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Character sketch: Warren Buffett

(Tim Bower for The Boston Globe)
By Dante Ramos
Globe Staff / October 2, 2011

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FEW BUSINESS leaders lend their names to efforts to raise federal taxes on the wealthiest Americans. But in August, billionaire financier Warren Buffett published an op-ed piece complaining that he paid a much lower rate than his subordinates. In that spirit, President Obama recentlyproposed a minimum “Buffett tax’’ on the super-rich. If Buffett minded, he presumably wouldn’t be going to campaign fund-raisers on Obama’s behalf.

Buffett’s pro-tax advocacy is a provocation to Republicans, who have accused the so-called “oracle of Omaha’’ of fomenting class warfare, and to conservative economists, who insist that higher taxes on investors will damage the economy. Then again, Buffett built his reputation, and one of the world’s largest fortunes, by tuning out the conventional wisdom of the nation’s executive suites. He’s not easily pegged as a limousine liberal. Rather, his stance seems in keeping with his personal frugality and his much-publicized pledge to give away more than 99 percent of his wealth.

Buffett, now 81, is the son of a Republican congressman from Nebraska. He took to buying stocks while still in grade school, and eventually moved on to entire companies. He famously transformed Berkshire Hathaway Inc., once a foundering New England textile company, into a conglomerate whose subsidiaries sell everything from insurance to cowboy boots to Garanimals. He’s frequently described as a bargain-hunter, but that doesn’t quite capture his approach: “You don’t want to buy things that are cheap,’’ he told CNBC last year. “You want to buy things that are good.’’

In interviews, Buffett comes across as jovial, plain-spoken, even corny. He plays bridge. His firm owns companies like Fruit of the Loom and Dairy Queen, and its no-frills website looks like something a small-town law firm would have put up in 1998. His letters to shareholders are notably free of “synergies’’ and “right-sizing,’’ and they go into gory detail about his own errors: In 2009, for instance, he wrote that “so far I have been dead wrong’’ about a purchase of ConocoPhillips stock. “Even if prices should rise, moreover, the terrible timing of my purchase has cost Berkshire several billion dollars.’’

To detractors, the self-effacing stance doesn’t change the fact that Buffett has made some bad calls; the “oracle’’ didn’t foresee the blowup of the housing market, either. Still, it’s no wonder why Buffett has at least galvanized populist Democrats who bristle at the equation of “rich people’’ with “job creators.’’ He’s a walking indictment of the puffed-up CEO who, in bad times, displaces blame in a torrent of MBA-speak - and takes home big bonuses no matter what.