Does Warren Buffett have a good soul?

Winter forces us to hide within modern caves.  Its bone-shattering cold and blankets of ice force us deep into dark places, nowhere to gaze but within ourselves.  Deep within there is supposedly an unchanging essence that defines us as unique entities.  Some call this essence a soul.  Is it real?  Is it eternal?  Can it be rewarded or punished or born again?  It’s hard to say because all of these claims are impossible to prove.  For the moment, let’s accept the idea of a deep essence, and call it our soul.

Saying someone is without a soul is normally a great insult, for it means they are evil, doing harm to others, without redemption.  Yet even by our religious standards we know this is wrong.  Everyone has a soul, and it’s that soul which is judged to be good, or evil.

As I sit here by the fire, watching another layer of snow blanket my yard, and sip on an extremely good IPA, my thoughts turn to a well-known tycoon.  This tycoon is Warren Buffett, whom many call the “oracle of Omaha,” but whom we will call simply, WB.  WB appears before me an a regular basis because of his popularity in the business media.  A recent Bloomberg article profiled one of his newest, and youngest, trusted advisors.  This advisor was making news because she’s only 29 years old.  She started working for WB at the ancient age of 25, and within four years already holds the Chairman position in several companies in the WB empire.  Her name is Cool.

Now Cool earned her way to this position, and has worked an extremely hard and focused life.  Under her guidance weak managers have been replaced and companies that would have been ignored or jettisoned are now being properly attended to within the WB empire.  The article quotes WB saying certain companies wouldn’t have been bought if it wasn’t for Cool.  The WB empire is now comprised of many dozens of companies with a total annual revenue of 160 billion dollars.  Almost any way you look at it, this is a large company.

But I’m not here to discuss the business empire; we are all here to study behavior.  The behavior of large groups are normally most meaningful, but we can learn something by taking out the microscope and putting the occasional individual on the slide.

What kind of person is obsessed to the extreme with accumulating wealth, building an empire, and growing only for the sake of growth?  If this person was a cell in our body, we’d be worried.  As a member of society, we laud them as leaders and brilliant meta-managers, even calling them “wealth creators” from time to time.

As we adjust the microscope’s focus it’s doubtful WB or Cool are any of these.  They are opular, but of value to society?  A proper evaluation would require an article for another day.  For now, we want to see if we can zoom in on their soul and describe it.

The soul of WB is bent on conquest, is insatiable, and highly focused.  His wealth allows him all his allotted hours to spend with his children and grandchildren.  Yet he chooses to spend time with business associates instead.  He’s near death, and every moment becomes more precious than the last.

Meanwhile, Cool has been popularly blessed with riches, power, and publicity.  This seeming blessing may be a curse, for it puts her on course to value board meetings over board games with her future children.  Even if she chooses to start a family, there’s a good chance she’ll have her children later in life, and fewer in number.  The amount of time she’ll spend with them will be less than average, and there’s a better chance their values wil be heavily influenced by material goods, superficial relationships, and an obsession with accumulating wealth.

Remember that this site strives to be impartial observers of behavior, of human nature, and unbiased scientists as much as possible.  The above observations and expectations are grounded in evidence, precedence, and experience.  They are not meant to be judgements; for there is no good or bad delineation here.  WB is ambitious, and Cool is his protege.  These are given.  What we want to address is their essence.  Deep inside, once all the trappings of society, technology, and the superficial layers of skin and time are removed, what is it that is left?

Not surprisingly, we are left with a soul reeking of ambition, a soul without empathy, and a soul unconnected to the rest of us.  These souls are rooted in the present, solidly looking to their immediate left and right.  These souls choose to ignore the past as irrelevant to their existence.  They choose to ignore the future they could do so much to create.  And they choose to ignore the other souls around them, not only those of their family, but of their fellow humans as well.

As souls go, these are exceptional qualities, but not uncommon.  Installed in a lesser vessel, souls such as these become psychopaths, embittered divorcees, or worse.  But placed in a healthy body with an extraordinary mind, coupled with a charismatic persona and then given a push by an unpredictable universe, this type of soul has been known to stamp great slices of history with their name.

The greatest of these souls was Alexander the Great of Macedon.  When he began his career he was younger than WB, even younger than Cool.  He charmed both his army and even the conquered across the known world.  2,350 years ago, this 20 year old sought nothing less than world domination.  He would have achieved it as well, but for an errant arrow he met somewhere in today’s India.  Part of his charm was that he led his men into battle, being right up front where they knew he was working as hard as they were, taking the same risks.  Had that unlucky archer known, he would have missed Alexander.  Had he missed, his city would have been conquered, an older Greek soldier would have become his Governor, and life would have continued under a new master.

As it was, this archer may have smiled for a moment as he watched the dreaded Alexander fall from his wound.  What he didn’t see coming was the power of the soul within Alexander, a soul that had bound his legions both in duty and love.  That archer awoke the monster of vengeance within the army, and not a single soul was left alive.  There was no life to continue under any master, and that city was lost, known to us only as Alexander’s farthest reach East.

And what does the soul of Alexander, one of our greatest military leaders have in common with WB?  They are the same.  Nothing could stop Alexander or his army, errant arrows included.  WB has not stopped his quest for growth.  Which sounds more impressive?  Owning a large portion of a holding company whose portfolio includes companies with a combined annual revenue of 160 billion dollars? Or conquering the world from the Mediterranean to India?  There is no city named after today’s tycoon, WB.  Alexander founded at least 30, many of which still survive, and at least one still bears his name.

So what of the soul of WB?  Is it good, or evil?  Would he have been an Alexander if he’d been born 2,300 years ago?  Is what he is doing good for humanity?  These are all questions for another day.

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Doctor King is dead … Long live the King

Yes, today, the 15th of January, is his birthday, and Doctor King is still dead.

Because we’re a nation of convenience, and not slaves to detail, we’ll “celebrate” his birth on the 20th.  Because that’s a Monday.  Because it’s more convenient to have a 3 day weekend than to take a break in the middle of the week.

And that’s the exact opposite of what Doctor Martin Luther King Junior was all about.  He wasn’t about taking anything easy.  He didn’t believe in taking short cuts, or doing something because it felt better that way.

Everything I’ve learned about the man says that he was a fighter; he fought against injustice every step, every day, in every way that he could.  His weapons were the most formidable: Christianity, non-violence, his mind, and the ultimate weapon, love.

I was still a child when he died, too young to see him as great.  His stature has only grown, but his words weren’t so easily accessible during my youth.  Recently, as I researched a book on hate, I came across a collection of his sermons entitled “strength to love.”

Perhaps you have read it already.  In which case you already know how stirring his words remain, how thoughtful his ideas, and how penetrating his passion.

If you haven’t, please rush out and find a copy.  I’ll quote a couple of short passage to give an idea as to what you’re missing. [1]

Let us consider, first, the need for a tough mind, characterized by incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgement.  The tough mind is sharp and penetrating, breaking through the crust of legends and myths and sifting the true from the false.  The tough-minded individual is astute and discerning.  He has a strong, austere quality that makes for firmness of purpose and solidness of commitment.”

But we must not stop with the cultivation of a tough mind.  The gospel also demands a tender heart.  Tough mindedness without tenderheartedness is cold and detached, leaving one’s life in a perpetual winter devoid of the warmth of spring and the gentle heat of summer.  What is more tragic than to see a person who has risen to the heights of tough mindedness but has at the same time sunk to the passionless depths of hardheartedness?

His words still resonate strongly, perhaps more strongly than ever.  For Doctor King, the struggles of the Cold War and skin-based segregation were the greatest evils imaginable.  Yet today, we have the creeping cancers of inequality of wealth, education, and desire for knowledge.  Dogma and diversion have replaced Ideals and Morality.  We have become complacent, drugged on our music and webby friends.

How would Doctor King fight the evils of today?  How would his tough mind and tender heart lead us through this latest tussle with evil?  I don’t know.  I am attempting to continue his work through writing like this, without measurable success.  He does warn against the evils that we see today, saying “A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.” [2]  And it appears that we have softer minds than ever before.

So please, celebrate Doctor King’s birthday by honoring his memory; not only today, but as often as possible.  Yes, the King is dead; but Long Live the King!

 

 

[1]  These passages are from “strength to love” by Martin Luther King, Jr., published by Fortress Press in 2010.  The paragraphs quoted here are from pages 2 and 5, with each being the first paragraph leading sections 1 and 2 of his sermon.  The title of the sermon is “A tough mind and a tender heart” and not only serves to show what a wonderful writing this is, but could also be considered autobiographical.

[2]  Same book, same sermon, at the end of section 1.

 

Selling our Childhood to the highest bidder

Is it only me?  Or does anyone else out there get the sense that childhood, in general, is being coopted by corporate capitalists?

Not being big on the whole sit and watch TV for hours on end crowd, I only catch up on the popular shows when our daughter insists on watching something she knows we’ll like.  She does know us, and she does have great taste.

So we’re watching the chef known for swearing, Gordon someone, managing a reality – elimination show with kids.  The children are cooking at a professional level, and that, I confess, was very exciting.  These kids were amazing, and the foods they prepared were all scrumptious.  The kids weren’t the problem.

The problem was that the three professional chefs running the contest were being very nice, well behaved, and treating the kids politely.  But in the end, they were teaching the kids to be extremely competitive, to fear elimination for trying something extraordinary, and worst of all, teaching them how to try and eliminate each other.  The most hurtful moment for me was when Chef Gordon sits with a little girl in the balcony, asking her about her strategy, and she confesses that she keeps her friends close, but her enemies closer.

I’m not faulting Chef Gordon.  Chances are he really is a nice guy and the whole swearing thing is an act.  He may actually be a decent chef.  But he’s part of an industry that uses childhood as a resource, a resource that he is able to turn into money.  Yes, the winner got $100,000, but Chef Gordon probably earns a million from the show.  And each child, even the winner, has been subjected to forces they would otherwise have been protected from.  Do we know if those forces make them better people in the long run?

Forces you say?  What forces?

Who among you think that any of these kids saw the ads (targeting them, no doubt) asking for contestants, and said “I want to do this.”?  There may have been a few, but I’m confident that most of the ambition comes from their parent, or parents.  What kid of 8 to 13 is interested in making a hundred grand?  Typically they’ll settle for a ten, or ask for a quadrillion.

And how many of you know of parents who go crazy on their kids at sporting events?  Or go crazy on the referees or coaches? Or upon their teachers in school?  These are the same parents who only want the best for their little darlings, but heaven help the adult who gets in the way of their dreams of success.  And how do you succeed?  Any way you can.  And this is what they teach their kids.  Scheming, devious friendships, shallow relationships, and the importance of today’s reward.  There is no more great moral code, and there is no pride in yourself for only being yourself – your success will be measured by your wallet, and by the number of your online friends.

Again, it’s not the chef’s fault.  In fact, we can find suspects as far back as the mid 1900s when Walt Disney combined his film franchise (targeting youth) with an amusement part (again, targeting youth) and tried to encapsulate the entire experience of childhood.

So what should a childhood look like?  I look forward to your comments!