Gold: A Most Civilized Investment
The week before last, Warren Buffett's right-hand man and Berkshire Hathaway's vice chairman, Charles Munger, told CNBC, "Gold is a great thing to sew into your garments if you're a Jewish family in Vienna in 1939... but I think civilized people don't buy gold; they invest in productive businesses."
Your meaning is well taken, Charles, but your two dichotomies are surely false. Civilized people invest in productive businesses and they buy gold. More to the point, they do so precisely because they are not only civilized: they are typically hedging against the vulnerabilities of civilization, itself. And there follows your other false dichotomy: in 1939, the gold-owning Jewish families were some of the most civilized in Vienna.
Let me tell you a true story about one of them.
In the 1930s, Maximilian, a Jew, and his wife, a Catholic, lived in the Ninth District of Vienna, the Diplomatic quarter, and watched as events moved apace in neighboring Germany under the Nazis. Maximilian was a barrister. In fact, he was quite well known as he worked for the Sacher family -- of Sacher Hotel and Sachertorte fame. In the second half of that decade, Jews were being targeted in Austria as they were in Germany, and the movement of Jewish people and assets was becoming significantly restricted.
Maximilian was wary. He knew that as a high-profile Viennese Jew, he and his family would be the first to be targeted were Hitler to enter Austria. Germany's first concentration camp, Dachau, had already been built in 1933, and Maximilian was, literally, scared for their lives.
Ahead of events, Maximilian smuggled his teenage children, Fritz and Else, out of the country. Fritz landed in England. Else made it to the United States. Maximilian was like many other (but too few) Austrian Jews who were able to save their families because they had property and, in particular, a portable store of wealth over which they had complete control in a form that could be recognized as valuable by anyone in any country -- property that could be hidden, and was not subject to manipulation or alteration by a tyrannical government, or the decisions of bankers or corporate officers.
As civilization collapsed around Maximilian, his portable assets with no counter-party risk, of which gold has always been the best example, were deployed to save his children.
It was just as well Maximilian acted when he did, because on 12 March 1938, Hitler annexed Austria. One month later, all Jews were required to report their financial circumstances to the government, which facilitated seizure. Ten months later, ownership of gold and other portable stores of wealth by Jews was criminalized. But that particular abrogation of property rights was to be irrelevant to Maximilian and his wife because, within weeks of the Anschluss, they had been deported to Dachau, where they were murdered.
Fritz had a son, Paul, and Paul had a son whom we shall call Maxwell. While at university, Maxwell made a little pilgrimage (if that is the right word) to Dachau, to obtain the death records of his great-grandfather and his great-grandmother. (The Nazis kept thorough, if often falsified, records.) He gave a copy to his grandfather, who never said much to anyone about the war, the Nazis or even his family.
But he did have just a few words for his grandson: "Remember; Hitler was a socialist."
Maxwell was never much interested in politics, and would no doubt have forgotten his grandfather's exhortation if it weren't for the fact that a few years later, he was to exit a theater after seeing the film Schindler's List to be met by a young man selling copies of the "Socialist Worker" newspaper with the imploration "Don't let the holocaust happen again", as if buying his rag would somehow contribute to that effort.
Maxwell told the young seller that his grandfather, the Viennese Jew who lost his family to Hitler, would be appalled to see his family's tragedy used to raise money for socialism in any form. The brief exchange that ensued was heated enough that Maxwell would never forget his grandfather's opinion that Hitler was a socialist.
Fritz's death, just two years ago, shook his grandson. Maxwell had not previously lost a close family member. For the first time in his rather charmed life, he asked, quietly and of himself, what kind of responsibility he had to the sacrifice of his great grandparents and to the courage of his grandfather -- without either of which he would simply not even exist to ponder the question.
Why bother writing up this story in the USA today?
I knew Fritz personally.
To him, that idea that socialism and fascism were similar was not a theory: he lived it. Their stated ends of those two "philosophies" are, of course, different, but the methods and outcomes are much less so. Fritz would often make comments about the tyranny that was rising in Europe in the last three decades of his life. He could see the similarities between the socialist politics of Europe today and those he fled as a child. In particular, he saw the concentration of power in the hands of a few politicians who would impose their will across national borders without democratic accountability, and the self-righteous certainty that they know best for us all. He saw a political class that was imposing its agenda on a largely unwilling populace - and in the country in which he settled, the UK, a very unwilling populace indeed.
So I am quite confident that were Fritz still alive, if he lived in this country, he would point out that just as Hitler could sign a bill into law without its passing through the German Reichstag, the President of the USA signs executive orders with the force of law. He would note that just as Hitler could see to it that people were put in prison indefinitely without trial, the National Defense Authorization Act sees to it that the same can be done in the United States. And he might even speculate that his parents had been taken to their deaths by officers of the State who entered the family home without judicial authorization, as can happen now in our country under the Patriot Act. And he'd perhaps comment that the motivation for the same was the state's certainty of the threat all those Jews (and their stashes of gold) posed to the security of the state.
I doubt, of course, that Fritz would worry that our nation would soon see the abuses of these powers that had been seen in the 1930s, but I know that he hated what they represent: the deep and always dangerous divide between a political class that enjoys a monopoly of force, and a population whose rights they are all too quick to abrogate (always for their own good, of course). I believe it was actually Henry David Thoreau (not Jefferson) who first said, "That government is best that governs least." I am pretty sure that Fritz was with Thoreau.
From everything Fritz ever told me, his father Maximilian was a very civilized man. Fritz owed his life to his father's assets and his determination that when push comes to shove, the only people you can rely on are yourself and your family. The German and Austrian Jewish families that made it out with the gold sown in their garments had not waited until the last minute to acquire their gold, and it turned out for many of them that their gold was the best investment they ever made.
It stands to reason, then, that when I last saw Fritz, two months before he died, he expressed approval when I mentioned that I had started buying modest amounts of precious metal.
After all, my grandfather, Fritz Koerner, was a civilized man too. Why would he not want his grandson to take care of himself with at least a little bit of that unusual asset that doesn't do anything much - until you need a hedge not against a dip in the market, but a dip in civilization, itself?