So Bill Gates and I had lunch the other day, and Bill said…
“Wait a minute,” I hear you saying. “How did you score a lunch with Bill Gates?
Did Gates call you up and complain about what you said about the piece you did about the Wired issue on the Gates Foundation and try to set the record straight? “
Well, not exactly. Gates was the guest of the American Enterprise Institute (where I once worked), for a lunch in their new series on philanthropic freedom. Given the opportunity to be in the same room with the world’s greatest wealth-creator, I thought it was interesting to see what he is like.
(AEI, by the way, is becoming the place where the stars come to talk: the Dalai Lama was there last month, and soon. AEI president Arthur Brooks told the audience, his think tank would have a visit from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, “who is a very prominent guru, who has many, many millions of followers here.”)
The rules for this lunch were somewhat different than other AEI events. There were about twice as many staff as usual for an AEI event, and they all had headphones, which they didn’t use to have. However, the staff member closest to me didn’t let the presence of the world’s richest man distract her from vital texting time.
Only AEI fellows were allowed to ask questions, and after the talk, we all sat until Gates left. These restrictions seemed reasonable to me. The great foundations were, after all, created to put a firewall between donors and dingbats, and I’m sure the great size of the Gates Foundation acts like a giant magnet, attracting more than the usual number of dingbats.
I wish I could provide insights based on Gates’s body language, but my careful maneuvering to sit as close as possible to the stage left me with a magnificent view of the back of the great man’s head. However, the way that Gates leaned in to talk to Brooks seems to suggest that Gates is very nearsighted. (Or maybe he really does have a 30-pound brain.)
One of the many rules my writing teacher, Michael Macdonald Mooney, taught me was “Shoes! You’ve always got to mention shoes!” Let history know that on March 13, 2014, Bill Gates was wearing black slip-on penny loafers. They seemed freshly shined.
One final point: It seems, if this Washington Post article is accurate, that Gates has memorized talking points. When discussing the Common Core standards, Gates said that these standards should be thought of as like a “common plug” like a standard electrical outlet. With standard rules over what students learned, Gates argued, competition among textbook publishers and curriculum developers would increase. Gates repeated this analogy the following day at a conference of the National Board for Professional teaching Standards, which has gotten $5 million from the Gates Foundation since 2010.
As for Gates’s talk, the two unanswered questions about him are: why did he decide to become a full-time philanthropist? What are his politics? I don’t know the answer to the first question, but I have a better handle on the second. Gates’s view of the world is very number-centric. Andrew Carnegie’s idea of fun was inviting the great and the good to his Scottish castle or his Upper East Side townhouse and arguing about the topics of the day. Bill Gates, I have read, likes showing he is as up to speed on medical and technical issues as any expert he hires. In his talk, he discussed the World Bank’s IBRD and IDA loans—and if you don’t know the difference between them, Gates isn’t talking to you.
But a number-centered world means you’re less concerned about things that can’t be measured. That may be why Bill Gates doesn’t care about the arts. It is also why, in discussing the Common Core standard, Gates exclusively discussed the math standards, saying that because of differing standards between states (‘some states had trigonometry, others didn’t”) the end result was a few publishers with thick textbooks that would please every state board of education.
But, as National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood notes in this piece, the real problem with Common Core is the language standards, where the goal is teach students “how to extract important information from ‘texts’” than to appreciate great literature. Gates didn’t address the language standards in his talks.
As for his view of the world, Gates appreciates markets, and respects the way creative destruction ultimately makes the world better. “My parents bought a World Book [encyclopedia],” Gates said. “I read it. You know, I had to learn the world alphabetically. Very weird way to learn things. You know, now, every kid who has lunch Internet access has Wikipedia.”
Gates used this point to reinforce an earlier one: that the world is in much better shape than people suppose. “If you want something to improve,” he said, “you have a tendency to be bothered by the status quo and to think that it’s much worse than it is.” We think the world reeks of violence and war, but this is the least violent time in history. We assume that the problem of global poverty is intractable, but Gates notes that in most of the world, incomes are slowly but steadily rising, except for places like North Korea where opportunities are steadily thwarted by dictatorships and communism.
“Markets are extremely good,” Gates says. “They work—you know, they’re the best mechanism we have. The more you can use them, whenever you can use them…that’s one of the key mechanisms along with science and government that have led us to be so much better off than we are.”
But Gates is simultaneously pro-market and not a fan of shrinking the state.
“Philanthropy plays a unique role,’ he said. “It is not a substitute for government at all. When you want to give every child in America a good education or make sure they’re not starving, that’s got to be government because philanthropy isn’t there day in or day out serving the entire population. It’s just not of the scale or the design to do that.”
This is defeatist. Philanthropy cannot—this week, this year, or in my lifetime—supersede the state. But it can show options, offer alternatives, and be a constructive critic of government. The poor may always be with us, but GS-15s do not have to be.
Everyone can respect Bill Gates’s titanic achievements as an entrepreneur. Like Carnegie and Rockefeller, Bill Gates has created a great fortune in ways that improved the world. We can all salute the Gates Foundation’s important medical research.
I don’t know how often Gates talks to the right, and his address may be the first time he has spoken to a conservative audience. But Gates seemed to enjoy himself. Maybe he’ll have further conversations.
I’ll never have the chance to see John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie. But I’m glad the American Enterprise Institute let me have lunch with Bill Gates.