Interview with Warren Buffett
Talking about the joys of making billions and giving it away -- and why the kids shouldn't get it
KENNETH WHYTE | October 15, 2007 |
Nebraska's Warren Buffett is known as the Oracle of Omaha for the savvy stock market investments that have made him one the wealthiest people in the world. Through his holding company Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett, 77, has amassed a fortune investing in companies like Coca-Cola, famously shunning trendy, riskier bets like Internet and technology companies. His success has earned him a near cult-like following, evident each year at Berkshire's hugely popular Omaha shareholders' meeting, which Buffett once called Woodstock for Capitalists. But for all his riches, Buffett is equally well-known for his frugal and folksy ways, and lately for his philanthropy. In 2006 he said he would give away 85 per cent of his roughly $50-billion fortune, with the bulk going to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in annual instalments that Buffett insists be distributed in the year they are received. His sister Doris is also involved in philanthopy and runs the Sunshine Lady Foundation, which often deals with personal entreaties for aid that Buffett receives. For Macleans.ca Buffett backgrounder click here.
Last year you made your big announcement about giving away all your money. Is that decision sitting well with you or do you ever wake up in the night and think, "What have I done?"
No, I sleep like a baby. It's worked out perfectly for me. It's exactly what I wanted to do in terms of where the money goes, it's the people I want to have making the decisions, it fits well with what I want for Berkshire Hathaway, so I wouldn't change an item in it.
You gave the money to five foundations, the largest amount going to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but was there ever a Plan B? I heard you muse once that you could afford to hire 10,000 artists to paint your picture every day for the rest of your life. You were joking, of course, but was there ever something else you had in mind?
No. I originally thought that my wife would outlive me, she was younger than I was, and women live longer than men and all of that, so I thought that was likely, and in that case she actually would have made the decision. I mean, the money would have gone to what was then called the Buffett Foundation -- now called the Susan Buffett Foundation -- so she would really have been in charge of the disposition. But when she died first, I had to make the decision. She loved giving away money, and she was good at it, and she was wise about people, so I had no worries at all about how she would have carried it out, but instead I had to carry it out, so there was no Plan B once she died first.
You decided you didn't want to leave it all to your kids. You have a line about that?
Yeah, I want to leave them enough so they can do anything but not enough so they can do nothing.
Right, a wonderful line, but what brought you to that determination? Was it your observation of what happened to other people's children?
I don't believe it's right for society. I also don't think it's a good thing for the kids. But that's a secondary thing. I mean, I've been ungodly blessed, you know, I just happened to be born at the right time in the right place. I tell people if I'd been born a few thousand years ago I would have been some animal's lunch, because I can't run very fast or jump very high. Or if I'd been born in Bangladesh or some place things would have been different for me. So what I've acquired has been, to an enormous degree, the product of a society that's a huge capitalist society, and I was born into it at the right time, and I get these disproportionate material rewards in respect to my contribution. There's all kinds of people who are just as good citizens as I am, they go over and serve in Iraq, they help in their communities, but I happen to be in something that just pays off like crazy and I get everything I want in life, and the idea that that money shouldn't go back to society but instead should go to a few people based on the fact that they came from the right womb strikes me as crazy. I mean, I do not believe in the divine right of the womb!
Okay, but do you also think it's damaging to leave children all that money?
Well, I think it can be -- I mean, you see all kinds of different results on it -- but in the end my kids have had every opportunity in the world. I'm going to leave them a fair amount of money, and I've given them a fair amount of money, but nothing compared to what I have -- so they've had the advantages of a good education, on average they're a little lucky on genes, they're in the right country at the right time, so they have all kinds of advantages. And in addition, like I said, I've given them some money and I'll give them some more, but the idea that they should be just showered with money, where they can command the resources of society in a huge way forever, just strikes me as totally inappropriate, and I think it's bad for the society. I've used this illustration that, if we were to pick our United States Olympic team based on the eldest son and the eldest daughter of those who represented us in all the events 24 years ago, we would think that was asinine, but to hand the resources of society, and the resources to command the labour of society and the materials of society, to a bunch of people simply because they happen to have the right last name strikes me as just as foolish in terms of how you manage a society as it would be to pick an Olympic team. The United States will compete in this world, and we believe in equality of opportunity. Well, how can you have equality of opportunity when you hand somebody billions of dollars just because they came out of the right womb?