*This article was originally published by Fair Observer.
This year may be remembered as either the beginning or the end of the golden age of billionaires. One has miraculously become president of the United States. According to Oxfam, the eight richest billionaires in the world hold as much wealth as the poorer half of humanity. One of those eight, Warren Buffett, has recently been canonized—almost synchronously with President Donald Trump’s inauguration—in a rather hagiographic HBO documentary that retraces Buffett’s career, painting the portrait of an American icon known especially for being consistently at or near the top of the billionaire class, but in many respects the diametrical opposite of Trump.
The documentary is now available on the web. It uses Buffett’s own voice, complemented by the voices of family members and business partners, to establish the portrait of a man it seeks to celebrate as both a genius endowed with a mysterious talent for investment and just an ordinary, folksy guy with a big heart.
What does this singular turn of events tell us about American culture in 2017? They are both icons, but what do they represent? Are they simply two variants within the multi-billionaire class? Do they represent the interests of what must now be recognized as the ruling class of a plutocracy that has now replaced good old American democracy?
Or are they polar opposites, potential enemies, preparing to enter the ring for a heroic combat: Trump, the single-digit billionaire and novice Republican politician who has stumbled into the White House, pitted against Buffett, the socially aware but non-political Democrat, whose massive wealth keeps growing even after giving more of it away to charity than Trump proudly claims to possess?
Trump inaugurated, Buffet canonized
Both are icons, symbols of deep-seated trends in US culture and ideology. Both appear to have an important role in defining the future of the United States. But neither represents a clear trend or set of values. Buffett likes to come across as a heartland yokel from a Republican family who quietly wields an influence over the economy that could allow him to control Wall Street. His personal bailout of Goldman Sachs in 2008 demonstrated his power over events.
Trump, the New York real estate mogul with his superficial but phoney pretension of sophistication, has for decades floated between the two dominant parties but now has opportunistically landed in the role of figurehead for the most reactionary strain of white supremacy traditionally associated with the Deep South. The operators of the two parties that have shared power for more than a century-and-a-half have been left behind. Consequently, the effort of understanding and forecasting trends in US politics has turned into a pure guessing game.
Trump, with his outlandish discourse and now even more outlandish behavior inside the Oval Office, has understandably become the object of everyone’s commentaries. So early in his presidency, 80% is speculation about what he is likely to do, capable of doing or, alternatively, about what will be done to him. The other 20%, based on what he has already done as tweeter-in-chief, points in a direction that many interpret as proto-fascist and possibly un-American or, if Trump’s brand of government accepted as normal, neo-American.
After a month of Trump on the throne, people all across the spectrum have begun to wonder whether having a billionaire in the White House is compatible with democracy or indeed the Constitution. One of the reasons the electors rejected Hillary Clinton was that she and Bill Clinton were nouveau riche multi-millionaires, in thrall to moneyed interests. Trump reassured his voters by the fact of already being rich.
But now, through his actions and his example, he appears to be educating the American public about the dangers of concentrated wealth, whether it already exists (Trump) or is in the process of being constituted (Clinton). The traditional American suspicion of people with too much money and too much direct interest in power dates back to Teddy Roosevelt and in 1941 gave us the myth of Citizen Kane. After a period of dormancy initiated during the Ronald Reagan years, the tradition is coming back to life.
Illusion of an ideal
As President Trump confirms the worst perceptions his opponents had of him as a greedy, egotistical narcissist, devoid of any form of empathy, Buffett thus emerges from within the billionaire class as the new president’s ideal foil and possible nemesis. Even while criticizing the wealthy and suspecting them of undermining democracy, Americans need to believe that money, in the capitalist system, doesn’t necessarily corrupt. If only because the American dream infuses everyone with the belief that they can become rich.
What many feared with Clinton, whom Trump himself accused of being a pawn of Wall Street, is rapidly becoming manifest with the president. American capitalist ideology was built around an ideal, or at least the illusion of an ideal: that wealth spawns generosity, from which all will benefit. The tradition cultivates the belief that the wealthy for the most part, even while flaunting their wealth, want nothing more sincerely than the good of the nation, the community and the economy.
The Kennedys were among the super-rich. Papa Joe got them there by less than scrupulous means. But they were careful to establish a reputation for being dedicated to public service, embracing ideals that contradicted their apparent greed. John F. Kennedy sealed the family reputation and established his credibility as a presidential hopeful when he published Profiles in Courage.
The Rockefellers and Carnegies had set the tone decades earlier with their philanthropy and the eventual emergence of Nelson Rockefeller as a liberal Republican, acceptable to Democrats. With rare exceptions—such as the eccentric Howard Hughes—the 20th century rich had created an image for themselves and a model of behavior that shielded them from the criticism directed at the 19th century class of robber barons.
Since the crisis and great recession of 2007-08, people have become increasingly aware of the threat of oligarchy and plutocracy. The unexpected success of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries reflected this trend, which the Democratic Party chose to ignore, believing billionaires and multimillionaires provided the essential fuel for the political engine. Nancy Pelosi made it clear, announcing that “we’re capitalists and that’s just the way it is.”
She didn’t ask herself the question of whether Trump’s voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania think of themselves as capitalists. The billionaire Trump paradoxically exploited the fear of the wealthy among the working class to get elected in 2016, but his behavior as president has begun to betray him. Warren Buffett, despite his advanced age (86), has the opportunity to slide into the iconic role of the good billionaire, the anti-plutocrat, whose goodness is nowhere more manifest than in his lack of interest in exercising political power.
If I were a richman
In its new video biography, HBO takes us into Buffett’s daily life and offers us the portrait of a family man (of sorts), a caring boss who, in his work setting, could be confused with a modest office worker, a man with simple tastes, who every morning stops to purchase breakfast at McDonald’s. That is, at least when he isn’t investing in it.
Buffett describes in his own voice his daily breakfast ritual on the way to the office. He confidently reveals his breakfast “strategy.” On days when the market is down he refuses to splurge on a $3.17 breakfast, going for the $2.61 deal instead, an act of financial prudence that some among the viewing public may be tempted to emulate. Those who wish to know how to “invest like Warren Buffett” could very well feel impelled to start by “having breakfast like Warren Buffett.”
As an ordinary guy, too shy to speak in public until he followed a Dale Carnegie course from which he earned a diploma, Buffett has developed the endearing talent of systematic self-denigration whenever speaking about himself or describing the people who have enriched his life and paved his way to success.
According to Buffett, they are all better than he is, in intelligence, social skills, understanding of political and social issues, culture, problem-solving, interaction with the environment. But, of course, none are wealthier.
The video curiously leaves us with the impression that Buffett is a financial Rain Man, an autist capable of breaking the bank at Wall Street just as surely as Dustin Hoffman’s character could break the bank at a Las Vegas casino. In this sense, the film answers the question that has found its way to the heart of US culture—How can I get rich on the market?—by providing the enigmatic answer: become an autistic freak but with communication skills acquired at the Dale Carnegie Academy. Not a recipe many people will be ready to apply.
The real enigma of Warren Buffett is neither the man himself, his mysterious talent nor a carefully guarded secret method. Some will be surprised to discover that he has never been secret about his method. The video tells us that it started with cigar butts, which it explains in a puff of smoke, and then at some later point he switched to its opposite, based on the notion of persistent value associated with branding.
At one point we actually do learn about Buffett’s deepest secret, like the long-awaited denouement of a shaggy dog story, the line that explains everything in a single word. It’s all about time, or rather patience. The true secret to success in investing and the factor that differentiates Buffett from all the others in a “time is money” culture is his conception of time, his patience.
It also serves as his explicit excuse for not contributing sooner to philanthropic causes. In his case it feels as if the patience he’s speaking about is infinite, possibly otherworldly, beyond human ken, maybe even the result of a divine ray that one day landed in Omaha. There is of course a more worldly explanation which he and his video biographers don’t bother to mention. It’s what every clever gambler knows. With sufficient resources and well-controlled emotion, an astute gambler can always manage things to be sure and come out ahead in the long stretch.
Buffett does, however, provide us with one supplementary clue, deepening the mystery. A clue that functions in the documentary a bit like Rosebud in Citizen Kane.
It’s compound interest. We’ll come back to that in a moment.
Polishing the brand
The real theme I wish to address in this article concerns neither Warren Buffett the man nor the secret of how he acquired what is clearly the most unassailable mega-fortune in this period of late capitalism, beating out even his old friend Bill Gates, the chief beneficiary of most of Buffett’s philanthropy. (If you think that sounds slightly incestuous, I would tend to agree).
So let’s concentrate not on the man or his secrets, but on the icon mentioned at the very beginning of this article and what it reveals about the current state of US culture. Buffett is of course in so many ways unique, but if Warren Buffett didn’t exist, US culture—to borrow Voltaire’s formula—might have to invent him. The image of Buffett the man projected in the film—the unassuming, taciturn, self-deprecating mega-billionaire—tells us more about the culture that has made him impossibly rich, without having to produce anything, than it does about the man himself or his business practices.
For the viewing population of the HBO documentary, Warren Buffett incarnates the self-made man of late capitalism, an avatar of the radical transformation, through the late 20th century, of 19th century industrial capitalism. What we have today is an entirely different beast that some call financialized capitalism. Once focused on the idea of the value of the means of production (capital goods), the concept at the heart of “capitalism” slowly morphed into a much vaguer concept, that of the theoretical asset value of an enterprise comprised largely of intangibles.
Psychology and the science of probability thus replaced the material value of capital goods and industrial processes as the major determinant of value. In that sense, it would even be fair to say that price definitively replaced value. The fundamentally abstract notion of a variable share price became the unique principle guiding a clever investor’s strategy, cancelling and replacing the former logic of industrial investment, which focused on the anticipated impact of an investment on productivity and capacity to service the marketplace.
The obvious result was the late 20th century’s enthronement of brand value. This became the key notion that steered Buffett’s investment decisions once he had gone beyond the cigar-butt strategy. Nothing illustrates this better than this quote from The Science and Art of Branding concerning Coca-Cola, a company in which Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway owns 400 million shares (roughly 9%): “A former Coca-Cola president once said that, if all the Coke properties were destroyed, he could assemble the worldwide financial support needed to put the company back together again based only on the fact that he held the rights to the Coca-Cola brand name—and the secret formula it represents.”
This also tells us that, contrary to classic capitalist logic as taught in our economics classes, Buffett is an investor who flees risk by refusing any investment that implies innovation and creating or developing a brand. Buffett seeks to leverage his brands, not launch them. Buffett bets on established brands, analyses them for underrated value and then invests to ride them to profit rather. He has no ambition to steer their strategy.
On occasion, he will step in to buttress what he sees as a neglected brand in order to milk profit from what he sees as a potential cash cow. This appears to be an extension of his cigar-butt strategy, which was premised on extracting residual value—one last puff—from an under-priced stock before discarding the investment by selling it off. The essential difference between Buffett 1.0 and Buffet 2.0 is that cigar butts weren’t brands. The previous smoker had already burnt through the label.
Self- made or self born?
The myth HBO attempts to perpetuate for the active consumption of its American audience is that Buffett is an American Everyman with a touch of mysterious genius. As he possesses no traditional professional skills and never seeks through his investments to create, innovate, modernize, transform, manage or produce, the comforting illusion exists that anyone who understands his methods can duplicate his success.
It isn’t exactly “rags to riches” in the Horatio Alger tradition. Warren’s father was himself an investor before going into politics, and therefore at ease with both money and power, though with an enviable reputation for not being tempted by either, a lesson his son certainly took to heart. We learn that young Warren, once out of school, started his investment activity with money supplied by members of his family. From there he followed the cigar butts to his initial level of fortune that was to lead to bigger and better things as time passed.
From self-made man, scion of a conservative Midwestern Republican family, Warren capitalized to the point of becoming the cultural icon his father could never aspire to be. Was this Warren’s goal? The myth requires that he achieved this status unwittingly, with no trace of ego, ambition or assertiveness. He was either predestined to be successful or discovered the philosopher’s stone of investment that set him apart from the rest of humanity.
The myth also requires that Buffett, the shy entrepreneur, attributes his success to everyone except himself, even though he and all his family repeatedly describe his behavior as that of a loner who lived in his own world and barely managed to communicate with his most intimate friends and family members. He thus embodies—in a peculiar, very nearly solipsistic form—the fundamental ideal of American individualism.
More than Frank Sinatra, who required the help of the Mafia, Buffett would be justified in chanting, “I did it my way.” Instead, at the end of the video we hear him singing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” as if he wanted us to think of him as the fragile Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz, fearing her own family while left to face the terror of a tornado coursing across those same Midwestern plains where the Buffett family has always resided.
Was it from Dorothy that Buffett received his eternal optimism? “Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue/and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”
Buffet’s public image took its final form under the influence of Susan, his first wife who, bored by money and wishing to reach out to the less fortunate, convinced him to abandon his father’s politics and switch his allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic Party. This transformed his image into that of a benevolent, essentially apolitical billionaire who is willing, on occasion, to speak out in favor of progressive causes or at least support his wife when she elects to do so.
Freud would undoubtedly have interpreted Warren’s conversion as an example of the implicit castration of the father and analyzed Warren’s success as his way of atoning for the crime. But no one, including his wife and children, claims to have had the slightest insight into Warren Buffett’s psyche. Howard Buffett inculcated in his children the doctrines of a virulently conservative Republican. At the dinner table, he taught them to regard President Franklin Roosevelt as a threat to the capitalist republic and to the true spirit of America.
At the same time, it would be fair to assume that Warren’s father effectively transferred his culture and experience of money (investment) and power (politics) to his son, who would later turn it into gold.
What we do learn from the documentary, and this is a key to understanding not just Warren Buffett but also modern American economic culture, is that young Warren, from a very early age, was fascinated by the dirty secret at the heart of the capitalist system: the notion of compound interest.
Compound interest is the result of mysterious interplay between money and time. Albert Einstein once remarked, “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.”
Like the related concept of depreciation, compound interest identifies an insurmountable existential gap between actual value in the real world and valuation in people’s or, why not, God’s mind. Buffett explicitly calls himself an agnostic, but there does appear to be one god he believes in. Compound interest marks the frontier between the real world and the mathematically determined world of fixing value or pricing. The young Warren seems to have identified with the world of mathematics that lies beyond material reality and in so many ways ends up contradicting it.
For example, Buffett once mused about the French king’s decision to commission the Mona Lisa in 1516. Jeremy C. Miller tells us that for Buffett, “the math works out to show that François’s $20,000 would be worth well over a $1 quadrillion if he’d only managed to invest it at a 6% annual rate instead.” Imagine how many wars France could have launched and won with that amount of money.
Had François I consulted Buffett and followed the man’s advice, the reality we live in today would no longer contain what for many people is a “priceless” work of art, drawing some to Paris just to see it. Even the $1 quadrillion, or simply the interest on it, wouldn’t be enough for president François Hollande to buy a painting that doesn’t exist to hang in the Louvre, since no one was willing to pay for its creation back in 1516. The implication of this can only be that, in the mind of Warren Buffett, cumulative wealth is a greater or at least more rational goal than artistic expression.
That may well be the final secret of Warren Buffett’s success. There can be little doubt that if, at the age of 86, he manages to save 56 cents on his McDonald’s breakfast half the days of the year (those days when the market is falling) and never spends the constantly accumulating and compounding amount he saves for several centuries, on that basis alone, without his holdings in Berkshire Hathaway, he will be very rich indeed, comfortably installed in his eternal, limpid mathematical universe.
This makes sense. As we have seen, Warren Buffet has always been intent on defying all time constraints, something he of course can afford to do and most other human mortals cannot.
The age of solidarity
The Democrat Buffett backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 and was clearly disappointed by her defeat. But the results of one election last only last four years and count for little in the eternity of compound interest. Warren, along with his sidekick Bill Gates have, at least for the time being, made a point of showing a stiff upper lip. While coming out publicly against the ban on immigration—a serious handicap for tech industries—they immediately sought out the silver lining of Trump’s election: “I am confident that America will move ahead,” Buffett proclaimed.” Gates stressed that “the desire for innovation and support for research are ‘strong’ and ‘largely bipartisan.’”
For both of them, optimism prevails.
Picking up the immigration issue, Buffett said the country had been “blessed” by immigrants, citing Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard, but Werner von Braun may also have been at the back of their minds. Refugees, not so much. Einstein and Szilard of course enabled the creation of the atomic bomb, apparently seen as an investment, despite its high price, with greater intrinsic value than the Mona Lisa.
“If it weren’t for those two immigrants, who knows if we would be sitting in this room,” Buffett said, without revealing where he thought they might be sitting if Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not been annihilated.
Jean Giraudoux dared to imagine in his play that the Trojan War might not take place, but by the end of the drama he had to allow history to run its determined course. Warren Buffett, along with Bill Gates and a few other mega-billionaires, despite apparent ideological differences, are happy to let things roll with Trump for the moment. In the age of the reign of billionaires, solidarity seems to be the watchword.
Buffett has already invested more than $12 billion in the stock market since Trump’s election. Some would call that a vote of confidence. It may simply be a case of his extreme patience, the waiting strategy of a man who thinks in terms of compounding his interest over centuries.
But as Bill Gates said, it’s still “a bit up in the air.” Billionaires will defend their interests. Especially their compound interests.
*This article was originally published by Fair Observer.