The Corner


The Farming Wit and Wisdom of Mike Bloomberg

Mike Bloomberg speaks in Des Moines, Iowa, August 10, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)

Here is what Democratic candidate for president Michael Bloomberg said in 2016 at Oxford, in what he apparently offered up as an ad hoc history of labor, agriculture, and industry, leading up to his own sophisticated era, as reported in the New York Post:

“I could teach anybody, even people in this room, no offense intended, to be a farmer,” Bloomberg told the audience at the Distinguished Speakers Series at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School. “It’s a process. You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn.”

The former three-term New York City mayor also addressed workers’ skills during the Industrial Revolution.

“You put the piece of metal on the lathe, you turn the crank in the direction of the arrow and you can have a job. And we created a lot of jobs. At one point, 98 percent of the world worked in agriculture, today it’s 2 percent in the United States,” Bloomberg said.

He then pointed out the difference between the economy then and today’s information economy.

“It’s built around replacing people with technology, and the skill sets that you have to learn are how to think and analyze, and that is a whole degree level different. You have to have a different skill set, you have to have a lot more gray matter”…

Both President Trump and Bloomberg’s Democratic rivals jumped on him for obvious reasons. And here is what Bloomberg’s campaign staff offered the public in Bloomberg’s defense:

“The Trump team is tweeting out a video that cuts off the first part of Mike’s sentence where he said ‘if you think about the agrarian society [that] lasted 3000 years, we could teach processes.’ Mike wasn’t talking about today’s farmers at all, and Team Trump is deliberately misleading Americans because Donald Trump’s erratic policies have devastated American farms, including a 20 percent increase in US Farm bankruptcies last year,” Stu Loeser, a senior adviser on the Bloomberg campaign, said in a statement…

“Donald Trump inherited his wealth yet bankrupted businesses in cities around the world. As President, he’s hurting American farms, and he knows that Mike Bloomberg has the skills to fix the problem,” Loeser added.

Where to start with such a mess?

As is his wont, what Bloomberg now says he once wished to say, what came out of his mouth, and what he postfacto claims he meant are, as we have seen with his commentaries on race, women, and redlining, often three quite different things.

Yes, Bloomberg was talking in part about the last 3,000 years of transition from a primarily agricultural society to one that was industrial to one now dominated by the so-called informational skills.

But he did not leave it there. First, he switched back into the present tense. (“I could teach anybody, even people in this room, no offense intended, to be a farmer.”) Did he mean the Manhattan whizz kid could teach sophisticated Oxonians to be modern farming simpletons, or that he, the student of history, could teach them to be preindustrial simpletons? And then he added that the present information age emphasized skill sets of thinking and analyzing, as apparently does not occur in contemporary farming or manufacturing work.

In truth, Bloomberg could not teach anyone in that Oxford hall or any other room how to farm, in either ancient times or modern. If he really thinks that farming is, or was, a mere “process” of digging holes, dropping in seeds, covering them with dirt, adding water, and, presto!, up comes the corn, then he is as dense as is he is arrogant.

The preindustrial history of farming was a nonstop life-and-death struggle to survive one more day, in constant war against nature (weather, insects, disease, soil chemistry, species variations) and man (labor, markets, government, war, security, etc.) to produce food. And it took a great deal of science, skill, patience, and physical courage to pull it off. Read the classical empirical and scientific treatises on farming and agronomy by Theophrastus, Columella, or Varro, and you’ll find that the degree of their contemporaries’ ancient farming expertise and science is extraordinary. No one would conclude from these that ancient agriculture was anything like Bloomberg’s caricatures.

As we are witnessing currently in Africa with its locust storms, no one ever just drops seeds in the ground and allows the process to continue on autopilot. Bloomberg confirmed that he neither knew what he was talking about nor was hesitant about blanket judgments on the relative intelligence of various professions, when, again in the present tense, he pontificated: “You have to have a different skill set, you have to have a lot more gray matter.”

I don’t think that family farmers of the 1940s pre-informational age were any more or less deficient in “gray matter” than are today’s techies and coders. And today’s farmers are some of the few people in society who still marry sophisticated high-tech skills, from GPS planting and harvesting to computer analyses of market futures, and precise calibrations of complex machines to plant, spray, and fertilize, while still dealing with the world of raw muscle and those often tough customers who inhabit it—which is to say, apparently a world away from Mike Bloomberg’s Manhattan habitat.

Bloomberg’s staff claims that his opponents selectively edited the transcript of the four-year-old quote. And his Democratic and Republican rivals did indeed truncate it, but the full quote that his staff also themselves conveniently edited out in their press release is even more damning. They omitted the arrogant riff of “I could teach anybody…” and his nonsense about “gray matter”—and for good reason, because the full quote confirms at best that Bloomberg is insidiously arrogant, and at worse that he harbors some creepy fixations about calibrating innate intelligence.

Moreover, I seriously doubt whether farmers are going to vote against Trump should Bloomberg or anyone else be the Democratic nominee. The latest poll shows a record 83 percent of them approve of Trump’s tenure. Most farmers so far have stuck with the president in his trade stand-off with China in the belief that past asymmetries with Europe and Japan, but especially with China, on matters of food importation and export had to be addressed. And they seem willing to endure short-term hardship for long-term parity, and with it, greater profitability.

Bloomberg’s candidacy is supposed to appeal to suburbanites, and perhaps moderate Republican women and independents in particular, while drawing minorities to a supposedly seasoned, big-city mayor whose past constituencies were heavily non-white. Most concede that Bloomberg would not steal anyone from Trump’s base, and likely not from the working classes of either party. And we can see why.

But as the prior wit and wisdom of Bloomberg keep emerging, and as his campaign, fueled by a billion dollars, blankets the airwaves, it is hard to see what advantages he brings, either over his own rivals or over incumbent Trump.

Bloomberg has only been a candidate for a few days, and already he seems in the past to have insulted, as a group, professional women, minority youth, poor would-be homeowners, and unthinking farmers and factory workers.

All that is in addition to the general paradox of a party that rails about racism, toxic masculinity, and white privilege, with anti-rich overtones, looking now at a rich, white, male multibillionaire to buy an election and thus save the party from itself.


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