Article — From the January 2010 issue
- Current Issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Article — From the January 2010 issue
The man sits alone in a room, on the fourteenth floor of a gray building. The man’s suit, his hair, the sky through the window, and the rows of figures sliding across the abacus of his mind—these too are gray, though each gray is of a different value. Against the wall stand rows of files containing data from the fifty-odd years of solitary room-sitting. The man drinks cola. He reads the paper. Every so often the phone rings and the man answers. Usually the answer is “no.” Long ago the man concluded that such quietude was optimal for making money. “Inactivity strikes us as intelligent behavior,” he once wrote. By “intelligent,” he meant “profitable.”
Over time this intuition was confirmed. The man is the richest in the world, except for certain years when he is the second richest. “If I wanted to, I could hire 10,000 people to do nothing but paint my picture every day for the rest of my life,” is the example he once gave of how much his money could buy, if what he wanted was money to spend. But the man would rather stay in his room and watch his heap of money grow. The man visits the same restaurant and orders the same steak. He goes home to the same house. He plays bridge on the Internet. Every other week the man—his name is Warren Buffett—rides the elevator down to the basement of the gray building, where, in a tiny barbershop, he receives the same haircut. In lieu of the room on the fourteenth floor, now off-limits to most visitors, the barber chair where he sits has become a kind of shrine.
Access to the chair was particularly scarce the first weekend of last May, when 35,000 of the man’s shareholder-partners came to Omaha for the annual meeting of the public company that warehouses his wealth, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Among these pilgrims was R. J. Meurer Jr., senior vice president at Morgan Stanley, a man so devoted to Warren Buffett’s tonsorial essence that he has a framed lock of Buffett’s hair on the wall of his home office. This was to be R.J.’s tenth annual Berkshire Hathaway haircut. He blew across the threshold of the Kiewit Plaza Barber Shop leading a train of seven colleagues, immaculate in their poplins and khakis, to witness his enthronement.
But there, leaning back in the chair’s forgiving contours, was an interloper, a Brazilian shareholder. Stan, the barber, was scraping the lather off his cheeks. Stan did not seem to be in any special hurry.
R.J. pointed at the man in the chair. “You,” he said, with bluff authority. “You got to get out. We got this barbershop booked.”
Stan looked up from his work and grinned wordlessly.
“Relax, R.J.,” said one of his companions, Rudy Kluiber, a hedge-fund manager. R.J. seated himself among the synthetic plants and wood veneers.
“I’m having the time of my life!” he shouted.
“No,” said R.J. “I’m serious.” To demonstrate, he turned abruptly to Stan, who was rubbing the Brazilian man’s face with a cold towel. “When was he last down here?”
“Friday,” said Stan.
“What was he reading?” asked R.J.
“You know . . . I don’t know about that,” said Stan. “The Wall Street Journal.”
“If you see him reading an annual report, you got to call me,” said R.J. “Hey, why don’t you give him a call right now? Call him and tell him that eight of his most devoted partners are here. He needs to come down and say hello.”
This time Stan did not look up.
“Relax, R.J.,” said Rudy.
“I’m having a little fun, that’s all,” said R.J.
Stan ducked behind a partition in the back of the shop, then returned with two bottles of wine. “Do any of you fellas know how to open these?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“There’s cups over there,” said Stan. He pointed to some Styrofoam cups.
“Come on,” R.J. said, as I fumbled with the corkscrew. “I thought you were a bartender. Let’s get the party going here.”
Soon the Brazilian man left and R.J. ascended to the barber chair. To complete the holiday atmosphere, Stan put a hoedown jangle on the CD player. Wine circulated freely, dissolving whatever tension was left in the room. The colleagues rose and commenced the exchange of business cards and investment “ideas.”
Stan eased the chair back and covered R.J.’s face with a hot towel. R.J. was calmer now, soothed by the headrest that had cradled his hero’s brain as it contemplated the hidden clockwork of capital.
“Where’s Chris?” he murmured through the towel, directing his query to the ceiling. “You know, Chris is a real mover and shaker, always running off to call in and trade stocks. What foolishness! He’s one of those Wall Street operators who ruined this country. A speculator.”
“One of those hedge-fund managers,” said Rudy with a wink, as though the two men were members of some disempowered minority reclaiming a slur. And, in a way, they were. R.J. and Rudy were both part of Wall Street. They knew this, just as they knew that the notion of Wall Street’s responsibility for the recent shrinkage of the world’s nominal wealth was a canard, a pulpy lie served up to a public hungry for a scapegoat. R.J. liked to call the crisis “a global margin call” on a world that had grown addicted to borrowed money. The real villains, he believed, were the central bankers. It was their loose monetary policies that had pumped too much money into the credit markets. Easy money and leverage were the disease. Buffett was the cure, living proof that you can get rich without spoiling the system. “Most fortunes are made in dubious ways and with borrowed money,” R.J. told me later. “He’s done neither.”
What Buffett had done was sit in a room and think. Like most drudge work, thinking is an undertaking that Americans would rather subcontract to someone else. But the public was having trouble finding someone to think on its behalf about the recent crisis. It was too big, too unprecedented. Events had confounded the consensus and herded the mavericks into committee. Only one mind remained independent, humming along on its own steam. “He’s in the business of thinking the unthinkable,” is how R.J. liked to put it.
Stan applied the razor, then hot and cold towels. He slathered some aftershave on R.J.’s cheeks.
“You look great, young man,” he said. “You’re going to be a tremendous success.”
“Rudy!” cried R.J., now revived. “I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. This is my favorite time of the year. Right now.”
“You look like a new man,” said Rudy.
More from Mattathias Schwartz: