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Bill Gates
Bill Gates

Bill Gates is no great fan of the “almost laughable” idea that America has nowhere to go but down.

“The only definition by which America’s best days are behind it is on a purely relative basis,” he said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “That is, in 1946, when we made up about six percent of humanity, but we dominated everything. But America’s way better today than it’s ever been.”

In the wide-ranging interview, Microsoft’s co-founder and newly minted Product Advisor talked about a number of topics, ranging from government surveillance (not all bad, Gates says) to his charitable work, and everything in between. Throughout the whole piece, he was true to form: blunt and incredibly opinionated. 

Gates sees a lot of similarities between himself and Mark Zuckerberg: they’re both Harvard dropouts, and they’ve both built successful tech companies. While Gates has a lot of good things to say about Zuck, he thinks the two of them have fundamentally different strengths when it comes to how they work with their different companies.

“He’s more of a product manager than I was,” Gates said. “I’m more of a coder, down in the bowels and the architecture, than he is. But, you know, that’s not that major of a difference. I start with architecture, and Mark starts with products, and Steve Jobs started with aesthetics.”

When it comes to Zuckerberg’s decision to acquire WhatsApp for $19 billion, Gates said that Microsoft would have been willing to buy the messaging company, but not for that much. That said, he thinks it’s the right decision for Facebook. As he points out, messaging apps aren’t just used for messaging. Users can share photos, transfer documents, and play games with one another. While WhatsApp may not have had a strong revenue model, its user base was powerful enough to draw the interest of a number of companies.

Gates’s coding roots show in his approach to global development. While he’s no stranger to high-minded goals and predictions, he is clearly focused on nuts-and-bolts development issues like curing polio, and bringing better toilets to the developing world. While that may not be flashy, Gates says it works.

“You know, development sometimes is viewed as a project in which you give people things and nothing much happens, which is perfectly valid, but if you just focus on that, then you’d also have to say that venture capital is pretty stupid, too. Its hit rate is pathetic. But occasionally, you get successes, you fund a Google or something, and suddenly venture capital is vaunted as the most amazing field of all time. Our hit rate in development is better than theirs, but we should strive to make it better.”

When asked if the moral nature of his charitable work affected his views on religion, Gates was unequivocal. He said that the moral systems of religion are “superimportant” – pointing to his own family’s attendance of a Catholic church – and seemed to hint at religious tradition as part of the basis of his belief that he needs to fight inequity in the world. As for his own belief in God? While Gates wouldn’t necessarily say one way or another, he said that belief makes sense.

“I agree with people like Richard Dawkins that mankind felt the need for creation myths. Before we really began to understand disease and the weather and things like that, we sought false explanations for them. Now science has filled in some of the realm – not all – that religion used to fill. But the mystery and the beauty of the world is overwhelmingly amazing, and there’s no scientific explanation of how it came about. To say that it was generated by random numbers, that does seem, you know, sort of an uncharitable view [laughs]. I think it makes sense to believe in God, but exactly what decision in your life you make differently because of it, I don’t know.”

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