom was offset by a flash of cheer. Thus, the Aspen delegates heard Eric Lander, a Harvard professor, declare that a dramatic decline in the cost of human genome research is sparking medical breakthroughs. They also heard how the revolution in shale gas is cutting energy prices and sucking US manufacturing back “onshore”. They listened as Andy McCaffee, a MIT professor, predicted that technology would keep doubling in power every 18 months for the next few years and Dick Costello, CEO of Twitter, explained how social media is helping to fuel a striking, and unexpected, renaissance in quality television.
There was even optimism on the economic front. For while men such as Mr Rubin and Mr Rubenstein decried the slow pace of US growth, nobody in Aspen seemed to doubt that an expansion was under way. Though there was hand-wringing about public debt, there was also optimism America could dodge the next set of debt ceiling dramas. There was a sense that sequestration and political gridlock had lost its power to shock. “There are a lot of signs that there is a real recovery under way,” Mr Lew declared. Or as Rubin observed, echoing a frequently expressed view: “I would rather invest in the US in the long term than any other major economy in the world.”
Now this zeitgeist, it should be stressed again, is that of an ultra highly privileged elite – and one that is becoming increasingly detached from the poorer parts of America, as economic polarisation grows. As such, it might seem temptingly easy to dismiss. But there again, as Mr Rubin says, “markets are psychological phenomena”. And the mood swing is not just found in this rarefied air: a survey released during the meeting suggests that the public’s anxiety is declining, too. Although only 38 per cent of people think that the US economy is “heading down the right track”, this is up from 26 per cent two years ago, according to the Aspen Institute. And only 33 per cent of the public consider jobs and economic growth to be the biggest challenges today. Last year it was 52 per cent.