Saturday, July 19, 2008

Gourmet Cheeseburger in Paradise

In 2006 if you had asked me who Warren Buffett is, I might have told you he's a folk rock singer that didn't much appeal to me. Today, two years and one small child later, I can tell you that he's the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. In 1962, he started buying into a small textile company at under $8 a share and has grown it into a vast holding company with a market capitalization of over $181 billion. A single Class A share of Berkshire Hathaway now trades at about $117,000. Okay, I had to look up the wonky details, but Warren Buffett is the world's most successful investor and the second richest man in the world. And he's a famously nice guy.

As a politician who wants to raise taxes considerably on the wealthiest Americans, you would not expect Barack Obama to receive this particular nice guy's support. After all, Warren Buffett answers to his shareholders, and steering a ship carrying gazillions of other people's dollars, you could say there's a lot riding on his judgment. With an average annual return to those shareholders of 21%, you could also say expectations are high. But Buffett has publicly endorsed Barack Obama. I want to quote a passage from the book "The Audacity of Hope", in which Buffett replies to the question of how many of his fellow billionaires share his views on taxation:

"I'll tell you, not very many. They have this idea that it's 'their money' and they deserve to keep every penny of it. What they don't factor in is all the public investment that lets us live the way we do. Take me as an example. I happen to have a talent for allocating capital. But my ability to use that talent is completely dependent on the society I was born into. If I'd been born into a tribe of hunters, this talent of mine would be pretty worthless. I can't run very fast. I'm not particularly strong. I'd probably end up as some wild animal's dinner.

"But I was lucky enough to be born in a time and place where society values my talent, and gave me a good education to develop that talent, and set up the laws and the financial system to let me do what I love doing -- and make a lot of money doing it. The least I can do is help pay for all that."

I, for one, wish there were a few more billionaires who were like Warren Buffett in this regard. For every Warren Buffett, there are probably about 10 Carl Icahns who have a very different opinion about taxes and social policy. I guess it's obvious that I don't agree with them, and reading my partisan rants, you'd think that I completely deny any validity in their arguments. I wish it was that simple. Strangely, it seems there are quite a few on the other side who, at least in some ways are intelligent, reasonable, even compassionate people. Take Larry Hunter for instance. His support of Obama aside (a subject for another day), here's a guy to whom a progressive tax code, universal health care, and even market-based regulatory controls like cap and trade are anathema, yet when you look at him and listen to him speak, you intuitively sense that he's not out to exploit the working class, send sickly seniors out onto the streets to die, and pollute our planet into oblivion. Just like his liberal counterpart, say a Paul Krugman, he's guided by a moral compass. Even though their respective approaches to our problems are often polar opposites, these two men share a common set of underlying values.

Like any parent, I want my kid to be healthy, have the advantage of a good education, and enjoy all the best things in life. I want to work hard to make that happen, and I'm willing to fight anybody who would stand in the way of that. I certainly don't want to stand in anybody else's way. I don't want a free ride, nor do I want to give anybody else a free ride. And at the end of the day, I hope to leave the world in better shape than when I found it. In other words, I'm just like everybody else. Not too particular, not too precise. You'd think all of us getting along would be easy as pie. Or a cheeseburger in paradise.

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