Warren Buffett Says Free Trade Has Turned American Workers Into Roadkill

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

Warren Buffett likened American workers who have seen their jobs and factories destroyed by global trade to animals slaughtered by cars and trucks on the highway.

“Nobody should be roadkill,” Buffet said Saturday at the festival-like annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway in Omaha, Nebraska.

The billionaire, who supported Barack Obama and backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, now sounds almost Trump-ish. His comments on American workers echoed the remarks of President Donald Trump in his inaugural speech in January, which described a landscape of “American carnage” where closed factories are “scattered like tombstones.”

Toward the end of the question and answer session with Buffett and his longtime sidekick Charlie Munger, investor Whitney Tilson asked if businesses should consider the fates of millions of Americans displaced by trade and technology instead of focussing solely on maximizing shareholder value. Buffett argued that free trade was a benefit to the economy at large but that politicians needed to “take care of the people who become roadkill.”

This wasn’t the first time Buffett has used the phrase. Back in February, he more-or-less gave this material a test run on CNBC’s Squawkbox.

So free trade is wonderful for the world and for the United States, but its benefits are diffused among 320 million people. You buy your bananas cheaper because we don’t try and produce them in the United States. But the penalties from free trade are terrible to specific industries. And as an investor, I can own – make a dumb decision on owning a shoe company. But if I own a good insurance company, I can diversify away the problems. If you’re a 55-year-old steelworker, you can’t diversify away your talents. I mean, you had it if steel or textiles or shoes become subject to total, it all moves offshore. So you want to have free trade, but you also have to take care of the people who, through no fault of their own, have spent their life learning one profession. And you can talk about retraining and all that, but it just isn’t practical. And just take Berkshire Hathaway. We started with 2,000 employees in New Bedford, Mass, turning out textiles. And that business was doomed. And we had workers there who really they didn’t have alternatives at age 50. Fair number of them just spoke Portuguese. They didn’t have a chance. And a rich country that’s prospering because of free trade, and as the world is prospering, should keep the free trade as much as possible. But they also should take care of the people that become the roadkill, you know, when an industry moves.


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