I tried, and failed, though not completely. Both men appear to doubt some of President Trump’s innovations in rhetoric and policy. Both men have warm feelings about immigrants, and also about facts, and so are predisposed to react skeptically to recent developments in the capital. When I asked whether they believed America needed to be made great again, Buffett nearly jumped out of his chair: “We are great! We are great!” And when I asked about the Trump Administration’s problematic relationship with empiricism, Gates said, “I predict a comeback for the truth.” He went on to say, “To the degree that certain solutions are created not based on facts, I believe these won’t be as successful as those that are based on facts. Democracy is a self-correcting thing.”
Despite their ephemeral worries, Buffett and Gates are both believers in the inexorable nature of progress, not only because they have been treated kindly by fate, and not only because they have concluded that America’s fortunes cannot be reversed during a single four-year presidential term, but because they have overseen a rather remarkable experiment in data-driven philanthropy. The work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, underwritten in part by Buffett’s support (in 2006 he pledged to donate $31 billion), has saved untold millions of lives. (The only person who could plausibly be credited with saving more lives in this period is President George W. Bush, who dramatically expanded the U.S. war on infectious disease during his two terms in office.) They have also overseen a remarkable experiment in peer-pressure-driven philanthropy: Their “giving pledge” encourages the world’s richest people to do as they have done, and commit much of their fortunes to good deeds. So far, they have gotten 157 pledges, which isn’t enough, but it’s something.
The impetus for this joint interview was the release of the annual letter issued by Bill and Melinda Gates on behalf of their foundation. The letter this year was addressed to Buffett, to whom Bill and Melinda Gates are profusely grateful. (Full, very MSMish-sounding disclosure: My wife works as an adviser on gender issues to Melinda Gates’s office, but she was not involved in the drafting of the letter.)
The world, Bill and Melinda tell Buffett in their letter, is becoming a better place. This is an empirically true thing in many ways, and yet, for many people, in the U.S. and elsewhere, this period does not feel particularly hopeful. I asked Buffett and Gates why this might be so.
“I live in an upper-middle class neighborhood where the average income is $100,000, and every single person living there is living better than John D. Rockefeller lived, because of medicine, entertainment, you name it,” Buffett said. “My neighbors don’t have the power or prestige Rockefeller had, but if you have the choice of living the life that he could live and the life that they could now live, they’re all better off. In every respect, we’re living better than Rockefeller, a fellow who was alive in my lifetime.” He went on, “And you would think that people would be happy in this utopia, but they’re in a funk. They think their children are going to be worse off than they are. They’re absolutely wrong. ”
Jeffrey Goldberg: We’ve had an economy that’s been in recovery for eight years, there are a lot of indicators suggesting that life is getting better, yet we’re in this fairly sour and fractured moment in the U.S., and, by the way, in Europe and elsewhere. Where’s the disconnect?
Warren Buffett: I live in an upper-middle class neighborhood where the average income is $100,000, and every single person living there is living better than John D. Rockefeller lived, because of medicine, entertainment, you name it. My neighbors don’t have the power or prestige Rockefeller had, but if you have the choice of living the life that he could live and the life that they could now live, they’re all better off. In every respect, we’re living better than Rockefeller, a fellow who was alive in my lifetime.
And you would think that people would be happy in this utopia, but they’re in a funk. They think their children are going to be worse off than they are. They’re absolutely wrong. Their children are going to live better and their grandchildren are going to live even better. We’ve got half as many people in the world under five dying, and that number is going to get cut in half again, as Bill and Melinda show in their letter.
Buffett: I think the disparity is what bothers people. It bothers me. Nobody can name the person who topped the Forbes list in 1982. It was Dan Ludwig. He had two billion dollars in 1982. It put him on top of the list. He’d barely make the cut today. The aggregate wealth on that list has gone from $93 billion to $2.4 trillion and the disparities are extraordinary.
There are two things you could have told my parents that they wouldn’t have believed back when I was born in 1930. One was that real GDP, capital, would go up six for one. In one person’s lifetime. The second thing is that, for a significant percentage of the people, not overwhelming, but a significant percentage, they wouldn’t be able to support a family with a couple of kids by working a 40-hour week. Both of these things happened.
With communication being so good now, people understandably feel that they haven’t participated in the growth. They’ve got iPads and smartphones that make their lives better, but because of these, they also see this incredible disparity.
Goldberg: Is this disparity reversible?
Buffett: People are correctly perceiving that a more and more specialized society will create wider disparities and results. Government has always interceded in some ways to change what a market system does—a market system is wonderful in producing what people want, but it also divides up the spoils. Absent government interference, an unfettered division of the spoils will produce greater disparities now than it would have a couple of hundred years ago.
Bill Gates: This all depends on how you use the phone. The real facts about child mortality going down are on the phone. Gatesletter.com is accessible on all of those phones. Visibility is generally your friend. Anyone can publish; you can see information and adapt.
On the actual improvements that we’ve seen, take my favorite book, The Better Angels of our Nature, by Steven Pinker, which talks about the decline in violence. The only thing that has declined faster than violence is people’s willingness to accept violence. So now, if you’re in a crowd and someone takes their kid and starts spanking them, people around them are like, “Oh my God, what are you doing? Should we call social services?” But in the 1950s, 90 percent of households said that teachers should spank kids in school who misbehave. So it’s changed a lot, and that disgust is a good thing.
We’re not sitting here saying, “Hey, completely cheer up.” The fact is, the poverty rate is still significant. The dropout rate has come down a little bit, but it’s still significant. How could we take this dissatisfaction and tap into it in a constructive way?
Goldberg: Both of you come out of fact-based fields: Warren, you have to know accurately what’s happening in the markets, and Bill, you have to know if the software is actually working or not. But we’re in a discussion now in this country about whether we’re becoming a post-fact society. Does this pose an existential danger to progress?
Goldberg: So you’re worried about the future of truth.
Buffett: You always worry.
Gates: But I predict a comeback for the truth.
Goldberg: People in my business are certainly waiting.
Gates: First of all, I think it’s overblown, this term “post-fact.” People want success, they want education that works, they want healthcare that works, and so to the degree that certain solutions are created not based on facts, I believe these won’t be as successful as those that are based on facts. Democracy is a self-correcting thing. And so, yes, I think facts will stay strong.
Buffett: I believe, and I think this has been borne out over 240 years, that this country gets better all the time.
Goldberg: Let me stay pessimistic here and ask, do you think democracy can survive social media, and the flattening out of information?
Buffett: Sure, sure.
Goldberg: Why are you two so optimistic about everything?
Buffett: [America] survived civil war, world wars, the atomic bomb, and the Great Depression. We survive. We’ve been gotten through a lot in this country. The truth is, we’ve got something that works, and the fact is it works and has kept working. It took us 150 years to get the 19th Amendment, but things gets better. We’re an aspirational country in a sense, and this country has a mechanism that allows aspirations to work their way into society, with a lot of fits and starts.
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