I have just moderated a conversation between my 18-year-old self, a consortium of global economic doomsayers and Warren Buffett.
This fascinating interaction took place between my two ears, prompted by a horrible nights’ sleep and an absurd Facebook post by some half-drunk wanker in England who posited that if Barack Obama is re-elected the world as we know it will end.
As I lay in the dark, thinking about what sort of brain would conjure up nonsense like that, I realized: “Mine, though not specifically something so intellectually or practically challenged, roughly 40 years ago.”
I rolled back time to 1971 or ‘2, nose to nose with a conservative judge at my cousin Marion’s 70th birthday party in New Jersey. Mouth deep in my first presidential campaign – George McGovern’s spirited loss – I was full of lofty liberal ideas sponged off the campaign trail. I was loaded for the debate – and, as it turned out – for the slaughter.
The guy ate my lunch, letting me espouse my theories and run off at the mouth until he set me straight with a verbal evisceration the likes of which I’ve not encountered since.
Quietly and dispassionately and with a great sense of both presence and prescience, he let me in on my ideological future.
He pointed out that I would live to remember and regret my comments of that fateful day, fueled as I was by “new ideas”, a deep commitment to anarchy and change and more than a few beers.
He informed me – not suggested – that I would grow more conservative in my views as life dragged me along. That I would gain perspective through experience, and that along the way developing a sense of context would lead me to challenge many of my core beliefs.
He said that the riches, challenges and anchors of life – kids, a home, a career – would conspire to inform and teach me, filling in the vast trenches of ignorance born of 18 years of life and a few fascinating college lectures.
He told me I would “look back on this conversation in 30 years or so” and laugh at myself.
Know what? He was right.
I realize now how foolish I must have sounded, how ripe for a verbal butt kicking I was.
And so, as I lie sleepless 40 years and 10,000 miles away from that fateful conversation, fuming over a Facebook posting written by someone desperately in need of a similar dressing down, my mind began to meander on one of its curious journeys. It fantasized and rolled, uncontrollably, seeking a powerful yet reasonable rejoinder.
I found myself envisioning a curious roundtable discussion between three disparate forces: a bunch of economic commentators, Warren Buffett – and me.
I’ve had the good fortune to spend a little time with the World’s Greatest Investor, though I’m sure Warren Buffett remembers me as clearly as he would recall the graduates of the Wharton Class of ’88 who spent an hour in his presence.
He owned the company I worked for. I had a chance to hang out with him a bit and chat. We learned that we both greatly admired our fathers and Ted Williams.
Why he and a nameless, faceless collective voice – envision NPR’s Nightly Business Report All–Stars? – would dominate my mind in such a dream-like state will forever be lost on me.
But at 1:18 a.m., thinking about the Facebook by our friend Lee who had “shared” a comment made by one of his friends about the US election, my tortured, sleep-deprived brain re-enacted this conversation that never happened:
Me: How could someone be so stupid as to think that any US president – Obama or otherwise – is the sole cause of global economic performance. Does this guy know about Congress and its role in passing laws and blockading Presidential Agendas? The derivative markets and Wall Street’s notorious shell game? What about the European debt crisis and Germany’s role in settling the problem? Has he been paying attention to China’s years of robust expansion, and the fact that the bloom now seems to be fading on that particular rose? I think he’s British, given the fact that in his post he spelled labor with a “u” in it and that his profile photo is of Wayne Rooney. Does that entitle him to spew his misguided opinions, unsupported by facts or figures?
Global Economic Doomsayers (GED) – The US sets the standard for the world’s economy. As the US goes, so goes Burundi. He’s probably just baiting you. Just watch: Next post he’s going to make reference to how wonderful the National Health Service is, just to rub your nose in this nasty Obamacare mess.
Buffett – This is part of a normal business cycle, and if you look at these trends over history you’ll see that the peaks and valleys of business performance tend to level off and produce very nice returns in the long term. And Obamacare is anything but a mess. It is in fact long overdue, and it’s about time the US government took a serious step to provide basic health care of its people.
Me – I’m worried that there are no jobs for college grads who as a result won’t be able to pay down their federal tuition loans. I fear for the generation of my peers who are “too old” to be employed and too young to retire, and whose 401(k) balances have been ravaged by the behavior of Wall Street’s greed mongers. I worry about competitive countries where policies don’t politicize this debate and where training is exclusively focused on the future. Estonia is teaching its grade school children basic computer programming, for crying out loud.
GED – See?
Me – No, I don’t see at all. Some pinhead is actually blaming Obama for the high price of gasoline and some fools are actually taking the bait. Anybody knows that gas is a global commodity whose price is set by the economics of supply and demand, OPEC and some guy’s mom at a bridge club in Spokane.
Buffett – I know I should have taken the Treasury Department job. If I had, John Boehner would never have gotten away with the debt crisis stalemate. Obama has absolutely nothing to do with the price of gasoline. Now, when it comes to jet fuel, that’s another matter entirely. Did you know that Air Force One travels with its own source of fuel wherever in the world the President flies? If he’d fly NetJets it could save taxpayers millions every year.
GED – You were a candidate for Secretary of Treasury?
Me – Hold on, you guys. I live in Cambodia, and I have Cambodian friends who follow the US election more closely than the majority of the voters in the US. They know that the stakes are high in this election and have high hopes for US to re-emerge as a world power. Otherwise, how will the US successfully oppose China’s attempts to annex the South China Sea? Without a stable global economic policy, how will McDonald’s ever get a franchise license in Cambodia?
Buffett – As a major investor in Coca Cola, I strongly endorse McDonald’s expansion worldwide.
GED – Is McDonald’s in China yet? I can’t imagine a Big Mac selling well next to monkey brains and sautéed cat. But enough about that. You mention China’s rise as an economic power, yet this massive nation of 1.3 billion people and 274 trillion bicycles still can’t make a decent steam iron.
Me – Tell me about it. I’m on my fourth iron in two years since moving to SouthEast Asia. If making quality hard goods is any measure of how serious an economic threat China is to the world, it’s like worrying about Guatemala dominating the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Buffett – China owns more of the US than I do, and if the Chinese ever initiate a margin call on our debt to them we’ll all be sending the majority of our taxes to Beijing for the foreseeable future. And hey…don’t rule out Guatemala…their medal count was up 100% at the 2012 games.
GED – US voters love to blame Wall Street, the government, Donald Trump and Justin Bieber for the economic collapse. So it only makes sense that the CEO of the country should take the fall for unemployment, declining home values and huge chunks of value gone from retirement funds.
Me – Just like holding the Republicans responsible for the financial mess Obama inherited as well as the cleanup from GW’s personal war? That tide of unrest rewarded the Tea Party and gave John Boehner the most power since he was on the board of trustees of Butler County, Ohio. Hell, he even led a movement to block a jobs bill that would have addressed his top complaint with the Obama administration by actually putting people back to work. By the way, Warren, Guatemala’s medal count is up 100% because they won their first-ever medal in history this year – in the 20-kilometer walk. I hardly view them as a threat to US global domination of gold medals.
Buffett – Wake up and smell the roses.
Me – You mean you disagree? You think I see this incorrectly, that somehow Obama really IS responsible for this mess, and that the country ought to REALLY give Mitt Romney a shot to figure out the economy, straighten out foreign relations and make a down payment on a country club membership in Bethesda?
Buffett – No, I mean wake up. Or, rather, get up. Since you’re obviously not going back to sleep, you might as well make a cup of coffee and blog about all of this. By the way, I still like Guatemala’s chances in Rio.