Absolutely. I was born and raised in one of the poorest countries in the world and one that unfortunately remains so today. So I’m genuinely trying to find out the solution. Rather than say, “Growth is inherently the problem,” I actually think the manner in which we have created growth has been the problem. The reality is public policymakers have been using shortcuts to fuel growth, such as debt, such as a society that rewards capital more than it does labor, such as a lack of appreciation of the global picture. It’s sort of every nation for itself, and that results in a situation where you end up with public policymakers focusing on short-term solutions, and a decoupling between long-term economic imperatives and policies that will help win short-term elections. We are too focused on the short term — not just policymakers, businesses, too.
When you think about long-term growth, how important is it for worker wages to rise?
It’s easy for me to say, “On a state-by-state basis we should pay a certain minimum wage.” But that doesn’t address a more fundamental trend that we all recognize, which is automation and robotics. That is a bigger boogeyman than talking about whether or not we should increase the minimum wage.
And diversity is in the same camp. Everybody is sort of hot and bothered about diversity, especially retailers. They love to show that they’ve got lots of diversity. The truth of the matter is if you lift the lid, the diversity is skewed to unskilled workers at the bottom of the stack. They’re exactly the workers that are going to be affected when digitization really bites.
We can’t have enormous inequality in society and expect things to be stable. I grew up in Africa. I understand that you cannot be in the 1 percent and think that everybody else living in poverty doesn’t affect you. It does.
There’s a body of research that correlates high C.E.O. compensation and shareholder capitalism with inequality. If we want an innovative society with the breakout success stories, is that also one that ultimately leads to inequality?
The debate on whether inequality is an artifact of capitalism will reign way past our lifetimes. It’s always been an issue. If you’re more Republican, you believe there are more people who are able-bodied who can work and should work. Democrats think that there are more people who need help. This is an age-old problem.
Do I think that short-termism helped create inequality? Yes, I absolutely do. If we had spent that money investing in infrastructure, spent that money educating people instead of fighting wars, for example, I think we would have had a different outcome. But is capitalism inherently bad? No. I think we probably need some more regulation. We probably needed more efficient government. We didn’t have those things. But I think it’s a bit too easy to say, “Oh, capitalism equals more inequality.” I don’t buy that.