Bill Murray Just Asked Warren Buffett a Hard Question at the Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders Meeting. (Buffett's Answer Was Enlightening)

"So many owe so much to these few. How might this great country take our turn and care for all of them?"

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The Berkshire Hathaway shareholders’ meeting had run more than four hours Saturday—virtually, with just Warren Buffett and vice-chairman Greg Abel onstage—before we finally got to the question that I think I’ll remember for a long time.

It came from Bill Murray.

Yes, that Bill Murray. He phoned in a question that was then posed by CNBC anchor Rebecca Quick on his behalf:

Warren, this question comes from Bill Murray, the actor, who’s also a shareholder in Berkshire.

He says this pandemic will graduate a new class of war veterans. Healthcare, food supply, deliveries, community services. So many owe so much to these few. How might this great country take our turn and care for all of them?

I like the empathy involved here, but I also like how Murray forced Buffett—in real time, with competing audiences, and without warning—to balance his own success with the fact that so many people get left behind.

It’s the kind of question more journalists should ask. Buffett’s answer was enlightening. Here’s part of what he had to say in reply:

Well, we won’t be able to pay, actually. It’s like people that landed at Normandy or something.

I mean the poor, the disadvantaged, they suffer. There’s an unimaginable suffering. At the same time they’re doing all these things—they’re working 24 hour days, and we don’t even know their names.

So if we go overboard on something, we ought to do things that are going to help those people.

This country, said it a lot of times before. But the history of it. I mean, we are a rich, rich, rich country, and the people that are doing the kind of work that Bill talks about, they’re contributing a whole lot more than some of the people that came out of the right womb, or got lucky and things, or know how to arbitrage bonds or whatever it may be.

In a large part, I’m one of those guys.

So you really try to create a society that under normal conditions with more than $60,000 of GDP per capita, that anybody that worked 40 hours a week can have a decent life without a second job and with a couple of kids.

They can’t live like kings. I don’t mean that. But nobody should be left behind.

I read this, thinking that Buffett at 87 is almost twice my age, and wondering what it must be like to still be in the public eye, knowing that the vast majority of your lifespan is behind you.

There’s a note of resignation and weariness in what he says, though.

Granted, he’d just talked and answered questions for four hours, so we have to account for that. But overall, there’s a sense that Buffett feels powerless within society to do much for people who don’t have what he calls “market value skills.”

At one point he goes on to say that: “I do not think that a very rich company ought to totally abide by what the market dishes out, in 18th century style.”

Which is true, but not exactly a bold, controversial statement.

Buffett is a generous benefactor. In fact: he’s pledged to give more than 99 percent of his net worth to charity, most of it to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

But it’s striking that the question flummoxed him to this degree. And a bit discouraging that we don't have a more optimistic, actionable answer.

Good for Murray for asking it.


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Thanks to Rev.com for quickly running a transcript of shareholders’ meeting, and making my life a lot easier on a sunny weekend afternoon.

Photo credits: Bill Murray’s image comes from Flickr, posted by UT Moody College of Communication. The image of Warren Buffett is an official White House photo.