Welcome to the Philosophical Cable Network. It’s Tuesday, September 23 and we have a wonderful morning conversation.
Our guests are the Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, Charlie Munger, philosopher Plato, New Yorker cartoons, and, at the end of the show, a few comments from this evening’s guest, Susan Neiman.
PT. Welcome to our guests. Let’s get started.
PT. Charlie – let’s start with this financial crisis that has been top of mind for everyone. What has gotten us into this financial crisis?
Munger: The amount of knavery and folly that has been revealed in the last nine months is almost unbelievable…greed was part of it, envy was part of it, and so was a lack of honesty.
PT. The New Yorker cartoons. What do you think about Charlie’s comments?
PT. Let me bring Plato into this conversation.
PT. Plato – yesterday Charlie Munger talked about the moral duty of the top business people to be *underpaid* and to practice more virtue of all kinds – and that their bad example is terrible for the system. What do you think Plato?
Plato: Once you have the means of life, you must practice virtue.
Thrasymachus jumps out of the audience like a wild beast and forces himself onto the stage
Balderdash. You naive simpletons. Don’t you know I predicted this would happen 2,500 years ago. When a bank robber robs not just a bank but the whole country “he is happy and blessed.” In your modern parlance he’s become “too big to fail.” So you have it upside down – the more powerful you become, the more people are happy for you not to just rob them but to enslave them.
PT. Uh…I’d like to return to Charlie Munger for a moment. Weren’t banks at one time more careful?
Munger: If you run a nice conservative bank and some other guy has a bank and a lot of testosterone – and he does a lot of very aggressive things that appear to work, and he reports higher and higher profits – the pressure to join the crowd on the guy at the lagging bank is *huge.*
PT. Charlie don’t you have a joke to tell about this?
Munger: The teacher asked the class, ‘If there are nine sheep in the pen and one jumps out, how many are left?’ And everybody got the answer right except this one little boy, who said, ‘None of them are left.’ And the teacher said, ‘You don’t understand arithmetic.’ And he said, ‘No, teacher. You don’t understand sheep.’
PT. So Munger, like Plato, there is responsibility or justice at a city or “systems” level?
Munger: Yes. If we don’t then we create the conditions for almost unbelievable, ridiculous behavior. For example, for the last several years, people were distributing stuff that they wouldn’t have bought in a minute for themselves. Systems are responsible in proportion to the degree in which the people making the decisions are living with the results of those decisions. So like the Romans, if you built a bridge, you stood under the arch when the scaffolding was removed.
PT. Ah, yes. The New Yorker again would like to make a comment.
PT. Plato what do you think about this?
Plato: I also think justice can be found in systems or, as I say in Republic, in cities. And if you create the right environment including the equality of men and women, then you can create a just city.
PT. Munger – don’t you also believe women might be not only equal but better leaders in some cases?
Munger: I do not think that we would have this mess if women were running all the financial institutions.
PT. The New Yorker would like to agree
PT. Plato I have a follow-up question for you. But first can I ask you something that countless generations have pondered. Why do you only have one name? Is that some kind of ancient celebrity thing? You, Socrates, Herodotus?
Plato: I didn’t have just one name. But I won’t tell you the others. I have to control my brand.
PT. Well, back to my guestion. Don’t you also have something to say about suffering injustice vs. perpetrating it?
Plato: I would choose suffering over doing what’s unjust to others everyday and twice on Sunday.
PT. So then what is your solution to the mess we find ourselves in today?
Plato: Until we create the environment for leaders – and all people – to genuinely and adequately philosophize then cities will have no rest from evils.
Thrasymachus rushes the stage again.
What nonsense you have been talking…justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger. Everything else is commentary.
PT. Susan Neiman our guest tonight has a few important comments to add. Susan?
Neiman: A commitment to justice cannot be coherently maintained so long as you even suspect that Thrasymachus is right.
PT. You take that, Thrasymachus. Susan don’t you also want to talk about the importance of ideas – and what ideas mean?
Neiman: Yes, thank you. There’s something that has not yet been brought up in the discussion – and it’s one of the most important points in Plato. The most important task of the The Republic is to show that ideas themselves are real. Plato was the first idealist and idealism has taken a bad bashing lately.
PT. Go on.
Neiman: In fact, the easiest way to get non-partisan agreement is to float a demand for realism. Herodotus quotes Pindar saying “custom is king” but if ideas like justice can make no general claims, but only rests on tradition and habit, then all appeals to ideas are either for fools or for those who want to dupe them.
PT. And that’s why you wrote your book?
Neiman: Yes. That’s why I wrote my book – it’s a defense of ideas and a challenge to those who believe in justice to not give up the philosophical (and practical) ground to the heirs of Thrasymachus.
PT. Great. Thank you everyone. Great way to start the morning Tuesday, September 23. I look forward to tonight’s program at the Harvard Club. Tune in 6pm sharp!
P.S. The attire tonight? Range from business casual to business – it’s up to you. As host, I’ll be wearing a suit and tie but don’t expect anyone else to wear a tie.