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Sunday, July 01, 2007


Bill Gates: not very smart for a very smart guy

Bill Gates left Harvard without graduating, but thanks to being worth a gajillion dollars, he returned recently to deliver the Commencement address. He had some interesting things to say:
I was transformed by my years at Harvard, the friendships I made, and the ideas I worked on.

But taking a serious look back...I do have one big regret.

I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world—the appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair.

I learned a lot here at Harvard about new ideas in economics and politics. I got great exposure to the advances being made in the sciences.

But humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries—but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality healthcare, or broad economic opportunity—reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.

I left campus knowing little about the millions of young people cheated out of educational opportunities here in this country. And I knew nothing about the millions of people living in unspeakable poverty and disease in developing countries.

It took me decades to find out...
Is this a sad commentary on how Bill Gates spent his time at Harvard, or on the education that Harvard provides? Probably a little of both, frankly. Not to mention the education that the mass media provide to all Americans.
During our discussions on this question, Melinda and I read an article about the millions of children who were dying every year in poor countries from diseases that we had long ago made harmless in this country. Measles, malaria, pneumonia, hepatitis B, yellow fever. One disease that I had never heard of, rotavirus, was killing half a million children each year—none of them in the United States.

We were shocked. We had assumed that if millions of children were dying and they could be saved, the world would make it a priority to discover and deliver the medicines to save them. But it did not. For under a dollar, there were interventions that could save lives that just weren’t being delivered.
I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I'll definitely laugh at his "assumption" that the world would prioritize delivering medicines to dying children merely because those medicines exist. Does Gates really not understand what capitalism is all about?

And, as an aside, one of the foremost defenses against Hepatitis B is a vaccine made in Cuba. Perhaps Bill could use the lobbying power of his Foundation to put an end to the embargo.

Bill's heart is certainly in the right place:

If you believe that every life has equal value, it’s revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not.
As for his brain, that must be somewhere else:
We asked: “How could the world let these children die?”

The answer is simple, and harsh. The market did not reward saving the lives of these children, and governments did not subsidize it. So the children died because their mothers and fathers had no power in the market and no voice in the system.

But you and I have both.

We can make market forces work better for the poor if we can develop a more creative capitalism...

If we can find approaches that meet the needs of the poor in ways that generate profits for business and votes for politicians, we will have found a sustainable way to reduce inequity in the world.
Right, Bill. "Creative capitalism"...but just make sure it generates profits for business (and votes for politicians). Has Bill noticed that schools do not generate profit? Police departments? Fire departments? Has he seen "Sicko" yet? If he really thinks hundreds of people around the world are going to be saved from death by some magical formula involving profits, he really isn't very bright. Does he not understand that drug companies pour their research dollars into solving the medical problems of the rich countries who can pay exorbitant prices for their drugs, and don't give a toss about developing cures for the diseases of the poor of the third-world?

Gates' closing is certainly inspiring, although it would be more so if he weren't so blinded by capitalism and the idea that all the world lacks in solving the problems he describes is just doing better research. Indeed, Gates himself recognizes that isn't the problem, when he talks about "the children who die from diseases we can cure." Research is always welcome, of course, but it isn't the heart of the solution to the problems Gates is addressing.

Members of the Harvard Family: Here in the Yard is one of the great collections of intellectual talent in the world.

For what purpose?

There is no question that the faculty, the alumni, the students, and the benefactors of Harvard have used their power to improve the lives of people here and around the world. But can we do more? Can Harvard dedicate its intellect to improving the lives of people who will never even hear its name?

Let me make a request of the deans and the professors—the intellectual leaders here at Harvard: As you hire new faculty, award tenure, review curriculum, and determine degree requirements, please ask yourselves:

Should our best minds be more dedicated to solving our biggest problems?

Should Harvard encourage its faculty to take on the world’s worst inequities? Should Harvard students know about the depth of global poverty...the prevalence of world hunger...the scarcity of clean water...the girls kept out of school...the children who die from diseases we can cure?

Should the world’s most privileged learn about the lives of the world’s least privileged?

These are not rhetorical questions—you will answer with your policies.…

When you consider what those of us here in this Yard have been given—in talent, privilege, and opportunity—there is almost no limit to what the world has a right to expect from us...

Don’t let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on big inequities. I feel sure it will be one of the great experiences of your lives...

You have more than we had; you must start sooner, and carry on longer.

And I hope you will come back here to Harvard 30 years from now and reflect on what you have done with your talent and your energy. I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world’s deepest inequities…on how well you treated people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity.
As a counterpoint, and as recommended reading for the Bill Gates' of this world, let me just quote another closing, this one from a speech given by Fidel Castro at the United Nations back in 1979, just a few years after Gates left Harvard:
Mr. President, distinguished representatives: Human rights are often spoken of, but we must also speak of humanity's rights. Why should some people walk around barefoot so that others may travel in expensive cars? Why should some live only 35 years so that others may live 70? Why should some be miserably poor so that others may be exaggeratedly rich? I speak on behalf of the children in the world who do not even have a piece of bread. [applause] I speak on behalf of the sick who lack medicine. I speak on behalf of those who have been denied the right to life and human dignity.

Some countries are on the sea; others are not. [applause] Some have energy resources; others do not. Some possess abundant land on which to produce food; others do not. Some are so glutted with machinery and factories that even the air cannot be breathed because of the poisoned atmosphere; [applause] while others have nothing more than their emaciated arms with which to earn their daily bread. In short, some countries possess abundant resources; others have nothing.

What is their fate? To starve? To be eternally poor? Why then civilization? Why then the conscience of man? Why then the United Nations? [applause] Why then the world? One cannot speak of peace on behalf of tens of millions of human beings all over the world who are starving to death or dying of curable diseases. One cannot speak of peace on behalf of 900 million illiterates.

The exploitation of the poor countries by the rich countries must cease. I know that in many poor countries there are both exploiters and exploited. I address myself to the rich nations, asking them to contribute. And I address myself to the poor countries, asking them to distribute. Enough of words. We need deeds. [applause]

Enough of abstractions. We need concrete action. Enough of speaking about a speculative new international economic order that nobody understands. [applause] We must speak of a real, objective order that everybody understands.

I have not come here as a prophet of revolution. I have not come here to ask or to wish that the world be violently convulsed. I have come to speak of peace and cooperation among the peoples. And I have come to warn that if we do not peacefully and wisely resolve the present injustices and inequalities, the future will be apocalyptic. [applause] The sounds of weapons, of threatening language, and of prepotent behavior on the international arena must cease. [applause]

Enough of the illusion that the problems of the world can be solved by nuclear weapons. Bombs may kill the hungry, the sick, and the ignorant, but they cannot kill hunger, disease, and ignorance. Nor can they kill the righteous rebellion of the peoples. And in the holocaust, the rich -- who have the most to lose in this world -- will also die. [applause]

Let us say farewell to arms, and let us in a civilized manner dedicate ourselves to the most pressing problems of our times. This is the responsibility and the most sacred duty all the world's statesmen. This, moreover, is the basic premise for human survival.

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