Thursday, November 6, 2008

Warren Buffett and Angelina Jolie's Cambodian children


Warren Buffett made no secret of his support for President-elect Barack Obama. Renowned as the world's most astute and successful investor for nearly a generation, many found it perplexing that he would advocate for the candidate who proposes higher taxes, more government regulation of business, and freely avers that "spreading the wealth" is good for everyone. To such consternation he replied as follows:
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 into 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.


Sounds wise and full of scrupulous prudence. Certainly, wealth not ought to be concentrated in the hands of the few as long as there are those who cannot afford the basic human necessities. But there's something rather disingenuous and off-putting hearing it come from the mouth of one of the world's wealthiest men. Under the superficial guise of "philanthropy" and "justice for all" one detects an underlying guilt that manifests itself as a scolding rejoinder addressed to the those who have acquired a surplus of bounty. He attributes his success solely to luck and the society that is constituted by the common men and women of this country. Without luck and without the toil of blue collar America, he never could have attained his financial empire. So he says. If we choose to believe him, it sure as hell does paint Warren Buffett is an appealing light, doesn't it? Isn't it swell of him to think that? Maybe he's not such a cold blooded corporate baron after all...

Whether Barack Obama won or lost wasn't going to affect Warren Buffet's bottom line much either way. When you're worth billions of dollars, if all you have to do to assuage any internal guilt at the disproportionate rewards you've received for a life's work manipulating market forces is to simply vote for the man who will raise your tax bracket from 35% to 40%, well it's a no-brainer. Done and done. Similarly, we see these actors and actresses in Hollywood in the forefront of numerous left wing causes (I'm talking about you Tim Robbins and Sean Penn). Angelina Jolie, shedding a bad girl image of numerous failed relationships and french kissing her brother at an awards ceremony, is now a respected humanitarian who donates time and money and her name to various worthy causes. Warren Buffett himself has pledged to give most of his fortune over to the Bill Gates foundation when he dies. I suspect that there is an emptiness and remorse that comes as a consequence of acquiring enormous personal wealth. Earning 15 million buckarooos to play Lara Croft in a Tomb Raider sequel surely can't be the most edifying of endeavours. Nor can watching your portfolio skyrocket to obscene values just because an old college buddy gave you a tip to buy stock in a company called Google fifteen years ago.

The sort of philanthropy demonstrated by Mr. Buffett and Ms. Jolie, however, is not to be mocked. That's not my point. Too many of their brethren don't do nearly enough, given their privileges. The incongruence with the above Buffet quote is that it tries to equate "wealth" as defined by the Warren Buffetts and Peyton Mannings and George Clooneys of the world with "wealth" as defined by most physicians, lawyers, insurance salesmen, and vice presidents of our local banks. And this discordance has been ignored and instead the quote from Buffett is used as a justification for tax policies that will disproportionately affect those who, through hard work, talent, patience, dutiful observance of societal expectations, and yes, even a little bit of luck, were able to achieve what used to be known as the American Dream. Clustering everyone who makes more than $200,000/yr as the "rich" and expecting them as a whole to be as generous and philanthropic as Bill Gates and Andrew Carnegie (when said earners are already forking over 40% of their income to federal and/or local tax repositories) is a damn good way to dissuade future generations from ever trying to aspire to such heights themselves. Mediocrity, unfortunately, may be more enticing for our more gifted youth.

George Orwell writes about the elusiveness and fundamental impracticality of a utopian society in a brilliant essay entitled "Can Socialists Be Happy" (from the collection edited by George Packer called All Art is Propaganda). I know, I know, I sound like a Sarah Palin-ite reactionary expounding on how Obama is a 'terrorist' and a 'socialist'. But we are at a crucial point in American history and Obama could very well be the fulcrum upon which this country turns, for better or worse. When times are tough, there is a tendency to turn inward and expect to be rescued by Big Brother. But as Orwell says, "all favourable Utopias seem to be alike in postulating perfection while while being unable to suggest happiness." Happiness exists only in the contrast of suffering, as a relief from pain. When history brings us to the precipice of despair and loss, it's easy enough to look outside ourselves to those who have "triumphed" in the game of life and demand that they share the fruits of their labor. The danger is that in promulgating policies to guarantee "universal happiness", we risk compromising the motivations for Individuals to perform feats that advance humankind.....

4 comments:

platensimycin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Health Train Express said...

Well said. Universal happiness cannot be assured, no is it dependent on one's net worth.

walt dandy said...

For what it's worth, Warren Buffett is in the 15% tax bracket. One of many advantages of having all one's income be derived from capital gains. I have to agree with him, however. A simplified way of saying the same thing is that taxes are what separate us from Hobbes' "state of nature." I wouldn't survive that either...without heavy weaponry.

Anonymous said...

I am so tired of Angelina Jolie.
Six, seven children in 6 years. Is she a bunny?