Observations on meeting Bill Gates

I am pleased to have been invited to a small group session in New York City to meet Gates and hear him present his new letter.  My observations are these:

1. Gates has a command of data and analytics in development economics better than that of most development economists, or for that matter aid professionals.  He also expects everyone at the meeting to know everything about what he is talking about, or at least is willing to proceed on that basis.  That said, when it comes to answering questions he sometimes assumes a stupider version of the question than what is actually being asked.

2. He is smart enough, and health-savvy enough, not to waste time with handshakes at the beginning of meetings.  People as productive as Gates should not be required to shake hands, and the same can be said for people less productive than Gates.

3. He does not go on and on.  His opening remarks were about two minutes long, with no notes, and all of his answers were to the point.

4. We were served water, at exactly the right cool temperature, yet without ice cubes.  No cookies.

5. Unlike Gates, I am not convinced that “health” is the key breakthrough area for economic development, but there is enough low-hanging fruit out there that it doesn’t have to be.  That said, when questioned on this his answers were closer to tautology than they needed to be.  Much of their emphasis on measurement seemed to me to track absolute movement toward goals, rather than relative efficacies of different project investments.

6. Gates suggested that if he had been more careful tracking and organizing his AP credits, he might have been able to receive his undergraduate degree.  That is one sense, in his words, in which he is barely a college drop out.  In another sense, it makes him a very extreme college drop out.

7. He mentioned that he is an extremely eager consumer (and not just funder) of on-line education and The Teaching Company.  And this is a man who could receive free (or paid) lectures from almost anyone he wants.

8. Empellon Tacqueria, in the West Village, has an excellent mackerel ceviche and I recommend also the quail eggs.

9. I have now run into Reihan Salam twice in the last two years, in random public places in Manhattan, without any reason for expecting to see him there.  This should cause me to revise my prior on something or other, but I am not sure what.  When changing/surfing the channels, which I do occasionally to “keep in touch,” I also run into him on TV a lot.

10. Gates understands the very high returns from better governance, but also sees it is not trivial to reap them.

11. In the context of U.S. education, he does not worry that teacher cheating will bias test results very much at the macro level.

12. He is more optimistic about charter schools than I am (though I favor them), and more optimistic about the results from giving teachers feedback about their performance.  In my view, bad teachers don’t very much want to improve and it is not so much a matter of knowledge.  Undergraduate college teachers are evaluated all the time, and it does help, but it hardly brings the rotten apples up to par and I don’t see it as the key to moving the system forward at lower levels.

Here is Jason Kottke’s account.  Here is Dana Goldstein’s account.

Gates’s annual letter, which was released earlier this week, is here.


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