The divide between rich and poor is much on America's mind these days. What is Bill Gates' advice on the subject -- specifically, his counsel to those who are poor, but would rather be rich?
A young student from Beijing posed it just that way to the Microsoft co-founder at his widely watched lecture Thursday at the University of Washington. Her elders, she said, always asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up.
"My answer was always, 'I want to be the richest person in the world,'" she said. "So here I am, here you are... I want to be you, I guess. What is one word of advice you would give to someone like me to become someone like you?"
Thus began one of many reflections Gates had to share on the topics of wealth disparity, the tax code, healthcare reform, the future of technology -- and how to make sure there's a livable world left to enjoy it all in.
Here at his hometown university, in the department of computer science and engineering, Thursday's atmosphere suggested a prince coming back from battle, holding court with the troops. Engineering majors and computer science grad students in beards and Facebook T-shirts were lining balconies around the lecture hall five stories high and massing on the open stairways. The professors beamed, flushed with excitement.
"I didn't start out with a dream of being super-rich," said Gates, talking casually in navy blue slacks and a gray fleece pullover.
"I think most people who've done well have sort of found something that they just are kind of nuts about doing. Then they figure out a way to hire their friends to do it with them. And if it's in an area of great impact, then sometimes you get sort of financial independence.
"But wealth above a certain level, generally it's a responsibility that then you're going to have to either A) leave it to your children, which may or may not be good for them, or B) try to be smart about giving it away.
"I can understand about wanting to have millions of dollars, because there's certainly meaningful freedom that comes with that. But once you get much beyond that, I have to tell you, it's the same hamburger."
At the same time, he said, for all the justifiable attention being paid to disparities in wealth, the trend worldwide is getting better, not worse.
"The world at large is less inequitable today than at any time in history," he said. "That is, the poorer countries are getting richer faster than the richer countries are getting richer. So the number of people in abject poverty, the percentage of people, is at an all-time low today, and that continues to go down."
One measuring point, he said, is early childhood deaths, which have shrunk globally from 20 million a year 50 years ago to just under 8 million a year.
"You're absolutely right, there are some big fortunes, and ... it's not good to have a society where you don't have mobility between different income levels. That is, if you're born in the bottom quartile, education ought to be good enough that you have a reasonable chance of getting into the first or second quartile. So if you really look at where we're letting people down, in terms of the American dream ... I wouldn't say it's because a few people are very rich. I would say it's because we aren't doing a good job in education to give them an opportunity to move into the top 2%."
Some other reflections from the House of Gates:
On how computers have given us the ability to eradicate disease:
"I spend most of my time" working on eliminating polio in the last handful of countries that still have it, Gates said, a project he predicted can be accomplished within three years.
Computer models for malaria in Africa now allow researchers to enter data sets on people, population movements, weather and the menu of possible interventions. The result is a strong indication that transmission-blocking vaccines in combination with other tools, tailored to individual regions, can end the disease.
"The whole idea of this model is to say how intensely do we have to use these tools, or invent new tools. The world effort to get rid of malaria will be driven by this model."
On how improving health in places like Africa can actually help control global population:
"It turned out that as people got healthier, as they got better nutrition, they decided to have smaller families ... so today, the majority of countries in the world are below replacement level."
Peak population, once forecast at 20 billion, is now closer to 9 billion, he said, though the big numbers will come "exactly where we can't afford the increase. Africa which is 800 million today will be over 2 billion by 2040. It'll be bigger than China and India, and in terms of stability, education, agricultural resources, that's very troubling."
On the polarization of political debate:
"We have a number of things that have led to the current polarized situation. We have money in politics, which is bad." But don't discount the creation of "safe" congressional districts among demographically distinct segments of the population, he said, and "the Fox News phenomena, that you're kind of listening to people who agree with you."
Yet "complexity" is part of the problem, Gates said. "The U.S. Tax Code is so complex that you don't know where to be outraged, and you don't have time to read it.... The healthcare bill: 2,400 pages. I'm not going to read it! I care a lot about it, but it's too arcane. So this complexity, the fact that we can't really talk directly about the issues, meaning that we talk [instead] about personalities and things."
And speaking of healthcare reform:
"I do think it's super-important, because the cost trends are such that we are going to be denying people care. You know, that's horrific. And yet the tradeoffs to society, the resource costs there..."
The governor of Washington, Gates noted, is poised to make even further budget cuts to education. "Why is that happening? ... Rising medical costs, if you go all the way back, that is a core piece of what's going on there. So in order to make healthcare always available to somebody like you and not having to cut education budgets forever -- you can get to zero at some point -- you really have to take innovation and make it your friend. You have to come up with lower-cost ways of doing things."
What's the next big technology thing?
If we already have the smart board in the classroom and the smartphone in our pockets, the logical place to go is rethinking the display entirely, Gates said. "The next generation is either a screen that you can fold out to any size that you want, kind of going back to the papyrus scroll, or more likely, it's simply projecting onto your retina."
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-- Kim Murphy in Seattle
Photo Credit: Bruce Hemingway / University of Washington