Warren Buffett used his ability to make money to put himself in the limelight, but never required the limelight to make money.
For many people, Warren Buffett crystallizes the meaning of the American Dream. He’s a serious, folksy, humble guy and a self-made man, who has accumulated and given away more wealth than just about anyone in human history. People buy books and subscribe to training programs to learn how to think, act and invest like Warren Buffett.
At this year’s Berkshire annual meeting, responding to an appeal to politically responsible investment strategies, Buffett explained what only a man with his wisdom could explain: “I do not believe in imposing my political opinions on the activities of our businesses. I think if you get into what businesses are pure and which are not pure, it is very difficult to make that call.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Pure (in the world of finance):
Dangerously suspect and to be avoided since strictly adhering to moral principles or social values is likely to hinder the ability to maximize profits
Buffett is the top expert in the most important skill associated with the American Dream: making money. He understands that the other things people are often concerned about — politics, the social order, public morality — are possible distractions from his mission as an investor, which consists of finding ways to profit from what other people do.
Making money is important in US culture for two reasons. The first is obvious: Money is necessary for survival, security and the comfort that the race of Europeans who conquered the continent deserves for its trouble. The second is more subtle: Monetary success, in the Calvinist tradition, is the sign of the grace of God. If God has elected someone to be successful, it doesn’t matter what they do in their life since their success has been predestined. Consequently, mundane considerations of public morality should not be allowed to disturb their path to greater and greater success.
Everyone knows that at the early foundations of American culture were laid by the New England Puritans, though some historians, such as Major Danny Sjursen, have pointed out the first settlers were the capitalists of Virginia, keen on making money by exporting addictive tobacco back to England.
Sjursen recounts the true origins of the English colonization of America. “[T]he corporate-backed expedition—by the Virginia Joint Stock Company—sought treasure (think gold), to find a northwest passage to India, and balance the rival Catholic Spaniards. But, first and foremost, they pursued profit.”
The Puritans, on the other hand, earned their name by insisting on purity, though their actions, as they progressively cleared the Native Americans from the land they felt to be their required Lebensraum, cannot be described as exceedingly pure by anyone’s moral standards, other than their own.
If we take the Puritan model as the basis of American values, Buffett is clearly going against the grain of a major meme in US culture. The Puritans defined themselves by insisting on purity or an absolute commitment to a single set of moral ideals and ideas, linked of course, in the Calvinist economy, to predestination. They provided the model of the idea that wealth was the main KPI (key performance indicator) of God’s grace.
The Virginians supplied the other half of the logic of US culture: not wasting time and getting down to the business of making a profit. Buffett has inherited both traditions and fulfills their promise: He is dedicated to making a profit and is committed to a philosophy that says the more money he makes, the godlier his actions will appear to be.
Like the Puritans themselves, Warren Buffett can conveniently dismiss the moral critique of his investments because they are potential obstacles to the fulfilment of his mission.
One can’t help but notice the eerily similar, but strongly contrasting case of Donald Trump. Buffett, whose father was a small time businessman and then a politician, became a celebrity by growing excessively wealthy through his talent for investing in the stock market. For generations of adepts of the American Dream, Buffett became the ultimate shining beacon of investing wisdom.
Trump, whose father was a real estate mogul, became rich by promoting himself as a celebrity, first through well-publicized real estate transactions, then through a reality TV show and finally as a politician. He used his position in the limelight to attract money. Buffett used his ability to make money to put himself in the limelight, but never required the limelight to make money.
Finally, if many Americans do see Buffett as the incarnation of the American Dream, more and more see Trump as the incarnation of the American Nightmare.
*[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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