The moment former Sen. Gary Hart told the audience at the Milken Institute's Global Conference that America is "at a cross roads," Abe Zarem leaned over to me and said, "He's wrong."
There were 1,500 people sitting in the audience listening to a panel tussle over the United States' role in the world. For a conference that annually attracts the world's financial and academic elite, the seating at the Beverly Hilton was refreshingly democratic: no place cards, sit almost anywhere you like. So I found myself between Charlie Woo, the innovator behind downtown Los Angeles' Toy Town district, and Zarem, inventor, professor, entrepreneur, thinker.
"Crossroads is not the right word," Zarem told me, correcting Hart, "because at a crossroads you pick a direction and you know where you're going. We're at a cloverleaf. When you turn off a cloverleaf you don't know where you're going."
He's right, and the better metaphor explains why Michael Milken hosts his annual conference. Business leaders and others pay $1,900 a head for three days of seminars, lectures and shmoozing, hoping to get a peak behind the curves. The presenters are Nobel and Pulitzer Prize laureates, chiefs of finance, politics and academia, and, in Milken's words, "about 40 people who are paid to do nothing but think."
The attendees seemed to break down along the "not mutually exclusive" lines of the intellectually curious, the portfolio warriors hunting opportunity and the elbow-rubbers, who figured that what works for Milken might work for them, too -- George S. Kaufman called that "gelt by association."
Milken's genius has always been at mining capital markets to find undiscovered value. In the 1980s, he restructured the corporate world by focusing on financial markets. After legal battles and a jail term about which his official conference biography is admirably up front, his focus has expanded to other forms of undervalued capital, human and social.
Laying bare these veins of capital enables individuals and governments to unleash what Milken called "the most powerful force in the universe: compound interest." (Milken claimed Albert Einstein said this about compound interest, but Einstein authority Alice Calaprice has said he probably didn't.)
Milken, who was elected cheerleader at Birmingham High School in the early 1960s, is cheerleading still, filling the dais with an energy that wouldn't be out of place at a human potential seminar. But -- and this is all to his credit -- this was a conference devoted to the potential of humanity -- and if in uncorking that potential some people profited, good for them, good for us all.
So, Monday evening's panel discussion offered a hopeful view of humanity's potential. Moderated by Milken, the discussion featured Nobel Laureate Robert Fagan, biologist Paul Ehrlich, futurist Alvin Toffler and linguist Steven Pinker.
Fagan said that the obvious next source of unleashable energy lay Far East.
"The most important economic event is the emergence of China," Fagan said. "By 2030, the Chinese economy will be bigger than the economies of America and Europe put together."
Other speakers on the panel agreed, and the presence of entrepreneurs like Woo, founder of the Megatoys corporation, was all the proof they needed. Drawing on a network of Asian contacts, Woo, 47, built the toy district downtown from a single $140,000 warehouse into an area that employs more than 4,000 people, boasts revenues estimated at roughly $500 million a year and controls the distribution of some 60 percent of the $12 billion in toys sold to American retailers. China is the new plastics.
Toffler said that the current economic meltdown is a hiccup in the "knowledge revolution," what he called the "Third Wave" of human development after the agrarian and Industrial revolutions.
"Between 1750 and 1950 there were 27 financial crises in America and England," Toffler said. "None of them stopped the Industrial Revolution."
What stands in our way, Ehrlich warned, is our careless use of natural resources and the fact that a full third of the world still lives in poverty. "The current system is unsustainable," he said.
But Pinker and the others stressed humanity's adaptability, our ability to innovate our way out of problems. By the evening's end, even Ehrlich offered hope that "humanity, as smart as we are, will get smart enough to save our butts."
On Tuesday evening the "Big Picture" narrowed to focus on "America's Role in the World." This discussion featured William Bennett, former secretary of education; Robert Bartley, editor emeritus of The Wall Street Journal; Hart; and Stephan Richter, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. Despite King's vain efforts to expand it, the debate swirled about the current war. It became clear that so many of the big questions America faces -- what we stand for, how we are to exercise our power, whether the world will fear us, hate us, respect us or all three -- are being played out now in the sands and cities of Iraq.
The conference provided a time to take a step back from and a more distant perspective on these unknowns, just before we turn off the cloverleaf. Â