Dr. John Lott’s piece on Michael Bloomberg’s latest comments are available here. After a series of racist comments, Bloomberg has created trouble for himself with comments on farmers.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign slammed Sen. Bernie Sanders I-Vt. for circulating a 2016 video of Bloomberg’s comments on farming in which he said, “You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn.” Bloomberg’s campaign manager Kevin Sheekey said that the comments were “completely out of context.”
The problem is that the rest of Bloomberg’s comments don’t help him. Take his comparison to the information economy.
“Now comes the information economy and the information economy is fundamentally different because 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.”
Despite what Bloomberg might think, the notion of replacing people with technology is not unique to the information economy. It has been true with farming from the beginning. When someone learned to harness animals to help plow the field that was a technological advance that made it so you didn’t need as many people to plant the crops. Bloomberg cavalierly says, “you dig a hole,” but there is technology behind that. In 1566 in Italy, Camillo Torello patented the first seed drill for planting seeds. Jethro Tull refined it in 1701 in England.
There are also other issues in harvesting a crop. In 1793, Eli Whitney had the invention of the cotton gin, which allowed one to remove the seeds from the cotton fibers, and it dramatically revolutionized cotton farming. No longer did you have to employ armies of people to remove the seeds from the cotton fiber by hand.
When Cyrus Hall McCormick invented the mechanical reaper in 1831, he revolutionized harvesting grain, which became much faster and easier. Even for these inventions, it wasn’t like there was just a one-time change as people were constantly figuring out ways of improving on them. People went from using sickles to reapers to harvesters, which is a machine that heads, threshes, and cleans grains all while continuously moving across the field.
Despite what Bloomberg might think, all these inventions replaced people with technology.
Bloomberg might believe that his business is unique in requiring “you have to learn how to think and analyze,” but, whether one is talking about farming today or a hundred years ago, farmers need many skills, and a great deal of analysis is involved. To say you just “add water” sounds more straightforward than it is. The process may involve irrigation, which in turn requires engineering skills. Figuring out how to fertilize crops, guard against disease, and pests all involved creativity. Farmers had to be able to fix their machinery, take care of their animals, manage books, and run a business.
Sheekey also attacked Sanders because he needed to recognize that Bloomberg was talking about an “agrarian society.” Today’s farmers might have to have many different skills than those from a couple of hundred years ago, but that doesn’t make the problem any different. So today’s farmers might have a greater knowledge of chemistry and biology, but that doesn’t mean that the same challenges didn’t previously exist and that even if a farmer couldn’t tell you the exact chemical content of a fertilizer back then, he would still have to figure out what worked best for his soil and how to change things over time as certain nutrients were used from the soil over time.
Indeed, in many ways, technology has made being a farmer much easier today than it used to be.
But there is a simple response to Bloomberg’s claim. If Bloomberg were somehow transported back to living on a farm in 1700 or 1800, without any help, could he have successfully known how to grow crops and handle livestock? Unless he secretly took classes at Johns Hopkins on animal husbandry, it is doubtful. I certainly wouldn’t know what fertilizers to use and how to rotate crops or take properly take care of the horse that pulled my plow. And I doubt that Bloomberg would understand that either.
“I could teach anybody, even people in this room, no offense intended, to be a farmer…you could learn that,” Bloomberg claims. But, ironically, despite his boasting, if Bloomberg got transported back to run a farm a few hundred years ago, he would likely fail. He would end up working for someone else on their farm.
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