Reporters get to meet exceptional characters. A quarter of a century ago, when I was working as a business writer for the Monitor, I met several of the individuals on this week’s cover. Back then, they were in their prime earning years. Now, with the "Giving Pledge," they are in their giving-back years.
Warren Buffett took part in a 1984 discussion at Columbia University in New York in honor of the legendary investor Benjamin Graham. What stuck with me was the affable Mr. Buffett’s simple point about Mr. Graham’s big idea: If you can buy a dollar for 50 cents, why wouldn’t you? Buffett kept things simple and made billions by buying half-priced dollars in the form of undervalued companies.
T. Boone Pickens, a Texas oilman-turned-corporate-raider, also had a simple strategy, though with a harder edge. His view was that when oil in the ground was more expensive than oil in the reserves of poorly managed oil companies, then it was time to raid those oil companies. He, too, made a pile.
Those heady days of the great bull market of the 1980s gave rise to many of the wealthy individuals you’ll see beginning on page 26. It was a time of on-the-make media titans like Ted Turner, Michael Bloomberg, and Rupert Murdoch; tough-as-nails chief executive officers like General Electric’s Jack Welsh; and buccaneers like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, who scored big before being brought down by insider trading. It won’t surprise you to learn that all of these business mavens had one thing in common: a powerful drive to make money.
Until the latter part of the 20th century, that drive was concentrated disproportionately in the United States. Something about America was different. “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans,” wrote that trenchant observer of Early American culture, Alexis de Tocqueville, “one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”
That may sound like a put-down by a French intellectual. It wasn’t. Tocqueville saw virtue in the self-made American. Though descended from French aristocracy, he believed the ossified social order of 19th-century Europe could never match the energy of the US. In effect, he forecast the rise of the US to superpower status – economically, militarily, and culturally – in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
Tocqueville saw America as exceptional, a theme that has run through the four centuries of post-Mayflower America. In recent months, President Obama has been criticized for what some perceive to be his hedging on the question of American exceptionalism. “I believe in American exceptionalism,” he said in answer to a question, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
There’s truth to that. Every world power in its time believes it is different from its predecessors. On the other hand, if history is about progress rather than repetition, then the current world power is indeed more exceptional than defunct ones. But there’s a third way to look at this: The values that Tocqueville lauded in young America are spreading to other parts of the world.
There are millions of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates wannabes in Russia, China, India, and other Americas of the mind. There may be differences over levels of state control, but there’s no serious alternative to free enterprise, and there will be no escaping the drive for individual freedom as a concomitant. America may still be exceptional, but isn’t it better when its values are not the exception in the world?
John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor.