Theory Comes to Life

The final general session of the Oxford Club’s Investment University — the 14th annual and held in San Diego this year — just wrapped up, and a series of afternoon sessions now follow. It is the kind of event that only a tiny percentage of the population — one might say that this is the 0.01% — will ever attend, and that’s too bad in some way. That’s because the educational opportunity is absolutely extraordinary.

Many people here have slogged through every manner of graduate school for theoretical, technical, and business training. But again and again, I heard the same claim from people: four days here is vastly more valuable than all the classroom education offered anywhere.

I can see why so many would say this. The intellectual level was very high, though the focus is not theory but praxis. This is a conference of practitioners, people who experience and engage the way the world works first hand and with their own property, all with an eye to finding and building value.

Talk to any attendee (some of the smartest people I’ve ever met), any speaker (some of the most impressive minds I’ve ever heard lecture), and you will hear dazzling stories of the rise and fall and rise of great businesses in every land and in every sector, the stuff and the services that define the past, present, and future. The collective knowledge here is awesome to contemplate.

The roster of speakers is mind blowing. These are people with proven records as fund managers, stock analysts, venture capitalists, traders, builders, intellectuals with money on the line, and daring entrepreneurs of all sorts. Yes, many people had something to sell; that is a given, and that is also a test of credibility as well. Unlike a lecture in the college classroom, in which the supposed expert may not have done anything in life but read and repeat, every speaker here was grounded in the real-world accountability that only the commercial marketplace can provide.

The event isn’t just about making money, though that is real (and refreshing) enough. It is about charting the course of life itself – and despite the name of the event, the scope of the event really is about the whole of life. No matter the sector or strategy being discussed, the core always ends up dealing with the most fascinating intersection between economics, finance, psychology, sociology, technology, and politics.

Politically, one could observe a libertarian bent here, mostly born of the general and unassailable observation that markets create wealth whereas politics does not. But precious little time is used preaching about how the way the world should work. The focus here is entirely on how the world does work and finding opportunities in a world that still has plenty left. These days, this task absolutely requires an open, cosmopolitan, and global outlook.

In some way, the task of investment today is necessarily subversive. Government in the developed world targets wealth for confiscation or destruction. The culture is disinclined to celebrate financial success. The Fed has wrecked the ability to make any money from saving the old fashioned way. If everyone did what the government and the culture wanted people to do, the result would be a mass fleecing. The only way to avoid this is to think unconventionally.

Therefore, the smart money has to chase the smart ideas around all corners of the globe. It is in emerging markets and digital technologies where the outlook for prosperity really brightens. Being at this event is the equivalent of getting a tour through the whole world sector by sector, and hearing about strategies for dealing with it.

There was a huge array of speakers, each with an intimate knowledge of some technology, the process it requires, the history and present on the companies and ideas that make it work, the barriers that it confronts going forward, its marketability and meaning in the course of human events. No one person could ever absorb every bit of expertise on display here over four days.

My own topic was inevitable. I spoke on the economically unique aspects of the digital age, and the struggle to commodify and commercialize goods and services in a world of infinite reproducibility. I spoke about the various ways in which successful companies have conquered this terrain through innovative code work, marketing, and relentless adaptation to change, even without taking recourse to forced monopolization tactics.

Of course this touches on the subject of intellectual property, and there were really two views here. The first is the conventional venture capitalist view that a company worth owning needs an impenetrable IP portfolio to protect itself against competitive imitation.

A second perspective is exactly the opposite. An innovative and growing company should never seek out patent protection because that tends to tie a firm to a particular process and technology that may or may not be the best way going forward. Patents distort development. Statis is a greater threat than competition. Any startup banking on its patent war chest is going to be outgunned. Obviously, I found the latter point of view most compelling.

The Oxford Club had Mark Skousen serve as the master of ceremonies for this event, and his books were big sellers at the Spy Briefing book table. Most of his work deals with the intersection between economics and investment, but the biggest selling of his books here is actually his history of economic thought — a book which has become the most used text on the topic.

Professor Skousen is also the entrepreneur behind FreedomFest, a July event in Las Vegas that brings together several thousand libertarian-minded thinkers to present research, debate ideas, and generally have a rip-roaring great time. I’ve attended two years in a row and each time I’ve found the whole event to be enormously refreshing. The tone and approach here emphasizes a broad and diverse exchange of ideas. It is guaranteed that you will hear things you disagree with; it is also a guarantee that you will come away from the event smarter and more intellectually inspired than you came.

It was the same with Investment University. Spy Briefing Books did a wonderfully brisk business in every kind of book, from technical works on futures trading to classic works on history and economics. This is a very intellectually curious and well-read group, with a great and more interest in ideas — ideas grounded in the real experience of real human beings.

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