The best thing I read today was definitely Charlie Munger, Unplugged, the full transcript of a 6-hour interview with Charlie Munger about his philosophies on business, investing and life, as conducted by Jason Zweig and Nicole Friedman of the Wall Street Journal. (I’ve tried to share a link via my paid WSJ subscription, but there may still be a paywall. Articles like this definitely help make me feel that my subscription is worth the money.)
I enjoy Munger’s direct and open take on many things. Honestly, I think reading his advice helps make me a better person, not investor. Also, he’s a 95-year-old billionaire – can you imagine anyone more incentivized to do exactly what they want with their remaining time? The article is rather long, so while I recommend reading the entire thing for yourself, here are some selected highlights.
How do you spend your day?
Well, I have always sought, since I quit law practice [in 1965], to have a lot of time in every day to read and think. And talk to a few friends about this or that. And I don’t do that because it will make me more money, I do it because it’s my nature. And I had to use that nature because I needed a living for a big family. But it’s just my nature.
Warren’s the same way. We both hate too many appointments in one day. We both have long segments [of free time]. The lives we live would look to anybody else like academics.
Will Berkshire Hathaway beat the S&P 500 in the future?
I think it we’ll beat it a little. But that’s not bad with a market cap of over $600 billion. That’s difficult! Most people won’t do as well as we will. I talked to Warren today. We’re buying one little company…as we sit here. And we haven’t bought anything big for a long, long time. It’s really getting hard for us. These other people will pay a lot more.
Q: If there were one company other than Berkshire you would recommend for the next decade or two, what would it be?
In America it would be Costco. Other than in America, buy the strongest companies in China.
Q: A lot of young Americans seem to be turning against capitalism, on the grounds that income inequality is out of control. What can be done about that?
The world as I know it, from personal experience and from reading, has always concentrated power.
Without the inequality, you don’t get modern private-ownership capitalism, which is what produces the plenty. And so even your kids, if they tried to make an equal civilization, and farm the land that way, would end up with not enough to eat. You’ve got to have individual ownership of a lot of things, with somebody getting and gaining for himself, because otherwise you don’t get the plenty. And the only option you have is to make the social safety net big or small, and you can make it stupid or [you can make it] wise[r], the richer you are.
In other words, the better your inequality-producing civilization that produces the plenty is, the more you’ve got to put into the social safety net. Now if you get a place like Denmark or Sweden or something, a lot of these modern students would like it better, free education, free medical care and so forth. And if you have to bet, the United States will be way more like Canada pretty soon, in terms of more free education at the university level and more Medicare and some kind of medicine for all. And that we can afford without ruining the productivity of the civilization.
…. We can afford [a higher minimum wage]. If you make it too high it will be counterproductive but yes, a prosperous civilization can have a higher minimum wage the way it can have a social safety net. Don’t make it too great and you can afford it.
I have more Democratic children than I have Republican children. I’ve got both.
On Jack Bogle.
You’ve got to remember, Bogle happened to be right about something important. But that [was] his only advantage. He was a monomaniac. And so that’s an odd characteristic. I would not pick Bogle to have the run of the place. He just was very right on one very important subject [the importance of minimizing investment costs], and therefore he’s been very useful.
On payday lenders, the lottery, and legalized gambling.
These goddamn payday lenders, they’re the scum of the earth. Everybody’s working on it but not hard enough. That’s a group that ought to be forced out of existence.
And the way we abuse the poor with the lottery! Think of how contrary it is to the interests of the poor to play the lottery. It’s like a tax on ignorance. They’re vulnerable. I don’t think we should be doing that, but of course everything like it I’m voting against. I always vote against legalized gambling. I just lose all the time. I feel like I’m pushing on a straw and somebody is just pushing back harder every time.
On selfishness and the value of a good reputation.
Another thing that really helps is people, a lot of people think that real selfishness, very extreme, is what works. But it doesn’t.
If you have a reputation for being decent to work with and unselfish, you make more money, not less. And at Berkshire, I can’t tell you the things that we have bought where the people wanted a good home for something that they love and they trusted us to take care of their loved one. That sounds ridiculous to talk about, in that language about businesses. But why wouldn’t you love something you spent your life building up? It’s very natural to love it – it’s your own creation. Of course you want it in good hands.
On his ability to delay gratification (aka “frugal cred”).
The first 13 years I practiced law, my income [from practicing law] was $300,000 total. At the end of that 13 years, what did I have? A house. Two cars. And $300,000 of liquid assets. Everyone else’d have spent that slender income, not invested it shrewdly, and so forth.
I just think it was, to me, it was as natural as breathing, and of course I knew how compound interest worked! I knew when I saved $10 I was really saving $100 or $1,000 [because of the future growth of the $10], and it just took a little wait. And when I quit law practice it was because I wanted to work for myself instead of my clients, because I knew I could do better than they did.
You only get a few opportunities, and you have to grab them aggressively when they come because even in the most favored life, they’re really rare. My mother listened to all this stuff, and it meant nothing to her. She was never interested in money or worldly success, but she just appropriated the stories to me because they’d amused her.
I always feel that the opportunities are rare. I only get a few and then I have to seize them aggressively.
This last quote is definitely something that I strongly associate with Munger. Even in this interview, you notice he says it twice. It’s something to keep in the back of your mind, whether is applies to an investing opportunity, a career opportunity, or even finding a life partner. Work hard, do your analysis, but in the end you’ll have to take action to get the big results.