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Bill Gates on politics, doing the dishes and being friends with Warren Buffett

Bill Gates, one of the world’s richest people, talks about politics, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, family and his friendship with Warren Buffett.

By: New York Times | Published: November 12, 2019 3:45:52 pm
Bill Gates at the annual New York Times DealBook conference in New York. (Mike Cohen/The New York Times)

Bill Gates, one of the world’s richest people, has given away $50 billion of his fortune. He talked with Andrew Ross Sorkin about politics, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, family and his friendship with Warren Buffett in a wide-ranging conversation. This report has been edited and condensed.

Q: There has been a question about the idea that vast fortunes in this country are able to be moved from the private sector into a foundation without paying tax. So the shares of Microsoft that you were able to generate, the shares that Warren Buffett was able to generate, there’s no capital gains on that; there’s no step-up on that. And so the U.S. taxpayer — the U.S. citizen — it’s not clear that they are beneficiaries of your success, to the extent you believe that they should be. What do you think of that? Would you ever be in favor of taxing philanthropy in that way of some sort?

A: We can raise taxes in a lot of ways, including, you know, making some gifts to foundations more taxed. We have a lot of room. The current thinking is not either in terms of encouraging philanthropy or discouraging and forming new business. We’re not close to the limit. … And it is important to separate out the question of should rich people pay more in taxes. The answer is yes.

For whatever remainder of money they have left over, I do think philanthropy is a good thing. I think it plays — that 2% of the economy — plays a role that neither the private sector nor the government are able to do in terms of various innovative approaches to, say, malaria, or nutrition, or trying out new models of education through things like charter schools.

Q: But what do you think of this larger idea that underneath all of this you hear people who say, “There shouldn’t be billionaires in society,” that if you really understand what this wealth tax is about. … In fact, one of our authors at The New York Times describes it almost as a cigarette tax, with the ultimate goal of there being less of it.

A: Maybe I’m just too biased to think that if you create a company that’s super valuable, that at least some part of that you should be able to have a little bit for consumption, and hopefully the balance to do philanthropic things. Now there are people who think that politically those fortunes being used for things like lobbying or giving to candidates, that that’s tilting the playing field.

The last election was not, or at least the presidential piece was not, a money-driven phenomenon. The candidate who spent more did not win in that case. But I agree, the First Amendment wasn’t designed at a time when rich people could essentially buy this big megaphone. I choose not to participate in large political donations. There are times it might feel tempting to do so, and there are other people who choose to do so, but I just don’t want to grab that gigantic megaphone.

Q: Let me ask you a personal question. I just wonder, on a very personal level, when you think about your own life, how you can be Bill Gates out there in the world, and then how you can be the Bill Gates that you are in private, and how you think about that, and how you maybe even can find some space between the two.

A: Well, part of it is that you limit the amount of time you go out into the world, because it’s a little distortive. And you have people around you, like Warren Buffett or my wife, Melinda, who, you know, if I come back and I look like I’m all puffed up, they cut me down to size a little bit. And I do the dishes …

Q: Do you?

A: Absolutely.

Q: You do the dishes?

A: I drive kids to school. I have kids that think I don’t see the world in a modern-enough way, including even some technology things they use that they find it amazing.

Q: Like what?

A: Oh, I’m not as phone-centric as they are. I mean, I have to tell myself, oh, I’ve got to check Instagram because my youngest daughter likes to communicate there. Or I have to check WhatsApp because another child likes to communicate through that. It’s, like, oh my God, I have to do all this. But, you know, if I forget to do it, then it’s, like, “Wow, you’re not paying attention to my life.” I like to read email, and it bugs them that I’m so email-centric and that I’m very large-screen oriented.

So just take today. Today I got to meet a top scientist working on solving malnutrition. So I get a huge benefit when I go out in public of these interactions, of how can we drive things forward.

So the idea that, OK, I give up some privacy in certain settings — as long as it’s not when I’m with my kids, it’s fine; it’s part of the deal.

Q: What’s the coolest technology or thing that makes you the most optimistic?

A: The thing that is the most amazing is that part of the reason poor countries have such a tight time is that over 40% of the kids there never develop either their physical body or their brain. Because of malnourishment from an early age, they have very low IQ, very low physical capacity. And so in Africa that’s over 40% of the kids. And it’s never been understood why.

It’s not like starvation — they are getting enough food. Their twin brother is on their growth path, and they’re not. We’ve discovered — the foundation’s researchers we fund — that you get inflammation in your stomach that relates to the bacterial species, the so-called microbiome. And so we are in trials right now with very low-cost things that can get rid of that inflammation and allow the kid to get back on their growth path.

And so not only will less kids die — because kids on their growth path are a third as likely to die from pneumonia or diarrhea or malaria — but also as the kids survive, their ability to learn and do work. Every society has benefited from food input — you got more and more protein, and so less kids had malnourishment. Here we can short-circuit that, and even in very poor countries we can essentially get rid of malnutrition. That — I mean, I get to work on a lot of cool things — that is the most cool thing I’m working on.

Q: Can you just tell us about this friendship with Warren Buffett? And I’ve gotten to see you guys together, but the reason I ask is it’s kind of a coincidence of sorts that two of the wealthiest people in the world become best friends. And I’m not sure it has anything to do with the money, but maybe I’m wrong.

A: No, certainly not. And I didn’t even want to meet Warren because I thought, hey, this guy buys himself things, and so he found imperfections in terms of markets. That’s not value-added to society; that’s a zero-sum game that is almost parasitic. That was my view before I met him.

And, no, he wasn’t going to tell me about inventing something. But then I meet him, and I realize that everything he does is based on a framework of the world where he’s judging — judging markets, judging people, judging how things work, in a very deep way. And so he asks me questions about Microsoft, like, “Why can’t IBM crush you in a second?” That is the world’s most obvious question, and nobody had ever asked me before.

And so I got to ask him about newspapers, and retailers, and good investments, bad investments, and how he figured all that out. And I realized we both — although we come from different places — we’re both trying to model the world and what goes on. And the world, I have to say, has been even more fascinating in some unexpected ways than when we first became friends.

A number of things Warren and I call each other up and go, “Oh my God, can you believe what’s going on? This is so interesting. Unexpected. What the hell’s going to happen?” We can talk forever because we’re both trying to figure it out.

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