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  • The Most Important Person of the Past 25 Years

    Posted by James R. Rummel on July 1st, 2006 (All posts by )

    Dan from Madison makes a pretty good case for Bill Gates.

    I really don’t agree. Let me tell you why.

    The air raid sirens were tested on Wednesday at noon in my home town, just like most towns and cities in America during the Cold War. I live in Ohio, but it has always seemed odd that Indiana never adopted Daylight Savings Time. I bet kids from there could tell where the border was just by noting how the wailing would start up over yonder while they still had to wait another 60 minutes.

    Although no one has ever praised my intelligence, there have been a few days where I was on the ball. I happened to be around a television in 1969 when a news report explained what a nuclear war was and what the sirens were for. Every Wednesday at noon for months afterwards I’d start sobbing when I’d hear that eerie shriek, convinced that the Russians had launched. Let me tell you, being aware of your own imminent death was a hard thing for a 5-year-old to bear.

    As a general rule, US administrations from both sides of the political aisle worked to oppose Communism for five long decades. It is wrong to single out one President and claim that they were the sole reason that the Soviet Union fell in 1991. Even after saying that, I’m going to partially violate my own rule and state that Ronald Reagan deserves a lion’s share of the credit.

    I was alarmed at Reagan’s economic policies while he was in office, particularly his policy on increased military spending. It is obvious in retrospect that I was wrong, since there is little doubt that the pressure placed on the U.S.S.R. to match us hastened the dissolution of that state by many years. Before Reagan I had been convinced that the Soviets would still exist and pose a viable threat long after I had died and become forgotten. Now it appears that people in their 20’s have a hard time remembering that once it seemed almost inevitable that the Communists would destroy our civilization in a single afternoon.

    Don’t get me wrong, the technological advances spearheaded by people like Bill Gates certainly meant that it was just that much more difficult for Communist Russia to match the US in advanced warfighting capabilities. Devoting your life to administering a huge charitable organization and doing good works is also an achievement that should be praised. But Gates didn’t stare down a nuclear-armed police state and refuse to blink. That took someone with balls as big as churchbells. I really don’t think anyone can claim that Gates has that kind of package.

    So tell me true. If lives are on the line, which one of the guys below would you want at your back?

    gates.jpgreagan.jpg

    (Cross posted at Hell in a Handbasket.)

     

    27 Responses to “The Most Important Person of the Past 25 Years”

    1. GUYK Says:

      I supported Reagan on most of his ideas. I think his ideas on the economy were correct and that his massive tax cuts di spur the economy out of a stagflation situation. But I do believe that he could have taken better control of congress and kept the spending on other than military programs down.

      I think Reagan will be remembered as one of the better presidents and no doubt the best of the last half of the 20th century.

    2. John Says:

      Here’s my criterion for evaluating greatness: who could have replaced Regan or Gates? There are very few politicians with the guts, simplicity of thought (I mean that as a compliment), and perserverance of Reagan.

      There a a zillion bespectacled geeks who could have and would have replaced Gates, and in fact might have created a company that makes better products and takes better care of their customers.

      So hands down, Reagan is the Great Man, while Gates is merely the face at the head of the social movement.

    3. John Says:

      Here’s my criterion for evaluating greatness: who could have replaced Regan or Gates? There are very few politicians with the guts, simplicity of thought (I mean that as a compliment), and perserverance of Reagan.

      There a a zillion bespectacled geeks who could have and would have replaced Gates, and in fact might have created a company that makes better products and takes better care of their customers.

      So hands down, Reagan is the Great Man, while Gates is merely the face at the head of the social movement.

    4. Dan from Madison Says:

      “There a a zillion bespectacled geeks who could have and would have replaced Gates, and in fact might have created a company that makes better products and takes better care of their customers.”

      Yep, zillions could have replaced Gates, but none did. And if you look at what he is preparing to do now, well, I will let that speak for itself. If successful, he could change the world….again.

      Thank god for Reagan by the way. As I sit here writing this comment I notice three photos of him in my office.

      I am not making excuses for Microsoft by the way – you will see I even trash MS office in my original post and I just divested myself of their flagging stock.

    5. GFK Says:

      Actually, if we are looking for a company to get the lionshare of the credit for the techboom, it wouldn’t be Microsoft, It would be IBM.

      Dos was a bad OS to start and today’s Windows is still inferior to Apple, unix and linux.

      Where the difference lies is in computational power. IBM let people clone the PC, while SUN and Apple didn’t. The free-market did it’s job and people everywhere began working on processors, cache, memory… computing power took off. With processing power came software power and companies everywhere from netscape to oracle to adobe began using this power to make new software that made PC’s really useful.

      It’s this power and speed that set PC’s apart and still does.

      Not Microsoft.

      Not Bill Gates.

      It’s the PC itself. Why?

      Because the free market had a go at it… Amazing how simple a concept.

    6. Lex Says:

      I remember when I was in I think Junior High I figured out that if the Russians attacked, we’d destroy them and they knew that. I didn’t worry any more after that. I’d figured out MAD.

      People in their 20s have no idea the Cold War even happened, so far as I can tell. I sometimes deal with well-credentialled professional people with graduate or professional degrees who are in their 20s. They know absolutley nothing about the Cold War. They don’t know who Stalin was. They don’t know what NATO is. They don’t know what a ballistic missile is. It is all about as relevant to them as the Spanish American War. The men sometimes know a little bit in gross terms, and occasionally one is a history buff. The women literally know nothing, and cannot tell you what the term “Cold War” even means. It is all down the memory hole.

    7. Ginny Says:

      That is why they can listen to Chomsky talk about American militarism and imperialism in the late forties & fifties and accept his arguments. The hole in the middle of a lot of thinking (including about the House & the Hollywood blacklists) is of great help to America-the-Bad arguments.

      But theirs is not the first generation – nor yours. A colleague in the mid-seventies was surprised when I said something about Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia occupation. One of my peers (in age as well as education) looked at me with irony & absolute surprise that their fates would interest me – or anyone. (He seemed never to have heard of them.) Given independence, it was one of those countries that elected an academic as president.

    8. Robert Schwartz Says:

      Gates? you have to be kidding. The guy has done nothing other than bring robber baron marketing tactics to the software business.

      He never developed anything innovative. His first product was a port of Basic (a product of Dartmouth College) to a micro computer, done with Harvard’s computer time. Hard work, yes. Innovation, NO. The rest of the microsoft product line was purchased or cloned.

      Since the mid-90s when he ran Netscape out of business, he has been a milstone to the industry, not a source of innovation.

      Gates has made a lot of money, but so what? I don’t know why that should make anyone think you are important.

    9. James R. Rummel Says:

      I remember when I was in I think Junior High I figured out that if the Russians attacked, we’d destroy them and they knew that. I didn’t worry any more after that. I’d figured out MAD.

      MAD only works if everyone involved is a rational actor, and the technology works without flaws. The film Fail Safe is probably the best depiction of the tensions extent at the time, even though the movie has over-the-top plot which takes a great many liberties with the facts.

      Consider for a moment the situation which we face today with North Korea, another hard line Communist state. While just about everyone agrees that the best outcome would be internal revolution, the fear is that the last vestiges of the government would order a strike against Seoul before being dragged off to face trial for 55 years of dictatorship.

      We are lucky that the best the Soviets could manage was a really inept coup attempt.

      James

    10. Lex Says:

      Yeah, I knew an accident could happen. But I also figured the basic situation was stable. I was maybe 12 at the time so some nuances no doubt escaped me. But as unsophisticated as I was, MAD did hold through everything, including the collapse of the Soviet regime.

      I hated Fail Safe. My Western Civ teacher showed it to us, to teach us a moral lesson about the madness of nuclear weapons or something like that. I thought it was a piece of progaganda at the time. This would have been 1978 or so. I said the American President was wrong to blow up New York. He basically told me in so many words that I was an idiot, that otherwise the world would be blown up. I said if it was an error that led to the attack, that is what you tell the Russians and you take your chances, and you retaliate if they attack. If they want to go to war anyway, so be it. You don’t murder your own people for any reason, period, ever. I remember saying the man is the American Commander in Chief, after all. I remember it got heated. “So you’d kill everyone in the world.” “No, I’d tell the Russians what happened and not kill my own people.” “No, no, you are saying you’d kill everyone in the world.” “No.” We went around a few times. Finally, I said, “If it came to it, I’d let the entire world be blown up rather than turn my own weapons on my own people.” Or words to that effect. He was a good guy, really. But he thought I was sick in the head, I’m sure. I still think the same way.

    11. John Says:

      “Yep, zillions could have replaced Gates, but none did. And if you look at what he is preparing to do now, well, I will let that speak for itself. If successful, he could change the world….again.”

      None did because none moved before he did. He has stated more than once that if he did not have the chance to corner the market, he would not have founded Microsoft. None followed because he made sure he’d blocked their paths.

      And as for what he is about to do? Yawn. Change the world, it won’t.

    12. James R. Rummel Says:

      I hated Fail Safe. (snip) I thought it was a piece of progaganda at the time.

      Oh, I agree that it is a piece of propaganda, but I think that the film is also a pretty good depiction of the killing stresses that the Cold War inflicted on the people tasked with holding the line. That is the main reason I value the movie.

      I said if it was an error that led to the attack, that is what you tell the Russians and you take your chances, and you retaliate if they attack.

      That would be my strategy as well.

      Every so often a person with a Liberal political viewpoint will engage me in debate, insisting that The United States should allow the governments of other countries to set our foreign policy. For some reason they think that other cultures are, I dunno, more able to see the most benign course. Or some such thing.

      What these people seem to forget is that every single political system in all of human history, each one without exception, exists solely to safeguard the interests of the people who call the shots. It would be a terrible crime if a PotUS nuked his own people, and I really can’t see the leaders of any country doing such a thing.

      James

    13. James R. Rummel Says:

      I’ve been hearing about Gate’s cut-throat business practices for decades now, usually from rivals that were crushed in the marketplace. I’m certain that he’d do everything he thought he could get away with to snag a business advantage. This just means that he was one of a select group of top executives who routinely do the same thing every day. He isn’t the devil incarnate, guys.

      Gates was one of the driving forces behind bringing computers into the average American home. I don’t think this is an unreasonable point of view.

      My main objection to the choice of Gates as being particularly influential is really with the underlying premise that buying a machine you can use to play Quake II is more important than ending the most murderous regime the world has ever seen.

      But I devote a great deal of my time helping keep people safe from violence. I suppose this just means people like me are doing a good job if the thought of physical threats are so remote in people’s minds.

      James

    14. aaron Says:

      There are thousands of people who could have been Bill Gate’s and we might have been better for it.

    15. aaron Says:

      I also think that the comment above is correct, IBM,Compaq, and HP have a lot more to do with the Tech boom than MicroSoft. It’s the development of the hardware manufacturing industry that really made everything happen.

      But, I guess,while anyone can write good software, it takes a special someone to stop people from doing it.

    16. Mike Cunningham Says:

      President Reagan gets my vote, as he was, in the words of one of America’s more succesful authors:
      “The Man who won the War!”

      Gates is a very succesful technocrat, businessman and philanthropist, but Reagan was strong and wise when strength and wisdom were needed, and the world is a smaller place for his sad departure!

    17. GFK Says:

      “But, I guess,while anyone can write good software, it takes a special someone to stop people from doing it.”

      Bravo Aaron… too funny and too true!!

    18. Mitch Says:

      I have to go with Reagan. Gates has made his fortune by being second to market with products, with enough staying power to drive the true innovators out of business. Examples: DR DOS/CPM, WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3, Apple (still hanging on to 10% market share), and Harvard Graphics. Acquisitions included FoxPro, Visio, and various utilities. I could close my eyes, throw a rock, and hit a better HTML editor and web page builder than Front Page. Gates’s one big contribution was breaking the OS away from the platform. Other than Apple and a few high-end workstations, Gates made hardware a commodity. Linux will eventually pull the same trick on him by making the OS a commodity in its turn.

      Compare that record of accomplishment to destroying a world-threatening tyranny without going to war. This is not a difficult decision.

    19. Jonathan Says:

      I don’t know if the apples-vs.-oranges comparison of Reagan and Gates is very useful, but I must defend Gates on his record of business achievement.

      Yes, someone else could have developed or did develop many of the original products on which MSFT’s success was built. What Gates & Co. did was bundle those products and sell them at radically lower prices than was previously the case. If you look at individual software products such as operating systems, office software, databases and programming environments that were once available only for UNIX systems, they were all very expensive — often costing thousands of dollars per product. In every market sector that MSFT entered prices plummeted, which made possible enormous productivity increases for workers in many industries, and consequently facilitated a boom in wealth creation that we are still living through (and of which a small fraction was siphoned into the pockets of Gates and other MSFT shareholders).

      I don’t think it matters that MSFT functions more as an aggregator and marketer than as a pure R&D shop. MSFT’s skillful marketing made possible the widespread distribution of technologies that have created enormous wealth (of which Gates’s fortune is but a drop).

    20. Ginny Says:

      I loved WordPerfect.

    21. Lex Says:

      “I loved WordPerfect.” Me too. I knew all the key commands by heart. I never used a mouse. I never took my fingers off the keyboard. I could type really fast. I don’t like Word. But it is the universe we are stuck living in now.

    22. Jonathan Says:

      Funny, I never liked Word Perfect. Word is a bit better, to my taste, but all of these writing programs suffer from too much complexity. I prefer writing in a good simple text editor like TextPad, formatting be damned. (But of course the world is run by people who insist on pretty formatting, and the formatting always takes ten times as long as the writing — or coding, in the case of computer programs that generate printed or screen output.)

      Anyway, word processors are near the low end of the software productivity scale. None of them is much better than any of the others and they don’t add much leverage to the writing process. I had more in mind software such as databases that used to cost $thousands and is now, thanks largely to MSFT, dirt cheap, and that enables all kinds of sophisticated data-intensive applications to be created with little effort.

    23. aaron Says:

      I agree about WordPerfect. I used it on my Amiga for papers back in Jr. High and Highschool. I liked.

      Generally I’m looking for less, not more, in a word processor. However, I also want to be able to add tables and use speech recognition.

      Now I can’t do anything without MS telling where I really want to put the cursor(I’ll give them one more guess). I’m going to go try to find that setting right now, hopefully the change will stick (dang gov comps sometimes don’t let you save, or even change, settings. And when they do, they are reset during system updates).

    24. GFK Says:

      “If you look at individual software products such as operating systems, office software, databases and programming environments that were once available only for UNIX systems, they were all very expensive — often costing thousands of dollars per product. In every market sector that MSFT entered prices plummeted”

      Jonathan, we are again confusing the PC with MSFT.

      As the power of a PC rose it’s cost dropped. PC’s proliferated and an economy of scale allowed for the per-seat price of PC software to drop. This didn’t take place for Unix machines by Sun or HP, or for Apple, (which still suffers from high software.)

      Again, it was the “open architechture” of the PC that caused the tech-boom wave. Msft was just well positioned to ride it.

      And maybe I’m too young, but I can’t think of a single msft product for which there wasn’t already an affordable solution.

    25. Phil Fraering Says:

      I find myself torn between two viewpoints. On the one hand I don’t like Microsoft’s products and consider them inferior, especially when one considers the resources thrown behind what I consider to be bad design choices like ActiveX. I also don’t like the company’s monopolistic behavior.

      OTOH:

      If the current war had been fought with the same aggresiveness and ruthlessness that Bill Gates used in marketing his products and building his business it would have been over a couple years ago. Somewhere along the way he would have managed to outlaw all political parties besides the Gates Dynasty Party, except for some 10% of voters who voted Green or Reform or Linux or whatever, at the same time.

      (Of course, I doubt our current society is capable of that sort of ruthlessness. And I don’t think the sort of political “consolidation” that would have happened along the way would have been a good idea… but that’s another lengthly discussion of its own. I think our present leadership is doing the best with what he has.)

    26. equality 7-2125 Says:

      Reagan, certainly, the unique and irreplaceable man.

      People forget that when Carter was President, the press began to write about how the job of the Presidency had grown too big for one man. Their way of excusing his ineptitude. No one has ever said anything like that since Reagan showed what could be done.

      When you look at the state of the country and the world, from the beginning of his Presidency to the end. a good case can be made that Reagan was the most consequential man of the 20th century.

    27. Val Says:

      I second Jonathan on apples and oranges and Ginny and Lex on WordPerfect, which I still use daily ever since WP for DOS!

      From Seattle with love for all Chicago Boyz and Girlz!