NEW YORK (
Dear Warren Buffett:
From your capitalist throne as CEO of
, you've been a benevolent emperor.
Yet while you may be known as the Oracle of Omaha for your shrewd market bets and economic wisdom, sometimes it's hard to divine the real reasons behind your calculating use of the media.
On Wednesday, you were nice enough to send a thank you note to Uncle Sam for saving the economy back in 2008. Of course, it took two years for the note to arrive. You said in the note that you'd been "remiss" in not sending the thank you note to Uncle Sam sooner. Searching for the perfect piece of stationary?
Of course, when you finally decided to send the note -- no doubt affixed to the top of a box of chocolates from Berkshire Hathaway's
-- you didn't actually send the note to Uncle Sam. You sent it to the
New York Times
, and then set out on the usual round of television interviews. In fact, I don't mean to be impolite, but it was somewhat disappointing that your appearance on
on Wednesday morning was a phoner, as it blew another chance for us to see you chatting up America from inside a Burlington Northern railroad dining car.
And Warren, just one question: If you wanted to thank Uncle Sam, why the
New York Times
venue? I'm sure you have the address of the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department. Heck, you probably even have Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner's phone numbers. It's no surprise that you'd give Hank Paulson some props, as it wasn't too long ago that you actually served as moderator of a Q&A with Paulson as he shilled copies of his book on the financial crisis.
You also picked a nice moment to thank Uncle Sam. What with the markets clearly descending into panic mode this week -- and the worst of the fears leading to all three major market indexes sinking on Tuesday -- it was about time for your calming voice to once again fill the sanity void and tell investors to keep buying stocks, which you told them to keep doing, once your
New York Times
letter led to the CNBC interview.
What with major debate on QE2, tax policy, and more generally, an assault on government spending, a skeptic might look upon a thank you note sent to Uncle Sam as a less than spontaneous idea from a man invested to the hilt in the markets. With the Republicans set to overtake Congress, and pesky issues like financial reform and that derivatives portion of the bill due for another round of scrutiny, it might be nice to have some friends on Capitol Hill, wouldn't it? But of course, it's more likely that you just woke up one morning this week from an anxious dream in which your mother was asking, "Warren, have you still not sent that note to Uncle Sam thanking him for the bailout?" and there's no more to it.
Of course, you made sure in thanking Uncle Sam to have some harsh words for the government -- or at least as harsh an assessment as a benevolent emperor is capable of offering, calling the government "wasteful" and "maddening" and chiding Congress for its posturing and squabbling when a firm hand was need during the economic meltdown. You even noted that you never voted for W. And you chose the New York Times Op-Ed page over the
Wall Street Journal
, all of which might lead one to conclude that you were far from currying favor with the new power structure in Washington.
Except, of course, for the fact that all of that could just be read as more subtle massaging of what you really want. Shortly after you told
that QE2 was probably a bad idea, and that even if not a radioactive policy, it would have the effect of weakening the dollar, the four top Republican leaders wrote a letter to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke expressing "grave concerns" about QE2, and citing uncertainty about the strength of the dollar. The Fed said on Wednesday that it's going ahead with the full $600 billion Treasury purchase anyway, so that can't be the reason that you suddenly decided a thank you note to Uncle Sam was necessary.
You gave high marks to the economic stimulus and the government actors who made it happen, and who, "grasped the gravity of the situation and acted with courage and dispatch." You mentioned "a "fog of war" and "troops" within the government deserving of commendation, and a government "counterattack" that only Uncle Sam could deliver.
I, for one, am ready for the movie. In the least, are you warming up to write a historical best-seller, because your language sure sounds like that "The Greatest Generation" and "Band of Brothers" bent of lyrical heroism that marches straight up the non-fiction list. Your philosophy does always seems to reference
America the Great
, and it often seems backward-looking, even though you were bold enough to make the call in Wednesday's round of media appearances that
America the Great: the Economy Edition
, will be much stronger four or five years from now. That's going out on a limb.
Could there be any other reasons for all your suddenly humble worship of Uncle Sam's firm hand? Is it just that right now the new Republican power grab has emboldened descendents of the Founding Fathers to talk about getting back to Jefferson's "the best government is the government that governs least" approach? You can't have heroic economic stimulus, or even the type of de facto stimulus by way of regular government spending that you mentioned on Wednesday morning, if the Congress is hell-bent on cutting off the spigot.
You've got to play both sides of the divide in Washington, don't you, Warren? While thanking Ben Bernanke for his courageous leadership in the letter and then chiding him for a dubious QE2 policy on TV, you can't forget that the longer the Fed takes to rule on Goldman Sachs' plan to pay you back the $5 billion borrowed from Berkshire Hathaway, the more money you make -- $15 a second, according to estimates.
Of course, no one really thinks you'd be cozying up to Uncle Sam through your lovely thank you note just to get regulators to hem and haw over Goldman's payback schedule. For one, when you were using the media to defend Goldman Sachs during the Abacus fraud case, you said that Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein was like the brother you never had. Unless it's a Cain and Abel dynamic, it would be ridiculous to think you'd be out to bleed Goldman. It is sometimes frustrating, though, that for all the Omaha folksy wisdom, your tentacles touch so many aspects of the markets that nothing you say can ever be taken at face value. You're like the "friendly squid wrapped around the face of the markets," and the media squirts ink with every one of your doting words.
Anyway, you don't need me to tell you that the usual critics will come out to rebut your latest message. The media is never remiss in saying that Buffett isn't being straight with us, or at least, Buffett's got something up his sleeve and Becky Quick just can't see it because the television lights are too blinding. Just say the word "derivatives" and a counterattack by troops you might like to flick off like fleas will launch invectives in the direction of Omaha.
In fact, the usual "Warren Buffett speaks and the public reacts in a knee-jerk fashion" scientific law played out on Wednesday.
"Why didn't Warren Buffett thank the American taxpayer, who funded the bailout in the first place?"
"How can Buffett send a thank-you note to the government when many Americans are still bailing water and without jobs while he and his bailout cronies keep their billions?"
"Just like Warren, thanking the government for a bailout that saved the butts of not just the companies in which he was invested, but the financial elite status quo, of which he is at the pinnacle."
A lot of nattering nabobs of negativity, nothing more, and wouldn't you know it, the markets did seem to settle down a little on Thursday, too -- no doubt just a coincidence, though you do seem to have a calming influence when market schizophrenia seems the appropriate diagnosis.
So I guess you've got to keep writing your letters. Might I at least be so bold as to say that you might consider getting an annual planner so you can remember to be polite before two years pass? For Pete's sake! For your mother's sake (as you noted in your missive). You don't want to again have to feel so gosh darn awful about taking so long to write the government.
Warren, I don't really know what to say that hasn't been said already. You mentioned in your note to Uncle Sam that everything turned to "pumpkins and mice" overnight during the meltdown. Sometimes it seems easiest to allow your appearances in the media -- like a capitalist Cinderella arriving to the ball and turning heads -- to play out like a fairy tale.
Yet you've just got too much on the line to believe that really, in the end, you only want a happy ending for each and every peasant.
I hate to say it, but often you are "wasteful" in your use of the media, and sometimes you are quietly "bullying" in your gentle words. On occasion, your lack of acknowledgment of the rampant conflicts of interest inherent in your media appearances is downright "maddening."
But I know, I know, you just felt the need to say thank you after two years. Your letter to Uncle Sam was just minding your manners, no more than a polite communication right out of a Junior League playbook and between two church-going ladies reciprocating on tea party invitations.
In any event, a new epistolary entry in the annals of Warren Buffett's public pronouncements is, if nothing more, a chance to look for the quotable quotes that you've hidden your subtle economic wish list within. Maybe this time it was your reference to the government's steely hand through the financial crisis that, "just as there is a fog of war, there is a fog of panic -- and, overall, your actions were remarkably effective."
Warren, I just wanted to write this note to say that your actions are remarkably effective, too. Sometimes, though, I'm left in a fog trying to understand precisely who you intend the actions to be effective on behalf of, even in the case of a simple two-year overdue thank-you note. Sometimes I wish you would just come out and say what you want, even if your mother wouldn't think it polite.
On Wednesday afternoon, President Obama announced that Warren Buffett will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S.
Warren, why didn't you just say that's what you were after? Congratulations. Send Obama a thank you note when you have a chance.
Your grateful, sometimes skeptical media lackey,
-- Written by Eric Rosenbaum from New York.
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