Nugget 31: The natural course of competition is that it gets tough. It’s the people who expect everything to just keep going wonderfully who are nuts.
Q: Have you had any thoughts on the recent troubles at Tesco [ticker: TSDCY]?
Munger: Tesco owned the world for a long time. It looked inevitable. Berkshire bought some. I think Lou Simpson bought it originally, and Warren bought some more. They had a formula that really worked. Then one day it stopped working so well. Partly it was hubris. They thought they were so smart, they could do something difficult like Fresh and Easy, and some other adventures like that they found were way harder.
Then the home market got tougher, just as the Japanese had trouble when behind them rose Japan and Korea. Tesco got in trouble when Aldi came in one side and other people came in on the other. It got tougher. How many big companies stay totally on top forever? Maybe Wrigley’s Gum.
Basically, the normal result is what happened to Tesco. Listen, Aldi is a tough competitor. Ruthlessly low cost, limited assortment, all private label. It’s terribly efficient. You think Costco’s any good for the rest of the grocery stores? And Sam’s Club? It’s a competitive world out there. Somebody is always starting something. Even for the branded goods makers, who looked so invincible for forty years. The natural course of competition is that it gets tough. It’s the people who expect everything to just keep going wonderfully who are nuts.
Nugget 32: If Einstein couldn’t do it, I don’t think you should try it.
Q: Can you tell us about your partnership with Warren Buffet?
Munger: People don’t normally get a divorce after they’ve been together for this long. We’ve adjusted to it. (laughter) If we were going to get a divorce we would have done it earlier. I think the honest answer is pretty modest on my part. Einstein needed somebody to talk to. (laughter) As good as he was, needed a talking foil. I’ve occasionally helped in some other ways, but, basically, you would not want to sit home alone by yourself making the decisions. If Einstein couldn’t do it, I don’t think you should try it.
Audience member: Einstein had his wife, who was a physicist.
Munger: She was not very good.
Nugget 33: The medical interventions that are made purely for money are a national disgrace.
Q: What do you think of Obamacare?
Munger: I thought you were going to ask a hard question. All you want to know is have we unraveled the mysteries of Obamacare. I can’t do that. If you’re an old rich man you can say impolitic things. If I were the benevolent despot of the United States, I would have single payer medicine that people were able to opt out of and buy their own forms of private care, either from places like Kaiser or from individual doctors. I think we’re at a big competitive disadvantage to other countries that don’t have this big cost built into their manufacturing. And, I think that paying for medicine per item for all the old people causes a lot of unnecessary treatment. It wastes a lot of money and hastens a lot of death in this country. The medical interventions that are made purely for money are a national disgrace.
Now I’ve practically offended everybody. Brings out the absolute worst in me. I basically think the existing system is crazy.
Nugget 34: It’s in the nature of things that some people are going up and some people are going down. [If you happen to be in the down group, it’s not going to be fun. Also, politicians can exploit and create angst.]
Q: Do you think the increases in the standard of living that we’ve seen in this country for most people are likely to continue?
Munger: I think that it gets harder — just as Japan has troubles being as prosperous as it was against these powerful neighbors with these big populations getting more prosperous and eating Japan’s lunch. If you have a system where a lot of people prospered in manufacturing, and you get free trade in rising countries like China, Vietnam, Mexico, and so forth, of course it’s going to be harder for the people who had high-paying union manufacturing jobs under the old system.
It’s in the nature of things that some people are going up and some people are going down, and it’s the nature of politicians to identify anybody who is going down and try to make them feel terribly abused, and to profit personally by exploiting the angst. But there’s some angst where the best solution is just to suck it up and cope. In other words, I don’t think you can run a country that eliminates up and down distributional changes between groups. I think that’s the flux of life.
What are we going to do about it? We live in one world. China comes up. The rise of China has not been good for American unionized textile workers. Now, even China can’t even make textiles; that’s going to Vietnam. That kind of flux is just is natural, and the productivity comes from the fact that people suffer all the creative destruction of capitalism. So they don’t like the damn flux when it happens to catch them. But the flux in total is making the whole boat go up, and the fact that the boat never goes up with every group going up exactly the same all the time is inevitable.
Even if the government controlled everything, they’d still rig the system so some people went up and others went down. Just put me down as not too worried about a lot of this modern clap trap.
Nugget 35: Know the edge of your own competency. Learn what to avoid.
Q: How do you and Warren balance the need for simplicity with the need to fully understand these complex ideas?
Munger: The interesting thing about Berkshire is that the results are prodigious and the people who are getting the results aren’t prodigies. How did non-prodigies get prodigious results? This is a very interesting question that I hope we deal with in the annual report. The answer is: You’ve got a little better methods. One thing is absolutely essential: You know the edge of your own competency. That really helps and substitutes for a lot of IQ points. You know what you know and what you don’t know, and you work it. I’ve had that concept down. You learn what to avoid.
Nugget 36: Get No-Brainers Off Your Desk Immediately. Zero Time Span For No-Brainers.
One of my habits is, I get the no-brainers off my desk immediately. Otherwise it gets cluttered. Some people just pile up the desk and then get totally dysfunctional. I hardly know another human being in the world who’s better at this than Gerry Salzman [Daily Journal CEO]. He would have been unable to do what he’s done in life without that one trick. He makes a decision, maybe it’ll be wrong, but his batting average is very high and the time span is approximately zero. That is just a huge trick to master.
The other thing we do if the problem is really hard and important, we rag it. You keep working at it and going back to it and so forth. You have a lot of time to do that because of all the things you avoid that other people do. We just have a few tricks, and they work so well, but they’re not copied so much.