Columbia Business School hosted Warren Buffett and Bill Gates last night for a forum that CNBC, which has a transcript, breathlessly billed as an appearance by "America's top two capitalists" in New York, the "world's center of capitalism." The whole event has a strangely surreal quality to it, from the sycophantic questions posed by the business school students to the answers of Mr. Buffett and Mr. Gates, which seemed sometimes disconnected to recent events. Mr. Buffett at one point proudly insisted "we have a rule of law," then a minute later praised the "excellent job" that "the officials in Washington" -- he named Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Timothy Geithner -- did by taking "unprecendented action," for which he gave them "very high marks." Where was the rule of law for the AIG and Fannie Mae shareholders, or for the Chrysler secured bondholders? Asked whether the government should have saved Lehman Brothers, all Mr. Buffett could offer was an unprincipled "perhaps." On the Lehman question, Mr. Gates had the better answer when he noted that in his industry, respected companies like Wang and Digital Equipment failed and it was considered just part of life in an entrepreurial, capitalistic economy. Mr. Buffett repeated the "most environmentally friendly" rationale for his Burlington Northern acquisition. Trains, he said, use a thrird less fuel than trucks and "put far fewer pollutants into the atmosphere." Mr. Gates tried his best to defend capitalism. "Capitalism has been massively successful," Mr. Gates said, citing the development of medicine. When Mr. Buffett was asked what he most admired about Mr. Gates, though, the answer wasn't that Mr. Gates had built a big company that made a lot of employees and shareholders rich and improved the productivity of a lot of its customers. Instead, Mr. Buffett said he admired Mr. Gates's "philanthropy." When Mr. Gates was asked what he worried about, he didn't mention erosion of the rule of law or the exploding federal debt and deficits or unsustainable entitlements that may force inflation, government defaults, tax increases that slow growth, or big cuts in defense outlays. He talked instead about the chance of a terrorist attack or a pandemic. For an event billed as an appearance by "America's top two capitalists" in the "world's center of capitalism," it was pretty thin gruel.
Buffett and Gates at Columbia