A Few Unfortunate Truths About the Good Bill Gates
It’s a funny thing how liberals love to blast the 1%, yet reserve a special place in their collective bosom for Mr. 1% himself, Bill Gates Jr.. At $74 billion and counting, the former Microsoft magnate is the richest person in the world. His Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, known for its commitment to global health, oversees an endowment of $36.2 billion. No single person wields more influence over the fate of the 99%, yet rarely is this influence called into question.
To be fair, Gates has contributed much to society. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is second only to the United Nations World Health Organization in terms of monies spent on global health initiatives. Their annual $800 million in donations have helped reduce malaria by 50% in countries where the disease is endemic, just to cite one example. The foundation is also a major source of scholarships and grants, as well as resources for the poor and underprivileged. Plus let’s not forget Microsoft Corporation, which put a PC in nearly every household, affording skeptics such as myself the ability to easily write and publish scathing critiques about its creator. Yes, Bill Gates has been the source of much good, as even the most jaded cynic has to admit.
But he’s also been the source of considerable ill.
For starters, consider the Microsoft Antitrust scandal of the 90s. Both the US Department of Justice and the European Commission accused the company of engaging in anti-competitive strategies, including ‘refusal to deal’ (restricting supply of goods), and ‘tying’ (selling something unrelated as a mandatory addition). Basically what Gates did was to bundle the Internet Explorer web browser with his Windows operating system, limiting outside competition from companies like Netscape Navigator or Opera. Though he was largely evasive and uncooperative in the trial, internal emails revealed his desire to “cut off Netscape’s air supply by giving away a clone of Netscape’s flagship product for free.” Microsoft was ordered to share its application programming interfaces with third party companies, and was fined $780 million by the European Commission.
Going back to the mid-Eighties, we have the ‘Permatemp’ debacle, in which 10,000 temporary employees sued Microsoft for denying them benefits and basic labor rights. The plaintiffs had been performing identical work as full-timers, sometimes for years, without the health care, labor rights, or stock option plans enjoyed by the latter. Microsoft eventually settled for $97 million, then began sourcing temporary labor from agencies in order to immure themselves from future litigation. Of their 60,000 American workers, anywhere between 5 and 6 thousand are benefit-less ‘temps’. An interesting practice, given the company’s profitability.
Cracks in the Foundation
Even the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation isn’t without blemish. As a brilliant January 2007 LA Times piece reveals, of the B&MGF’s assets, $8.7 billion (41 percent) run counter to its stated goals of global health. In the Nigerian city of Ebocha for instance, natural gas-flaring from Italian oil giant Eni, in which the Gates Foundation has major holdings, has given rise to an epidemic of bronchitis, asthma, and blurred vision. Eni isn’t the only oil company the foundation invests in: Shell, Exxon, Chevron, and Total all benefit from Gates’ largess, as do some of the worst US polluters: Concophillips, Dow Jones, and Tyco. All told, the foundation has over $423 million invested in petroleum corporations.
The foundation’s Global Fund to Fight AIDS is yet another source of contradictory motives. While making tremendous strides prolonging the lives of those suffering from AIDS, the organization’s benefactors are limited to an elite few. Indeed, the prohibitively expensive costs of the antiretroviral drug Kaletra—$2,200 a year in Guatemala; $8,000 in the USA; and $500 in Nigeria—has lead one critic to call the treatment a form of ‘pharmaceutical apartheid’. Worse, Gates’ fixation on HIV has skewed the African health care system against more common killers such as diarrhea, asphyxia, and sepsis. Lured by higher-paying HIV-specific jobs, nurses and doctors have abandoned practices dealing with basic care, leaving such tasks to inexperienced lay people.
Your Little Kids’ Big Brother.
The Foundation has also come under scrutiny for its ties with Wireless Generation, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Managed by Gates’ InBloom inc, Wireless Generation is creating a national database of student test scores gleaned from Common Core, a federal program which charts ‘college readiness’. In addition to making these ratings available to data-analyzing firms, educational software designers, and other third-party vendors, the database also gives access to students’ personal information—race, economic background, discipline records, and addresses.
InBloom currently contracts with nine states, each of which partners with the Shared Learning Collaborative, a pilot program set up by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) to help implement Common Core standards. The CCSSO, in turn, collaborates with Microsoft, Apple, Wireless, and IBM, as well as the very publishing houses—McGraw-Hill, Scholastic, and Pearson—who design the standardized tests that produce data for inBloom and Wireless. The heads of America’s state school systems (the very same people who empanel the CCSSO, coincidentally) then implement policy based on the corporations’ recommendations for the data that their own tests have facilitated. It’s like one big capitalist circle jerk.
A Few Bad Seeds
The foundation is also the proud owner of 500,000 shares ($23 million) of Monsanto stock. Monsanto is probably best known for its controversial GMOs, its Gene Use Restriction Technology, and its penchant for suing small farmers found to be growing patented Round-Up Ready products that had blown in from neighboring farms and accidentally germinated in their fields. Lesser known, however, is Monsanto’s Argentine slave rings, where workers were forced to labor 14 plus hours a day without pay; or Monsanto’s monopolistic grip over the Indian seed market, which has given rise to a spate of suicides by farmers seeking to escape chronic indebtedness and bankruptcy. Gates insists that GMOs are key to ending world hunger, but the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development, a group of 900 scientists and researchers who studied the issue of world hunger, disagree, citing that GMO crops do not produce increased yields over the long run.
No Man Is an Island.
Branding Bill Gates as evil, or tyrannical, or the author of a grand global conspiracy is easy to do, but is reductive and unfair. At bottom, Gates is a very clever, very competitive guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time, made a ton of dough, struggled with the responsibility of all that dough, then gave a bunch to charity. For let us not forget: Gates doesn’t have to donate a single red cent to fight AIDS, Polio, Malaria, or any other disease; he obviously does it because he’s compelled to. Even a cursory glance at his charitable track-record gives you the sense that he genuinely cares about people. Unfortunately, Gates’ genuineness is not the problem.
There is within the Gates Foundation a firewall that prevents the investment side, the Bill and Melinda Gates Trust, from interfering with the goals of the charitable side. The goals of the trust are to generate as much income for the endowment as possible; the goals of the charity are to find recipients for that endowment. The recipients are selected by ‘the interests and passions of the Gates family.’
And that‘s the problem. That a tiny elite, headed by a single, white, Anglo-Saxon male, decides how the endowment is funded, and how it is spent. Not a government, not a society: good old Billy and his kinfolk. Because even someone who scored 1590 on his SATs cannot be counted on to always act in the interest of the common weal. Eventually his prejudices and presuppositions would get the best of him, the same way they get the best of us, whenever our goals and ambitions, however lofty, go unchecked.
Bill Gates’ compassion and empathy would be far better served by letting communities, not organizations, decide how best to spend charitable donations. By funding relocalization movements, organic farming initiatives, sustainability education, and civic awareness-building. By refusing to invest in industries that harm the environment and the people dependent on them. By giving back to the however many thousand Microsoft workers on whose backs Gates’ fortune was founded. By ensuring that never again can a single man accrue so much wealth as to create the kind of inequality that causes widespread hunger, disease, and poor health in the first place.