Time for grown-up debate on inequality

Story highlights

  • Jeff Greene: People from Indianapolis to Indonesia competing for some of same work
  • U.S. economy needs over-arching policy to promote lifelong learning, he says

Jeff Greene, an investor and philanthropist, was a Democratic candidate in Florida for the U.S. Senate in 2010. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Imagine an American billionaire who is so callous that he could fly into Davos, Switzerland, for the annual World Economic Conference and announce that "America's lifestyle expectations are far too high and need to be adjusted so we have less things and a smaller, better existence." Pretty outrageous, don't you think?

It gets worse. The guy took a pounding, as some of the snarkier commentary noted that he had arrived in Switzerland via private aircraft with two nannies in tow. I would have joined the criticism -- how insensitive could that fellow be? Except the quote was credited to me and I know that I never said it.
Jeff Greene
Most public people have experienced interview mishaps, and typically it's a matter of a mistake, or misinterpretation. The most generous thing I can say about the article that was published after that interview was that perhaps the reporter didn't hear half of what I said. I do talk fast, and the conditions were not ideal.
    But what bothered me most in all this was how this whole incident fed a narrative that the wealthy are detached, that they just don't care. And, just as bad, they attend meetings like Davos simply to give the impression that they do.
    In fact, the people I spoke with while I was there were without exception concerned about the struggles of individuals and families affected by globalization, disruptive technologies, and most of all the long-term challenge of economic inequality.
    I can say these things from experience -- I have often talked about this issue, calling for policies to bolster the middle class and even expressing support for increasing taxes on the wealthy. As a guy who grew up in middle class Worcester, Massachusetts, I know how hard people work just to make ends meet and how years of stalled income growth can drain people of their hope and optimism. I saw it myself growing up when my father lost his business.
    As a result of what I have seen and experienced growing up and as a businessman I have continued to the problem of inequality many times and voiced support for education, investment in infrastructure, and economic policies to aid those who are middle class and those who aspire to be.
    The trouble is that too often, our elected leaders aren't listening -- and they are making decisions today that are undermining this country's future.
    The reality is that in a global marketplace, people from Indianapolis to Indonesia are often competing for some of the same work with comparable skills. Meanwhile, new technologies are allowing companies to make the same goods, or provide the same services, with fewer people. The result is that our workers are being squeezed on both the supply and demand side, as the labor supply in many industries falls, prompting a decline in wages and overall employment.
    Here in the United States, we have traditionally counted on superior skills and a strong service economy to counter the effects of international competition. However, in recent years, workers in other countries have become better educated and more qualified, allowing them to compete more aggressively.
    Transportation offers a telling example as app-based services including Uber and Lyft instantly connect drivers in their own cars with customers who need a ride. Consumers get cheaper transport, and car owners get to earn some money with a vehicle that would otherwise be idle. But Uber will inevitably undermine established car services, and firms that directly pay wages and benefits to workers such as drivers, mechanics, managers and dispatchers. Yes, you may get a cheaper ride across town today, but the cabbie who is put out of work had his or her life turned upside down.
    Other big industries will be disrupted by 3-D printing, a near miraculous technology capable of creating a perfect prosthesis for someone who lost a leg, or printing an entire building in China. In the not-so-distant future, we may all have these machines in our homes or neighborhoods. The most important manufacturing companies may be those that make the machines and those that make the materials that go into the printers, something that again will most likely require few workers.
    These developments pose a profound challenge to the United States, and we'll need a comprehensive strategy that draws on the best ideas available to ensure everyone has a chance to succeed.
    President Barack Obama's recent proposal for free community college for all is a good first step. But what the U.S. economy really needs is an over-arching policy to promote lifelong learning, so that workers can continually adapt to new market opportunities. In addition, we also need a stronger safety net for the workers who are displaced, which would give more people time to adjust to a continually changing job market.
    Unfortunately, the policies we need will not emerge from a media-driven debate that starts with the premise that uncaring rich guys aren't concerned about others.
    Closing the gap is going to take innovative thinking and a willingness to believe that we are all in this together. We are going to have to trust each other, drop our assumptions, and make a commitment to open and accurate debate. I'm willing to do so, even at the risk of being cast, unfairly, as the poster boy for the insensitive upper class.