DAVID J. SKORTON: Big day, huh? Good afternoon and welcome to an event that Cornell and the surrounding community have been eagerly anticipating, an opportunity to hear the thoughts of someone whose impact on our world as an entrepreneur and as a philanthropist is enormous and growing every day. While still an undergraduate, Bill Gates saw clearly as few of us did in the early to mid 70s, the vast potential of personal computing. He had already been fascinated by computers for years and had been programming since the age of 13. He and his friend, Paul Allen, founded Microsoft in 1975. And Mr. Gates dropped out of Harvard, a fully accredited institution of higher education.
In the years that followed, besides transforming the computing world, he undermined the credibility of millions and millions of parents and educators by proving what a big success the college dropout could be. With Bill Gates as chief software architect and chair, Microsoft soared to international leadership in business and personal software and services. For the first few years, Mr. Gates personally reviewed every line of code that the company produced. In 1985, Microsoft launched the first retail version of Windows, which would eventually dominate the personal computer market.
Mr. Gates' personal wealth mounted with Microsoft's success, and he began looking for ways to use it for the greater good. Global health projects were among the early beneficiaries of his philanthropy and continue to be a major focus today. In the 1990s, he and his wife, Melinda French Gates, also funded the placement of public access computers with internet connections in libraries throughout the country.
In 2000, they combined their individual efforts into the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which they jointly co-chair. And a few years later, Mr. Gates began to devote a growing portion of his time to philanthropy. Today, while continuing to serve as a technology adviser and board member at Microsoft, he focuses most of his time on the Gates Foundation.
He and Mrs. Gates are deeply involved in grant making strategies and decisions, advocacy on issues important to the foundation, and guiding the foundation's work directly. In 14 years, this foundation has provided an astonishing $30 billion for health and development around the world and more than a half a billion dollars into education.
This morning, as some of you witnessed, we proudly dedicated Bill & Melinda Gates Hall, the spectacular new home of Computing and Information Science. The landmark $25 million gift of the Gates Foundation gave us a tremendous head start on this building without debt, a structure that is superbly designed to advance the work of our students, staff, and faculty and to enhance computing related collaboration across this campus. But many other Cornell people and programs have benefited from the generosity and the vision of the Gates Foundation, which has partnered with us on projects aimed at improving human health, food security, and education for people around the world.
To give just a few examples, the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project coordinates international efforts to develop wheat varieties that are resistant to a devastating disease and to disseminate these varieties in developing countries. The Next Generation Cassava breeding Project uses genomic selection to speed development of improved varieties of this root crop, a staple for 500 million people in Africa. A manned library project called TEEAL, The Essential Electronic Agricultural Library, provides access to scientific journals for agriculture researchers in the developing world without requiring internet access.
And Gates Foundation grants also support Cornell research focused on cholera, malaria, and tuberculosis, all serious problems in the developing world. And we're very, very grateful for all of these partnerships in Cornell's mission of research and outreach for the public good. It's been a decade too long since Bill Gates visited Cornell, and we're very, very honored to have him back at last and eager to hear his points of view. Please join me in welcoming back to Cornell, Bill Gates.
Well, I'm going to ask just a couple of questions, a few questions to begin, and then we're going to have some student questions. Since you're here in connection with the Gates Foundation's generous support for Bill & Melinda Gates Hall, I have a single question about the philanthropy. What Gates Foundation single success are you most proud of?
BILL GATES: Well, the two big things that we focused our foundation work on, one is we thought about what should we do globally. And there we saw that health was the greatest injustice. Children who died young age, children who grow up without full physical or mental development. And then our second cause, we decided to focus in the US on whatever we could do to help the education system, particularly the public K through 12 education system.
The thing I'm most proud of is the work we've made and the progress we've made in global health. When we got started back in the year 2000, 10 million children a year would die, 10 million children under the age of five. And that was about 8% of all children. And that birth cohort at the time was about 130 million. Now, that's down to 6.3 million, and so we've taken it from 8% to 5%.
And that's in 12 years, so you know what we have to do now is cut it down to 4 million, 2 million, really get it down to the point where poor children don't have a greater chance of dying than children in the entire world. So we will have to solve malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia. Fortunately, it's a finite number of things that explain why a poor child is so much more at risk. But I'd say that single thing, going from the 10 million down to the 6.3 million, which working with partners we've been a big mover on that, that's the single thing we're the most proud of.
DAVID J. SKORTON: Thank you.
At Cornell, we're very proud of a culture of entrepreneurship in which students and faculty and staff all participate in entrepreneurship. And recently, we opened a general purpose incubator in downtown Ithaca. What is your best advice for the next Bill Gates out in this audience?
BILL GATES: Well, you have to think of something that I didn't think of. I was daunted when I was thinking about software and how I wanted personal computing to happen. And mostly, I wanted to be able to use it. I wanted it to be invented, and it wasn't that critical whether I created it or not. I wanted it as a tool.
But then, eventually, when we got into it, and I dropped out of school and I was responsible for paying people's salaries, I thought gosh, I'd really like to have us be the ones who get the lead on this. And I never really, because I've never worked much in large organizations, I never could understand why IBM, Digital Equipment, Wang, those companies who had vastly more resources than we did but didn't have this view of the importance of software, in particular, software for personal productivity and structuring the industry so that the software was very, very cheap but very high volume. I never understood why they couldn't wake up someday, take their engineering power, their scale, their reputation, and come after us.
Now, since then I've had a chance to work in large organizations and I understand the difficulty they have in refocusing their strategy. But you have to come up with something fairly radical, something to do learning, a big breakthrough in artificial intelligence, a big breakthrough in the way that things are going to get automated, and really steal the march. If you just have some refinement that's slightly better than say Word or Excel are, then that does fit the paradigm where eventually the customers will tell the big company and the big company will do the right thing. So it has to be something fairly radical, and that's probably the only thing that's worth going out and taking the risk, building a new company anyway.
So it has to be something not obvious. And I don't think most people who do new things like that start with oh I want to be an entrepreneur, I've got to figure out what I'm going to do about that. You more think oh, I have something I want to do. Oh, well if I want to have control over going at full speed, it turns out having my own company that I'm either the leader of or one of the few people who are actually driving this thing, then we can move a lot faster than just getting a job somewhere and trying to get them to do it.
DAVID J. SKORTON: So speaking of jobs where you have no control over anything, I'm in my last year as president of Cornell, and I've been looking back on the times here. And my biggest regret is that we didn't do enough about the cost of higher ed. We did a lot about financial aid here but not the underlying cost matrix, didn't change much. And so, do you have some particular direction for us? You've thought about education from a different perspective. Do you have a call to action for us related to access and affordability, to help us get there? Because we haven't done a very good job.
BILL GATES: Well, higher education, if you look at the cost structures, there's quite a range of cost structures. And the super high-quality institutions that do research, that are the private institutions like Cornell, Harvard, Stanford, the really top schools, they have a very high cost, but they're mixing in two missions. One is giving the world's best education to undergraduate and graduates and what they're giving back to the world in terms of research. And so, eventually it would be good, to the degree it's possible, to separate that business model out and understand why is it so expensive to give that education. Are there real returns to that?
My general view is that those schools are going to be under the least pressure to change because their model involves some philanthropy, is not really that much under attack. And they provide so much to society in terms of global leadership, US leadership, in just take the sciences alone. I got to see great work in computer science and in agriculture, that's all I could see today but really amazing stuff going on here. So we probably ought to be conservative about doing radical things to the research-driven institution, that's a bias that I have.
Then if we look at the bulk of low-income students and we say where are they getting educated, and what is the cost pressure against them? A lot of that is the public institutions. And those tuitions have crept up fairly dramatically for two reasons. One is the cost increases and the second is that the state subsidization of their universities has gone down as various state budget things, particularly health care costs, going up faster than the total tax collection goes up.
And so those institutions always used to be the escape valve. If you didn't get some phenomenal scholarship and your parents could only contribute so much, if they have a $7,000 or $8,000 a year tuition, probably between loans and scholarships and work, in most professions, once you get a degree that's going to be OK. Now that's crept up to $15,000, $16,000, and if we project that out, it'll be $20,000, $25,000. Then we've got a real affordability problem.
I mean, yes I feel a little bit bad for somebody who had to go to the state institution for financial reasons. But that's not the same tragedy of them not being able to go to a four-year school at all. And so it's helping these state schools either get more government money, but unfortunately, I'm not too optimistic about that. Helping them control their cost structure is super important.
And there's all this sort of idealistic thinking of we'll just use MOOCs. Well, you know education has never been about just the knowledge being available. If so, and you want to learn computer programming, there's a book by Don Knuth, go guy a copy and read it. You want to learn physics, there's a book by Richard Feynman, go buy a copy and read it. There's some reason that kids don't learn that way. Very few of just sit down and read the Feynman book. You have to create a thing where there's a social environment that encourages you to go. When you get confused there's people to help you out.
So figuring out how we can take that MOOC idea, which probably can replace the lecture but can't replace all the different elements. How do we create a hybrid out of that, that not only works for high-income, well-motivated students but even for kids whose high school, low-income students' high school experience won't have been as good, I think over the next 5, 10 years that will get figured out. And so at least the lecture part of the class, we can get rid of that. And some of those state universities can go for higher scale because they won't be limited by their facility.
So I'm hoping that technology both can give us more accessibility and raise the quality. After all, college lectures are a little bit back when people sang in theaters where thousands of people go and give individual performances. Some of those individual performances are particularly good and some aren't. And no university has the very best lectures in all subjects. Particularly as you move down the tuition levels of universities, your likelihood of getting the best geology lecture goes down. So that piece, the repeatable, scalable piece, I think we can reduce costs and increase quantity, but we don't want to-- What's happening now is we're taking people who provide supports and help the student when they're confused, de-motivated. We're largely saving money on that.
And dropout rates, the US has two amazing things. We have the most people who go into higher education of any country. We don't have the most who come out though, because our second record is we have by far the most dropouts in universities, not so much in the Ivy League, but huge dropout levels. So we're not serving these students, and unfortunately, there's a strong correlation between if you have low income in your family, your dropout rate is dramatically higher, even independent of your SAT score or other measures. And so we can't just get the cost down, we have to actually get this completion rate up as well.
DAVID J. SKORTON: That's terrific. Thank you. I think we're ready to go for our student questions. I think we're all set, and I understand you're going to come up. And please tell us your name if you don't mind and what you're studying.
AUDIENCE: Hi I'm York Doku, and I study computer science. I'm a sophomore. And I've been really into your blog Gates Notes, specifically, energy education and vaccination. And I'm really curious what will be the world's next big revolution.
BILL GATES: Well I think the pace of innovation is faster today than it's ever been. And in a way, that's not surprising. We have more engineers, biologists, computer scientists, working on breakthroughs both at universities and in companies like Microsoft, Google, Apple, than we've ever had before. The places I think things are very dramatic, what's coming along and somewhat underestimated, first I would say, is in computer science.
The fact that computers will be able to see and listen and reason at a very significant level, that's been the holy grail ever since I was 13 years old. What can we do that these machines can't do? And it turned out to be way harder than anybody expected. So in a sense, everybody's, the computer guy's saying wait, the computer is going to take over all this stuff. We've said that so many times, they don't even listen when we say it. Well, this time it's actually going to happen. And so it's both valuable and something to think about, to be prepared for, because it can actually not only provide incredible efficiencies but it can change the job market quite a bit.
I'm also very optimistic about medicine, whether it's the medicine, the diseases of the poor world like malaria, being able to eradicate that in the next 15 years. That's definitely a goal we have in our foundation, and it's the basic advances in science that make that an achievable thing. In energy, of course, we need to invent both power systems and transport systems that are non-CO2 emitting.
And if we had 60 years to do it, I could say pretty confidently we'll do it. Unfortunately, we really need to invent it like in 10 or 15 years and then deploy it in the next 25 or 30 years in order to not run too much of a risky experiment in terms of the level of climate change, the heating and change to the weather system that will induce. So that's the only one, I'd say the innovation, it's happening but maybe not at the rate that it absolutely needs to happen because of that problem.
All the fields of endeavor involved in are going to be changed by the digital revolution. Just the fact that we have these sensors. You know we're talking now about primary health care centers in Africa, putting in cameras, recording when people come in, giving them advice about what they're doing. And so even out there where the cost and simplicity demands, constraints are way higher than anybody else, we're looking at digital enablement there. So everywhere I look, material science, medical science, rich world disease, whatever, I see the next 10 or 20 years as being just absolutely phenomenal.
DAVID J. SKORTON: What a great, optimistic point of view. Who's up next? Great. Thank you.
AUDIENCE: Hi my name is Elli [? Cachoporella. ?] I'm a freshman studying Biology in Society. And so my question is related to the extensive philanthropic work you've done in communities around the world that don't have access to education, health care, other basic needs. So Cornell has a lot of university sponsored programs and clubs that send students abroad to work in these communities for a short or long periods of time. And so my question is, what can students and university do to ensure that these kinds of study abroad or service trips actually have meaningful contributions to these communities versus being kind of a culture exchange that doesn't always have a tangible impact on those communities.
BILL GATES: Yeah. Well, I think the most powerful thing in terms of having empathy for other people is to go out and see them where they live, talk to them about their challenges and problems. So I think the fact that students can as part of their educational experience can spend time in the poorer parts of Asia, the poorer parts of Africa. And that's an absolutely wonderful thing.
In and of itself, it doesn't pay back. That is, if all they do is go out there and make the visit and maybe help out a little bit while they're there, if it doesn't affect their view in terms of their political voice or the things they choose to work on donate to, the cost of that airfare would be better served just buying a few more vaccines in the village.
On the other hand, if it turns that person into a thoughtful advocate who volunteers or has a role in making sure that government aid stays at a fairly generous level, making sure that scientific progress doesn't just solve the problems of the rich world, also cares about the problems of the poor world. There's so many ways either during your professional career or the time other than your professional career during the whole course of your life where you'll have the chance to take your understanding and empathy and have a positive impact.
So I don't think we're going to very easily measure this and say, oh that's student I wish we hadn't sent, that student I wish we had. At the end of your life we'll have a little scorecard we'll hand to you. But, I think in aggregate, even though there'll be pluses and minuses in the equation, I think in aggregate, that's exactly what we need in order to make sure the fact that people tend to live with rich people. They tend to live in the temperate zones, so they don't see.
It's very hard to appreciate that like refrigeration for vaccines is super, super hard to do. Or getting to the doctor to get a daily TB drug, getting compliance with that is almost impossible. Whereas, in our environment it's not a particularly tricky thing. Most people in Africa are born, live, and die without ever seeing a doctor even at a distance. They never see a doctor, so it's quite a different experience. And so I'm a big fan of those things if you allow it to touch you in terms of your future behavior.
DAVID J. SKORTON: It's such a good summary. Our vice provost for international affairs, professor Fred Logevall has been trying to develop a dialog on campus to understand what a meaningful international experience is in both directions, and this advice is very helpful. Thank you. Who's up next?
AUDIENCE: Hi. My name is [? Stas, ?] [? Paywashepic ?] and I'm studying computer science. I'm a senior. And becoming as successful as you takes a lot of motivation and focus. And my question to you what helps you stay motivated and focused?
BILL GATES: Well, if being as successful as me means having as much money as I do, it also takes a ridiculous level of luck in addition to whatever other factors are involved. I mean, I had no idea that writing software would be so profitable. And it's nice. Now I have the opportunity and responsibility of giving that money back through the various things I'm doing, so it's a nice, a very nice deal. I think working on something where are you love it and you feel like there's a sense of progress.
Our foundation does a lot of things that seem to go very slow or very tough. You know we're involved in trying to improve K through 12 education in the United States. And even though we put a lot into that, I would say we can't say for sure whether that money will cause a significant change, that high school dropout rates, college attendance rates, kids who enjoy college, kids who get a good job. Whichever metric you pick, those metrics in the last 12 years we've been involved have moved basically not at all.
And you know, there's points of light. You can go to some charter schools that we've done and go wow. And you know, hey there's 500 kids there, but there's 50 million kids in the K through 12 system. And even despite these nice little groups of 500, if you look at the aggregate measures, there's really no meaningful change that has come out of the reform movement. Maybe some hints of what we need to scale up in the future for that.
So my basic advice is pick something you like. It's very good if the skill of reading and learning new things is something you retain as you get older. I think one thing I have that I think other people have lost a little bit is the willingness to learn a new subject area, to pick up a book and read pretty deeply about that. And when I think why am I willing do that? Well, partly, I have enough friends who know a lot that if I get confused or stuck I can just send email and they'll straighten me out on the thing. So I'm not at much risk of falling into utter confusion. So having smart friends who can rescue your dead ends is a pretty good thing.
Wanting to learn about stuff, wanting to understand stuff, wanting to meet the scientists who might have a chance of making the breakthroughs in the new areas, it makes things a lot of fun. And so I find myself working as many hours as I did 10 years ago. Now in my 20s, I didn't go home at night. I didn't believe in weekends and vacations, so I'm not as fanatical as I was in the first decade of Microsoft. That was a lifestyle for somebody in their 20s with no wife, no girlfriend, parents who don't require them to come around too often. So that was pure fanaticism. But I'm semi-fanatical at this point because it's fun and energizing.
DAVID J. SKORTON: That's terrific. Well, if you want a sort of a job where people send you a lot of e-mails and straighten you out, you might look at my job.
BILL GATES: All right.
DAVID J. SKORTON: I'm telling you. Fantastic deal. Please.
AUDIENCE: Hello. My name is Argen [? Sangier, ?] and I study computer science. My question is social networks and photo sharing apps like Facebook, Skype, Twitter, WhatsApp often start out as naive applications that don't intend to solve the world's biggest problems like hunger, disease, extreme poverty, but they often end up impacting other societal problems by spreading news, information, and knowledge to remote parts of the world that can indirectly help solve the world's biggest problems. For example, doctors in India are using WhatsApp to diagnose diseases by quickly sharing pictures of patients' symptoms. Do you think young student entrepreneurs should instead try to directly solve the world's biggest problems?
BILL GATES: That's a great question. The percentage of students who go into computer science and engineering or any of these areas who will directly go after the problems of the poorest will be a fairly small percentage. I mean, say it's 3% today. I'd like to see it double or triple. I'd like to see it get up to 6% or 9%. That still leaves 91% who are working on broader problems that as you say, actually if you solve things for rich people, the trickle down effects or broad applicability often makes them extremely valuable.
Or take Mark Zuckerberg. Whatever the direct benefits of Facebook or net direct benefits of Facebook are, he's also at a young age started to give philanthropically. And so, there's a ton of people who should go off, make money whatever way turns them on, and then they'll have an opportunity, they together with their family perhaps, to then focus on some of these other issues.
So I'm not saying that everybody should go off and work on cholera and measles or plants that only grow in Africa or something like that. Most won't do that. But a lot of people won't ever develop an understanding that people's lives in, say Uttar Pradesh, are a bit worse than what they're used to. And so there are problems like malaria or cold chain or toilets that don't require lots of running water in order to work. There are problems that literally don't get great scientists working on them. Whereas problems of lesser impact that are beneficial for the rich do get something. So I wouldn't say constrain yourself just to things that are only for the poor.
DAVID J. SKORTON: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: Hi, Mr. Gates. My name is Vivian Chen. I'm a sophomore studying Biology in Society. I was just wondering what direction do you see higher education heading towards in the future, say in about 20 years or so?
BILL GATES: Well, higher ed hasn't changed that much in the last 20 years. I mean yes, you know there's digitization where the way you sign up for classes is slightly different. And if you skip the lectures, getting the notes, I guess, is easier now than it used to be. But it's not dramatically different.
I do think this idea that you have age 18 to 22 that if it's possible for you to hang out with other smart kids and talk and think about things and learn a lot of things, I think it's an amazing thing that society can offer that. And society gets a lot back from it because those people are well-trained at going out and working on sophisticated problems, mostly in the private sector but also in the public sector and a little bit in the philanthropic sector. I don't know that there'll be some huge breakthrough in knowledge acquisition. I mean, yes we're finally doing science about what sort of teaching methods work, how you get people to interact with knowledge so you can cement it and progress exactly not too slow for this individual student, not too fast.
Yesterday I was in New York City seeing a math program that we support where every kid is on their own learning track. And every day they look up and see a screen that tells them OK, here's the math that you're going to go and do and they're in different groups, which might just be on the computer, might be three kids working together, might be six kids with a teacher.
Anyway, they're getting in that way of teaching math, personalized learning, about double the gains per year that they were getting in a normal classroom situation. And as you'd expect, it's particularly powerful for the kid who was behind to catch up or the kid who has a little bit ahead not to be held back and let them progress even further ahead of that average thing. So when I see things like that, I think wow.
If you want R&D to have breakthroughs, the one place you might pick is education. Because if education got, say 20% better, then medicine, energy, economics, you name it, that's the supercharger that creates capacity out in the economy at large. Energy is another one where it kind of if it was cheap, available, it imbues a lot of industries. But I'd say education would rank at the top of that.
So I'm not really sure how much better we'll be at educating people, at least somewhat better. You know there maybe I'm just too old to see some breakthrough where they can just stick a needle in your head and it's got the Feynman book in DNA. And so you wake up and you think wow, I understand angular momentum, finally. But sort of something like that, I'm not sure education will look dramatically different than it does right now.
DAVID J. SKORTON: I'm not sure you would come to my speeches if you could just get that needle thing, but we'll think about that. These are great questions you guys. Really good questions.
AUDIENCE: Hi. My name is Emma [? Curlic. ?] I'm a sophomore studying sociology. My question is what is your opinion on the increasing price but decreasing worth of an undergraduate college education, mostly with regards to the value employers place on say bachelor's degree versus a master's or doctoral degree.
BILL GATES: Yeah well, there's a lot of endeavors in society where the market mechanism works very well. Things like how many Thai restaurants should we have, how many Chinese restaurants. You know, it works and nobody thinks the government ought to get involved. Education is very strange, education and health are two gigantic areas of our economy where the normal basis that you want for a market mechanism to work isn't really there.
That is, people considering various universities don't really know very well how much value out of that university has. And so we have these weird proxy measures which are quite perverse. Which is you look at US News & World Report and it says OK what's the SAT score of all those kids going in? Well, if you have a high SAT score going in, then you might be smart when you go out. They're not going to make you dumber.
I want to see a university ad that says we took kids with a 400 SAT score and they were super smart when they left our university, not yeah, we were sure they were smart when they came in so we didn't damage them all that much. So find me in US News & World Report an output measure.
In fact, one of their columns is a measure of inefficiency. They're rewarding inefficiency. So it says how many dollars did they spend per student? And you'd think in a normal market economy you'd say, oh so it's good to be small, right? I mean you get a four-year education for less money. No, they rank you higher if you spend more money. And so institutions go hey, we need a climbing wall. We need a better building. It's a perverse incentive that really doesn't relate to the quality of that product.
So if you're a student trying to think will this school fit for me? How much more will I know? You don't really have a way of measuring that. Now fortunately, or unfortunately, employers likewise don't have a very good measure of that. So they've fallen into the same system that you use when you apply, which is hey this kids from a super nice college. At least they were smart when they went in, and they were hanging out with other smart people so we will value that degree in terms of creating opportunity more.
An ideal world, whatever the skills that employers want, you'd have some objective measure where you'd go and be tested. And independent of how you acquired that skill, you'd be OK. There are a few domains where that works, like computer programming. Somebody can call up Microsoft and say hey, I write good code. And we can say to them, send us your code. Or we can have them come in and we can give them a coding task and they can sit and do it. So we take people who do well in these programming contests, and we send them job offers. And we never say did you go near a school? So that's more like hiring a dropout like me where you just take some skill thing.
But most of the economy doesn't work that way, and until we can fix those measures, a little bit the whole system is messed up in terms of what it's being told to do. And you can get a conspiracy. There's a book out about this where the number of hours that students work has gone down from about 20 hours a week to 12 hours a week on average. And this is in US universities, not Cornell, as a whole. The science majors are the highest. They're about 16, but the average is 12. And it's gone way down.
So you have this conspiracy of hey, don't make your course hard. We'll say we like your course, and we'll do OK and we'll graduate. And so the thing doesn't have as strong a function forcing inequality and rewarding higher quality that you would like. And I don't know if we'll be able to fix that. If we can fix that in education and fix it in health, those would be two wonderful contributions to get society's resources much better allocated.
DAVID J. SKORTON: Such a good point. We mainly deal with input functions. And by the way, just so you know, the hours have come down here, too. These students are putting in maybe 70, 75 hours a week. It's way down. It's not that much you know.
BILL GATES: They look tired.
DAVID J. SKORTON: Yeah. They've been waiting here a long time for you. That's why they're tired.
AUDIENCE: Hi. I'm William [? Ombage, ?] and I'm a third year electrical and computer engineering student. And my question is do you feel that the current political and economic climate is largely controlled and governed by a small group of individuals, such as central banking groups and wealthy politically active families? And if so, how has that affected your decisions and policies both as an industrial leader and a leader of philanthropy? And do think it's a sustainable phenomenon.
BILL GATES: Well that's a good question. For the first 15 years or so that I ran Microsoft, I never visited Washington, DC to talk to any politician. I didn't give a single political contribution, and I'd brag to people about that. You know, hey, what an interesting country where you can create this company, can do super well, be super profitable, doing things all over the world. I never had to ask the US government to help me in Japan or any other of the complex places we did business.
And then we ran into a trial where the government came after us, and we thought maybe we should have been spending more time in Washington, DC. Maybe that was an naive point of view. I'm not trying to advise somebody to not go to Washington, DC. I certainly wouldn't advise them to brag about not going to Washington, DC. That was like telling the politicians they have no power. Not a good idea.
The current politics we have, I don't think you can characterize them in some simple way, like a small group of people are controlling the politics. I think it's very complicated what we have right now. The US was designed so that a-- Madison did this design so that a majority couldn't be tyrannical and totally change the system. And so we have a lot of checks and balances in our system.
And with the current polarization both in terms of the parties and even the geographical things, this ability to veto is really coming to the fore that it's very hard to get a consensus. Should we change immigration? What is the path forward for health care in America? And it kind of boils down to more government, less government, or over-simplistic discussion about what should be a very complex topic. So I'm certainly, I'm a little worried about politics. You know, the closer you get to Washington, DC, the more worried you get about it.
Now, then again, we've gone over 200 years. We've solved a lot of tough problems. Democracy is supposed to be a self-correcting system. That is, it really is a democracy. They really do add up those votes, and we send those people to Washington, DC. It's somewhat paradoxical right now. The Congress's popularity is 13%. That's a democratically elected Congress. You ask the Chinese people hey, do you think your government is doing a good job? 78% percent say yes. And that's a real number. I mean that's not a distorted number. So the one where we pick the guys to go do it, they get a 13% rating. And the one where they didn't pick the guys to do it, they get 78%. There's something funny here. Why is one so much better?
So you'd hope that a new generation of politicians that are more practical, maybe more centrist, you hope that will emerge. I'm not sure I see that emerging. I will say that the things that really count in society don't depend on the politicians being geniuses. If you get an innovation that can generate energy without making CO2, that trumps a lot of deadlock in Washington, DC. If you get medical advances like curing hepatitis C that a company called Gilead has this thing that actually saves money in the health care system. It's an expensive drug but it cures hepatitis C. When you get advances like that, that's where life really changes.
Washington, DC, you can say that it's worse, but in some ways it's the same. The thing that really improves is innovation and science and the way we all get to participate in that. So although I'm concerned about the politics, I don't find it easy to characterize the problem. And I'm not sure that it will really block the basic trend towards the world getting better in almost every dimension.
DAVID J. SKORTON: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: Hi, Mr. Gates. My name is [? Mochiel ?] [? Wakil. ?] I'm from Sydney, Australia, and I'm studying industrial and labor relations here in Cornell. My question is, why do you think that income inequality has defiantly increased over the recent decades, despite the trillions of dollars spent in social security payments and through philanthropic foundations and institutions like the giving pledge that you co-founded a few years ago. Is income inequality a problem in the US? And if so, what changes are necessary to mitigate this issue?
BILL GATES: Yeah, that's a complicated set of things that are very important questions. I had a Skype call just last Friday with a guy named Thomas Piketty who wrote a book called Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which in terms of these questions you're asking is a very strong contribution. On a global basis, income inequality has been reduced dramatically. I mean, faster in the last decade than any decade in history, faster than the decade before that. The last three decades have been the three decades of the greatest reduction in income equality ever. That's on a global basis.
And so what is that saying? That's saying that the incomes of the what were poor countries, India, China, Brazil, Mexico and Thailand, those incomes have gone up a lot faster, China being the extreme example of the last 22 years, faster than the rich countries' incomes have gone up. And so the world is A, much richer, B, much richer in a far more equitable way. Less children die before the age of five. If you go back to 1900, over a third of all children died before the age of five, and now as I said we're down at 5%.
So let's look at the per country parts. Because there it is an interesting thing that in almost every country, income inequality has worsened. And in a way with globalization you'd expect that. In the Piketty book, you'd see what you'd expect, which is that when you have incredible unrest, hyperinflation, big wars, all the companies go bankrupt, property is seized, then both wealth and income, particularly wealth but even income, it goes back to being more equal.
And so the 1950s, 60s wealth was more distributed than at any time in history. That from a wealth point of view in the rich countries, that was the most equal distribution. And then in the rich countries it's gotten less equal. It actually didn't get very unequal until about 1980, and then it really started to get unequal, because professional salaries and some global people owning parts of global companies like me owning part of Microsoft created people in a league that even exceeded the Carnegies and Rockefellers of the early age of industrial capitalism.
I do think a country should have tax policies to fight inequality. I'm a huge believer in a large estate tax. I'm a huge believer in a progressive income tax. I believe we should have a progressive consumption tax. Now that requires tracking how much consumption each person makes and then as you buy more and more, the sort of sales tax equivalent goes from 5% up to 50% or 60%. And I think consumption is really the measure of how you're commanding society's resources to yourself, and therefore that is what we should tax.
We are going to have to take taxes off of labor, because automation means the demand for labor relative to capital is going to go down, and yet we have this societal goal of providing employment in terms of stability and meaning and all sorts of good things. We want to artificially boost demand for labor. And right now we tax it and do things that particularly with the technology to come is a big problem. So yes, Piketty and I actually do agree that tax structure should be used to solve these things. There's a lot in the book I disagree with him on, but I don't think wealth should pass down dynastically all that much, and the large estate tax is a fairly helpful tool for that.
DAVID J. SKORTON: That book surely is generating a lot of conversation that's for sure. We have time for two more questions, I think. OK, please.
AUDIENCE: Hi. My name is Sam Hyatt. I'm a junior mechanical engineer. Having understanding of computing is becoming increasingly more important in every field, however, most people do not learn even basic coding until they're in college. Do you think the United States education system is doing a good enough job addressing this issue?
BILL GATES: Yeah, I think understanding computers and how to use computers as a tool and even understanding basic programming is a very valuable thing. And I think it would be nice if we could add it to the high school curriculum. Now high schools, public high schools in America are loaded in with a lot of things like teaching math decently, teaching reading and writing decently, so it's a little tricky to just pile on, particularly at a time where it's doubtful you'd be able to give them more money to do those things.
There are state-by-state efforts. I'm a big backer of this code.org group which is people from the industry, including some ex-Microsoft people going and creating programs. And in a lot of cases they start them as after school programs, so you're kind of voluntarily getting involved. And then when they get the numbers way up and when they train some teachers or they get parents to volunteer to do those courses, they are able kind of in a bottoms up way to get at least an optional programming class into the curriculum.
I don't think I'd say we're at the point yet where I'd say it should be an absolute requirement in that inner city high school that's trying to teach you English, trying to make sure you show up in school, trying to make sure you don't drop out, that we should absolutely add this to those list of things until we've done some things better.
But you know I'm pleased that the, and this is just the top tier of it, but the undergraduate enrollment in computer science here at Cornell and other top universities has really gone up. It almost is like saying the marketplace works, because of course the demand and salary for that from Google, Microsoft, and many others is very, very high and there's still a shortage of those things. And I do see more and more people learning programming.
DAVID J. SKORTON: Last question. Big honor. Don't be nervous. Just Bill Gates, you know, so.
AUDIENCE: Hi. My name is Katie Schmidt, and I'm a sophomore information science major. My question is, is it true that you can leap over a chair from a standing position?
DAVID J. SKORTON: Nice. Knocked it out of the park. Good one.
BILL GATES: Actually, these chairs are not that high. I think I could. I used to be able to. Used to be if you took a garbage can, which is a little bit higher than this. But that was back when I was doing snow skiing and not sitting at a desk quite as much.
DAVID J. SKORTON: We don't want you to try.
BILL GATES: All right. The liability is too high.
DAVID J. SKORTON: So I just want to say one thing before the crowd thanks you in their own way. I want to thank you for actually caring and making a difference in the world. This was great. Thank you very much.
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Philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates joined Cornell President David Skorton for a student-centered discussion Oct. 1, 2014 in Bailey Hall. Topics included higher ed access and affordability, student entrepreneurship, and technology and education.