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I Reconsider Warren Buffett - Comments (1)

Printer Friendly Category: Articles
Author: John Malone
Date: 11th January, 2010 @ 09:21:49 AM

One thing my generations often overlooks, it seems, is what an incredibly optimistic time it was when we were being raised and coming to emancipation from our parents, “the greatest generation.”

We had Mickey Mantle. John Kennedy, the one who was the war hero. We had Cassius Clay who beat the Big Bear. Or did he? Yes, we had our Sonny Listons, the bad and sad men toward whom no one was really fair. As we grew, our sunny black and white world – composed of “Howdy Doody”, “Leave It to Beaver”, “Mickey Mouse,” and his club, Superman. Matt Dillon, Broderick Crawford (Highway Patrol) the best shot there ever was, Ben Casey, Fred MacMurray (My Three Sons) the bumbling-not-always-right-always-upright man – began taking on shades of gray, even before bursting upon us in full, living color.

And in all of that scene, we were very optimistic. Our dads were heroes who won the war. Now they were home and establishing their lives. Every man Jack of them, at least that is how I viewed it. People weren’t divorcing, just sometimes fighting. As children, we were on solid and definite tracks. The President said our country wanted us physically fit, and good at mathematics and science. I remember buying into that, as a child. I will become physically fit. I will work at mathematics and science. I will learn.

And I did. And so did a whole lot of us, but even when we struggled with one or both of those disciplines, we still all bought in.

In that formative period of mine, before the clouds rolled in, I formed the model and hope of a self-reliant man. I was quite certain they were out there, and could be modeled, and to become one was the best aspiration. They were portrayed on television, and written about in the literature, and talked about among people. It didn’t matter if he smoked a cigarette; it did matter if he was faithful to his wife. He found his own way in life, being himself. He was kind to men, but he answered to – was it himself? Yes, I think it was. He did believe in God. This self-reliant man, the model man, looked to God, but only sometimes. At least he was reverent.

I can say now, late in my life, that such an ambition stuck to me. Indeed, I bought in. I’m not sure it was a bad thing that I did. There is something deficient, I now think, in that buy-in, and most certainly in the optimism that it bought. But there is still something humanly noble in it. Perhaps just the degree of innocence of the buyer. Yes, that’s it.

So, if I may now just skip ahead from that background, and take you to my intellectually formative years – my middle and later post-secondary years – and to where I managed to get a first-rate university education despite the way I went about it. I continued on with a couple of my high school friends almost all the way through my university years. In retrospect, I think that was remarkable. My high school debate partner and I became bridge players together, and we honed our skills among university players. We became formidable in that arena, and we took our play to the local bridge club on occasion.

This is one place that I learned about Warren Buffett a bit, and I did actually play a couple of rounds against him, about which I have a very distinct memory. He also returned my phone call once after he took a financial interest in Newsweek magazine. That is all my personal contact, and I do not claim any special relationship with this great man, except that as he emerged in the financial world, right here in my home town, my economics training pretty much determined that I would more or less idolize the guy, as now everyone does, for his ability to use the capital placed in his trust.

Recall my optimism, and now throw in a pretty salty economics exposure, both philisophical and technical, with a leaning toward the growth and development of nations, and then put Warren Buffett on the screen, and I think you have perhaps your very best candidate for the self-reliant man. At least in my view. He doesn’t look anything like the Marlboro man, but his “body of work,” as the sports commentators now say, secures him a spot in the Hall of Fame.

So today, I hear the news that Warren Buffett is resorting to the public capital market for ten billion dollars some time soon. A placement of Berkshire shares.

This got me thinking, and reflecting on the fault of the viewpoint from my youth. The self-reliant man ideal is a complete myth. Indeed, if pursued with vigor, patience, endurance, and persistent hope, it certainly could be the greatest of all follies life has to offer.

Because the more one achieves, the more one really becomes MORE dependent on others, and not self-reliant whatsoever. Now remember, it’s just me who thought Buffett to be a model of self-reliance. I am very sure he makes no claim of it. In fact, he frequently speaks of his managers, and commends them often in public. He must rely on these men. They keep him from the morass of things that he likely could not handle.

And then there are his studied and often striking forays into the upper levels of the marketplace, where he buys only very big things. Lately, for instance, he bought lock, stock and barrel, America’s largest railroad, the Burlington Northern. THAT is a completely stunning purchase. Perhaps only Buffett had the cash-on-hand to take such a dramatic stroke.

So today he is in the capital market to gain liquidity by selling some shares. I don’t pretend to understand it all. I have no more facts. But I do wonder some about what it could be like to be in his shoes. He moves, no doubt, in a circle of extremely important contacts. We hear about Bill Gates. He talks about the Sultan of Brunei. I have seen a picture of him with the Terminator and Baron von Rothschild at the latter’s home, or one of them, anyway. I’m pretty sure he can get President Obama on the phone if he wants or needs to. He is able to chose anyone he wants to meet, I would suppose. People pay millions to have lunch with him.

There are some who have written into this forum that I am somehow bitter and or jealous of Warren Buffett. I must honestly say, I am neither. I have my own extremely interesting life, and I don’t want his. His life, as I see it, would seriously scare me. Not so much because of the large tasks he is called to do, but because he faces them either alone, or with staff, or with a necessary treaty among acquaintances that some might call conspiracy, all of which relationships are extremely fragile.

I cannot speak specifically to that social sphere, I have never seen it up close, even though I have had dinner with the President of the United States. Yes, with perhaps 30 others, but that is how you have dinner with the POTUS. In fact, I have been further from that circle than Chase Daniel, the Missouri quarterback who could finally beat Nebraska, but who unfortunately had a hard time beating some of the others.

But you can bet your last ten billion that the sphere in which Buffett moves to do what he does is frought with the same kind of dramatic anxieties that arise in our own lives. Now here’s why I would never consider trading places with him, and also why I think the best that I can about Warren Buffett, as the Lord has told me to do. I know what it’s like to trust the most trustworthy staff. I have very trustworthy staff myself. They do the best they can. So do I. That does not leave me with warm, and fuzzy feelings, but with a certain anxiety and suspicion that things might somewhere somehow be terribly wrong.

And then there is the relying on oneself. One’s judgement of others, of subject matter, even of one’s own self. It happens to the best of us much more than to the worst of us. Have I done the right thing? Am I doing the right thing? And what if I am not?

Here’s where I cannot imagine something being more miserable or tortuous in such times, as not having God to turn to, through the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. As simple as that may sound to an unbelieving and skeptical reader, I will tell you if that thought doesn’t grip you somehow as you read, I pray that it will in a time of serious self-reflection on your own part.

I would hate to have to need or want $10 billion just now, without the complete assurance that God was directing me, so that He was also on the hook to provide for me.

Actually that assurance and trust goes for a great, great many things in my life. I would it went for everything. I cannot fathom being in the place of any man, but this morning specifically Warren Buffett, without my very clear relationship to God, wherein I can’t completely rely on His dispensing of grace to me at every turn, thereby deriving the kind of peace that is impossible without my Saviour.

Because everywhere today there is treachery, and lawlessness, and even there is treason. In such a cold world, I wish Buffett all the best. Because some times, especially from a distance, one cannot distinguish the best of men, from the worst of men. And because, without God in this world, all these men are around you, and you dare neither ignore the best of them, nor trust the worst, because sudden calamity is always there to leap upon you.

There are no self-reliant men. For my money, I’ll take the life of relying on God Who is gracious. And I hope that somehow Buffett – even so late in life – does the same.