Gates, Buffett to biz students: We're still bullish on capitalism...Okay, billionaires

Much of the fun of observing the friendship between Warren Buffett and Bill Gates is derived from the fact that they are such unlikely comrades. In Gates, you have the 54-year-old quintessential tech geek billionaire. And in Buffett, the revered 79-year-old homespun, value-investor billionaire. What could they possibly have in common?

Oh yeah, billions. Together, the two are worth a combined $100 billion, an announcer pointed out during an event in New York Thursday organized to let future business leaders -- MBA students at Columbia University -- ask questions of the fabled capitalists.

During CNBC's "Town Hall" event, the two chums were appealingly jocular and Gates, the founder and chairman of Microsoft (MSFT), was appropriately deferential to Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A). Buffett was the real crowd-pleaser before an audience of a few hundred business school students (he is himself an alum of Columbia Business School).

What advice did the two capitalist luminaries have for the young strivers? Fittingly, they took different approaches to the career advice they offered.

Gates was more brass tacks. Thrown the softball, "What industry will produce the next Bill Gates?" -- yes, a young woman not only asked that, but followed up with the addendum, "because that's the industry I want to work in" -- Gates had three to offer. Information technology, or "IT" as he called it, will continue to fuel growth and innovation around the world, he said. That was an obvious pick.

His second and third choices were energy and medicine. He promised that alternative sources of energy will soon be discovered that are not only cheaper, but environmentally friendly. And he is confident that many horrible diseases that plague the developed and undeveloped worlds will soon be cured. Health has become a major focus for Gates ever since he stepped down as head of Microsoft in June 2008 to work full time on the philanthropic efforts of his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Buffett had a different spin on the great career question. "Don't let anyone tell you what to do," he said. "You figure it out."

He recalled that back when Gates was first creating the software business, he himself would have been a failure if he tried to participate -- mainly because his heart wouldn't have been in it. Yet he obviously did just fine investing in basic industries that were undervalued.

Most of Buffett's and Gates's words of wisdom at the town hall (which airs at 9 p.m. and 12 a.m. eastern time on Thursday on CNBC) were about the future of capitalism and the health of the U.S. financial markets. Suffice it to say that neither man was particularly worried.

Buffett called capitalism, "the greatest growth engine ever devised." That's easy to say after your latest quarterly profit tripled and your portfolio is besting the performance of the Standard and Poor's 500 index.

Gates was a little less sanguine. He said he worries about the state of our educational system, potential for a deadly pandemic and another terrorist strike sometime in the next 20 years. But as for our financial system, despite the scandals and meltdowns of recent years, he said not to worry since it is "self-correcting."

As reassuring as it is to hear the rosy outlooks of two billionaires, I left the Columbia building a little worried. I wondered, maybe Gates and Buffett really aren't so confident about the state of the U.S. economy and our enduring status as a financial superpower. Is that why they took time out time out to appear on TV and express such unwavering optimism?

Nah, I told myself. They are just two friends, happy to hang out together, share some words of wisdom and bask in the warmth of business school students' ardor. If by doing so, they give capitalism a little boost, why that's all the better.

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