Tag: Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett: The Three Things I Look For in a Person

Buffett Three Things I look For

Students often go to visit Warren Buffett. And when they do, he often plays a little game on them.

He asks each student to pick a classmate. Not just any classmate, but the classmate you would choose if you could have 10% of their earnings for the rest of their life. Which classmate would you pick and why?

“Are you going to pick the one with the highest IQ?” asks Buffett. “Are you going to pick the guy who can throw a football the farthest? The one with the highest grades? What qualities will cause you to pick them?”

Then he changes things up again. Who would you think least likely to succeed? Why?

He asks the students to take out a sheet of paper and list the positive attributes on the left and the negative ones on the right.

Inevitably, the most useful qualities have nothing to do with IQ, grades, or family connections. People pick based on generosity, kindness, and integrity.

He then asks the students which of the qualities they are incapable of having and which they are incapable of stopping?

“To Buffett, the answer is none,” writes Michael Eisner in Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed. “These qualities are choices people make. People decide whether or not to be generous, they decide whether or not to take credit for things they didn’t do, whether or not to keep score in life, whether or not to be envious.”

It’s quite simple in the end. Develop qualities from the left and try to stop doing the ones on the right.

“You’re looking for three things, generally, in a person,” says Buffett. “Intelligence, energy, and integrity. And if they don’t have the last one, don’t even bother with the first two. I tell them, ‘Everyone here has the intelligence and energy—you wouldn’t be here otherwise. But the integrity is up to you. You weren’t born with it, you can’t learn it in school.”

Buffett and Munger were fortunate. They were both smart and worked hard to improve that advantage. The integrity, however, they chose.

“You decide to be dishonest, stingy, uncharitable, egotistical, all the things people don’t like in other people,” argues Warren. “They are all choices. Some people think there’s a limited little pot of admiration to go around, and anything the other guy takes out of the pot, there’s less left for you. But it’s just the opposite.”

Still curious? Read The Difference Between Successful People and Very Successful People and The Buffett Formula — How To Get Smarter next.

Why we Praise Meaningless Jargon and Fail to Realize the Emperor has No Clothes

“The CEO who misleads others in public may eventually mislead himself in private.”
Warren Buffett

***

Is there a link between candor and execution? L. J. Rittenhouse thinks so.

Rittenhouse is the author of Investing Between the Lines: How to Make Smarter Decisions By Decoding CEO Communications, a book that Warren Buffett recommended in his 2012 Shareholder Letter. He writes:

Jack Welch and others have noted that the absence of candor in a workplace can be a significant deterrent to success. … Welch feared that bureaucratic cultures discouraged people from candidly speaking their minds. He advocated that companies develop corporate cultures to encourage “honest feedback.” He explained, “If you reward candor, you’ll get it.”

In an article titled, Truth-Telling: Confronting the Reality of the Lack of Candor Inside Organizations[1], Management consultant Lynn Harris describes the need to build a culture where “opposing views are debated and more effective solutions and innovations are created.”

I’m not talking about malevolent dishonesty. No one goes to work thinking “I’m going to hinder my own and my company’s performance by withholding the truth from my colleagues.” I’m talking about the many moments each day where we think one thing, but say something different; where we have an idea that may be of value, but we hold back and say nothing; where we are called upon to give an honest opinion, but decide to say what is easier or what we think others want to hear.

It seems simple enough, you should communicate with people as you would want them to communicate with you. But if candor is a necessary element to improving performance, why don’t more businesses promote it? Rittenhouse writes:

Polite and white lies are benign. They are told to smooth over difficult social situations and can do more good than harm. Deliberate omissions of facts or statements, however, can be toxic. Whether the motivation comes from fear or a desire to avoid conflict, it is important in all instances to consider the significance of the information that is left out and the consequences for doing so. The more significant the information is to understanding truth and consequences, the more toxic the lie.

When we state that something is true even when we know it to be false, we are telling outright lies. These are more toxic and can create bigger problems than the ones they try to avoid.

… Then there are the lies of self-deception, the ones we tell about ourselves. These are the most toxic, because they create dangers we cannot see. Why? Telling them blinds us to uncomfortable truths about who we are and how we see the world.

Rittenhouse uses real examples of corporate communication to point out the jargon.

Consider this passage from Coca-Cola’s 1995 Shareholder letter, written by Roberto Goizueta:

We sell a product that not only has universal appeal and accessibility, but also meets the fundamental, frequently recurring human need for refreshment.

By universal appeal, I mean we sell a product with physical attributes that the human palate enjoys, no matter what the culture or demographic status. Five or six decades ago, we stopped listening to those who said that Coca-Cola simply would not be accepted in certain societies, where centuries-old beverage consumption habits would surely lock us out. But, just as consumption of Coca-Cola surpassed the combined consumption of the two leading teas in Great Britain some time ago, so will the per capita consumption of Coca-Cola surpass that of the leading bottled water in France this year, two milestones most people said would never come to pass.

Yet, such milestones do come to pass, and one of the primary reasons is the “delicious and refreshing” nature of the product that comes in a bottle, can, glass or cup of Coca-Cola.

That’s of great importance, but so is the universal accessibility of Coca-Cola. Not only does Coca-Cola satisfy a basic human need, it is also highly affordable to an overwhelming majority of people worldwide.

“Nothing Goizueta wrote,” according to Rittenhouse, “could be described as insincere, although he could have bolstered his claims by citing third-party validation for the consumption trends reported in the passage. Goizueta doesn’t say that everyone finds Cola-Cola to be “delicious and refreshing.” Instead, he creates an impression that this experience is “universal.” Importantly, he omits clichés and jargon that would have diluted his message.”

Now consider this passage from Coca-Cola’s 2010 shareholder letter:

This past year, I had the privilege of visiting our Coca-Cola operations in 17 countries on four continents. During my travels with our associates around the world, we opened new bottling plants, visited research and development centers, worked with retail customers, met with consumers and suppliers, and collaborated with an assortment of amazing leaders from business, government and civil society. From the bustling cities of China to the remote villages of South Africa, I walked away with one overriding impression of the Coca-Cola Company. What I saw and continue to see in the second decade of the 21st century is a company that is steadily and strategically advancing its momentum all around the world. [author’s emphasis]

On this letter Rittenhouse comments:

Current Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent’s description of his travels during the year is sincere, truthful, and personal. At the end, however, he stumbles when he reflects on the significance of these experiences and reports, “[ Coca-Cola] is a company that is steadily and strategically advancing its momentum all around the world” [author’s emphasis]. How is it possible for Coke or any company to “steadily and strategically [advance] its momentum”? This description doesn’t qualify as a lie. Instead, it is meaningless, the kind of doublespeak or nonsense that George Orwell portrayed in his classic novel 1984.

A Simple Candor Test

Just about anyone can measure the absence of candor in communications.

… start reading with a red pencil or pen in hand and use it to underline clichés such as “employees are our greatest assets,” “our future is bright,” “advancing momentum,” and “we aim to create shareholder value.” This kind of meaningless jargon and platitudes diminishes our understanding of the business and our trust in the leadership.

When you’re done, look back. If there’s a lot of red on the page, consider yourself warned.

Consider this passage, which happens to come from Enron’s shareholder letter for the year 2000, but could come from any company anywhere:

Our talented people, global presence, financial strength and massive market knowledge have created our sustainable and unique businesses. EnronOnline will accelerate their growth. We plan to leverage all of these competitive advantages to create significant value for our shareholders.

In one short paragraph, Enron introduced six popular clichés:

  1. Talented people
  2. Global presence
  3. Market knowledge
  4. Financial strength
  5. Leverage competitive advantages
  6. Significant value for our shareholders

This is meaningless to a reader. It doesn’t speak to candor and it doesn’t speak to the fact that the people in charge know what’s going on. Reading between the lines you can spot trouble and a void of leadership. Perhaps they are hiding something malicious through obfuscation and meaningless jargon, or, perhaps they are hiding their own incompetence. Either way, it’s a red flag.

Rittenhouse coined an acronym for the absence of candor: “FOG.” It stands for “fact-deficient, obfuscating generalities.”

The Emperor’s New Clothes

When we read something full of jargon and clichés we end up thinking that we’re the problem — we think that we’re just not smart enough to understand it and we ignore our judgment and common sense.

we fear our vulnerability in relation to leaders whom we must trust? To imagine that they would injure us to advance their self-interest is disturbing, even frightening. Instead, we choose to doubt ourselves.

In doing so we become the adults in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes. We praise the jargon of meaningless communication and deny what our eyes tell us to be true – the emperor has no clothes.

After reading Investing Between the Lines: How to Make Smarter Decisions By Decoding CEO Communications Buffett commented, “Rittenhouse is still on the side of the angels.”

 

Sources:

[1] Original Source http://www.linkageinc.com/thinking/linkageleader/Documents/Lynn_Harris_Truth-Telling–Confronting_the_Lack_of_Candor_Inside_Organizations_0506.pdf.

Temperament Matters: In Life and Business

Temperament

I love this excerpt from Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking on Warren Buffett:

Warren Buffett, the legendary investor and one of the wealthiest men in the world, has used exactly the attributes we explored in this chapter – intellectual persistence, prudent thinking, and the ability to see and act on warning signs – to make billions of dollars for himself and the shareholders in his company, Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett is known for thinking carefully when those around him are losing their heads. “Success in investing doesn’t correlate with IQ,” he has said. “Once you have ordinary intelligence, what you need is the temperament to control the urges that get other people into trouble in investing.”

Every summer since 1983, the boutique investment bank Allen & Co. has hosted a weeklong conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. This isn’t just any conference. It’s an extravaganza, with lavish parties, river-rafting trips, ice-skating, mountain biking, fly fishing, horseback riding, and a fleet of babysitters to care for guests’ children. The hosts service the media industry, and past guest lists have included newspaper moguls, Hollywood celebrities, and Silicon Valley stars, with marquee names such as Tom Hanks, Candice Bergen, Barry Diller, Rupert Murdoch, Steve Jobs, Diane Sawyer, and Tom Brokaw.

In July 1999, according to Alice Schroeder’s excellent biography of Buffett, The Snowball, he was one of those guests. He had attended year after year with his entire family in tow, arriving by Gulfstream jet and staying with the other VIP attendees in a select group of condos overlooking the golf course. Buffett loved his annual vacation at Sun Valley, regarding it as a great place for his family to gather and for him to catch up with old friends.

But this year the mood was different. It was the height of the technology boom, and there were new faces at the table—the heads of technology companies that had grown rich and powerful almost overnight, and the venture capitalists who had fed them cash. These people were riding high. When the celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz showed up to shoot “the Media All-Star Team” for Vanity Fair, some of them lobbied to get in the photo. They were the future, they believed.

Buffett was decidedly not a part of this group. He was an old-school investor who didn’t get caught up in speculative frenzy around companies with unclear earnings prospects. Some dismissed him as a relic of the past. But Buffett was still powerful enough to give the keynote address on the final day of the conference.

He thought long and hard about that speech and spent weeks preparing for it. After warming up the crowd with a charmingly self-deprecating story—Buffett used to dread public speaking until he took a Dale Carnegie course—he told the crowd, in painstaking, brilliantly analyzed detail, why the tech-fueled bull market wouldn’t last. Buffett had studied the data, noted the danger signals, and then paused and reflected on what they meant. It was the first public forecast he had made in thirty years.

The audience wasn’t thrilled, according to Schroeder. Buffett was raining on their parade. They gave him a standing ovation, but in private, many dismissed his ideas. “Good old Warren,” they said. “Smart man, but this time he missed the boat.”

Later that evening, the conference wrapped up with a glorious display of fireworks. As always, it had been a blazing success. But the most important aspect of the gathering—Warren Buffett alerting the crowd to the market’s warning signs—wouldn’t be revealed until the following year, when the dot-com bubble burst, just as he said it would.

Buffett takes pride not only in his track record, but also in following his own “inner scorecard.” He divides the world into people who focus on their own instincts and those who follow the herd. “I feel like I’m on my back,” says Buffett about his life as an investor, “and there’s the Sistine Chapel, and I’m painting away. I like it when people say, ‘Gee, that’s a pretty good-looking painting.’ But it’s my painting, and when somebody says, ‘Why don’t you use more red instead of blue?’ Good-bye. It’s my painting. And I don’t care what they sell it for. The painting itself will never be finished. That’s one of the great things about it.”

Unfinished thought

It’s Buffett’s comment that really sticks with me because, like a lot of his wisdom, it transcends investing and plays out into many aspects of life.

“Success in investing doesn’t correlate with IQ. Once you have ordinary intelligence, what you need is the temperament to control the urges that get other people into trouble in investing.”

— Warren Buffett

Temperament matters.

Consider your workplace.

I bet you have bosses. In general, I believe those bosses are probably intelligent people – what causes problems is not their lack of intelligence but rather their temperament. (One way to help neutralize the wrong temperament is to use a process.)

You need a temperament that controls the urges that get other people into trouble. And there is a long list of things that get people into trouble … Buffett offers a great example:

You need a temperament that neither derives great pleasure from being with the crowd or against the crowd.

If they lack the ability to think independently, bosses (like everyone else) can cause great harm to an organization, while claiming to be doing the right thing.

You also need a temperament that allows you to take action where many just sit and watch. Consider the case of a board of directors. In his 1993 Shareholder letter Buffett writes:

a director who sees something he doesn’t like should attempt to persuade the other directors of his views. If he is successful, the board will have the muscle to make the appropriate change. Suppose, though, that the unhappy director can’t get other directors to agree with him. He should then feel free to make his views known to the absentee owners. Directors seldom do that, of course. The temperament of many directors would in fact be incompatible with critical behavior of that sort. But I see nothing improper in such actions, assuming the issues are serious. Naturally, the complaining director can expect a vigorous rebuttal from the unpersuaded directors, a prospect that should discourage the dissenter from pursuing trivial or non-rational causes.

The temperament of many people is incompatible with critical behavior. Most people go with the path of least resistance.

“Take the high road, you’ll find it’s less crowded.”

— Charlie Munger

In fact, organizations, by the very nature of how they hire and fire, generally promote people who lack the right temperament. There is an almost unspoken chain of reciprocity.

If you were going to give someone some general advice on how to move up in a large organization you’d probably say something along the lines of: (1) be visible; (2) emphasize the aspects you’re good at; (3) make those in power feel good about themselves; (4) if you must point out a mistake by someone in power, blame the situation or others; and (5) shower those above with flattery.

You’d probably tell them to avoid being critical, giving other people too much credit, and being the only person in the room with a different opinion.

Office politics matter and often that’s what we tend to reward.

How does your organization treat people who think differently? How does your organization treat people who think mediocre is not good enough? Does your management take action in situations that require courage? Do you attack problems or gloss over them? Do people admit when they are wrong? Are people curious?

Temperament affects so much and yet we rarely give it thought. What kind of temperament does your culture foster?

Buffett can teach you a lot about management. If you’re interested in learning more, pick up a copy of A Few Lessons for Investors and Managers From Warren Buffett.

Why Legos Are So Expensive — And So Popular

Lego

A lot of people wonder how Lego, selling a now un-patented product, can command both massive market share and sell at twice the price of the nearest competitor: Megablocks.

Rhett Allain, in his WIRED article addressing why lego sets are so expensive, unsatisfyingly concludes “Honestly, I don’t know much about plastic manufacturing – but the LEGO blocks appear to be created from harder plastic. Maybe this would lead them to maintain their size over a long period of time.”

While lego offers a superior product, that doesn’t wholly account for why they sell so well.

Chana Joffe-Walt offers a much better explanation in her NPR Planet Money article:

Lego did find a successful way to do something Mega Bloks could not copy: It bought the exclusive rights to Star Wars. If you want to build a Death Star out of plastic blocks, Lego is now your only option.

The Star Wars blocks were wildly successful. So Lego kept going — it licensed Indiana Jones, Winnie the Pooh, Toy Story and Harry Potter.

Sales of these products have been huge for Lego. More important, the experience has taught the company that what kids wanted to do with the blocks was tell stories. Lego makes or licenses the stories they want to tell.

Lego isn’t just selling a product, they are selling a story. Still, I doubt that alone fully explains the difference.

I think Warren Buffett offers the best explanation. Talking about the brand power of See’s Candies, he comments:

What we did know was that they had share of mind in California. There was something special. Every person in Ca. has something in mind about See’s Candy and overwhelmingly it was favorable. They had taken a box on Valentine’s Day to some girl and she had kissed him. If she slapped him, we would have no business. As long as she kisses him, that is what we want in their minds. See’s Candy means getting kissed. If we can get that in the minds of people, we can raise prices. I bought it in 1972, and every year I have raised prices on Dec. 26th, the day after Christmas, because we sell a lot on Christmas. In fact, we will make $60 million this year. We will make $2 per pound on 30 million pounds. Same business, same formulas, same everything–$60 million bucks and it still doesn’t take any capital.

… It is a good business. Think about it a little. Most people do not buy boxed chocolate to consume themselves, they buy them as gifts—somebody’s birthday or more likely it is a holiday. Valentine’s Day is the single biggest day of the year. Christmas is the biggest season by far. Women buy for Christmas and they plan ahead and buy over a two or three-week period. Men buy on Valentine’s Day. They are driving home; we run ads on the Radio. Guilt, guilt, guilt—guys are veering off the highway right and left. They won’t dare go home without a box of Chocolates by the time we get through with them on our radio ads. So that Valentine’s Day is the biggest day.

Can you imagine going home on Valentine’s Day—our See’s Candy is now $11 a pound thanks to my brilliance. And let’s say there is candy available at $6 a pound. Do you really want to walk in on Valentine’s Day and hand—she has all these positive images of See’s Candy over the years—and say, “Honey, this year I took the low bid.” And hand her a box of candy. It just isn’t going to work. So in a sense, there is untapped pricing power—it is not price dependent.

The reason Lego is awesome and Megablocks is not has as much to do with what’s in the consumers’ mind as the product on the shelf. It’s the experience you have with Lego that makes it so amazing.

Remember the first time you played with Lego? You want to pass that experience off to someone else. No one wants to show up to a kids birthday party and announce to everyone they took the ‘low bid’ on a relatively cheap children’s toy.

Lego is a safe bet and we want to reduce uncertainty.

How Good Gamblers Think

Warren Buffett

From The Signal And The Noise:

Successful gamblers – and successful forecasters of any kind – do not think of the future in terms of no-lose best, unimpeachable theories, and infinitely precise measurements. These are the illusions of the sucker, the sirens of his over-confidence. Successful gamblers, instead, think of the future as speckles of probability, flickering upward and downward like a stock market ticker to every new jolt of information. When their estimates of these probabilities diverge by a sufficient margin from the odds on offer, they may place a bet.

This sounds an awful lot like how Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, and Benjamin Graham think about investing.

In his 1987 letter to shareholders, Warren Buffett explains Graham’s concept of Mr. Market:

Ben Graham, my friend and teacher, long ago described the mental attitude toward market fluctuations that I believe to be most conducive to investment success. He said that you should imagine market quotations as coming from a remarkably accommodating fellow named Mr. Market who is your partner in a private business. Without fail, Mr. Market appears daily and names a price at which he will either buy your interest or sell you his.

Even though the business that the two of you own may have economic characteristics that are stable, Mr. Market’s quotations will be anything but. For, sad to say, the poor fellow has incurable emotional problems. At times he feels euphoric and can see only the favorable factors affecting the business. When in that mood, he names a very high buy-sell price because he fears that you will snap up his interest and rob him of imminent gains. At other times he is depressed and can see nothing but trouble ahead for both the business and the world. On these occasions he will name a very low price, since he is terrified that you will unload your interest on him.

Mr. Market has another endearing characteristic: He doesn’t mind being ignored. If his quotation is uninteresting to you today, he will be back with a new one tomorrow. Transactions are strictly at your option. Under these conditions, the more manic-depressive his behavior, the better for you.

But, like Cinderella at the ball, you must heed one warning or everything will turn into pumpkins and mice: Mr. Market is there to serve you, not to guide you. It is his pocketbook, not his wisdom, that you will find useful. If he shows up some day in a particularly foolish mood, you are free to either ignore him or to take advantage of him, but it will be disastrous if you fall under his influence. Indeed, if you aren’t certain that you understand and can value your business far better than Mr. Market, you don’t belong in the game. As they say in poker, “If you’ve been in the game 30 minutes and you don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.”

And Charlie Munger’s take:

The model I like—to sort of simplify the notion of what goes on in a market for common stocks—is the pari-mutuel system at the racetrack. If you stop to think about it, a pari-mutuel system is a market. Everybody goes there and bets and the odds change based on what’s bet. That’s what happens in the stock market.

Any damn fool can see that a horse carrying a light weight with a wonderful win rate and a good post position etc., etc. is way more likely to win than a horse with a terrible record and extra weight and so on and so on. But if you look at the odds, the bad horse pays 100 to 1, whereas the good horse pays 3 to 2. Then it’s not clear which is statistically the best bet using the mathematics of Fermat and Pascal. The prices have changed in such a way that it’s very hard to beat the system.

And then the track is taking 17% off the top. So not only do you have to outwit all the other betters, but you’ve got to outwit them by such a big margin that on average, you can afford to take 17% of your gross bets off the top and give it to the house before the rest of your money can be put to work.

Given those mathematics, is it possible to beat the horses only using one’s intelligence? Intelligence should give some edge, because lots of people who don’t know anything go out and bet lucky numbers and so forth. Therefore, somebody who really thinks about nothing but horse performance and is shrewd and mathematical could have a very considerable edge, in the absence of the frictional cost caused by the house take.

Unfortunately, what a shrewd horseplayer’s edge does in most cases is to reduce his average loss over a season of betting from the 17% that he would lose if he got the average result to maybe 10%. However, there are actually a few people who can beat the game after paying the full 17%.

I used to play poker when I was young with a guy who made a substantial living doing nothing but bet harness races…. Now, harness racing is a relatively inefficient market. You don’t have the depth of intelligence betting on harness races that you do on regular races. What my poker pal would do was to think about harness races as his main profession. And he would bet only occasionally when he saw some mispriced bet available. And by doing that, after paying the full handle to the house—which I presume was around 17%—he made a substantial living.

You have to say that’s rare. However, the market was not perfectly efficient. And if it weren’t for that big 17% handle, lots of people would regularly be beating lots of other people at the horse races. It’s efficient, yes. But it’s not perfectly efficient. And with enough shrewdness and fanaticism, some people will get better results than others.

The stock market is the same way—except that the house handle is so much lower. If you take transaction costs—the spread between the bid and the ask plus the commissions—and if you don’t trade too actively, you’re talking about fairly low transaction costs. So that with enough fanaticism and enough discipline, some of the shrewd people are going to get way better results than average in the nature of things.

It is not a bit easy. And, of course, 50% will end up in the bottom half and 70% will end up in the bottom 70%. But some people will have an advantage. And in a fairly low transaction cost operation, they will get better than average results in stock picking.

How do you get to be one of those who is a winner—in a relative sense—instead of a loser?

Here again, look at the pari-mutuel system. I had dinner last night by absolute accident with the president of Santa Anita. He says that there are two or three betters who have a credit arrangement with them, now that they have off-track betting, who are actually beating the house. They’re sending money out net after the full handle—a lot of it to Las Vegas, by the way—to people who are actually winning slightly, net, after paying the full handle. They’re that shrewd about something with as much unpredictability as horse racing.

And the one thing that all those winning betters in the whole history of people who’ve beaten the pari-mutuel system have is quite simple. They bet very seldom.

It’s not given to human beings to have such talent that they can just know everything about everything all the time. But it is given to human beings who work hard at it—who look and sift the world for a mispriced be—that they can occasionally find one.

And the wise ones bet heavily when the world offers them that opportunity. They bet big when they have the odds. And the rest of the time, they don’t. It’s just that simple.

That is a very simple concept. And to me it’s obviously right—based on experience not only from the pari-mutuel system, but everywhere else.

And yet, in investment management, practically nobody operates that way. We operate that way—I’m talking about Buffett and Munger. And we’re not alone in the world. But a huge majority of people have some other crazy construct in their heads. And instead of waiting for a near cinch and loading up, they apparently ascribe to the theory that if they work a little harder or hire more business school students, they’ll come to know everything about everything all the time.

Silver concludes, “Finding patterns is easy in any kind of data-rich environment; that’s what mediocre gamblers do. The key is in determining whether the patterns represent signal or noise.”

“The ability to inflict evil, or harm, on other people in huge numbers has grown exponentially.”

Unfortunately this is not a problem that we can wish away.

In a opinion worth reading, philosopher Firmin DeBrabander writes:

(in her book The Human Condition, philosopher Hannah Arendt) offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.’s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly — not make any sudden, unexpected moves — and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

Nassim Taleb chimes in with his thoughts, on a facebook post that’s since been removed:

I cannot possibly buy the argument that people need weapons in case the government fails them and democracy breaks down. If the narrative were true, someone over the past 5 years would have taken arms to express frustration with the banking establishment hijacking the political system for self-enrichment –one of the greatest iniquities ever, ever — and other similar lobbyists, instead of using weapons against schoolchildren and college students. The reason we have arms is gun lobby, period.

To repeat the argument against the long peace, a weirdo with a knife can’t go far. Just as I don’t want to be in a plane with an armed gumnan on board, I don’t want weirdos with guns in civil society. Via Negativa: gun control is perhaps one of the very few things the government should do.

Taleb’s argument reminds me of Warren Buffett’s:

you know, thousands of years ago we had psychotics and we had religious fanatics and we had megalomaniacs. But about the most they could do was throw a stone at somebody if they wished evil on them.

Today, since 1945, the ability to inflict evil, or harm, on other people in huge numbers has grown exponentially. And right now there’s the knowledge around to use nuclear material. And we’ve got to hope that the wrong people don’t get their hands on it.

I’ll end with the words of Thomas Jefferson on the progress of the human mind:

I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.