The Corner

Politics & Policy

Richest Man in the World: ‘Representative Democracy Is a Problem.’

From the first Morning Jolt of the week:

Richest Man in the World: “Representative Democracy Is a Problem.”

Bill Gates is rapidly reaching supervillain status.

When I sat down to hear his case a few weeks ago, he didn’t evince much patience for the argument that American politicians couldn’t agree even on whether climate change is real, much less on how to combat it. “If you’re not bringing math skills to the problem,” he said with a sort of amused asperity, “then representative democracy is a problem.” What follows is a condensed transcript of his remarks, lightly edited for clarity.

I see Gates is now complaining about capitalism. What, does he think he got a raw deal?

Well, there’s no fortune to be made. Even if you have a new energy source that costs the same as today’s and emits no CO2, it will be uncertain compared with what’s tried-and-true and already operating at unbelievable scale and has gotten through all the regulatory problems, like “Okay, what do you do with coal ash?” and “How do you guarantee something is safe?” Without a substantial carbon tax, there’s no incentive for innovators or plant buyers to switch.

And for energy as a whole, the incentive to invest is quite limited, because unlike digital products — where you get very rapid adoption and so, within the period that your trade secret stays secret or your patent gives you a 20-year exclusive, you can reap incredible returns — almost everything that’s been invented in energy was invented more than 20 years before it got scaled usage. So if you go back to various energy innovators, actually, they didn’t do that well financially. The rewards to society of these energy advances — not much of that is captured by the individual innovator, because it’s a very conservative market. So the R&D amount in energy is surprisingly low compared with medicine or digital stuff, where both the government spending and the private-sector spending is huge.

Has there ever been a bigger, better case of, “I’ve got mine, now you can’t get yours?”

You noticed Mr. “We’ve-got-to-do-something-about-climate-change-and-carbon-emissions” still has a giant private jet that can carry 19 people, right?

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