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America’s billionaire holds court on investing

WASHINGTON When you’re trapped in a city with House Republican gargoyles who don’t understand math or history, much less reality, sometimes you crave a dose of grandfatherly wisdom.

Speaker John Boehner, trapped under the thumb of Tea Party anarchists, called Friday’s vote to defund Obamacare and invite a government shutdown, “a victory for common sense.”

More like a triumph of nonsense.

The victory for common sense last week was not in Congress, but at Georgetown University. Speaking to an excited crowd of students and others Thursday night beneath soaring stained-glass windows, the 83-year-old Warren Buffett offered inspiring lessons in patriotism and compassion — traits sorely missing here as Republicans ran headlong toward a global economic cataclysm and gutted the food stamp program.

“I am sorry I’m late,” Nancy Pelosi murmured sardonically, as she arrived at the Buffett event. “We were busy taking food out of the mouths of babies.”

Questioned by Brian Moynihan, the C.E.O. of Bank of America, and later students, Buffett seemed happy to be back in one of his hometowns, where, as the son of an investor from Omaha who became a congressman, he had once worked as a waterboy for the Redskins and a paperboy for Georgetown Hospital.

The C.E.O. of Berkshire Hathaway said he began investing at age 11 in 1942, a couple months after Pearl Harbor, after spending five years saving up $120.

He even joked that he had fond thoughts of 1929 because it was when he was conceived: “my dad was a stock salesman and after the crash he didn’t have anything to do.”

He calls the Fed “the greatest hedge fund in history,” and observed of the moment America nearly went off the cliff: “I give enormous credit to Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner and frankly, even though I didn’t vote for him, President Bush.”

W.’s “great insight,” one worthy of Adam Smith, he said, was expressed in 10 words in September 2008: “He went out there from the White House and he said, ‘If money doesn’t loosen up this sucker could go down.’ ”

The populist voice of the 1 percent stressed that “inequality is getting wider” and that we must figure out how to “share the bounty.”

“We’ve got something that works and we don’t want to mess that up,” he said. There will be periodic recessions and the occasional panic, he noted, advising that those times are good to buy stock at “silly prices.”

“It’s very hard to write regulations that will keep people from acting foolishly, particularly when acting foolishly has proven very profitable over the preceding few years,” he said.

“But,” he added slyly, “buy when it happens.”

He doesn’t worry about keeping up with modern technology. He buys what he knows, like Coca-Cola, which he drank all evening. Evoking Ted Williams “waiting for the right pitch,” he counseled that: “You don’t need 20 decisions to get very rich. Four or five will probably do it over time.”

Being a successful investor is not about having a high I.Q., he said, “but it does take a temperament that’s willing to step up and actually act. I always tell people, if they’re going in the investment business and you’ve got a 160 I.Q., sell 30 points to somebody else because you won’t need it.”

Or sell some to the House Republicans.

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY, 10018
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