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11/4/09

Warren Buffett, Colanders, and Cookie Sheets

For $34 billion Warren Buffett bought up Burlington Northern Santa Fe. The railroad is a major coal carrier and Buffett foresees an increased demand for that form of energy. Apparently, severely reduced carbon dioxide emissions are not in his crystal ball. In the short term he is probably a good soothsayer, but in the long term--by mid-century--drastically decreased water supplies due to global warming will have caused nations and their politicians to have acted because of overwhelming refugee masses and perhaps destabilized governments. They will find themselves in an emergency to severely reduce consumption of coal and other emitters. Many very respected experts say that by then the planet will have passed the point of no return. Buffet reminds me of one definition of a cynic: somebody who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

For all that, he is an interesting character. He has a humble and plain-folks personality, although in him is a fierce competitiveness and desire to be top-dog. He is a man of contradictions.

Many tales have been told about the Wizard of Omaha, one of the world's richest people. One I like describes how he routinely took an elderly aunt, I think, to a hamburger joint for their regular meal together. He likes spaghetti, cheese hamburgers, and meat and potatoes, but has little use for exotic cuisine. Now, a biography is out, and it provides anecdotes as well as a psychological understanding of Buffet. Here is a review of the book, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life By Alice Schroeder:

"Kind, but absent as a parent, Warren Buffet was used to the attention of his first wife as a 'sort of a single mother. . . . [and was] so undomesticated that once, when she was nauseous and asked him to bring her a basin, he came back with a colander. She pointed out that it had holes; he rattled around the kitchen and returned triumphantly bearing the colander on a cookie sheet. After that she knew he was hopeless. . . .

Here is one of the odd things about the man whom Schroeder describes: the plain facts of his young character assemble themselves into something like a portrait of a universal loser--and yet right from the start Buffett himself seems to have been able to believe that the universe was wrong and he was right. . . . In the most important social departments, he started out well behind his classmates and, as he puts it, 'I never caught up, basically.' He had terrible social anxieties and, right up until the time he married, at the age of twenty-one, a special lack of talent with girls. . . . As a man he would reserve his harshest criticism for those who lied or cheated or stole, but as a boy he shoplifted pathologically--not because he wanted a particular thing, but simply for the pleasure of stealing. . . . Buffett did well in only one class, typing. . . .

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. " More

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