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Archive for May, 2016

Warren Buffett, Soulmate

Planes, trains, and automobiles. I’ve been on the road and on the go for weeks now, days filled with unavoidable down time, and hence unable to avoid the din of our national tragedy: Election 2016. Whether it be 20 candidates spread over two stages and 12 hours, or two candidates circling a track in a never-ending series of left turns, one theme arched high above it all. America is somehow no longer great. Neither side of the political divide seems able to find even the dimmest silver lining. One candidate has gone so far as to trademark the phrase “Make America Great Again.” Planes, trains, and automobiles. Internet, newsprint, and audio. For weeks I’ve been bombarded with nothing else.

Which got me to thinking Warren Buffett, of course, and how much Mr. Buffett and I have in common. Now to be truthful, there are a few not insignificant things that we don’t share, attitudes and things a bit more concrete that separate us. There would be the tiny issue of money, about $50 Billion, give or take a few hundred thousand. That’ll put a little distance between folks. He drinks Cherry Coke by the gallon; I stopped drinking most soft drinks long before CrossFit went to war with Coca-Cola. Mr. Buffett is a well-known, accomplished bridge player, circling the globe with his buddy Bill Gates and playing the world’s best because he can. I peaked as a card player in the 5th grade when I finally beat my mother at “Go Fish”.

The biggest difference between us is more elemental. Mr. Buffet is a bully, a most distasteful thing in my mind since I have always considered myself one who defends against bullies. He is an awful type of bully, the sanctimonious hypocrite. Do as I say, not as I do, at once imploring the well-to-do to accept usurious taxation and willfully divest the gains of their hard work, while simultaneously using his power and wealth to effectively do neither. This creates a cynical worldview from which he gives himself permission to denounce others who do as he does, yet not so artfully or with not as much stealth. Which all makes it all the more of a wonder that Warren Buffett and I actually have in common something that is more powerful and more important than what separates us (though I’d certainly be OK is I shared a bit of that $50BB).

Both Warren Buffett and I are optimists when it comes to both the state of America today, and what is likely in store for America and Americans in the future.

In a series of speeches, articles and letters over the last 2 or 3 years Mr. Buffett has laid out in some detail how good it is to be an American. This is in respect not only to the lives of Americans in comparison with citizens of the world elsewhere, but also in comparison with past iterations of America and Americans. We are a land of plenty. Outrageous plenty in comparison to past Americas and present others. There likely will never be a time where there is no poverty, yet poverty today does not mean what it meant in years past. The Great Depression brought with it true starvation; the Great Recession gave us Hunger Anxiety, the fear that one might not have enough to eat. While we as a nation and a people rightly focus on continuing to better the lives of the unfortunate, those who spend their lives cushioned by the societal safety net are infinitely better than before, and lives which are unimaginable for the impoverished elsewhere in the world.

There remain in America barriers of varying degree that make if very difficult for members of large, easily identifiable groups to succeed at the highest levels of societal achievement. Buffett and I agree and acknowledge that there is NOT a truly level playing field when it comes to advancement in business, law, or even government. Deeply engrained prejudices along racial and gender lines continue to thwart all but the very most talented, and let’s face it, thick-skinned and dogged individuals. The reality, sad or otherwise, is that there will never be a truly level playing field; someone always has an edge of some sort. Where we agree again, though, is that there has been a vast improvement, a dramatic decrease in both the magnitude and amplitude of these barriers in America.

More people from more backgrounds can rise more easily to a greater height in America than ever before.

It’s really all about a point of view. America is great right now. Period. It is far greater in all respects than it was 20 or 30 or 50 years ago. On balance it, and Americans, are in the most positive position anywhere in the world. Mr. Buffett points out several fairly macro issues as illustrations. As noted above, we no longer measure hunger as an issue to address as a country, we measure the fear of being hungry. Our concern is not so much with how much food is consumed but more about the quality of that food. Housing as a quality measure is not examined with a measure of how many citizens are un-housed, but rather by the percentage of Americans who own their own home. Or even more to the point, could afford to consider owning a home. Access to technology is a reasonable proxy for “the pursuit of happiness” for Mr. Buffett. When he was young only the wealthy had color TV. We now concern ourselves with whether there is free access to the internet in our inner cities so that those who are below the poverty line can connect their iPhones or Galaxies to their Amazon Prime account.

This is not meant to give America and Americans permission to gloat and float. There are still some among us who have more needs than wants, who need and deserve a society that continually seeks to remove those barriers that leave them in need. To be sure, Buffett the bully, the scold, is quite content to point this out. However we, Warren Buffett and I, take issue with the basic assumption of those who would say that America is in decline, or is destined to decline. We are both openly pleased and proud of the improvements in the lives of Americans of all walks of life because they live in America. The rule of law, free markets, and an elected government at multiple levels has provided the platform from which American Exceptionalism has grown for almost all of us. The needs of almost all of us are comfortably covered, leaving us and our country to move on to considering our fears and our wants.

This is something for which we should be proud, the prevailing political rhetoric notwithstanding. This should make us optimistic about our future, both distant and near. We have had an inexorable and uninterrupted path toward a better life for almost all Americans. America and Americans are not complacent. We are quite self-critical as we readily see in election years (especially if we are imprisoned in planes, trains, and automobiles), and we are ever seeking more and better for America and Americans. As objectionable as the unrelenting negativism of Election 2016 may be, this, too, should make us optimistic about what is ahead of us as a country and as a people. America is great now; no “again” is necessary. For all that separates us, Warren Buffett and I are joined in an optimism about what it is that is America today, and what we believe is to come in our future. We both think that the rest of America should be more in line with that worldview than that which we hear from our candidates, our newspapers, and our media outlets of all kinds..

Let’s all go with “Make America Greater”. For all of our differences, I’m sure that Warren Buffett and I can agree on that.

Sunday musings 5/1/16

Sunday musings…

1) Birthday 1. Happy 79th Birthday to my Mom. What a great visit last week!

2) Birthday 2. Happy 80th Birthday to my MIL Sandy. When do we get to see you next?

3) Birthday 3. Happy 49th Birthday to my youngest sister, Kerstin. I certainly hope this next year goes easier for you than it did for me. “Turning 50″ was terrible.

Maybe just start celebrating anniversaries of your first 49th?

4) Elegance. “Elegance is refusal.” –Diana Vreeland.

I have absolutely no idea what that means.

5) Small. “Bit players don’t feel like bit players in their own lives.” –Richard Russo

Oh man…how good is that? Every life is just huge if it’s you who is living it. Every story suffers or soars depending on the frame of reference of the author. The eyes and ears of the storyteller only catch so much, and some of what is seen or heard never makes it past the “bit player” level in the story that is eventually told. This is what Russo refers to.

There are short stories, but there are no small stories. There are quiet lives lived with little or no acclaim, but there are no small lives. There are people who move as if shadows among giants, but there are no small people.

6) Forward. The whole “pay it forward” thing–you know, buy the guy behind you in line a fancy coffee thing–has always mystified me. The first one in the daisy chain, first one to do that random act of kindness, buy it behind? That I get. That’s the person who gets the karmic boost as far as I can see. Admit it, if you’re downstream from that guy/gal and someone just upstream from you gave you a boost, you’re doing it for the next person out of guilt or obligation. Nothing random about that at all.

Think about that first in, plant the flag opportunity though. The real, spontaneous, random and hopefully anonymous gesture given either in thanks for blessings unknown or as a giant middle finger to a cruel and uncaring world. Here is the tiny seed of true kindness. There’s a visceral pleasure involved when you pull it off, be the first, and get away with it. Especially if there’s no way for the recipient to just tumble down the daisy chain by passing it along, and even better if you pull it off anonymously.

Heck, sometimes it doesn’t involve a penny exchanged in commerce. Perhaps someone is in need of an answer, and you just happen to have it. Or an ear offered in a “judgement-free zone”, one in which you have zero personal gain on the line. Those are awfully cool, too.

My bid? Don’t feel obligated to do any type of “pay it forward” every time it may come up, and don’t feel any sense of failure if you miss even an easy no-brainer. Whether you picked up a check for a young dad out with his toddlers and giving Mom a break, or put down your newspaper when your seat mate on the plane asked a question, do give yourself a tiny pat on the back and allow yourself a little smile of satisfaction.

The only payback for paying it forward is personal. And that’s OK.

I’ll see you next week…

–bingo

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