It would be understandable if Howard W. Buffett took President Obama’s “Buffett Rule” personally. Not only does the proposal bear his family’s name and reference his grandfather’s insistence that the wealthy don’t pay enough taxes, but it represents a make-or-break economic proposal from an administration that he was part of until last summer.
But if the young Buffett has any strong opinions on the controversial tax plan, he’s keeping them to himself. “I have cognizantly not taken much of an opinion on what my grandfather is doing with the president,” he told me earlier this week, “and so I don’t know if I have much to reflect on [regarding the Buffett Rule] other than the fact that, um” — he pauses — “it’s interesting.”
Earlier this week, in a small upstairs room at the 92nd Street Y, the Buffett scion was more interested in talking about soil — specifically, the hazards of tilling. “What happens is you end up with a lot of soil erosion,” he told us. “Wind, water — and you actually end up allowing a bunch of moisture that’s kept in the ground to release up. So the combination of, you’re losing topsoil, which is irreplaceable, and you’re releasing a bunch of moisture out of the soil, which you have to replace either through irrigation, which then wastes tons of water, or through rain, and then it effects yields, and weeds grow back easier … ”
This was pretty easily the most in-depth conversation I’d ever had about soil. Minutes earlier, Buffett gave a short speech at the Mashable-sponsored Social Good Summit about “social value investing,” the idea of applying the “best aspects of markets and capitalism” to nonprofits to make them more efficient and effective.
Howard W., a 27-year-old who probably can’t buy alcohol without showing an ID, is the son of Howard G. Buffett, a philanthropist. Grandpa Warren Buffett, with a net worth of about $39 billion, is the world’s third-wealthiest human. That Howard the Younger hasn’t developed into a Midwestern Paris Hilton owes a lot to his grandfather’s refusal to coddle his progeny — an entirely different kind of Buffett Rule. “I want to give my kids just enough so that they would feel that they could do anything,” Warren Buffet once said, “but not so much that they would feel like doing nothing.”
Howard W. seems to have interpreted his grandfather’s advice to mean “do as much as you possibly can.” So far, in his brief adult life, he has worked on the Obama presidential campaign and landed a job on the transition team to set up the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. After he left the White House last summer he took a gig overseeing the Department of Defense’s agricultural development efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. And starting last month, he became the executive director of his father’s philanthropic foundation, which focuses on hunger issues and economic development (hence the soil). He has said he might run for political office “at some point.”
Along with the opportunities inherent with Growing Up Buffett, there are some (relatively minor) downsides. Howard W. says he was spit on in middle school after his family moved. “In Omaha growing up, I was kind of in a cocoon, went to a very small public school that all four of my sisters have gone to,” he told me. “We got yanked out of that into Illinois, where kids just hated me.”
The hate didn’t last. Buffett’s life dramatically changed in 2006, when his grandpa announced that he would donate nearly all of his money to charity. Only days before, he’d moved to New York to start a master’s at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. Suddenly, the Buffetts were on everybody’s radar. “The attention that I started getting in the city from foundations — I was going to a gala every week. It was exhausting, in a good way,” he says. Or in an annoying way. Friends from high school would contact him over Facebook, asking for money. Buffett shut his page down. “I get a lot of that, even still today,” he says. “And actually that’s why I love Twitter so much. Because it just makes it a lot easier. People get 100 and whatever characters to say, ‘Help me out,’ and I could write back and say, ‘I wish I could,’ and that’s it, that’s the end.”
Howard says that even though the Buffett Rule wouldn’t personally apply to him, he “would be willing to pay more taxes” because he appreciates all the services that the government provides. Not that it couldn’t do better. “For some reason, my brain has been programmed to look at reducing or eliminating waste any possible way you can, as long as it doesn’t compromise the broader spirit of whatever you’re trying to get accomplished,” he says. “And that was one of the frustrating things about working in the federal government.” When he mentions that the Pentagon is so vast that it’s been declared “unauditable,” he is visibly disgusted.
Working in the government, though, did come with some unique perks, like the opportunity to propose to his girlfriend, Columbia grad student Lili Thomas, in the White House Rose Garden last year. After three months of planning — it was arranged so that White House staff with offices surrounding the garden would close their doors and stay away for a twenty-minute window — Buffett’s dream proposal was nearly ruined by none other than President Obama. On the big day, Buffett was leading his soon-to-be fiancé on a “tour” of the White House, but when they reached the Rose Garden, a Secret Service agent stopped them. The Garden was currently occupied by Obama and his kids — not exactly people you can tell to, you know, scram. “I was like, well, I guess it’s his house,” Buffett recalls. So he kept the tour going, hoping Obama would leave soon on his own. But with time running short, Buffett decided he had no choice but to start his proposal in the hallway and “just pray to God that in the next four minutes they come and get us.” They did. “Perfect timing,” he says. “Got out there, and it was amazing.” We can imagine Buffett, down on one knee, taking a moment to appreciate the soil.