Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is set in the last half of the 17th century. An Englishman’s ship runs aground in the Caribbean; all hands are lost, save Robinson. He finds himself on a deserted island off the coast of Brazil with the storm-tossed ship and most of its contents conveniently nearby. After a brief moment of panic, Crusoe methodically builds a life for himself, crafting a shelter from the raw materials on hand, learning to grow rice and corn, and domesticating the island’s wild goats. Ironically, the gold and silver coins that Crusoe salvaged from the wreck proved useless while Robinson was on the island. He would have traded all of his coinage for a simple device to grind grain.
Crusoe lived during a massive upheaval in the global economy. He had witnessed Spanish and Portuguese brutality in South America, lost a brother to the war in Flanders, seen the earliest stages of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and participated in England’s emergence as a world power. By early manhood he had been a candidate for the law, a sailor, a slave, a colonist, and a plantation owner. He first tamed and then ultimately ruled an island of inhabitants from across the globe.
Given his ample experience in global commerce and cross-cultural leadership, Syntrinsic interviewed Crusoe to glean his thoughts on the current global economic crisis.
Syntrinsic: What do you feel is at the crux of the global economic crisis?
Crusoe: It’s been too easy for too many for far too long. In my day, you had to have the coin to fund your venture. It was very hard to borrow money, and if you did borrow but failed to pay it back, you paid dearly for that failure. There was a very real sense of obligation, a sense of duty. Not everyone of course, but in general.
Syntrinsic: So why the change?
Crusoe: Easy money. My poorest decisions were those tied to getting or seeking easy money. I disregarded the funds, education and advice my father had given me freely. I jeopardized my Brazilian plantation and my life in a secret venture seeking slaves. I was most productive when building my plantation, then later when building a life on my island. Both involved sweat. Both involved my own capital, labor, and intelligence. Neither was easy, indeed they felt like punishments at the time. But looking back, they were the times in my life that made sense, when I was at my best even if I could not always see it at the time. There is something to be said about having to pay your own way, whether it works or not.
Syntrinsic: So what do you think about modern society’s efforts to improve people’s lot in life, to make life less brutal?
Crusoe: I admire it very much. So many good-hearted people. You should have seen some of the wretches I travelled with…and such brutality! Slavery, cannibalism, poverty like you’ve never seen. Life was often harsh, short, and capricious. So I think the intention today to make life more comfortable for more people is a good one. Still, you’ve got to be careful. You can’t make life too easy for folks.
Syntrinsic: When do things become “too easy?”
Crusoe: Hard to say really. Most folks I know have always worked so very hard, much harder than many people need to work today and for far less reward…maybe things become “too easy” when people don’t think they need to work anymore but should still have the benefits of other people’s work. When I first landed on the island, I was mad because I thought God had abandoned me, that if He really cared He would give me food. Later I realized He gave me all the resources I needed to grow grains and raise goats, but I needed to do the work or it would not matter what He had provided. That was a big realization for me.
Syntrinsic: How is this crisis most different from those you have faced earlier in life?
Crusoe: Back in the day, it seemed that Nature was the primary antagonist. Nature could wipe out your plantation with one storm. Nature left my friend’s boat on the bottom of the Atlantic with all of his wealth. Nature crashed my boat on the rocks and left me stranded for nearly 30 years. People would get sick and poof, they’re gone. These days, much of your troubles seem man-made. Strange really. On one hand, you have more wealth, more stuff, more conveniences than even the wealthiest of us did back in the 17th century, yet on the other hand, you really don’t know how to take care of it very well. We had so many problems—disease, famine, absolutely devastating warfare. We had little by way of technology or medicine. Even a simple trip by boat down the coast of England could cost you your life. You have all these solutions at your fingertips, yet everyone talks about the “worst global financial crisis of all time.” You have no idea really.
Syntrinsic: So do you think that the austerity measures being discussed in Europe might make a difference?
Crusoe: Austerity?! Austerity?! Now that is a topic I know a fair bit about. I landed on the coast of Brazil with nothing to my name and carved a tobacco plantation out of the soil. I was shipwrecked on a deserted island and built a shelter, some fields, and a pen for my goats. I lost or nearly lost everything several times. I have heard some of the leaders discussing their austerity plans and let me tell you, there is no austerity there. Look around the world. Look at Africa. Look at Central and South Asia. Look at much of Latin America. They have austerity; Europe knows little of austerity.
Syntrinsic: What about United States?
Crusoe: Well, as an outsider it has been an interesting place to visit. Lots of energy, a sense of possibility. I like that. But also a lot of anxiety. Now I am used to anxiety. When I was in my prime, everyone was anxious because survival was so precarious. You never knew if a wolf would attack, a crop would fail or a loved one suddenly die. Seems that here, people are anxious but are angry about that, as if somehow they shouldn’t ever have to worry about things like work or health or money. From what I have seen in the world, no large society has ever had it so good, so the anger and frustration throughout the country seem misplaced. I’ll be curious to see if that anger fuels anything good.
Syntrinsic: Any last advice?
Crusoe: Work hard. Never give up. Be patient. Be thankful. Be resourceful. Be open to making new friends and alliances. Work with what you have. Help each other. And be generous, for others need your help.
Syntrinsic: Thank you for your time and insight today, Mr. Crusoe.
Later, after our interview, we discussed portfolio management with Crusoe on behalf of his family foundation. He proved to be one of the most thoughtful investors with whom we had met. One could sense that in his younger days he was more likely to take big, concentrated bets, to let his overconfidence and greed guide him.
Long since humbled and experienced, his guiding principle had become all about risk management. Rather than trying to predict the future, he accepted the impossibility of doing so. Rather than assuming things were all good or all bad, he planned for multiple contingencies that would have elements of good and bad in them. He worked diligently to constrain his parochial biases. He understood the global nature of economics. And at the end of the day, he made investment decisions based on common sense.
Perhaps we all could use some time on that island. Seems that wisdom grows well there.