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Saturday, January 23, 2010

ALICE SCHROEDER.COM: Am I Bitter....?

People responding to a previous blog posts have made some interesting comments saying I am bitter. At first I was surprised at these. It didn't occur to me that people would deconstruct my point of view, as opposed to just taking my opinions for whatever value they offer (or not). But look, you're welcome to, and I'm happy to address it directly.

It's understandable that some of you think I might harbor bitter motives toward Warren. He's certainly behaved vindictively toward me. Every few weeks I find out some new thing. There is no reason to lay it all out in its undignified detail. It's been depressing, though, and having one of the world's most powerful people angry at you also is frightening. I often wonder what else might be happening that I don't know about.

So yes, at times, I am really angry to be treated so childishly. But there are also times when I find the whole situation darkly hilarious. And times when I can almost feel Warren's pain, and want to comfort him. And times when I am overcome with gratitude toward him and toward the universe for having given me the opportunity to spend so much time with so many fascinating, intelligent and sometimes wise people -- including him. I have all kinds of conflicting feelings. It's quite a complicated situation. To be clear, though, anger is not the same as bitterness.

You also have to recognize that, despite his actions, he has nothing personal against me. It's not about me, it's entirely about him. He is trying to cope with the cause of his emotional pain -- that's what I represent to him. As you get to know Warren, if you're psychologically sophisticated, you begin to understand the way he objectifies people. Although your own feelings can never become fully detached, once you grasp the degree to which something is an instrumental relationship, you can begin to depersonalize. This is an enormously valuable skill, and learning it is one of the best lessons I received from writing The Snowball. People are bitter about personal slights and offenses. There's nothing personal here for me to be bitter about.

Believe it or not, I still feel affection for the man. I don't know whether that's a tribute to him, a measure of what a strong hold he has on people, or something else. For whatever it's worth, though, people who know me well keep telling me to stop covering for him and to quit defending him. They are probably going to tell me I was pulling my punches in the previous three paragraphs. But the truth is that I still like Warren, a lot of the time anyway.

Perfect objectivity is a myth. Everybody's feelings influence their writing. Still, what you're seeing that is probably coming across as bitterness is, I think, something else. For years, I have read and listened to people talk about Warren Buffett in a way that is frustrating. One the one hand, you have a cadre of people who appear to be envious and who slam everything the man does as if it were either for some evil purpose (usually having to do with taxes) or, "Buffett doesn't get it," as if they have to feel intellectually superior to him. On the other hand, you have a group of people who uncritically assume that he is perfect and everything he does is unassailably correct. This latter group can be extremely frustrating to deal with because their views are internally inconsistent. I had a conversation like this the other day with someone who insisted that Buffett's various investments are part of a master plan to vertically integrate the entire U.S. economy into one giant monopolistic enterprise that would, because of his sterling character, escape the notice of anti-trust regulators. This supposed plan is benevolent on Buffett's part, and would be a good thing for the economy. The person I was talking to would not listen to any sort of reason, either on the merits or on the internal inconsistencies of this dopey idea. So, you get the picture.

Out of this frustration at the lack of objectivity on both sides comes my genuine attempt to bring perspective and balance to the discussion. A lot of times that means interjecting the one or two pieces that I think are missing. I tend not to restate what has already been said adequately by others. Perhaps that is a fault. Very frequently, as someone correctly observed, it has meant pointing out that Warren is motivated by the need for attention. People who are astute often get nearly all the rest correct in writing about him, and miss this part.

Because I am human you are going to see me make mistakes, of all different kinds. This is a sort of disclaimer -- something I feel very strongly about and did as an analyst, is that the free flow of information is far more important to our society than holding people up to a standard of perfection. When someone admits an error they should be praised for owning up, not punished for having made the error. Whatever its imperfections, and of course they are many, the medium of the Internet has liberated the truth. Our ability to be manipulated by those in power is far less today than it was a decade ago, and we should all be so grateful for that. (This is a manifesto and you will probably see it repeated from time to time.)

Okay, I've gone on long enough about this subject. I know you won't all agree with me, or like me, and this may set off a debate. Some of you may feel I've said too much and others too little -- perhaps there will be more dialogue on this subject -- who knows -- but at least you are somewhat better informed now than before and can form your opinions however you like. will read them and think hard about what you say.

-- A


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Recommended Amazon Reading

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of LifeThe Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder
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The Intelligent Investor: The Definitive Book on Value Investing. A Book of Practical Counsel (Revised Edition)The Intelligent Investor: The Definitive Book on Value Investing. A Book of Practical Counsel (Revised Edition) by Benjamin Graham
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