Opinion

The Great Debate

Bill Gates is optimistic about the future

By Reuters Staff
July 9, 2010

USA/The following is a post by Stephen Adler, editorial director of Thomson Reuters professional, that was taken from one of his blog posts at aif.thomsonreuters.com. Adler is a moderator at some of the panels at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Thomson Reuters is one of the underwriters of the event. The opinions expressed are Adler’s own.

Bill Gates, the former tech-nerd-genius, seems increasingly comfortable in his post-Microsoft role as philanthropist, humanist, and Big Thinker. Once awkward in public, he now speaks with warmth and authority about health policy, education, energy, and global innovation. His air of sincerity, hyperlinked to his extraordinary intellect, has turned him into a crowd favorite –- perhaps the crowd favorite –- at events such as the Aspen Ideas Festival.

In his hour onstage inside the giant Benedict Music Tent Thursday afternoon, before the largest audience I’ve seen at the Festival, Gates insisted he was optimistic about the future. He got a big laugh by adding the caveat that to stay optimistic you have to “avoid getting exposed to U.S. politics.” In particular, he cited enormous improvements in healthcare, education, and women’s rights over the past 50 years. The most startling statistic: Deaths of children under five declined globally from 20 million in 1960 to 8 million last year, mostly due to vaccines and better malaria prevention and treatment.

But Gates tempered his optimism with a catalog of obstacles to the kind of changes he seeks, especially in the U.S. In education, healthcare, and energy policy, we have created perverse incentives that lead us away from the results we all seem to want. We fight immigration, even though it brings us some of our best innovators and “lots of I.Q. points.” We refuse to measure teachers’ performance intelligently and encourage improvement, even though we understand that great teaching is the key to learning and achievement. We raise the cost of public university education in response to the financial crisis, even though our higher-education system is one of our nation’s greatest economic assets.

In health care, we spend more than other wealthy nations and get back so much less. This is mostly because we provide incentives to keep people sick so the medical system can keep treating and charging them, rather than shifting the incentives to keeping people well. In energy, we bemoan our dependence on foreign oil and our contribution to global warming while refusing to put an appropriate price on carbon use or invest enough in research on alternative sources.

Gates relies heavily on the business concept of “best practices” as a potential solution to many of these problems. Fund charter schools and other demonstration projects, as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation does, and the public school system will be pushed to start adopting the best practices that emerge. Observe health care systems that work well abroad, such as Germany’s, and follow their lead by encouraging a bigger role for general practitioners over specialists and committing to ”invest upfront” in keeping people healthy.

Gates speculated that part of our problem may be that, despite a lot of griping, we’re really “pretty content with the status quo” and thus don’t want to disrupt existing ways of doing things. This observation seemed to undercut his belief that “best practices,” once revealed, will spread and prevail. But give him this: He certainly puts his money, lots and lots of it, where his mouth is.

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