TRUCKEE, Calif.--Bill Gates is a glass three-quarters-full kind of guy, but watching the U.S. political system fail to tackle big problems like health care is enough to get even him down.
"You can actually get depressed," he said, wrapping up a talk at the Techonomy conference here. Earlier, Gates talked about a variety of issues including how online courses will reshape higher education and the need for better software modeling for diseases and other complex systems.
Gates said that the political process hasn't shown itself to be very good at handling issues that "are complex enough that even the average elite voter has a hard time getting their mind around things"--issues like tax code, controlling medical costs, improving education or relations with China.
These things are just complicated enough that the main people who understand them are people who are biased about them," Gates said. "The number of experts in these things that are unbiased is so few. So how does society, a democracy that has worked so well, make some of the tough trade-offs that, say to avoid climate change, that need to be made."
Gates pointed to the recent debate over health care. He initially thought that there might be a responsible discussion about the long-term challenges that are driving up costs in the system, but instead he said it devolved quickly.
"We'll call you a name and you call me a name," he told the crowd. "You get money from this funny guy and I get money from this funny guy. No one really looked at what tough things would have to be done."
Also, he said, that is a rare case where innovation is actually a significant part of the problem.
"It invents more expensive things that you have no mechanism not to pay for, at least in the United States," he said. In other words, he was pointing out that medical technology creates new cures and treatments and tests, but often at very high costs that add to our overall health care bill.
To recover from the malaise, Gates said he thinks back to what life was like in the 1800s, with horse manure piling up and coal choking the air in cities like New York.
"It would be easy to be discouraged in 1800," he said.