WASHINGTON -- The skies were cloudy, gunmetal gray. It was drizzling just enough to make you annoyed at the lack of an umbrella.
Politically, everything in the nation’s capital was just as gloomy. Everyone from the president to congressional backbenchers had abysmal job approval ratings. Everyone complained about “gridlock,” but everyone was making it worse. The Raymond Tusks of the real world were cramming big business bucks down Washington throats. The Russians were up to no good. Hadn’t we gotten past that?
But in a conference room in a Watergate office building Wednesday, the future of the country, the planet and the human race seemed so blindingly sunny.
The bling of science, technology, efficiency and “market signals” was bright. The talk was about how we would basically end infant mortality, cure polio once and for all, devise better ways to educate our children, and enjoy material, biological and digital advances so mind-boggling that most people on Earth, even the poor, would “be able to access better lifestyles than everyone has today.” Science-based technology and commerce would do it all, and soon.
Yes, Bill Gates was back in town.
“Whoever said that innovation was slowing down, that was the stupidest thing anyone ever said,” he told a reverent crowd of about 200 prominent This Town-ers at a gathering hosted by Atlantic Media.
In a cripplingly self-involved city, incapacitated by its own lack of capacity, Gates offered a message of spreadsheet-based effervescence.
The world’s richest man again, with a net worth of $76 billion (despite having given away some $28 billion so far through his Gates Foundation and other vehicles), the 58-year-old Microsoft founder claimed not to be worried about the dysfunction junction that is Washington.
“Fortunately,” he said, the forces of material progress, augmented by the continuing “miracle of software,” do not entirely, or even mostly, depend on “Washington doing something different.”
Sure, you’d like to see more funding for the National Institutes of Health, basic research and education studies, he said, “but a lot of innovation doesn’t depend on Washington.” That innovation will spur “mind-blowing” advances in energy, materials science, medicine, education, virtual recreation and other fields.
The capital, by contrast, is trapped in a self-defeating argument over “less or more” government, Gates said. The real question is how to make government work better.
The lack of common-sense efficiency, he added, can be mind-boggling when examined up close. “You say to yourself, ‘So that’s how they make soup?'”
Gates ducked an invitation to criticize the digital rollout of Obamacare.
Perhaps government’s most important role, he said, was to spur education -- which is why he remains a strong proponent of the increasingly controversial Common Core curriculum.
Gates compared such national education standards to the establishment of global Internet software conventions and the standardized gauge of American railroads and configuration of electrical plugs. Once you set the plug size, he said, people can go about the business of creating appliances to connect to the grid.
It's a logical, if mechanistic and quantified, view of education that gives many dedicated teachers and educational philosophers the willies. But it is the world Gates believes in.
Over the years, the self-described “software engineer” has remained the same focused believer in the use of computers and software to study problems, create efficiencies and propagate research. Only now his focus is on engineering the planet to humanistic specifications.
“I’m basically optimistic that, despite any roadblock, governments will step up and science-based innovation will help us solve problems,” Gates said.
As for politics, he wondered aloud why in China, which has no democracy, the approval rating for government was 80 percent, while in the U.S., which is up to here with democracy, the approval rating for government is less than 20 percent.
“It’s a paradox of democracy,” he said.
Or perhaps flawed data input in China.