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Bill Gates: 'Energy innovation is not a nationalistic game'

By Ezra Klein

There's a lot of good stuff in the Rolling Stones interview with Bill Gates, but his rebuke to those who bemoan foreign innovation is particularly worthwhile:

You've just come back from China, which many people argue is beating us at energy innovation. Do you agree?

In order for the United States to do the right things for the long term, it appears to be helpful for us to have the prospect of humiliation. Sputnik helped us fund good science β€” really good science, the semiconductor came out of it. And in the 1980s, we were driven by state-sanctioned racism β€” the idea that Japan was going to take over everything. But look at consumer electronics today β€” it's Xbox, iPhone. Sometimes you overestimate your rival, and that can actually help.

Energy innovation is not a nationalistic game. If tomorrow some other country invented cheap energy with no CO2 output, would that be a bad day or a good day? For anybody who's reasonable, that would be, like, the best day ever. If all you care about is America's relative position, every day since the end of World War II has really been bad for you. So when somebody says to me, "Oh, the Chinese are helping to lower the cost of it, or creating something that emits less CO2," I say, "Great." The Chinese are also working on new drugs. When your children get sick, they might be able to take those drugs.

People often worry about what will happen if China becomes as innovative and technologically capable as we are. I think it makes a lot more sense to worry about what happens if they don't.

By Ezra Klein  | November 15, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
 
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Comments

I completely agree. Healthy competition is good. There is more than half of the population who screams "We're number one" and "U-S-A" at rallies because it is important to them to be number one. I love this country, yes, but I don't think we're "better" than other countries. That seems ridiculous, juvenile, and ethnocentric. I am a citizen of the earth who was born in America, who has lived in other countries, and who chooses to live in America, for the time being.

Posted by: ania8 | November 15, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

I love America. I am in American citizen. Have no desire to be a "citizen of the earth". I subscribe to the philosophy of American exceptionalism.

That being said, of course it rocks when things are invented and problems are solved. What science gives to one, science gives to all. It's good to compete, but I'd much prefer that the entire world being trying to develop technology, than just us, or just us and Europe. If China is trying to innovate, great! We should be competitive if at all possible, obviously, but if China invents a way to get 100 miles to the gallon or a permanent cure for pancreatic cancer, like Gates says, that's a great day. For everybody.

Go USA!

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | November 15, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

The benefits from innovation may flow to the innovators and non-innovators alike. But we don't live in Utopia and the benefits of innovation are not distributed uniformly. For example, the innovation of the Windows OS has benefited society as a whole. It also made Mr. Gates the wealthiest man on the planet. The same thing could happen with respect to energy innovation and China in the coming decades on a vaster scale.

Posted by: tuber | November 15, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

I am an American. I love my country.

It is exceptional in some ways, average in most ways, and below average in others.

Most of the key tenets of the American exceptionalism idea are myths. For example, Americans don't work harder than everyone else. Also, we're not smarter than everyone else.

We have many things to be proud of, and many things to be shameful of as well.

For example, no other country could build a space shuttle when we did. It wasn't because of work ethics or smartness. It was because of abundance of money. Indeed, we had to recruit the smartest people around the world to build the shuttles.

Another part of the myth is that God Blesses America above all others. It is such a human flaw of arrogance to believe God would treat Americans better than all other people. Such a God would be unworthy.

Posted by: Lomillialor | November 15, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Sounds like Bill has lost his competitive edge everywhere not just in business. There's a reason that Microsoft has been one of the worst run major companies in the last 10 years, and apparently the name isn't only Ballmer.

What happened to him? When he was young he was a pirate, stealing what he couldn't buy until he got all the way to the top.

Agree with him about the antibiotics though.

Posted by: 54465446 | November 15, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

lomillator wrote:

"For example, no other country could build a space shuttle when we did. It wasn't because of work ethics or smartness. It was because of abundance of money. Indeed, we had to recruit the smartest people around the world to build the shuttles."

Hmmm how to say this nicely. Your perception is incorrect. The shuttle is terrible technology, the worst functioning thing that NASA has ever built. The Russians had one on the drawing board (probably stolen from us)but then abandonded it.

The reason we have a relatively worthless space station is because the shuttle drained so much money out of the program they couldn't build the high orbit station that would have been worth a damn.

Posted by: 54465446 | November 15, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

"Hmmm how to say this nicely. Your perception is incorrect. The shuttle is terrible technology, the worst functioning thing that NASA has ever built. The Russians had one on the drawing board (probably stolen from us)but then abandonded it."

The USSR actually not only had one on the drawing board, but they launched it (unmanned) one time. As for the design being stolen, I think you can drop the 'probably'.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buran_(spacecraft)

Posted by: justin84 | November 15, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

justin:

I was being nice. That was the bad old days. they're our "friends" now!

Posted by: 54465446 | November 15, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

54465446,

Hit submit too soon. Agreed the shuttle was a huge waste of money - $170 billion worth.

http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/admin/publication_files/resource-2656-2008.18.pdf

We could have gone to Mars instead (many times for that matter, if the Mars Direct program costs of $30 billion for five flights is anywhere near accurate).

http://www.marssociety.org/portal/c/faq#how_much_cash

Whatever your views on going to Mars, I certainly think such a program would be much more worthwhile than continually sending humans into low earth orbit for no real purpose.

That said, we could let people keep their own money and use it as they see fit - some might even decide to fund private space exploration.

Posted by: justin84 | November 15, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

You are wrong.

The russian shuttle was copied from the US space shuttle design.

The Us shuttle flew in 1981 and the russians in the late eighties.

As I said the US was the only country in the world that had the resources to build a shuttle "when we did".

Note the qualifiers "when we did" I originally used in my first post.

The russians could never have built their's when they did had we not first built ours 7 or 8 years earlier. Had they tried to build one without copying our design or taking benefit of our earlier experiences with the shuttle, it would have been the early 90s at least before they could have had a test flight.

Posted by: lauren2010 | November 15, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

lauren:

The only thing wrong with your post is that we would have been much better off not having built one either.

Posted by: 54465446 | November 15, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Rolling Stone. Rolling StoneS is a geezer rock band.

Posted by: bdballard | November 15, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

After Bill Gates sold the world a crappy (and inferior) operating system, I don't listen to anything he says.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 15, 2010 9:37 PM | Report abuse

Great points. I was looking for something to disagree with, but I can't find it.

Posted by: staticvars | November 15, 2010 10:49 PM | Report abuse

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