Gates: Economy makes work harder, not different

On a conference call with the media, the Microsoft chairman and philanthropist talks about the extent and impact of the global economic crisis.

Although the economic crisis won't change his focus on global health and U.S. education, Bill Gates said the woes are making his work harder.

In particular, Gates said that beyond the prospect of lower aid budgets, the biggest factor in reducing disease and hunger is actually the underlying growth in the area in question--something that is now stalled globally.

Bill and Melinda Gates visit demonstration plots at the IITA Research Station in Abuja, Nigeria in October 2006. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

"Economic success has been this phenomenal thing," Gates said. "Whenever that clock is running slower or even briefly goes into a period where it is going back, it is really a very negative thing. It blocks a lot that is important."

Gates' comments came during a conference call with reporters, following the release of a public letter on the foundation's progress.

For 2009, the Gates Foundation is increasing its spending, and Gates said he would encourage other foundations to see if they can do the same amid growing need. That said, he doesn't see his foundation being able to increase its budget next year, if its assets continue to decline.

"Certainly, if the market (in 2009 is) as bad (as it was) in 2008, we would not increase, going into (2010)," Gates said. "We have the same uncertainty that everyone else does."

As for overall priorities, Gates defended the areas his foundation has worked on, such as focusing on diseases that affect the world's poorest populations. He noted that it remains the case that there are opportunities to save a human life for less than $100 a year.

"To me, that's very compelling," Gates said. "That investment should be made. I don't think the economic crisis changes that."

Gates was clear that he has no crystal ball, but he said it will likely take years for the economy to correct itself after years of unsustainably high spending rates, particularly in the United States.

"If you have been on a spending binge, it can take a number of years before those ratios come back in," he said.

Although he said things are different now than in the Great Depression, he also noted that there are many factors putting pressure on the economy, many of which feed on one another.

"If Company A lays people off, that impacts...Company B," Gates said. "We are just seeing impact after impact, as that rolls through the economy."

Gates' own company, Microsoft, announced its first-ever companywide layoffs on Thursday, saying it planned to cut up to 5,000 jobs over the next 18 months, with 1,400 of the job cuts being made last week.

In a video on the foundation's Web site, Gates talked a little about the overlap he has found between his two jobs.

"I didn't know if the foundation would be as magical," Gates said. "Those same key elements are there--the ability to do big breakthroughs--absolutely."

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    During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried has changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley. These days, most of her attention is focused on Microsoft. E-mail Ina.

     

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