Source – forbes.com
– “There are a lot of great things coming from technology,” says Greene. “It’s going to democratize medicine, healthcare, education, which is fantastic. The only concern I have is, you can’t leave behind the bulk of the population”:
Touch-screen ordering at fast food restaurants, robots welding car parts at Tesla factories, apps like Uber taking a bite out of the taxi and limo industry: They’re all good for innovation but perhaps not so great for the workers whose jobs are on the line, according to real estate billionaire Jeff Greene.
“What globalization did to blue collar jobs and the working class economy over the past 30 or 40 years, big data, artificial intelligence and robotics will do to the white collar economy — and at a much, much faster pace,” says Greene.
It’s a problem that will only exacerbate the growing gap between the rich and the poor, he claims, because we’ve left ourselves unprepared for the inevitable automation of many jobs traditionally done by humans.
“I realized that that is the greatest threat we have in our country today,” says Greene. “So I thought, ‘Let’s convene some of the greatest minds from academia, government, business and the nonprofit sector to come together to talk realistically about what’s happening.’”
What he devised is a two-day conference spanning Monday and Tuesday dubbed “Closing the Gap: Solutions for An Inclusive Economy,” hosted by Greene at Palm Beach’s Tideline Ocean Resort & Spa. Speakers include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, author Thomas Friedman, former Apple and Pepsi CEO John Sculley, lawyer and TV personality Star Jones and boxing legend Mike Tyson.
Panels will cover everything from debates about the role of government in trimming the gap between the rich and poor to which technologies will disrupt the workplace and fundamental discussions about fairness and corporate social responsibility.
Greene says his biggest goals are increasing awareness so we know what’s coming and having a dialogue about what we can do to smooth the transition to new technology. While there has been some talk of economic inequality in the race for the White House, according to Greene Republicans are clamoring for less regulation and Democrats are obsessing over taxing the rich while no one is focusing on the people who are going to lose their jobs to machines in the near future.
“This is a much bigger issue than any of the presidential candidates are acknowledging,” says Greene, who unsuccessfully ran for a Senate seat in 2010, pointing to a Harvard Business Review study that claims as many as 40 million Americans may soon have job skills that have no economic value.
More than 300 people have purchased conference tickets, which cost between $2,000 and $4,000 apiece. Even with the ticket revenue and sponsors like the Ford Foundation and Goldman Sachs, Greene — who Forbes estimates is worth $3.3 billion — is paying more than $500,000 out of his own pocket to put on the event he’s been planning for more than a year.
In some ways it’s an unlikely cause for a guy like Greene to champion. He’s one of the world’s richest people. He made headlines at Davos in January for allegedly claiming Americans need to adjust their lifestyle expectations to live a “smaller, better existence” despite traveling to the summit on his private jet with his wife, children and their nanny (Greene later said he was “completely misquoted”). And last year he listed his 50,000-square-foot Beverly Hills megamansion for $195 million — making it America’s most expensive home for sale at the time (he slashed the price to $149 million earlier this year before taking it off the market last month).
But, for Greene, empathy about the gap between the wealthy and the poor can be traced back to his humble beginnings. Born to a middle-class family in Worcester, Massachusetts, he remembers growing up among a mix of people — pediatricians, bricklayers and factory workers all living side-by-side.
“I never knew anything else other than an inclusive economy,” says Greene. “Everyone cared about each other and felt good about each other.”
Then his father, who was a textile machinery salesman, lost his job when the mills moved south to lower costs. The family moved to Florida and his dad found work filling vending machines. His mother, formerly a homemaker, began waitressing. Greene got into Johns Hopkins and worked his way through, teaching Hebrew and working as a busboy at The Breakers resort in Palm Beach.
While in business school at Harvard, he put $7,400 down on a three-family home and rented out the other rooms so he could live for free. After getting his MBA, he moved into Los Angeles real estate and was nearly wiped out when property prices dropped. He held on and by 2006 owned nearly 7,000 rental units in southern California, and had a $700 million net worth. One of the few to worry about rising prices before the crash, Greene made a bold bet against the real estate market that made him. He shorted it to the tune of an $800 million profit — a far cry from bussing tables to cover tuition.
He says he feels the same level of conviction about how automation will impact the U.S. economy. In Greene’s view it’s important to accept that things like globalization and automation will occur, teach workers how to adapt to the changing landscape and use the benefits to help those whose jobs are lost to Schumpeterian “creative destruction.”
“There are a lot of great things coming from technology,” says Greene. “It’s going to democratize medicine, healthcare, education, which is fantastic. The only concern I have is, you can’t leave behind the bulk of the population.”
He sees it everywhere. Standing in the lobby at the Tideline days before the conference, Greene says he watched a woman vacuuming the floor, five valet attendants parking cars and three people behind the front desk welcoming guests.
It’s not hard to imagine fingerprint and eye-scanning kiosks taking over for the front desk workers (“Wouldn’t that be more efficient and more thorough?”). Self-driving cars park themselves, and Uber drivers just drop off guests and leave. As for the woman sweeping? “We have an iRobot at home doing our floors now,” says Greene. “This isn’t crazy, futuristic stuff — this is stuff that is already here.”