Warren Buffett is not only the country’s most annoying billionaire—he is also President Obama’s favorite billionaire.
That, of course, is because the grandfatherly billionaire, a frequent opinion piece writer, is always begging the government not to “coddle” the super-rich and to express this tough love by raising their taxes.
That’s music to President Obama’s ears.
Just came across a piece by Peter Schweizer, whose book Throw Them All Out detailed how our elected representatives get rich from insider knowledge. In a similar vein, Schweizer has some ideas on how the pol-pleasing billionaire benefits from government actions that he has backed. Buffett always seems to support these policies from an Olympian height. Schweizer doesn't buy it. Buffett has benefited immensely from the government.
Schweizer begins his theory about how Buffett gets richer with taxpayer money with a short disquisition on Baptists and bootleggers in 19th century America: Baptists publicly blocked the sale of alcohol on Sunday, while bootleggers privately lobbied for the ban. One day when alcohol couldn’t be sold legally helped their bottom line.
Schweizer notes that Bruce Yandle, an economist, used the phrase “Bootleggers and Baptists” in a 1983 Regulation magazine article that made the point that “ostensibly opposing sides will happily collude when it serves their mutual interests.”
Buffett comes across as a figure of moral rectitude, not afraid to call for higher taxes, even on himself. Is he the Baptist in this morality tale?
But this image does not always reflect reality. Warren Buffett is very much a political entrepreneur; his best investments are often in political relationships. In recent years, Buffett has used taxpayer money as a vehicle to even greater profit and wealth. Indeed, the success of some of his biggest bets and the profitability of some of his largest investments rely on government largesse and “coddling” with taxpayer money.
During the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, Buffett became an important symbol on television. He filled the role of fiscal adult, a responsible father figure in the midst of irresponsible Wall Street speculators. While pushing for calm and advocating specific market interventions in both public and private, however, he was also investing (sometimes quietly) so he could profit once his policy advice was implemented. This put Buffett in the position of being both Baptist and bootlegger, praised for his moral character while shaking his finger all the way to the bank.
Schweizer details the ways in which Buffett personally benefited from the TARP that was stalled in Congress and might not have passed without Buffett’s support. Schweizer cites a University of Michigan study that found that politically-connected but often poorly-run companies got the bailout money.
Bank bailouts went to the bigger, more politically connected banks such as the ones whose stocks were included in the portfolio of Mr. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Schweizer writes:
Buffett needed the TARP bailout more than most. In all, Berkshire Hathaway firms received $95 billion in TARP money. Berkshire held stock in Wells Fargo, Bank of America, American Express, and Goldman Sachs, which received not only TARP money but also Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) backing for their debt, worth a total of $130 billion. All told, TARP-assisted companies constituted a whopping 30 percent of Buffett’s publicly disclosed stock portfolio. The folksy outsider with his home-spun investment wisdom, the Houston Chronicle concluded in an April 2009 investigative piece, was “one of the top beneficiaries of the banking bailout.”
This is a fascinating piece. I urge you to read it. I also urge you, next time Warren Buffett says he’s not leaving his children a big inheritance, implying you should do the same, ask yourself: Can I set up a multibillion dollar foundation to keep my kids employed?
Such foundations support good causes and do good things.
Still, if you aren't equipped to set one up, Mr. Buffett’s financial tips may not be right for you.
And many of them are not right for the nation, either.