George Soros on The Age of Fallibility (partial transcript)
Kragen Javier Sitaker
kragen at pobox.com
Sat Oct 14 18:16:50 EDT 2006
I've been downloading this video over the last few days (can't do this
from Google Video, because it cuts you off after some number of
minutes of downloading --- I downloaded it in a flash to a server in
San Jose and have been rsyncing it from there when I have internet
I haven't seen a transcript of it before, so I thought I would write
I believe the video is at
The part of the video I've downloaded so far is a little over 22
minutes, but the transcript is considerably snappier to read. The
video is probably more fun to watch.
Mplayer at 75% speed is pretty good for transcription at my typing
speed, but I still missed most of the hesitation noises at that speed.
I think I have a little under half of the video, and I may get around
to posting a full transcript.
Google Author Series
George Soros & Eric Schmidt
August 9, 2006
Anonymous Introducing Woman:
Good afternoon. Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to 900 Alta. For
those of you who have not been here, we're pleased to host this in
So I think people know, we have the Authors at Google series, and
we've attracted a lot of fantastic authors over the last 6-8 months
that we've been doing this, and I think none as spectacular as this
one, Mr. Soros, the author of 8 books, is here to talk about his
Now, because of the prominence and, uh, interest in this author, we're
doing a bit of an unusual Authors at Google, where we have our CEO,
who needs no introduction, Eric Schmidt, who is here to interview.
And so a new format, I'm pleased to introduce Mr. Eric Schmidt and
Mr. George Soros.
Well, thank you all, thank you all for being here, and thanks to
George for, for coming. Um, you know, this --- my view of Mr. Soros
is that he is one of the most important people in the world today in
terms of the impact that he's had.
Um, he grew up in Eastern Europe where his, in my reading of your
background, your understanding of the world was much shaped by what
you saw, by the Nazis, and by socialism, and by the Fascism of the
time. But because he's a clever guy, he eventually escaped and went
to London, where he became quite the financial wizard. And for a few
decades, George managed to invent a whole new industry, which we
generally know now as financial, financial derivatives, uh, currency
trading, and things like that.
My first meeting with you was actually at the World Economic Forum
about ten years ago, and I happened to go from there to Malaysia,
where I happened to meet with the Prime Minister of Malaysia, who
spent a great deal of time complaining about you. [laughter] And I
thought, "Wow, a dictator really hates George Soros." [laughter]
Pretty interesting. [laughter]
So a few years later we had dinner, and I asked George, "What kind of
an impact can you have on the world?" And I didn't quite understand,
because I was just, I guess, stupid or something, how, how much impact
he'd already had. In history as it is fully understood, people will
understand that the financial support and the structural support that
he and his organization, in their first attempts at philanthropy,
helped the Polish Solidarity movement, uh, freedom movements in
Hungary, and in fact in our conversation a few years ago, third or
fourth conversation, he described to me his objective, which was to
help use the resources that he'd accumulated in his life to promote
open society, open discussion. And I said, "How do you do that?" And
he said, "Let's go and fund intellectuals, let's fund universities,
let's fund smart people, and they'll take care of everything else."
And, indeed, he replicated that model around the world.
So, in more recent times, George has started to work on what he sees
as the role of the United States, the US Presidency, and the political
climate, not just in the United States, but about terrorism, which has
resulted in this remarkable new book, The Age of Infallibility. The
Age of Fallibility, excuse me --- um, infallibility is the, is the
other side, I guess.
So, I guess with that, we should say welcome to Google.
Thank you, thank you.
I have to corr- it's a very nice introduction, and I appreciate it; I
think that my role in the financial markets you've exaggerated,
because I did not invent hedge funds, and I know really quite not
enough about derivatives and so on.
Um, since four of the smartest and top people who manage that entire
industry were hired, nurtured, and promoted by you, I think your, your
credit is due. [laughter] But, in any case, congratulations on your
Let me ask you a topic that's bothering me to get us started. Um, and
let me observe what I, what I read in the press today. Um, in Iraq,
there are a lot of evidence that there's an emerging civil war; um,
it's been well, est-, well, relatively well established that the
original justification for the invasion of Iraq was, was not supported
by the evidence; we now have a very, very difficult ongoing battle
between um, Lebanon and a set of people who are generally agreed to
as, as terrorists, and Israel and, and there's a great debate as to
the tactics there. How did we get here? What did we do wrong? And
what caused all of this?
It's a very good question. Because the situation really is very
serious, and deteriorating at, at a rather fast pace. And, and the,
what started out as a false metaphor --- the war on terror --- uh,
which was a, an expression applied to an abstraction --- uh, has
actually had this unintended, I think largely unintended, adverse
consequence, of actually becoming now a real war. And the United
States, that was at the time the most powerful nation on the Earth ---
still is, in a way --- but it's dominated the world's agenda and set
the agenda for the world that, that the rest of the world have to
respond to --- in response to 9/11, declared war on terror. And that
set the agenda for the world, for the world.
And now we have a real war. So, if, it's amazing how, I mean, this,
in a way, it's a backward way of getting into my book.
In the book, I start with a, with a philosophy, a conceptual
framework, where I explain the relationship between our thinking and
the reality in which we participate. And I argue that because we are
both observers and participants at the same time, our understanding is
imperfect. But our biased, distorted understanding actually shapes
And this is a, really an amazing example of how a false perception,
ah, can actually shape reality, and we now have a really serious war
on our hand.
Now, in your past work, in the last few years, you've spent a great
deal of your time and money, um, essentially trying to, uh, promote
politicians other than President Bush, and, um, many of the others are
people who are opposed to the current policies. Um, you donated a
great deal of money at one point, to, um, a certain set of political
action committees and so forth. So, not only have you taken a
position, but you've put your money where your mouth was. And you've
also drawn quite a bit of very, very vitriolic criticism for all of
that in the United States.
Why have you decided that President Bush and the current
administration, um, in your words, is, is so terrible?
Well, you know, uh, when I have made more money than I, than was good
for me [laughter], I decided what, what it is that I really care
about, and I set up a foundation to promote open society throughout
the world. And, uh, I got very much involved in various coun- countries,
particularly in the former Soviet empire. And there I was standing up
for principles of open society.
And then, to my greatest amazement, I found that open society as I
understand it is endangered in the United States. And so I felt
obliged, uh, having sort of backed a lot of people who stuck their
neck out and really took very serious risks, uh, to actually also to
stand up and to stick my neck out, not taking anything like the risks
that, that they had taken in their countries.
So, uh, that's really what got me, uh, so involved in domestic
politics. And I felt that as a citizen of the United States, somebody
who has chosen this country as his home, uh, and seeing that the
country is moving in the wrong direction, I felt that I ought to get
involved in America. And that's, at the time, I felt that if we
could, uh, terminate President Bush's hold on the White House, that we
could short-circuit what I think is a kind of a bubble. I called it,
in my previous book, I called it a bubble of American supremacy: a
false idea which nevertheless becomes part of reality.
And I'm afraid that it would have been a wonderful thing to
short-circuit it. But now we have the consequences. And it really
is, I think, uh, certainly Israel is now endangered in its existence,
and I think our dominant position in the world has diminished to a
much greater extent than even that I expected at the time when I wrote
"The Bubble of American Supremacy."
Now, in this new book, the message is, is about how ideas create a
misperception that then creates a bad outcome. But I, I suspect most
of the people in the audience and watching, while they're unhappy,
really want to know what are some solutions.
But before, I just want to make, make, make, interject, that it
doesn't always work that way; that, actually, ideas can also have, uh,
very good outcomes. And there is, actually, I think probably in some
ways Google is an, is an example of a co-, of a company that had an
idea, and it has really taken off. So not everything turns sour.
Uh, some things actually have a positive outcome.
One of the powers of information, which of course is what Google is
promoting, is that information, especially if it's done selectively,
can be misused.
And that's always a great danger with more and more information.
Well, the problem is, you see, that it's, you can't really base your
decisions on information alone. Because you have to, when you're
making decisions which have to do with the future, you want to
accomplish something, and what the result will be --- that is not
information. That's conjecture. And so you have to sort of bring
some kind of perspective on the world to make those decisions. And
that's where you have to introduce some judgment and bias. And that's
not information. And it's not knowledge.
So the idea that you can sort of base decisions on knowledge --- that
was the, in a way, the idea that was prevalent in the Enlightenment.
And that was a fertile fallacy. So the opposite of a false metaphor
is a fertile fallacy. And the Enlightenment was a fertile fallacy.
But now we've discovered, I think, after having 200 years of Enli-
Enlightenment, that it isn't as we imagined it at the time: that, uh,
that, you know, there is the intellect, and there is reality. And the
two are separate. And you bring the intellect to bear on reality; you
acquire knowledge, and you can base your decisions on that knowledge.
It doesn't work that way, because we are part of reality. And, and as
our understanding is imperfect, we bring our bias, and that becomes
part of reality. So the reality is much more complicated than that
Well, and there's also large cultural components for the other side.
Information, symbolism, the role of religion, and so forth, which I've
I'd like, given that most of our audience have received a copy of the
book, but have not had a chance to, to read it in the last few
minutes, um, (as quick as people are here), let's talk a little about
what, what the conclusions or what the key points --- why did you
write this book? What's so special about "The Age of Fallibility"?
Well, uh, let's say two, two points.
One, that this, I want to bring home the idea that the war on terror
is a terrible mistaken false metaphor that brings terrible results.
That's a difficult point to get across, because everybody now knows
that the invasion of Iraq was a, was a, was a terrible mistake; but
people still think, on both sides of the political spectrum, in terms
of the war on terror. And I would like to undermine or repudiate that
metaphor. So that's one part of the message.
And the other one is: What is America's role in the world? What
should be America's role? What, what, how has America got to be
different, to regain the position that it is currently in the process
of, of losing? And I argue that, if you want to be the leader of the
world, then you have a special responsibility to be concerned with the
welfare of the world --- not only, let's say, your own constituents.
The rest of the world doesn't have a vote, uh, in Congress.
Nevertheless, American leadership would have to be concerned about
issues of common concern to, uh, for humanity. And we've got several
of them on which our continued prosperity and existence depend.
Like, take, uh, climate change. We've really got to do something
about that, and unless America takes leadership, we will not be able
to get common action. And here, for instance, the administration is
lagging behind the public. The public is now aware of it. The
administration is in denial.
Uh, nuclear nonproliferation. It's a much bigger threat now than it
was in the Cold War, because then there were only basicallly two
players, and now you've got many players. So, that's another issue.
Then, what do you, what do you do about tyrants like Saddam Hussein?
Uh, the way we went about it was the wrong way. But the world has a
number of these tyrants around, and we need, do need to do something
about it, and it does need some legitimacy, some international
cooperation to deal with the likes of Saddam.
So just three examples and no more.
Let's go back to your first point, which was the, the false metaphor
of the poor impact of the term "war on terror". It is not in question
that the United States was attacked by al-Qaeda, that more than 3000
innocent people were killed in a terrible terrorist attack, which
affected the country and all of us in a very, very sad way on
September 11th, so you're not questioning that?
It is a war, isn't it?
No, no it isn't. And it ought not to be. Because war by its very
nature creates innocent victims. There's no way to wage war without
creating innocent victims. Now, if you wage war against a, an unknown
hidden enemy like terrorists, the danger of [cellphone ring] hitting
the wrong people is that much greater. And then when you, you wage
war on an abstraction, like terror, well, there is no, there is a
multitude of sins that you can commit under that rubric, and so war,
taken literally, is the wrong way to fight terrorism.
So what is the answer to that part of your point? If it's not a war,
but we are threatened, what's the answer?
You have to, you have to defend yourself against terrorism. You've
also got to, to take into account what actually is behind that
terrorist. In other words, don't put all, all manifestations of a
certain kind under one rubric, one abstraction: "terrorist".
You now have, you know, al-Qaeda, you have Hezbollah, you've got
Hamas. Uh, and you have got the insurrection in, in, in Iraq. Now,
uh, Hamas was brought into existence by the occupation of, uh,
Palestine by Israel. Uh, Hezbollah in Lebanon was brought into
existence, uh, by the Israeli occupation of, uh, southern Lebanon.
The Iraqi insurrection was brought into existence by our occupation
of, of, of Iraq.
So, you know, if you just sort of, of, of, of declare war on terror,
you actually recreate a lot of terrorists in the process of hitting
innocent victims, because that is in fact what brings on, uh,
terrorism. Now, that's not to excuse al-Qaeda --- I mean, there's no,
I can't see any justification, uh, for it. So, but you can't sort of
separate yourself from the consequences of your actions and say,
"Well, terrorists, you have to wage war on terror, and you can,
anybody who can be possibly accused of being in that category, or any,
anybody who happens to be standing in the way, uh, you can do whatever
So, this is, accepting this false metaphor separates us from them.
You see, we are the victims, they are the perpetrators. And so we can
hit them. But who are they? And then we hit the wrong people. And
they see us in the same light as we see them. So this is where this
incredible, uh, um, difference in perceptions has arisen: that where
America today is seen as a threat in the rest of the world.
Well, I'm sure that the pictures in the Arab world of innocent people
being killed are not helping the sides on either side, and are
certainly inflaming local, local population. Another point that you
make here and you've made before is that America, because we have been
the sole superpower, has a distinctly different responsibility, a
higher responsibility. And you've used those, those words in one way
or the other. Can you explain that? What is it that we should do
differently, or why is the standard different for us, as opposed to
Well, you see, the current world order is based on sovereign states.
And there are many of them. And they all promote their self-interest,
they are guided by their interests. And so are we, and so we should
be. But, there are common interests that we have, like maintaining
[my current copy of the video ends here: 1351 seconds --- 22 minutes,
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