The US media uncritically celebrate the wealthy and suppose that their every thought may be a pearl of wisdom. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains.
Interviewed in the wake of the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting by journalist Andy Serwer of Yahoo Finance, Warren Buffett’s alter ego and fellow billionaire Charlie Munger shared his enlightened view of US history and the people that made it. Not the people who populated the continent for millennia — absent from history — but those who turned it into a capitalist paradise in the space of a few centuries. This is one example of how US culture doesn’t so much explain away its more ignoble past as erase it from memory.
Munger agrees with President Donald Trump on immigration. It’s generally a bad thing because “very few people want unlimited immigration of a different culture,” he said. Munger doesn’t bother to wonder whether the native tribes in the 17th century may have had similar feelings. And why should he, if he assumes that they didn’t exist? When the interviewer reminds Munger that the US economy was molded into its current form by immigrants, he explains: “We made it work in America, but we had a vacant continent to work on. That was easy. Vacant and rich in oil and minerals. Wonderful soil.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Land unclaimed as property and, therefore, claimable by those who view all land as property, meaning any land not claimed by those who simply occupy it is ripe for the taking
The interview reveals some of the stereotypes the US media accepts uncritically, especially when expressed by someone as financially successful as Munger. The vacant continent Munger describes reminds us of the phrase often attributed to Zionists but, in fact, “coined and propagated by nineteenth-century Christian writers” concerning Palestine: “A Land without a People for a People without a Land.”
Western racism, based on that very premise, permitted the multi-century genocide that made North America appear vacant and ready for the taking. A nation can be made “to work” as a nation, when white Europeans take control. For Charlie Munger, US history starts with a radical form of racism, which is now a fixed part of the culture and a defining trait of its history.
His second lesson concerns the Manichean view of society that establishes a moral system based on the unique criterion of success. When Serwer expresses his admiration for the Berkshire spirit, Munger elucidates: “Both the shareholders and the employees of Berkshire are so extremely enthusiastic … They think they’re on the right side.” He doesn’t bother to explain what the side is or why it’s right, but the message is clear: It’s all about financial success.
In an odd moment of intellectual honesty, Munger surprises his interviewer with this appreciation: “It’s like a cult.” Serwer is taken aback, because cults generally have a poor reputation. After a moment of hesitation, he timidly suggests, “in a good way, though.” Munger agrees: “Yes, a good cult.” Munger, the shareholders and employees are not only on the “right side” of the implied moral system, but even in their cultish excesses they are “good.”
Serwer then focuses on the speeches at the annual meeting, mentioning that “a lot of it is common sense.” Munger corrects him: “All of it is common sense.” Then he makes a subtle distinction, indicating that what they do is “uncommon sense,” since anything that is common must be vile. “The standard human condition is ignorance and stupidity,” he explains. The moral of the story: In the land of equality, the successful and wealthy possess uncommon sense while the vast majority of the population is ignorant and stupid. That’s how oligarchies justify themselves.
When Serwer asks what the notion of uncommon sense implies in practical terms, Munger replies: “You take advantage of other people. You improve your own life by eliminating their miscognitions.” Munger likes this word and repeats it several times. Has he been studying Jacques Lacan’s system of thought? Probably not. More likely, it’s just an example of his own miscognition. When you spend so much time and energy taking advantage of other people, you have little time to study the subtleties of Lacan’s psychanalysis. The moral of the story (hardly different from Gordon Gekko’s): Life can be improved when you take advantage of others. “Greed is good.”
Serwer then raises the much talked-about issue of wealth and income inequality. For Munger, like the pre-Columbian population, it simply doesn’t exist. “It’s a problem when enough politicians are screaming about it, that makes it a problem.” He claims that once politicians stop talking about it, “it will go away by itself.” He summarily informs us that “the people who are screaming about it are idiots.”
Asked about specific screaming politicians, despite his appreciation for Senator Elizabeth Warren’s manner, he believes she hasn’t studied Adam Smith enough. As for Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he’s convinced that she doesn’t know “who Adam Smith was.” But does Munger know his Smith or is he just repeating the myths he learned at school 80 years ago?
Contrary to his values, The Wealth of Nations teaches the attentive reader that “Smith’s system … precluded steep inequalities … by virtue of the design that aimed to maximize wealth.” More importantly — and this, for Buffett and Munger, would be pure heresy — “profits should be low and labor wages high, legislation in favor of the worker is ‘always just and equitable,’ land should be distributed widely and evenly, inheritance laws should partition fortune.” Clearly Munger hasn’t studied Smith enough to know that he shouldn’t be recommending him.
Historical and cultural note
Let’s try to sum up what Munger’s wisdom tells us about US history and its political and economic belief system as it exists today.
There are two classes of people: the smart and the stupid, or the wealthy (the oligarchs) and the struggling (everyone else). The stupid are content with “common sense,” but the smart have uncommon sense, which allows them to take advantage of the stupid. The criterion for intelligence is an economic treatise written in the 18th century, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. What’s important is not to have read it, but to have understood its very simple message: Free markets are good, government is inefficient and wealth inequality not only is never a problem, but should be considered a blessing. Adam Smith himself wouldn’t have agreed with that assessment, but that is probably because he died before the potential of casino capitalism could flower.
There is yet another class division to be respected, between people of European extraction and immigrants “of a different culture.” The first should be free within our borders and take care of business (even the business of foreign lands), but the second should stay on their side of the border.
Once people understand all these things, as spoken by the respected associate of the Oracle of Omaha, they too will be able to feel that they are on the right side of history and may even be tempted to join the cult.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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