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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Bloomberg’s 2016 Remarks on Farmers, in Context

The supporters of President Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders claim Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg insulted farmers in a 2016 video. The Bloomberg campaign says the video has been “taken completely out of context.”

There is definitely more to Bloomberg’s remarks than the 58-second video that has gone viral on Twitter, although we will leave it up to readers to decide whether they have been taken out of context.

Bloomberg made his remarks on Nov. 17, 2016, not long after Trump was elected president, while speaking to a group of students and others at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford in England.

The former mayor of New York was asked how the United States should address income inequality. He responded with a lengthy answer that first touched on “some progress” in the areas of poverty, life expectancy and health outcomes.

Then, Bloomberg talked about “educational inequality,” which he said could be addressed by charging higher tuition for the wealthy and using the excess funds to charge lower tuition for low-income students.

“But I think what you got to understand is the people who are getting the subsidy want the dignity of getting a job … and that’s the conundrum we are going to have here because technology is reducing the ability to give them the jobs.” It’s here when he starts to talk about “the agrarian society” and the “industrial society.”

Bloomberg, Nov. 17, 2016: If you think about it, the agrarian society lasted 3,000 years, and we can teach processes. I can teach anybody – even people in this room, so no offense intended – to be a farmer. It’s a process. You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, you add water, up comes corn. You can learn that. Then you had 300 years of the industrial society. You put the piece of metal on the lathe, you turn the crank in direction of arrow and you can have a job. And we created a lot of jobs. At one point, 98% of the world worked in agriculture. Today it’s 2% of the United States.

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. It’s not clear the teachers can teach or the students can learn. And so the challenge of society is to find jobs for these people. …

Bloomberg’s critics on the right and left seized on the comment about it taking “a lot more gray matter” to work in the “information economy.”

People for Bernie, a Twitter account with 188,100 followers, retweeted the Bloomberg video on Feb. 16, saying it shows “Bloomberg insulting the middle class and the working class.” The video has more than 3.3 million views.

Similarly, Donald Trump Jr. the same day tweeted that the video shows Bloomberg “really hates regular hardworking Americans” and “will never fight for them.”

For its part, the Bloomberg campaign said its candidate wasn’t talking about today’s farmers; he was talking about how to help educate Americans for better-paying, higher-skilled jobs in the “information age.” The campaign points to the fact that the viral video doesn’t include Bloomberg’s opening reference to “the agrarian society [that] lasted 3,000 years.”

“[T]he video cuts off Mike’s first sentence where he is referring to agrarian society that lasted 3,000 years, not farmers today,” the Bloomberg campaign said in a press release that accused Sanders’ supporters of using the same misleading tactics as Trump supporters.

The Bloomberg campaign has a point about the way the viral video has been edited. The former mayor’s simplistic description of farming — “You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, you add water, up comes corn” — has been ridiculed on Twitter as insulting to farmers. But it comes in the context of him talking about “the agrarian society [that] lasted 3,000 years,” and machine workers using a “lathe” machine in the “industrial society.” A lathe machine is one of the oldest machines known to man. 

It’s also worth noting that the viral video doesn’t include Bloomberg’s discussion of “educational inequality,” his suggestion to address that inequity through increased scholarships for low-income students, or when he said that “the challenge of society is to find jobs for these people.”

But we leave it up to voters to decide if Bloomberg’s words — in their full context — show he “really hates regular hardworking Americans,” as Donald Trump Jr. tweeted, or were “insulting the middle class and working class,” as People for Bernie claims.