Friday, April 20, 2012

Obama on Buffett

Because I just had to jump in.  Via Althouse (which is part of my daily reading), I read about Obama penning a blurb for Time magazine for Warren Buffett (via The Hill).  Here's a good chunk of what Obama wrote about his new BFF:

Today Warren is not just one of the world's richest men but also one of the most admired and respected. He has devoted the vast majority of his wealth to those around the world who are suffering, or sick, or in need of help. And he uses his stature as a leader to press others of great means to do the same.
The Sage of Omaha has handed down plenty of lessons over the years. Today, at 81, he reminds us that life is not just about the value you seek. It's about the values you stand for.

"Vast majority of his wealth."  What does that mean?  I don't understand what that means--clearly over his career he reinvested most of his earnings to build Berkshire Hathaway.  He takes a very small income, which is why most of his wealth is capital gains.  You know, now that I think about that, he takes a VERY small income (around $100,000) because it is a tax advantage to him.  My husband, as you might remember, is self-employed.  We have often talked about the balance between income and dividends that he and his partner are paid.  Every small business owner knows that this is one way to take a lower tax rate.  The fact for us is that DH takes a much larger salary because the IRS usually looks askance at low senior executive/owner pay.  It is curious that Warren gets to take such a low salary when it is a certainty that his other senior executives are paid much, much better than this.

Back to "vast majority."  What does that mean when most of your wealth is held in the stock of one company?  That you still hold?  Buffett has pledged about 85% of his wealth to go to the Gates Foundation.  Before that it was supposed to go to the Buffett Foundation.  It hasn't gone; it is just pledged.  It isn't done yet.  He said he intends to leave most of his wealth to charity.  But he hasn't done it yet.  Yes, he gives significant (to me) amounts away. (And he has continued his plan of donating his wealth in pieces.)  But if he feels so passionately about our government and its debt, why not help out there?

And then there's "those around the world who are suffering, or sick, or in need of help."  Like Planned Parenthood.  Or this organization, which makes air suction devices to induce abortions, and are cheap, and are distributed around the world.  And of course, the Glide Foundation, supported by Glide Memorial  Church, notably a UMC church which removed their cross.  Yes.  Famously, Glide Memorial was featured in the story of Chris Gardner in "Pursuit of Happyness."  So they do a lot of good, but I remember the scene from the worship service in that movie and it seems that Glide has moved away from their evangelism.  Clicking around on their website yields no reference at all to the saving grace of Jesus Christ, just a lot of references to "telling our own stories" and "respecting each other's truths."  (The Gates Foundation is also a very big supporter of Planned Parenthood.)

Again, if Warren is so concerned about our debt, why not lead the way by contributing directly to the Treasury?

"Press others of great means to do the same."  Like, for instance, not pay your taxes?

"Life is not just about the value you seek."  Yes, great line.  Frankly, it looks to me like Mr. Buffett spent many years seeking the hidden value in companies.  He did it very, very well, and made many people, including himself, a lot of money over the years.  He had a vision that required marshaling others to achieve it--that means valuable jobs that contribute to GDP.  He didn't set out to "create jobs."  Instead, he had a bold vision that required many people to execute.  Job creation was a side benefit of his vision.  Yes, some people also lost their jobs in his relentless pursuit of value.  This is part of the creative destruction of capitalism, freeing resources so that they can then be used to their highest-value purpose somewhere else.  Painful but ultimately beneficial to everyone.

So I read this and I see into the heart of Obama.  The acquisition of filthy lucre is fine as long as you then turn around and contribute to his approved causes.  Avoiding taxes to the maximum extent is fine as long as you allow yourself to be used by those on the "right" side of the issues.  But building a business, risking capital, having a vision that requires others to execute and therefore employees people in meaningful, productive pursuits is insignificant.  HOW you made that wealth is not worth talking about.  Being a true believer--or maybe just knowing which side of an issue to be on--is all that matters.

EDITED TO ADD (Five hours later):  On reflection, I knew most of this.  I knew this about Obama, what he cares about and what he despises.  But I think what I didn't know is the heart of Warren Buffett.  I had, until recently, thought of him as a nice, rich man from Middle America.  I mean, how much more "middle" can you get?  A really smart guy who made good, but one of "us."  But he isn't.  And never was.  He and his wife had an odd, nontraditional marriage since 1977, and his current wife was his companion until his wife's death.  With her full knowledge.  He has been a contributor to Planned Parenthood and other progressive causes for years.  While I don't really give a flying leap about his private life, I do feel like he has been presenting this persona to the world for years, when in fact he has been happy to use his wealth to advance an agenda directly harmful to the system under which he succeeded.  So, in the end, maybe Obama's little essay was more revealing of old Mr. Buffett than he intended.

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