Nice Warren Buffet interview

I just read some great comments by Warren Buffet from a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton. Whatever your politics, you have to appreciate the thoughtful responses of the “Sage of Omaha,” so different from the usual political blather. Some tidbits, from notes taken at the event by Nick Nejad at Rational Angle:

Q: “Buffett, why are you a Democrat?”

A: I have what I call the minus 24 hour genie test. Imagine a genie poofed up 24 hours before you were born and asked you what kind of world you would want to live in. And you being the smart minus 24 hour baby would ask, “what’s the catch?” And the genie would respond that you would have to participate in the “ovarian lottery” and draw one of 6 billion tickets. Things such as born United States or Bangladesh; white, brown, or black; male or female; smart or dumb; these would all be completely up to chance. Well then, what kind of world would you create? And my [Buffett’s] world would be a society with equality that treated everyone fairly. And the Democrats seem to be better at doing that.

I like to think that, like a lot of people I know, I’m neither a Republican nor a Democrat, but someone who sees a middle road between the extremes that the two parties seem to pander to. I love Buffett’s characterization of the social ideal put forth by the Democrats, at the same time as I recognize the idea expressed by the most thoughtful Republicans that harnessing free market economics rather than government intervention may be the best way to reach that ideal. But harnessing the free market is very different from letting it run wild.

What I really want out of politics is for someone to do what they say they’ll do, and to have the results tested and evaluated, and changes made based on the results, just as any business has to do in order to succeed. And on that count, the Republicans have failed miserably. They call endlessly for smaller government (a really good idea), but the reality is the exact opposite: government spending (and our national debt) has seen its largest increases under Republican administrations. But the Democrats suffer from their own version of this failing. When a cherished program fails to achieve its promised results, they tend to throw more money at it and don’t hold anyone accountable. (Of course, so do the Republicans, just with different programs. Each party spoils some of their children while calling for tough love for the others.)

To riff off George Lakoff’s idea in Moral Politics that the two parties reflect different models of government as parent, we have a choice between an authoritarian parent who doesn’t follow his own rules, and an over-indulgent parent who doesn’t set enough limits. When will we get parents who steer a middle road between the two, supportive yet firm? (I loved Lakoff’s book right up till the end, when he threw away his brilliant analysis by saying that studies show that the nurturant mother model is better than the stern father model. Any successful parent knows that you need both!)

Speaking of parenting, Buffett said a few words about that too:

Q: What is the best way to get kids off to the right start?

A: The most important job is parenting, and there is no rewind. Imagine if you could get one car of your choice, and get it for nothing. But the catch is you only get one. Well you will do everything and take the best care of it, reading the car manual, garaging it, etc. You should have the same mentality with your kids.

Actually, there’s no rewind for anything in life. You only get one. So this is great advice for any situation. It reminds me of a line from a fabulous science-fiction book entitled The Last Dancer. The sentiment went something like this: “Most people say there’s nothing worth dying for. But what you do every day is what you’re dying for. Make it count.”

I also liked Buffett on subprime and derivatives:

Q: Your views on new products such as derivatives, SIVs, etc. ?

A: There’s utility in securitizations. But the problem is these have become complex and the originators and investors have been stretched so far in part in the whole process. “If you can’t make money off the things you do understand, how do you expect to make money off the things you don’t?”

This comment goes to the heart of some things I’ve been thinking about since the spring, when I wrote the Release 2.0 issue Web 2.0 and Wall Street, which we’ve just recently made available for free download. Web 2.0 and financial markets have a lot in common. Both are highly networked information markets driven by “collective intelligence”, with a lot of money at stake. But financial markets have been around a lot longer, and are much bigger and more mature, so I wondered if they might give us insight into possible futures for the Web 2.0 economy.

As we build collective intelligence applications, which are the heart of Web 2.0, we need to make sure that their inner workings remain open and transparent, or we may fall into the same trap that ended up bedeviling Wall Street in this past year, in which no one understood any longer just how the machine they’d built was going to perform, and the Golem was out of control.