I have often seen here complaints that elites are taking over the world, that politicians simply get manipulated by them, and as a result the real people are just damaged and used. Following is an excerpt from a Bloomberg interview with President Obama from June 13th – before Brexit – that shows how he makes the links between trade, elites, workers, and redistribution:
I think that the temptation (…) is to resort to nativism and nostalgia and the sense that these things are out of control and I want to take control back. And that can be true of the Left; it can be true of the Right. But I continue to believe that that majority of people, whether in the United States, in Europe, or certainly in rapidly advancing parts of the world like Asia – these folks recognize that the world has shrunk, and that if rules are structured properly, this gives them more opportunity, not less, to succeed.
My argument has been that the reason people are resistant to [the free trade] argument is because global elites have been inattentive to the issues of wages, incomes, and opportunity for ordinary people. If you’re selling globalization and saying it’s great, even though each year … you’re seeing more and more of a winner-take-all economy, where not just the top 1 per cent, but the top 0.01 per cent, are getting a larger and larger share, then yes, it’s going to be pretty hard to make an argument that “don’t worry, this is great for you.”
(…) If you talk to the younger generation here in the United States, they’re not knee-jerk anti-trade. They’re not anti-globalization. If you look at surveys, it tends to be older workers who are feeling displaced who are attracted to this notion of “let’s pull the drawbridge and shut everybody off.”
(…) We know that if we’re investing in education, early childhood education, college – making that cheaper and more affordable – then workers are going to have more opportunity. We know that if they have higher minimum wages, then they’ll get a larger share of the fruits of all these amazing new innovations and globalization. We know that if we have stronger labour standards and workers have more voice, that’s going to make a difference.
There were a bunch of decisions that were made back in the ’30s by FDR and then later in this country in the ’60s, that were fiercely resisted by business but essentially created a social compact and a social welfare state where people said, “OK, I’m seeing the benefits of innovation. I’m seeing the benefits of capitalism. I’m seeing the benefits of trade.” We have to update these for the 21st century in the same way that in previous eras we updated those for the shift from agriculture to industry. And that’s going to require some farsightedness, not just in the public arena but also in the private sector.”
Of course, he’s come to the end of his two terms and is somewhat freer in naming the powers. There’s little more he can do to further burnish his historical place. But at minimum it shows that good politicians when considering the economy can make the right links, focus on where the power is and where it needs redistributing to, and be mindful of the historical shoulders he’s standing on. You just don’t often see it in print, as a verbatim conversation. Compared to what passes for joining the dots in our current parliament, I think I’m going to miss him.