American philanthropist and Microsoft CEO Bill Gates balanced optimism and urgency in his talk at Brides Auditorium on Thursday. He spoke primarily to the importance of making the benefits of innovation available to the world’s poorest people, addressing his foundation’s work in AIDS prevention, polio eradication, and agriculture.
When asked about the Gates Foundation’s selection of philanthropic efforts, Gates provided a simple answer: “The biggest impact per dollar is helping out the poorest.”
Gates did not shy from expressing his opinion when pressed by event moderator and Harvey Mudd President Maria Klawe and student questioners. After he peripherally mentioned the United States government’s large medical expenditures in a discussion of funding for disease eradication, Klawe asked Gates if he thought the United Sates should have universal health care.
“Our medical system has to change,” Gates said. “I’d take any rich country’s medical system over ours.”
When a student questioner later pressed him on his views on defense spending, Gates acknowledged his limited knowledge on the issue but then said plainly, “I think the defense budget needs to shrink.”
“War is the biggest waste of money there is,” he added.
Klawe, who sits on the board of directors at Microsoft, used her personal rapport with Gates to punctuate the event with humor and insight.
Largely absent from the evening’s discourse was a discussion of the Gates Foundation’s somewhat controversial work on American education reform. When asked why his foundation emphasizes international rather than domestic philanthropy, Gates noted that the foundation spends a quarter of its funds on domestic projects and that these efforts are currently focused on education.
This statement was met with spontaneous applause from the audience.
When asked about the adverse effects of income inequality in the United States, Gates was quick to defend American capitalism—which he called “extremely successful”—as well as the philanthropic work of himself and other wealthy Americans.
He did note that he has been a vocal proponent of the estate tax. “It doesn’t make you very popular,” he said of his pro-tax views.
Gates was introduced by Pomona College President David Oxtoby. The event was sponsored by Harvey Mudd’s Annenberg Leadership and Management Speaker Series and Pomona’s Distinguished Lecture Series.