Is Warren Buffett a Terrible Person?

Michael Lewis on Warren Buffett in the new New Republic:


Finally, and most critically, [biographer Alice] Schroeder stresses Buffett's obsession with money, which he famously views less as a unit of exchange than a store of value. Kay Graham once asked him for a dime to make a phone call and Buffett, finding only a quarter in his pocket, went off to make change. In telling the tale of Buffett's rise, Schroeder returns over and over to his pathological stinginess. As rich as Buffett became, he never stopped measuring himself by how much money he had. He tells Schroeder that he pretty much measures his whole life by Berkshire Hathaway's book value, and the reader can't help wondering if that is ultimately how he measures other people, too. "He was preoccupied with money," Schroeder remarks. "He wanted to amass a lot of it, and saw it as a competitive game. If asked to give up some of his money, Warren responded like a dog fiercely guarding its bone, or even as though he had been attacked. His struggle to let go of the smallest amounts of money was so apparent that it was as if the money possessed him, rather than the other way around."

But isn't this anecdote missing something?

I find it hard to consider Buffett's relationship with money in isolation from the most interesting fact of his recent life: His decision to give his entire fortune -- well, 83% -- to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (There is one sentence in the Lewis piece devoted to the gift.) That suggests to me not someone obsessed not at all with money, just wildly obsessed with earning. That is, I think, a perfectly respectable philosophy.

I was looking around for some old Buffett quotes to elucidate that philosophy and I found this one:

I don't have a problem with guilt about money. The way I see it is that my money represents an enormous number of claim checks on society. It's like I have these little pieces of paper that I can turn into consumption. If I wanted to, I could hire 10,000 people to do nothing but paint my picture every day for the rest of my life. And the GNP would go up. But the utility of the product would be zilch, and I would be keeping those 10,000 people from doing AIDS research, or teaching, or nursing. I don't do that though. I don't use very many of those claim checks. There's nothing material I want very much. And I'm going to give virtually all of those claim checks to charity when my wife and I die.





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Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. More

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism, an economics blog that was recently published in book form by Simon and Schuster. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. He is also on Twitter.

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