A dispatch from the Global Thought Conference by Michael Milken
When the history of our time is written, one of the most protean figures outside government will be Mike Milken. In the 1980s, he revolutionized finance as the father of the junk bond, starting good industries and bad corporate thieves, and as the highest paid financier in the world. He was sent to prison – perhaps unfairly. And then reformed to become a philanthropic leader in the war on cancer, the fight against the recent pandemic, the founder of the soon to open Museum of the American Dream and much more.
Today, I am part of a sea of thousands who throng in and around the Beverly Hills Hilton for the 25th Annual Milken Institute Conference: Power of Ideas. K95 COVID-19 masks were suggested before arriving, but surprisingly few masks of any kind can be seen. Rather, armies of men in suits or sports jackets – mostly young – and a cross section of women, most seemingly straight out of an Ivy League college lacrosse field; the “elite” of the new worlds of finance, medicine, energy, associations, geopolitics, venture capital, technology, private equity… As a guest told me , “Davos is for people who talk, Milken is for people who To do.”
The conference took place from Sunday May 1 to Wednesday May 4, with 10 parallel sessions lasting ninety minutes, offered simultaneously: “Private Capital as a Tailwind for Social Impact” in the International Ballroom, say, alongside “Investing in K-12 Solutions That Work” in the Whittier, “The Sports Industry” in the Sunset Pavilion, “The Next $10 Trillion” in the Oasis Pavilion and much more.
Alongside the sessions listed, there are all kinds of private sessions — invite-only dinners at local billionaires, like Steve Cohen or Tony Pritzker (apparently Cohen left his own dinner to watch the Mets game, while guests gaped at his art); elite round tables, also by invitation; corporate cocktail parties and dinners sponsored by investment banks or public relations or other firms; and – for those thinking ahead – endless one-on-one meetings scheduled weeks in advance for days of direct networking. Milken’s spirit is that all ideas must be made practical, with questions like how solutions will be funded, what regulations need to be changed, what group of allies muster together.
The event spills over from the already giant and institutional Hilton into the surrounding hotels – breakfast with a the wall street journal reporter by the Peninsula’s rooftop pool, or a cafe with a FinancialTimes reporter at the Garden Breakfast Court at the Waldorf Astoria. The folks at Milken — a seemingly endless staff — even host special early morning fitness and yoga events and musical interludes on Monday nights. (And, oh, being an Uber driver, with “Milken” in the air!) Milken himself is on hand, heading on aging legs from meeting to meeting, still leading the orchestra of global interaction and resolution. of optimistic problems that he himself had wanted into existence. Some of today’s financial ‘masters of the universe’ still remember starting their careers as junior members at its X-shaped Drexel trading desk, and can’t help but snap to attention. when he calls.
It was my fourth or fifth time at the Conference, which itself was physically back after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19. This year, I left myself free to walk around with an open mind and open ears to hear all the conversations I could.
There’s no way to “cover” the event, but a few lines of dialogue that hit home:
A global health official warns that if Ukrainian ports cannot be opened in the coming weeks, giant grain supplies will be ruined and the world could experience massive food instability.
Another official reports that the desire to leave Central America to enter the United States has increased fivefold, as food in these countries becomes increasingly unaffordable.
Another source who just returned from Ukraine reports that Ukraine now (metaphorically) has ten Javelin missiles for every Russian tank, and could push Russia back over time. But blames Biden and Blinken for ignoring advice to arm Ukraine in advance, potentially preventing invasion; advice that Blinken considered “provocative”.
At an invitation-only roundtable that included current and former heads of the NIH and WHO, the public and private sectors came together to find a way to prevent the next pandemic. Among the objectives: an early warning system to detect epidemics; genomics laboratory capacities for Africa; initial work on around 20 of the most likely families of pathogens to lay the groundwork now for faster future vaccines. Apparently Congress got lukewarm and allocations weren’t made.
During a meeting on “new ideas to heal the planet”, the founders of the start-up imagined advanced fission, clean concrete and sustainable lithium-free batteries to make alternative energy sources reliable. UCLA professor Gauruv Sant described an upcoming demonstration project to turn the ocean itself into a carbon sink, by running an electric current through seawater to remove the carbon first. , while simultaneously producing hydrogen as a by-product to fund it all.
In a session on “ideas that will blow your mind,” topics included the use of virtual reality immersion as a drug-free way to control pain (a product that has just been approved by the FDA) . A regimen of fixed minutes a day for several weeks can, it is claimed, disrupt and distract the pain pathways in the mind for months of partial relief.
Another speaker described how the speed of DNA sequencing is accelerating thousands of times; and how China (and US K-12 schools) attempted a “test and intercept” approach to COVID-19 versus a vaccine.
A logistics manager explained how he researched the slowdown at the Southern California port using free boat rides and a taco truck to get workers to talk to him. Dockworkers blamed lazy truckers, who didn’t arrive with trailers. Then the truck drivers revealed that – as the cargo backed up – their trailers were buried under excess containers because the zoning code only allowed containers to be double-stacked. After the executive tweeted their findings, the zoning was changed in a day to allow stacking four high, helping to get the trailers back to use and picking up speed.
Surprisingly unimpressive were the metaverse sessions. One started with the panelists cartoon like talking avatars of a virtual Coachella… about as primitive as it gets. Another offered the chance to try virtual bowling. True interoperability between “worlds” (i.e. a Sony game and a Microsoft game) may be decades away. NFTs look like any other hobbyist collectible, and metaverse cybercurrency looks like Monopoly money. Haptics seemed more promising, and apparently the Museum of the Future in Dubai has a room that virtually serves all five senses now.
Most interesting on these metaverse panels was Deepak Chopra, which focuses on virtual characters as spiritual companions for those who are alone or need guidance. Chopra explained that he had developed his own “virtual Deepak”, trained to answer questions as he would, and with built-in search capabilities. When he has a question, Deepak goes to his virtual self, which investigates for him.
Milken, the person, has always been a strong advocate for financial markets and business as a force for good. One panel described how private equity is giving more and more wealth to the workers of their holding companies, and another panel, by invitation only, described some of the best charitable efforts among some of the best private equity firms and other investment companies and their managers. Institutional fund managers sought to predict the markets like priests throwing oracle bones.
Company CEOs spoke to each other in private roundtables. Articles published by the Milken’s Institute between sessions cover topics such as funding the fight against microbial resistance to antibiotics (a huge long-term threat) and funding advanced neurotechnology.
The crowd had begun to thin considerably on Wednesday. The booth in the lobby selling Challenger business jets for $60 million lacked brochures; the Faraday electric car demo on the sidewalk is fighting to retain its shine. The roar of voices faded like an ocean wave. And like sea wrecks, I floated home.
This article was published in the Inside hook newsletter. Register now.