Warren Buffett’s Comments Embody the Doctrine of Discovery

CNN Anchor Poppy Harlow interviewed billionaire Warren Buffett on Monday and the Doctrine of Discovery was on full display.

Harlow pressed Buffett on whether he thought the country was due for a recession soon. Here’s his response:

America has been on a 242-year run. I mean it just gets interrupted a little bit. But if you are looking for a run, just look around. There was nothing here in 1776 and now look what we’ve got.

The Doctrine of Discovery refers to the religious and legal justification Europe’s colonial powers used to claim indigenous lands and forcibly convert or enslave indigenous peoples. The Doctrine has its roots in 15th century papal edicts and the U.S. Supreme Court adopted a secular version of the Doctrine into U.S. case law 1823. The Doctrine of Discovery’s world view was that if there were no Christians on the land, the land was basically empty and could be claimed. Or, in Buffett’s words: “There was nothing here.”

Warren Buffett (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Buffett’s comments ignore the presence of millions and millions of indigenous peoples living here, with their own culture, traditions, and connections to the land. Saying there was nothing here ignores all that history and all that humanity. It ignores how much of this country’s “242-year run” was built on stolen land and slave labor.

And after Buffett made his comment, Harlow didn’t question it; she just moved onto the next question.

It’s important to note that Buffett is no ultra-conservative. He said he voted for Hillary Clinton for President. He plans to give away most of his billions. He implied that the Republican-backed federal tax cuts — cuts that overwhelmingly benefited the rich — were ill considered. “I would rather have any tax cuts overwhelmingly go to the people that are watching while the rest of the country prospers,” he said.

Clean up at Enbridge’s tar sands crude oil spill in the Kalamazoo River (2010). All of our advances have not been, as Buffett said, “all a net gain.”(Photo: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

And Buffett’s “there was nothing here” comment was not an off-the-cuff remark. It was similar to comments he made at the 2018 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting in May. Here is an excerpt of his comments.

And through it all, you know, America — in fits and starts — but America really, really moves ahead. …

If you go back three of my lifetimes, you go back 263 years, I guess, and Thomas Jefferson is 12 years old … and there was nothing here.

You know, you’ve flown in from all over to Omaha today, and you flew over a country with more than 75 million owner-occupied homes, and 260 million vehicles, and great universities, and medical systems, and everything. And it’s all a net gain in less than three of my lifetimes.

Yes, there is much to be said about an improved quality of life and new innovations. But calling it “all a net gain” is over simplified and frankly delusional. It ignores who gained and who didn’t. Ignoring the unbelievable human costs of land theft, slavery, and their legacies mythologizes our past. Add to that the incredible environmental toll from poorly regulated capitalism, such as the degradation of clean water, an essential for life.

And this analysis passes unquestioned on what is supported to be a progressive-leaning news station.

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