Skip to content

Underwriters of the World, Ideate!

Escaping real life at the Washington Ideas Forum

So, let’s take account of the last week or so in America. The most recent Republican plan to gut the Affordable Care Act collapsed in the Senate. President Donald Trump, frustrated by another legislative loss, deflected attention by referring to the professional athletes protesting the extrajudicial killings of black Americans by police as sons of bitches, and when that rebounded badly, he deflected attention once again by insulting the cracked head of a nuclear power state on Twitter. In the days since, multiple cabinet members have been found to have run up exorbitant travel expenses on the taxpayer dime, all of which is complicating the White House’s effort to get a new mammoth tax cut for the wealthy passed in the guise of “reform.” (By Friday, the great gilded travel scandal also claimed the Oval Office scalp of chief offender/HHS secretary Tom Price.) And all of the aforementioned pales in comparison to the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico, by the way—which Trump has typically sought to wave away by insulting the mayor of San Juan on Twitter. It’s all part and parcel of the heady mix of scandal and incompetence, authoritarianism and racism—glazed with the frisson of possible nuclear destruction—with which we’ve all had to learn to co-exist over the past few months, with seemingly no end in sight.

So, with all that as a backdrop, I went to The Atlantic’s Washington Ideas Forum!

Now in its ninth year, the Washington Ideas Forum—a partnership between Atlantic Live and the Aspen Institute—announces its mission as the bringing together of the “nation’s leaders in politics, business, health, science, technology, arts, culture, and journalism for three days of can’t-miss conversation and connections,” in order to confront “the most consequential issues facing the country and the world.” To that end, the Forum assembles an impressive array of thought leaders. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi receive top billing, alongside filmmaker Ken Burns, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former counterinsurgency general-turned-CIA Director-turned-private equity executive David Petraeus, and a seemingly endless array of tech entrepreneurs and health care gurus. It’s all of a piece with The Atlantic’s philosophy of discovering “the American Idea.”

Of course, the Forum is also part of another Atlantic mission, “to create new revenue streams,” and so the privilege of attending the event will run everyone between $150 and $200, just to get in the door. And as you might expect, the real stars here are the Forum’s underwriters—Pfizer, Booz Allen Hamilton, Bank of America, Comcast, ExxonMobil, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to name a few—all of whom get dutiful shout-outs at the top of every speaker’s session, as well as “produced by our underwriter” discussions of their own. They’re here because paying for the Forum is a relatively inexpensive way for these firms to communicate the Idea that they matter. Just to drive that crucial point home, they’ve utterly transformed a block of Washington’s Penn Quarter neighborhood into a temporary domain so tricked out in branding and bunting that my cab driver nearly overshot the block because he didn’t recognize it.

There don’t seem to be too many people who live in fear of the future of work in attendance at the “Future of Work” event.

The main event was the two-day Forum session at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall. But here, in its ninth year, the festival has sprawled comfortably across the neighborhood, offering attendees a range of lunchtime huddles, cocktail-hour networking sessions, museum tours, evening movie screenings, and breakout sessions galore. (If you’ve ever harbored the desire to get caffeinated with Sally Quinn at eight in the morning at a Mexican restaurant, you are in what I guess some would call “luck.”) I decided to begin my journey into Ideas on Tuesday, when the organizers have arranged a series of pre-Forum discussions across the city. I opt for the “Future of Work” event, stashed at a tony new co-working facility in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood, in a space that used to be a Wonder Bread factory.

This session is a good introduction to the sort of crowd with whom I’ll be spending the week. The attendees are boisterous, affluent, multi-ethnic, and skewing slightly grey—there will be precious few millennials sighted beyond the fresh-faced young adults shuttling people from site to site. And to put things mildly, there don’t seem to be too many people who live in fear of the future of work in attendance. But for those quietly stewing in precariously employed dread, reassurance comes quickly. Nicole Isaac, the head of public policy for LinkedIn, described her company’s efforts to address America’s skills gap through her company’s city-specific data collection. Jocelyn Mangan, the COO of Snagajob, hymned a new series of apps that will “empower” the low-skilled worker by allowing them to swap shifts with their smartphones.  Pipeline Angels founder Natalia Oberti Noguera rendered her company’s mission to combat workplace diversity shortfalls with the passion of a revolutionary—and if time constraints made her remarks sound less like a plan than an agitprop campaign in search of a Barbara Kruger to properly brand it, the crowd didn’t seem to mind.

If there’s anything really noteworthy about this disquisition on the “future” of work, it’s how ancient some of the ideas are. WeWork’s Padden Murphy described how America’s ever-expanding cohort of sharing economy contract workers and millennial strivers are finding a new community in his facilities. I don’t doubt there’s potential for this group to find inspiration together, but I also can’t help but feel like the whole arrangement merely exists to inculcate the next generation in neo-Taylorist arrangements that erase the boundary demarcating the Company’s sacred prerogatives and one’s own undercapitalized life. LaunchCode co-founder Jim McKelvey told the gathering that his company’s breakthrough idea was that workers could actually learn on the job—that firms could actually hire people, then train them. I am old enough to remember when this concept used to be called “employment.”

And, of course, that old Richard Florida dogma continued to pervade the proceedings—Florida himself was the proprietor of “The Atlantic Cities” vertical in the great David Bradley media colossus. We were briskly informed that bringing more “vibrancy” to the cityscape remains the essential ingredient to getting young workers to unleash their transformational power in urban centers. Relatedly, small businesses in city centers must invest as much in their “cool factor” branding as they do in their actual business models. And trendy coffee shops remain essential hubs, so that the new generation of “self-directed” workers can have chance encounters with one another. Nervously, I thought about how much the neighborhood we’re now sitting in has changed over the past two decades, and the sorts of workers—not exactly the LinkedIn set—who have been displaced by those transformations. And I recall how no one has ever explained to me how facilitating serendipitous encounters between the semi-employed was good for the business of selling coffee.

But as it happened, I did have one of these serendipitous encounters at the Uprising muffin shop around the corner—a “Future Of Work” attendee wondering aloud how he could be expected to just “sit and listen to three hours of panel discussions on an empty stomach.”

Better buckle up, buttercup, I thought, in my disenchanted knowledge-worker way. We have hours to go before we rest.

Life inside the Forum is different from the way things happen in the world outside.

The big event at the Washington Ideas festival is the ten-hour mainstage Forum. It’s truly a marathon of thought leadership, stretching over two days in the Harman Center’s main theatre. Life inside the Forum is different from the way things happen in the world outside. Here the organizers have planned a grand buffet of attractions, ranging from gee-whiz tech innovations, genteel conversations with key lawmakers, and several sessions that essentially serve as advertorial content for sponsors. (Not to worry, fans of previous Atlantic media controversies—the Church of Scientology was not invited to the fray.) Everything inside the Forum was geared toward one singular goal—reminding the affluent funder class that they really, really matter, and deserve to receive the “first draft of history.”

And sure enough, it only took a short period of immersion for you to feel as if you’re spending time inside a live-action Facebook comment thread. As the various wits and touts cycle through their well-rehearsed admonitions, you become attuned to the attitude of the crowd, sensing those moments where they are “liking” and “faving” what they hear.

I started to make a list of the various things that elicited an applause break:

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu: “It’s not thoughtful for the president of the United States at a political rally to call an NFL player an SOB for exercising their constitutional rights.”

David Petraeus: “I hope we can turn the volume down, turn the heat down and let’s get back to enjoying football.”

Steven Mnuchin: “We’re broadening the tax rate and making it fairer.”

Senator Jeff Flake, (R-AZ.): “We’re trying to get a AUMF . . . a bipartisan one.”

Mark Bertolini, CEO of Aetna, asked whether the GOP plan to scuttle Obamacare is “dead”: “Yes.”

Margaret Carlson, introducing Katy Tur: “You have a #2 New York Times best-seller.”

Adam Neumann, co-founder of WeWork: “I believe in every single person here.”

Chris Ruddy, Newsmax, on welcoming liberal voices to his media outlet: “We have Alan Dershowitz.”

Okay, well, that last one only elicited a smattering of applause. But I think you get my point: Things are a bit all over the shop at the Forum. The safest way to approval here, is to flatter the sensibilities of the audience. Madeleine Albright’s, “Refugees have been pretty good for the United States,” isn’t quite as tweetable as the original Lin-Manuel Miranda version, but it brought the house to life, as did Senator Flake’s broad calls for civility, and Nancy Pelosi’s recollected “Does anyone listen when a woman speaks around here?” comment from the White House DACA negotiations.

The quickest path to winning the room over was to deliver a starry-eyed account of fresh innovation and an emotional appeal to sensible centrism. Landrieu insisted to the audience that the problems the country faces can be solved if you pitch your ideas to the “66 percent” in the center. This vision of the electorate seems woefully outdated at a time when most of the country seems alive to the fact that a system that consolidates power and influence to their exclusion needs to be dismantled, not managed more efficiently.

Yes, here at the Ideas Forum, you can place antifa on the same moral continuum as America’s emerging soi-disant Nazis and earn a warm murmur of approval. In fact, this happened.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot to delight in here. Michele Norris’s description of her “Race Card Project” left her listeners convinced that she found a simple but thrillingly humane way to uncover America’s racial anxiety on a genomic level. Washington College anthropology professor William Schindler’s explanation of what experimental archeology can offer the world had me itching to field dress a deer using my own stone tools. David Ignatius’s discussion of his upcoming novel about the race to beat Chinese intelligence services to the frontier of quantum computing—underpinned by a very insidery reminder of the columnist’s . . . well, let’s say “spectacular sourcing” at the CIA—was a welcome respite from a town concerned with the Russians.

And the real stars of the Forum were the coterie of Atlantic reporters themselves, all of whom seem to have found the ideal balance between preparing for and executing their duties as interlocutors. All forum long, they asked engaging questions, chased as much edge as their audience could handle, and carried out their work with a comfortable wit. The Forum ended up being a showcase for their talents as much as anything else—so much so that I came to feel a little aggrieved on their behalf that so many of the big name gets that the Forum got ended up being interviewed by a small army of celebrity newspersons like Jake Tapper, Andrea Mitchell, Margaret Carlson, and Jonathan Karl.

Why not let The Atlantic’s economics and labor reporter Derek Thompson have a go at the Treasury Secretary, instead of sending him out to interview the founder of Milk Bar, a—well, highly regarded one must say—cookie store? The only apparent rationale for all the reportorial big-footing on display was that any departure from the norm would have been too out-of-phase for this audience to endure. Only by pairing Steven Mnuchin with Major Garrett could this affair remain operating at peak, perfectly optimized to reinforce the attendees’ sense of self-regard.

And indeed, this is the only operational theory that accounts for so many of the odd things I saw at the Ideas Forum. Pfizer executive Angela Hwang was featured in a lengthy solo presentation, for example, that courted all kinds of dystopian reveries. Hwang described a future of integrated health surveillance smartphone apps and healthy pancake recipe-spouting robot assistants—a scenario that conjured a nonstop barrage of pharma marketing as opposed to the platform for holistic wellness that Hwang claimed it was. The whole thing played like a discomfiting late-night infomercial, complete with canned responses to audience cues that never came. Meanwhile, Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, gave what amounted to an art history lesson about Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical studies. It was . . . interesting enough? But the “so what” point of it all seemed to be Isaacson’s insistence that we stop treating da Vinci as a mere painter. It was the first time I’d heard that this was a pressing problem, but sure, let’s stop hurting the feelings of a guy who’s been dead for centuries, before it’s too late.

One of the strangest sessions on offer was the discussion between Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg and Atlantic Media head David Bradley—who apparently is the sort of person who says “asymptotic to zero” in real life when the word “none” would normally suffice. A high-flying conversation founded in pure future-fantasy—replete with space hotels, flying taxis, and weightless, near-orbit manufacturing—suddenly shifted to talk of America’s drone wars without any real change in wowie-zowie tone. Bradley, at one point, asked Muilenburg if drones might disrupt war to the extent that America could “re-tak[e] Baghdad without losing a soldier.” Muilenburg had to demur, explaining that war would always be a personal thing, that he didn’t “see a future where we somehow insulate ourselves from that,” and that “human connection matters.” Tell that to the Baghdadis, who might be more than a little alarmed to learn that Washington’s elites were discussion “re-taking” their home for some unspecified reason.  

Around every corner, the Forum provided an avenue for escapism.

But troubling thoughts rarely had the time to take root. Before long, you’d have the CEO of SoulCycle on stage, talking about the boutique fitness revolution has helped urbanites build a sanctuary within their own workouts. Or a Zillow executive enthusing about how “the housing market” was “on fire,” with home values soaring past the pre-crash peak and millennial borrowing to make down payments. Astro Teller, the “captain of moonshots” for Google X—dedicated to finding “science fiction” solutions to our most pressing problems—explained how he is going to use balloons to bring broadband to the world. Around every corner, the Forum provided an avenue for escapism.

This urge to toggle out of the present of course—and especially—applied to the national scourge known as the Trump presidency. For every glib joke about Trump’s lack of manners or his unsteady grasp of the truth (there were multiple jokes about Trump’s invention of a mysterious hospitalized senator who supposedly brought down his health care repeal effort), there was a turn toward soft-spoken reassurances. Newsmax’s Chris Ruddy insists that Trump is a “quick learner,” that it’s a “myth” that he can’t “take criticism,” and that he’s a “pragmatist” who will inevitably find the “center where both left and right can find areas of common ground where we can work together.” The assembled forum-goers, skeptical at the outset, were eventually lulled into assent by Ruddy.

The lulling effect was powerful, since it was so clearly of a piece with the broader mission of the event: to reaffirm the thought leader’s self-evident mandate of leadership. For all of Senator Mark Warner’s work on the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election—an investigation in which Warner plays a leading role—he nevertheless declaimed that he wanted the president to succeed. That’s because—wait for it—the key to that success was to participate in the building of “policy out from the center.” David Petraeus, despite expressing some mild concerns about Trump’s loose grasp of the diplomatic arts, restored the room to its plummy mood of collective self-assurance by informing the crowd that he is in regular communication with the White House, and that Trump’s approach to Afghanistan is something he can stand behind (presumably for another decade).

Even Nancy Pelosi—who spent most of her discussion dishing on White House meetings and swiftly cycling through a set of standard Democratic Party talking points on tax reform—made it sound like unleashing collaborative energies alongside Trump was possible. After all, she said, even though President George W. Bush made the grievous mistake of taking the country to war in Iraq on a lie, Democrats nevertheless maintained the ability to work with Bush on a number of key initiatives (if you recall, this wholesome collaborative spirit manifested itself most tellingly in the decision to approve and pay for that terrible mistake made in Iraq).

To Pelosi’s mind, squaring everyone’s differences with Trump was a simple enough matter of getting Trump on board with the Idea that he had to operate from the same set of facts. Which . . . seemed like a pretty tall order? But Pelosi got her applause all the same. Tensions were relieved. Hope was restored. The sheer power of sweet centrist persuasion stockpiled in this room would surely compel the dream of a pragmatic, deal-making Trump into reality. What dilemma exists that cannot be gently confronted by a platitude-spouting meritocracy?

What dilemma exists that cannot be gently confronted by a platitude-spouting meritocracy?

Well, there was actually a very interesting answer to that question in the form of a mid-afternoon session with Lisa Melcher and Tina Stride, the CEO and President of The Hope Dealer Project—two of a quartet of Martinsburg, West Virginia women whose lives have been touched by personal losses in the nation’s ongoing opioid crisis. Melcher and Stride have joined forces to create what amounts to a DIY addiction-intervention service in their state. They work on a fearsomely lean budget, expending their efforts to help whoever they can within their limited means. They have a Facebook page and a toll-free phone number, and what they do is identify addicts in crisis, hold their hands as they suffer through dope sickness and the infernal vagaries of an unequal health care market, and stuff them into their cars and drive them to rehab and recovery facilities.

That’s it, nothing slick or glamorous. Up to six months ago, they were financing this operation out of their own pockets and doing their own research and networking to navigate the tricky terrain of this public health emergency. They hope to one day build their own “Recovery Village,” offering addicts point-to-point holistic care and recovery, but right now they just need a lot of money and a few powerful allies to help reduce the red tape that creates barriers to addicts who need to enter care.

The Hope Dealer Project was an entirely different idea from everything else that appeared on the mainstage of the forum. This wasn’t the affluent talking to the affluent. This wasn’t escapism or easy reassurance. It wasn’t a “science fiction-sounding solution” to a massive societal problem. This was not about technology intersecting with science intersecting with data intersecting with corporate underwriters intersecting with platitudes. It was one of the only things that truly merited the attention of a room of moneyed Washington elites because Melcher and Stride were unique among all the other people with big ideas: they were the only ones who might lose.

And I mean to use the word “lose,” as opposed to “fail.” Many of those who graced the stage at the Washington Ideas Forum might fail. SoulCycle might miss a valuation target. WeWork might not get to scale. Zillow may make the wrong bet on the housing market. But their founders and executives will be fine—they’ll fail and continue moving seamlessly through this high-flying world of money and influence.

I suppose my big “Washington Idea,” then, is this: Washington Ideas festivals would be well advised to fundamentally reconsider their approach. Instead of providing the means by which the self-importance of the funder/underwriter class can be reinforced and re-perpetuated, you create a venue where these same people might be driven to some unexpected, unheralded idea that’s worthy of the attention for which it’s starved. Otherwise, why do this at all? To remember how important Mona Lisa’s smile is?

Oh well: maybe next year, if there is one.