Charlie Munger Proves That Youth Is A Good Trade For Wisdom (You Don't Get A Choice In The Matter, Anyway)

I was very impressed with a recent interview conducted by Becky Quick with Charlie Munger of Berkshire-Hathaway.  Not only because Ms. Quick is smart and knows what she is doing by virtue of accumulated reportorial experience and a fondness for Mr. Munger that she makes no secret of, but because she is obviously respectful of what old guys like me once called “our elders and betters.”

This interview happened to coincide with the news splash concerning Amazon’s decision to scrap “HQ2” plans for New York City.  Ms. Quick, being aware that Mr. Munger is a fan of Jeff Bezos, took the opportunity to ask him about it.  It couldn’t have been better timing, it couldn’t have been a better topic, it couldn’t have been a better guy to ask the question, and it couldn’t have been a better woman to ask the question.

Interestingly (to me), Mr. Munger’s answer was not a simple yes or no to the question of whether Amazon, New York City, New York State, or the respective influencers of those factions, or Mr. Bezos himself, made the right decision.  I think Mr. Munger respects that those things are up to those people, and therefore he is thinking about what Berkshire’s role is: How does this play out in terms of Amazon’s fortunes and therefore those of Berkshire’s shareholders translating from whatever position his outfit may take in the stock.  But it didn’t take the perspicacious Ms. Quick to realize that this was an opportune moment to query the wise Mr. Munger about what he was seeing in the general landscape of how the American people of 2019 view such matters as public policy.

Is it about job creation?  Is it about potential tax revenue to be thrown off?  Is it moral/ethical or economically sound/justifiable for a political entity to offer tax breaks to an enterprise to accomplish public-policy objectives in luring it to their jurisdictions?

There is something very distinctive about asking a man like Charlie Munger these questions, and not just because of the enormously powerful position he holds, but because Mr. Munger is himself the form of Plato’s philosopher king, if there can be such a thing in the worlds of finance and business.  And it is also because, at 95 years of age, Mr. Munger is thinking about issues that are very tough to think about at that age, namely his own mortality and all the thoughts that consideration gives rise to as a man who has himself shaped history, and therefore has a right, and also a duty, to consider in the context of his own actions and how they have changed people’s lives

And just like Plato’s pyramid of moral and ethical and polity consciousness that rises from the base of a single man’s discovery of vague shapes on cave walls at the bottom, then rises to a pinnacle of a leader’s obligation and duty to see his impressions and corresponding actions as an influence on a realm of significant extent, maybe there was more to be seen in the creases of time on Mr. Munger’s face, and heard in the tone of his voice, than there was in the specific and literal content of his comments.

Because of this, and because of Ms. Quick’s obvious sensitivity to its import, she went on to add in such topics as the U.S.-China trade war (or potential thereof), and Mr. Munger continued to amaze by not giving pap answers, stating at one point that there was no hard answer on such things, but that when it came to a nation’s right to impose trade restrictions, “I would hope that it would be minimal, but that doesn’t mean that a nation doesn’t have a right or isn’t well advised to impose restrictions in some cases.”

When the discussion then returned to the matter of New York’s and Amazon’s relationship and the “New York, drop dead” development, it became rather poignant when Ms. Quick decided to frame this into a conclusion about whether New York or Amazon was the “winner.”  This in turn naturally led to consideration of whether the people were winners or losers, and then it became clearer why the Amazon discussion could be combined with the trade war discussion.  Then finally, as only Mr. Munger could have said it, his statement that maybe these things are not only examples of victories or defeats in specific instances, but also milestones in the strengths, weaknesses and eventual declines of entire civilizations in general spanning lengthy historical eras.

Mr. Munger then observed that he couldn’t help but see indications in these topics reminding him of the ascents and declines of the Greeks, the Romans and now the Americans, and that “Yes, some day America’s day will be gone.  I’m not going to say when, but of course I wouldn’t be thinking about such things if I weren’t also thinking about my own mortality…but I try not to spend too much time thinking about that.”


That interview had such an impact on me that later in the day I decided to query a few people at random to see if their comments on Amazon’s “bye-bye Long Island City” might provide any clues to confirm Mr. Munger’s observations.  Here is the comment that I think best encapsulated an amalgam of what I got out of three or four persons’ thoughts on the matter:

“I think that Amazon treats some of their workers really REALLY badly, and if I was from New York and the HQ2 was built I would feel ashamed of my city's image being tainted by that, maybe? I also dislike the concept of billionaires in general as you could never spend all of your money in a thousand years.  I don't like them for no reason, so it would also stand to reason I would still dislike Amazon if I was in a position of power and would uphold my morals by trying to stop it myself if I was in a position to. However, I'm not *too* informed about the whole thing, so if I was an official whose job it was to know about such things I might gather more evidence that suggests that I shouldn't dislike Amazon.  My gut instinct is to say it’s good [that Amazon has decided not to locate in New Yok] because I don't like Amazon.”


And you know what that made me realize?  It made me realize that people don’t really consider issues like “public policy” in terms of the alleged objective ingredients of public policy.  What they actually do is what most people do about everything, which is put together their biases and prejudices about basic matters in life into an odoriferous little package, as they do about everything, and shove it in your face.  They aren’t concerned about any particular issue per se.  What they are concerned about is who is a billionaire, and does that billionaire have a right to be a billionaire?  They are concerned about what makes you look good.  And the longer any given civilization or culture ages, the more these become very base and nasty, selfish considerations and parcels of pride and resentment.  Never mind the consequences on opportunity.

That’s why I found it ever so fitting that Ms. Quick’s interview ended on the note of asking Mr. Munger how he shapes his own decisions on whom to bring into the Berkshire organization.  He summed it up rather nicely, which was something along the lines of, “We’d rather have a guy who has an IQ of 150 who thinks he has an IQ of 135 than have a guy whose IQ is 160 but thinks it’s 175.”

Bravo, Mr. Munger!



How did you like this article? Let us know so we can better customize your reading experience.


Kurt Benson 5 years ago Member's comment

Nicely done. How can we see the actual interview?

Reid Holloway 5 years ago Contributor's comment
Kurt Benson 5 years ago Member's comment

Thank you much!