Bill Gates has long been one of the most powerful people in the world. For many years, he was the world’s richest man, though he has lately rotated in the slot with Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Since retiring from his position as Microsoft’s CEO in 2000, Gates has become a celebrated figure in world philanthropy, with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) spending astronomical sums on health and education initiatives. The BMGF is the largest private charitable foundation in the world, and spends more on global health each year than the World Health Organization (WHO) and many whole countries. (The BMGF is run jointly by the Gateses, though the effects of the couple’s recently-announced divorce are unclear.)
Gates’ new book on climate change has brought him applause from the mainstream press (Fortune even let him take over as editor for a day, the first time it has ever extended that privilege), although Gates himself has one of the biggest carbon footprints of any human being in the world. He lives in a 66,000 square foot mansion with 24 bathrooms that is worth $145 million, which he calls (seriously) “Xanadu 2.0.” It was built using half a million wood logs from 500-year-old trees. According to an academic study, just his prolific private jet time emitted 1,629 tons of carbon dioxide in 2017 alone.
This is why it is worth examining Gates’ career and philanthropic work closely. His career shows the way ruthlessness and the pursuit of self-interest are far more important than “innovation” in making a person rich, but it also shows the problems of relying on Good Billionaires to address serious social problems. Since the time of steel baron Andrew Carnegie, tycoons have had a philosophy: you can make your money as ruthlessly as possible, as long as you do Philanthropy afterward. Gates is a latter-day Carnegie. He is one of the most “benevolent” among the uber-rich, having pledged to give most of his fortune away (nevertheless, it continues to grow) and devoting himself to health and climate change. And yet even he, the best of the bunch, embodies the fundamentally dysfunctional nature of wealth accumulation and philanthropy. The outsized influence of Gates on education policy has shown the problems that come with allowing billionaires to meddle in the democratic process. Gates’ fortune came at the expense of the rest of us, and while his philanthropy has many positive effects, it ultimately reflects an undemocratic and unaccountable way of delivering benefits, and Gates himself can only be in the position he’s in because we live in a deeply unjust world.
Why is Bill Gates rich? Why is he now in a position to make so many consequential decisions about public health and education? His towering cash hoard derives mainly from co-founding Microsoft the software giant, and then serving as its longtime CEO. Microsoft’s big break came in 1980, when it was awarded the contract to produce an operating system for IBM’s first mass-marketed personal computers. IBM is known as an obsolete has-been today, but at the time it was the gold standard for corporate information technology.
Notably, Microsoft was a tiny startup at the time it was hired by IBM to develop its operating system, and histories of the industry note that it’s unclear how it was chosen for such an incredibly lucrative opportunity. Born William H. Gates III, the future CEO came from a wealthy and prominent family, his father the president of the state bar and his mother, Mary, a member of the University of Washington’s governing Board of Regents. They counted Washington’s Republican governor as a family friend. Mary Gates also sat on the board of the United Way, the prominent charity, along with John Opel, then-chairman of IBM. The New York Times noted that there is circumstantial evidence suggesting the Gates’ family’s pre-existing connection with the IBM chairman helped secure young William III the big break that would lead to his fortune. CNBC says that “Mary saw an opportunity to help her son’s fledgling company by speaking with Opel,” after which Opel is said to have “mentioned Mrs. Gates to other I.B.M. executives.” At the time, IBM had been “considering many software companies,” but after Mary Gates’ intervention, IBM “took a chance by hiring Microsoft, then a small software firm.” Thus, CNBC says, Mary Gates may have been “instrumental in a deal that helped propel Microsoft into the big leagues.” It is notable that often, when you examine billionaires’ backgrounds, you find that their “self-made” success stories—even if they include a certain amount of “hard work” and innovation—were made possible by unearned privileges that meant they were not competing on an even playing field.
Bill Gates was extremely lucky to come of age when he did, because in the 1970s, an infant software industry was ripe territory for a budding monopolist. Software has to run on a computer’s operating system, and the one with the most corporate users (due to its use on the IBM P.C.) naturally attracted more software developers of tools and games, which in turn made the Windows platform most attractive to other buyers, furthering its appeal for developers. This growth in the value of the platform as its user base increased, a form of “network effects,” meant other P.C. platforms were sidelined. Windows’ worldwide market share exceeded an incredible 90 percent for decades on end.
One might be inclined to think—and certainly, Bill Gates would say—that Microsoft’s dominance came about because it innovated superior products that people wanted. But Microsoft’s modus operandi under Gates was to focus less on improving the quality of Microsoft products than on crushing the competition by any means necessary. Often, in Free Market Fantasyland, it is assumed that one company defeats another by offering the thing people want the most, and the entity that comes out of the dog-eat-dog Darwinist power struggle is clearly the one that had the best ideas and products. After all, if it didn’t, people would simply buy from a competitor.
But this isn’t how the world works. In fact, there are many ways a company can defeat upstart rivals even with an inferior product, especially once it has attracted substantial market share. Microsoft’s techniques for maintaining dominance—and increasing Gates’ wealth mountain—often involved stifling innovations, because Gates’ goal wasn’t to have everyone in the world using the best imaginable operating system. It was to have everyone in the world using his operating system. Microsoft became infamous for using its immovably dominant position to copy and steamroll upstart competitors and software innovators. In their book Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire, journalists James Wallace and Jim Erickson describe the company as “notorious” for its “predatory pilfering.” Microsoft would commonly approach a software or networking upstart and express guarded interest in collaborating or licensing its software for Windows. However, “after Microsoft is given a glimpse of how the software works, it suddenly loses interest in the deal—only to announce later that it has been working on surprisingly similar, but competing, software.” And since it would come bundled with globally ubiquitous Windows updates, the Microsoft knockoff would completely close the market opening for the smaller firm.
The anti-competitive tactics were endless. Microsoft tried to make it as difficult as possible for people to install operating systems other than Windows, or to avoid paying for Windows by requiring P.C. vendors to include the operating system as a factory default. When another company put out a superior word processing program, Bill Gates used Microsoft’s size to immediately undercut the company on price, so that the smaller competitor would fail. Microsoft intentionally made it difficult to run competitor products such as the Lotus spreadsheet program. Programmers on Microsoft’s DOS operating system managed “to code a few hidden bugs into DOS 2.0 that caused Lotus 1-2-3 to break down when it was loaded.” An internal slogan at the time was “DOS isn’t done until Lotus won’t run.”
Microsoft also waged war on the open source software movement, which developed software that granted users the right to change and distribute it. Steve Ballmer, who succeeded Gates as Microsoft’s CEO, called the Linux operating system a “cancer” and “communism.” The company tried a “fear, uncertainty, and doubt” strategy, trying to convince consumers that alternatives to Microsoft were unknown and unproven (they were not). In an internal memorandum leaked in 1998, Microsoft “reveal[ed] the particularly nasty ‘tricks’ [it] planned in its effort to contain the open source movement, and to prevent Linux in particular from cutting too deeply into its revenue.” These tricks included “implementing proprietary protocols to lock customers into Microsoft software” and “touting Microsoft software as offering lower total cost of ownership (TCO) than Linux, even though the documents showed that Microsoft itself found Linux to be the cheaper overall solution in many cases.” An excerpt from the memo shows that Microsoft knew Linux was achieving superior performance, that the open source software model did not stifle innovation, and that Microsoft products could not compete on quality:
OSS [open source software] poses a direct, short-term revenue and platform threat to Microsoft, particularly in server space. Additionally, the intrinsic parallelism and free idea exchange in OSS has benefits that are not replicable with our current licensing model and therefore present a long term developer mindshare threat… Recent case studies (the Internet) provide very dramatic evidence … that commercial quality can be achieved / exceeded by OSS projects… Linux and other OSS advocates are making a progressively more credible argument that OSS software is at least as robust — if not more — than commercial alternatives. The Internet provides an ideal, high-visibility showcase for the OSS world… Linux has been deployed in mission critical, commercial environments with an excellent pool of public testimonials… The ability of the OSS process to collect and harness the collective IQ of thousands of individuals across the Internet is simply amazing.
Another internal Microsoft document, cited in the European Commission’s ruling against the company in 2004, emphasizes that even though Windows is expensive and buggy, the company had succeeded in making sure it was just extremely difficult to switch to a different operating system. It refers to the company’s API, or application programming interface, which determines how applications (like word processors or games) interact with other software, especially the operating system that runs the computer:
The Windows API is so broad, so deep, and so functional that most ISVs [Independent Software Vendors] would be crazy not to use it. And it is so deeply embedded in the source code of many Windows apps that there is a huge switching cost to using a different operating system instead. It is this switching cost that has given customers the patience to stick with Windows through all our mistakes, our buggy drivers, our high TCO [total cost of ownership], our lack of a sexy vision at times, and many other difficulties. […] Customers constantly evaluate other desktop platforms, [but] it would be so much work to move over that they hope we just improve Windows rather than force them to move. In short, without this exclusive franchise called the Windows API, we would have been dead a long time ago. [emphasis added]
Microsoft was also extremely litigious. Its philosophy on intellectual property rights can be summed up as: steal everyone else’s innovations if you can get away with it, but sue the shit out of anyone who uses yours. Gates knew that his control of patents would make it impossible for small innovators to work outside the corporate system in the future, saying in 1991 that “a future start-up with no patents of its own will be forced to pay whatever price the giants choose to impose.” Microsoft eventually revised its stance on open source software when it became clear it could not erode Microsoft’s dominance. But Gates’ aggressive use of intellectual property laws (i.e., getting the state to enforce restrictions on the use of ideas) is a thread that is consistent from his earliest days in the computer industry copyright and patent protections, saying without them there is no “incentive to innovate.” As Microsoft’s own internal documents reveal, the successes of Linux showed that this was false. But it is certainly the case that without these laws, Gates himself would have had a harder time maintaining his market position, and thus his fortune.
Gates annoyed the burgeoning community of hackers and computer hobbyists early on with his “Open Letter to Hobbyists” in 1976, which demanded that amateur software developers stop “stealing” his ideas. The letter is an important document, because at the time, developers of computer software had a largely collaborative ethic, in which code, once written, was free for anyone to take and use. Gates’ letter was met with an “intensely negative” reaction in the computer hobbyist community (the Southern California Computer Society threatened to sue him for branding them thieves), because since the 1960s “a spirit of cooperation [had] pervaded computing.” This was in part seen as “consistent with Western scientific traditions—and the academic and research settings where the Internet began” and the “earliest hackers were encouraged to build on the creations of their peers.”
Gates’ ethic was never a collaborative, social one in which a community worked together to improve a collective asset. It was not the mindset of the scientist seeking knowledge. Instead it was antisocial and competitive—the mindset of the capitalist. Gates believed in screwing the other guy to get ahead. His competitiveness was notorious; at chess “he was such a bad loser he would sweep the pieces to the floor in anger.” James Wallace and Jim Erickson’s book Hard Drive recounts Gates saying, “‘We’re going to put Digital Research out of business,’ slamming his fist into the palm of his other hand. He would issue a similar vow twice more during the next year… promising to put MicroPro and Lotus out of business, each time emphasizing his promise by smashing his fist into his hand.” Corporate historians observe that “it was clearly not enough for Microsoft to beat the competition; Gates wanted to eliminate his opponents from the playing field.” Gates’ Microsoft tried to suppress negative coverage of its business practices. Company managers “would blacklist journalists as a means of preventing negative coverage of the company’s business practices.” The company “would list reporters on a whiteboard with the comments ‘Okay,’ ‘Sketchy,’ or ‘Needs work.’”
Again, it is important to emphasize that this does not serve the public good. As open source advocate Eric S. Raymond wrote in commenting on Microsoft’s model, “for [the company] to win, the customer must lose.” When research flows through universities and public institutions, what is produced will be (at least theoretically) in the interest of humankind as a whole. When it occurs through private companies seeking profit-maximization, it will only serve humankind to the extent that profit-maximization coincides with the good of all, which it often does not. Nicholas Petreley of the Linux Journal notes that Microsoft customers were hardly begging for it to be more expensive, for their choices to be reduced, and for Windows to “cripple itself if the operating system detects a piece of hardware that might enable them to bypass DRM.” But this was all good for Microsoft, so it’s what the customers got.
The history of computing might have gone in quite a different direction if Bill Gates had not been involved. Open source software saves consumers money. Wikipedia, built on a collaborative model, is now vastly better than the Encyclopedia Britannica. If the Encyclopedia Britannica had run the Microsoft playbook early on, perhaps it could have “knifed the baby.” But nobody would be well-served by this except Britannica’s owners. Some have compared a fully open source model to “Coca-Cola Co. releasing its formula” and indeed, tycoons like Gates would insist that if Coca-Cola’s formula could be copied, there would be no incentive to innovate. But we can see how actually, the opposite is often true. If anyone could make a Coca-Cola, because the formula was public and free to use, we would swiftly see (as we did in software) endless new variations popping up as people were free to experiment and transform the formula. With Coca-Cola the only ones who can conduct R&D, “innovations” are driven by Coke’s marketing strategies.
Gates vs. U.S. vs. Microsoft
Things came to a head for Microsoft during the so-called “browser wars” of the 1990s. Netscape—derived from a browser called Mosaic developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign—was gaining market share, and Microsoft panicked. Its own web browser, Internet Explorer, was inferior, and people were switching. To preserve the dominance of the inferior product, Gates went on one of his “jihads” (his term). Microsoft tried to block Netscape or end its default status on every platform they could threaten or bribe, including Apple, AOL, and others. A Microsoft VP is alleged to have said that the company’s goal was to “cut off Netscape’s air supply.” Crucially, the company began bundling Explorer into Windows 95 and later updates to its ubiquitous system, and then went as far as requiring P.C. manufacturers to include their browser on desktops. Soon Netscape was driven from the market and later folded into AOL.
But these tactics crossed a line in even the famously weak U.S. anti-monopoly system. Under existing antitrust law, having a monopoly isn’t necessarily illegal, depending on how you get it and what you do with it. The global Windows OS monopoly wasn’t illegal, since it was gained through legitimate-looking economic forces like network effects. Microsoft didn’t destroy Apple to get it, it just benefited from compatibility needs and the self-reinforcing economic logic of platforms. But using a monopoly’s market power to actively crush competitors, as Microsoft did with Netscape, is “monopolization” and is against antitrust law, and by now Microsoft had enough enemies to make a stink, attracting first the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and then the Department of Justice (DOJ). When Microsoft’s intransigence (and Gates’ own arrogance) led negotiations nowhere, the DOJ charged Microsoft with monopolization.
The trial is a fascinating, grotesque odyssey, which because it went all the way to trial left a legacy of Microsoft internal emails—always an exciting development for critical researchers. A repeated dynamic quickly emerged, with the company’s executives and attorneys strongly denying any monopolistic intent, only to be directly undermined by their own emails. And despite the company’s strenuous claims that bundling the Explorer software into the Windows OS was essential for it to work smoothly, the prosecution called as witness a slick software designer for Apple who laughed off the idea that they couldn’t be separated and still perform well. Antitrust professor Andrew Gavil says that Microsoft “spread the [Internet] Explorer code throughout the Windows code, so that if you tried to remove it, you would actually mess up all of Windows,” even though “there was no technical or business justification for writing it that way.” Well, there was one business justification. It would help them win the browser wars and keep Bill Gates on top.
Histories of Microsoft show quite clearly that Gates was, and there is no more polite word for it, an asshole. Even sympathetic biographers Wallace and Erickson report “childlike temper tantrums,” and others report him “throw[ing]things when angry.” His co-founder and childhood friend Paul Allen revealed that Gates “belittled and insulted subordinates,” would “prowl the company car park at weekends to check on who had come in to work,” and would launch profanity-laden tirades at employees who displeased him. In a corporate hierarchy it is difficult for workers to fight back against this kind of abusive behavior—Gates, after all, could fire them and drive them from the industry. In the company’s early days, according to Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire, female Microsoft employees got together to complain to Gates that he was not paying overtime, and legally owed them back pay. When Gates refused to give them back pay, they filed a complaint with the state labor department. Hard Drive reports that Gates marched into the office of the perceived ringleader and screamed at her mercilessly (he was “absolutely purple” from “screaming so much”). In tears, she quit the company.
Forward the Foundation
Yet in the last 20 years, Gates has turned around his reputation. The New York Times “Dealbook” section described how “twenty years ago, people associated the name Gates with ‘ruthless, predatory’ monopolistic conduct.” But:
[After] taking a public relations beating during [the antitrust] trial’s early going in late 1998, the company started what was described at the time as a “charm offensive” aimed at improving its image… Mr. Gates contributed $20.3 billion, or 71 percent of his total contributions to the foundation disclosed through 2012, during the 18 months between the start of the trial and the verdict.
A wealth manager cuts through the liberal feel-good bullshit: “[Gates’] philanthropy has helped ‘rebrand’ his name.” Tim Schwab of the Nation comments that Gates “dramatically transform[ed] his reputation as one of the most cutthroat CEOs to one of the most admired people on earth.”
And it worked. A lot of people today forget that before his grandfatherly, charitable public image, Gates was such a notorious ruling-class bastard he became a Simpsons villain. Today people associate Gates as much with global benevolence as with any software company, and capitalism’s defenders reliably cite the generosity of billionaires like Gates and Warren Buffett to argue that while they may be extremely wealthy, they use that power to do good.
On any inspection this argument completely faceplants. A feudal lord is not entitled to their power just because they hand out favors. Benevolent overlords are still overlords, and the argument that Doing Good justifies a position of power would legitimize any powerful ruling class jerk—any king, dictator, or emperor—as long as they used some of their power and resources for nice public works. The point is that these decisions have to come through some form of democratic process.
This is especially true because Bill Gates is in possession of money that would otherwise go to the public coffers. Microsoft has engaged in rampant tax dodging, and a highly critical report on the Gates Foundation from Global Justice now notes that “it was reported that Microsoft was sitting on almost $29.6 billion it would owe in US taxes if it repatriated the $92.9 billion of earnings it was keeping offshore” and it has used a “complex web of interrelated foreign entities to facilitate international sales and reduce US and foreign tax.” They fiddled the system, since “despite the company undertaking most of its research in the US and generating US tax credits, profit rights to the intellectual property were largely located in foreign tax havens.” But what of Gates and the Foundation? Well, it’s worth observing that the Foundation operates with what is effectively a large public subsidy. Tim Schwab of the Nation—whose name will recur, since he has produced some the best critical journalism on Gates and the Foundation—says that money is exempt from tax because it belongs to a charity, and has to be seen as “money that otherwise would have gone to the US Treasury to help build bridges, do medical research, or close the funding gap at the IRS (which has resulted in fewer audits of billionaires).” As law professor Ray Madoff said to Schwab: “when they get significant tax benefits, it’s also our money.”
It is important to be skeptical of philanthropists in general, because it is quite easy and not even especially altruistic for a billionaire to be a philanthropist. Gates’ personal wealth has only increased since he started the foundation. If he turned his 66,000 square foot mansion into public housing and gave away his entire fortune down to his last $40, it would be an impressive act. But spending money that does not affect one’s living standard and does give one the feeling of doing good, and also comes with huge praise, requires no hard choices.
The Gates Foundation has been widely praised for its efforts to eradicate infectious diseases, though the Foundation’s opacity means it is difficult to actually measure the impact that it has had. The Foundation often cites overall statistics about improvements in health, implicitly crediting itself, without it being clear how much their money in particular actually did. Nobody denies, however, that there are many positive initiatives around the world that have been aided by Gates’ money. In fact, many argue that millions of lives may have been saved by organizations funded by Gates.
But it’s also the case that much of the organization’s wealth is (1) produced dubiously and (2) spent dubiously. In a five-year period, Schwab reported that the Foundation had earned $28.5 billion, while giving away $23.5 billion in charitable grants. Some of those earnings come from, for example, the profits of private prison companies. In 2002, the Foundation invested hundreds of millions of dollars in large pharmaceutical companies, meaning that the Foundation stands to benefit if it can help boost the profits of Big Pharma, and to lose if Big Pharma loses. The Foundation, when confronted with these dodgy means of enrichment, has rebuffed calls to divest from the prison-industrial complex and said that its investment fund “is independently managed by a separate entity, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust” and that “Foundation staff have no influence on the trust’s investment decisions.” But this won’t wash. Setting up an independent organization to go make as much money as possible for you, and then plugging your eyes and ears about how it’s done while imposing no ethical standards, is just as bad as making the decisions yourself.
Incredibly, the Foundation actually sometimes gives charitable grants to for-profit corporations. Schwab reports that it has given hundreds of millions of dollars “to companies in which the foundation holds corporate stocks and bonds [such as Merck, Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, Vodafone, Sanofi, Ericsson, LG, Medtronic, Teva, and numerous start-ups]… with the grants directed at projects like developing new drugs and health monitoring systems and creating mobile banking services.” As an example, the company gave $4.8 million to communications giant Vodacom to help the company expand its for-profit money transfer service in Tanzania. Helping a telephone giant market itself to new clients in Africa is not the typical work of a charitable foundation, even if you accept the theory that selling someone a product counts as “helping them.” Schwab notes that the Foundation’s donations are “subsidizing [companies’] research costs, opening up markets for their products, and bankrolling their bottom lines in ways that, by and large, have never been publicly examined,” even though it is taxpayer-subsidized! Linsey McGoey, a sociology professor and the author of No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy, says this is “unprecedented” and “flabbergasting,” and creates “one of the most problematic precedents in the history of foundation giving by essentially opening the door for corporations to see themselves as deserving charity claimants at a time when corporate profits are at an all-time high.”
It can be difficult to find solid scrutiny of the Foundation, because, as a Vox report noted, so many people receive Gates money and stand to lose something if the Gates Foundation turns on them. The Foundation’s heavy spending to “support” journalism raises similar concerns. Schwab, who has logged countless hours hunting down disturbing details about Gates and the Foundation, has shown that the Foundation’s ties to U.S. media organizations, large and small, run deep. Schwab’s work in the Columbia Journalism Review is invaluable. He reviewed almost 20,000 grants extended by the Foundation and found over $250 million going to journalism:
Recipients included news operations like the BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera, ProPublica, National Journal, The Guardian, Univision, Medium, the Financial Times, The Atlantic, the Texas Tribune, Gannett, Washington Monthly, Le Monde, and the Center for Investigative Reporting; charitable organizations affiliated with news outlets, like BBC Media Action and the New York Times’ Neediest Cases Fund; media companies such as Participant, whose documentary Waiting for “Superman” supports Gates’s agenda on charter schools; journalistic organizations such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the National Press Foundation, and International Center for Journalists; and a variety of other groups creating news content or working on journalism,
Small funding disclosures are common but inconsistent. (See, as an example, this Gates-sponsored Guardian op-ed called “Child labour doesn’t have to be exploitation – it gave me life skills,” a headline so appalling that the Guardian quietly changed it.)
The Gateses fund fact-checkers like Poynter, institutions like the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and “educational, non-advocacy nonprofits” like the American Press Institute. Often they fund reporting on education, which is eyebrow-raising in light of their outspoken support for charter schools. One journalist notes that “If you are covering global health or education… the chances that an organization [you are covering] is getting money from the Gates Foundation are very high because they basically blanket the whole world with their funding.” Only some of the funding is publicly known, since the Foundation is required to disclose its grant recipients, but not recipients of contracts, which have included Vox.
The most menacing episode Schwab reports involved journalists for the Huffington Post who were covering the downsides of the Foundation’s particular health funding priorities. These at times have steered world health toward areas the Foundation favors (like eradicating polio) and away from other important areas. During the HuffPo journalists’ reporting,
…the foundation went over their heads to seek an audience with their editors. Editors at both publications say this raised questions about Gates attempting to influence editorial direction on the stories… the head of Gates’s polio communications team… made an unusual offer to the duo’s editor, writing, ‘We typically like to have a phone conversation with the editor of a publication employing freelancers we are engaging with, both to fully understand how we can help you with the specific project and to form a longer term relationship that could transcend the freelance assignment.
Not exactly a light touch! But incentives usually operate more subtly than this. Quite simply, it is difficult to honestly report on an institution if it is cutting you giant checks. There does not have to be direct Foundation approval of editorial content for there to be a serious problem here, which is that everyone in the organization knows that critical reporting might come at the price of losing financial support. Indeed, according to Global Justice Now’s report, “few of the news organisations that get BMGF money have produced any critical coverage of its project.” This isn’t proof that there are scandals being ignored, but it means we don’t actually know whether the Foundation is actually spotless or is given a pass. It is not inconceivable that you might find yourself someday reading a story about a Gates-funded health project, written up in a newspaper that gets its health coverage underwritten by Gates, reported by a journalist who attended a Gates-funded journalism training program, citing data collected and analysed by scientists with grants from Gates.
Patron of Charts
It’s important that the Gates Foundation be scrutinized, because it (1) is extremely powerful and (2) does do nefarious things. This is seen clearly in its approach to U.S. “education reform.” Bill and Melinda Gates, like many rich people, love charter schools. Melinda has said openly that if the Gateses had their way “you’d see a lot more charter schools. I’d love to see 20 percent charter schools in every state.” They also believe in what we might call the Educational Reform Catechism, which is something like:
- The central problem with public schools is bad teachers and the unions that protect them.
- We need to place teacher evaluation at the center of school reform efforts, so that good teachers are promoted and bad teachers are weeded out.
- Charter schools are an effective way to solve some of the problems of public schools, because they measure teacher performance and allow for Competition.
- To evaluate teachers we need new standards and new tests.
This is crude, but no more crude than many of the public statements of Education Reformers. Gates himself, in a blog post on improving education, immediately cites two things above all others: charter schools and “improv[ing] the way we train, measure, and reward effective teachers.” The Gates Foundation’s major education reform push “bet big on teacher evaluation.” Originally, as the case of Hillsborough County, Florida shows, the plan was somewhat ruthless:
The original proposal and a 2010 timeline called for the district to fire 5 percent of its teachers each year for poor performance. That would amount to more than 700 teachers. The thinking was they would be replaced by teachers who earned entry level wages, freeing up money to pay the bonuses for those at the top.
It was softened up over time. But the whole theory underlying the Gates reforms was off. Evaluating teachers based on student performance meant that teachers were “reluctant to transfer to high-need schools.” The Gates Foundation’s half-billion dollar Effective Teacher Initiative was a complete failure in multiple places where it was tried: an in-depth evaluation commissioned by the Foundation itself showed that “the results didn’t just fail to achieve goals, but generally were null to negative across a variety of outcomes.” Perhaps the worst part is that a stunning half-billion dollars was paid by schools themselves, and the Gates Foundation ended up causing public schools to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on a program that was never going to work:
RAND reports that the Effective Teacher Initiative cost the participating schools $575 million between 2009 and 2016, with Gates contributing $212 million of that total. This tally doesn’t include the staff time to conduct the requisite evaluations. Staff time totaled $73 million in 2014-15 alone (the only year RAND calculated it). That would suggest that the enormous time and effort required by the evaluation process translated into additional hundreds of millions in costs.
Hillsborough County school authorities felt they were left holding the bag, and saw the Gates Foundation as having alluded it would give far more money to the schools than it actually did.
This has not been the Foundation’s only foray into education policy. It was also instrumental in swiftly pushing the controversial Common Core standards, which “dozens of states adopt[ed] before the standards even existed, with little or no discussion.” Progressive education activist and writer Diane Ravitch describes what happened with Common Core in scathing terms:
This is the closest thing to an educational coup in the history of the United States. Our education system is made up of about 14,000 local school districts; most education policy is set at the state level. But Bill Gates was able to underwrite a swift revolution. It happened so quickly that there was very little debate or discussion. Almost every consequential education group was funded by the Gates Foundation to study or promote the Common Core standards.
Of course, the big problem here is a lack of democracy. The best way to find out how to improve teaching is to ask teachers what they need and then give it to them. But Gates’ ideology, the Education Reform Catechism, believes it knows the source of the problem—and it is the teachers themselves. They need more evaluation. They need incentives. We can see how this is inevitably a top-down program, in which reforms are imposed on teachers instead of by teachers.
Interestingly, Gates was subjected to an unusually contentious interview in which he was asked about his outsized role in policy. Journalist Lyndsey Layton confronted Gates and made him squirm. It was clear he hadn’t thought much about it:
Layton (L): Do you feel, you know the AFT [American Federation of Teachers] last week announced that they weren’t going to take any more Gates money when it came to the Common Core. The assumption is there that they’re somehow being bought by Gates, that they’re not voicing their own honest opinions of the Core, that there’s something compromising about it. So I wondered, are you concerned at all that you’re becoming a liability here, or how do you answer those concerns? People think that you’re the unelected school superintendent of the country.
Gates (G): [nine-second pause] Well certainly… you’ve combined too many things there… There’s no connection between the AFT, AFT Innovation Fund, it’s a, it was more about teacher evaluation where locals would apply for various things. Anyway, it’s not, ahh….
Later, the exchange continued:
L: Well, let me tell you what I’m hearing when I talk to people in education policy. The running joke is sooner or later, everybody works for Gates because when you look at the breadth of your funding, and in terms of the advocacy work for the Common Core, you funded on the left of the spectrum, on the right of the spectrum—think tanks, districts, unions, business groups. It’s a wide variety. It’s harder to name groups that are in education that haven’t received funding from Gates, than it is to name all the groups that have. So the suggestion is that because of that pervasive presence that you set the agenda, that it’s harder to get contrasting views and to get real, honest debate because you are funding such a wide variety of actors in this field.
G: Boy, I, I, I guess we’re not going to get to any substance, uh, here, I’m sorry. Ahh [four second pause] our advocacy money is a rounding error, okay? The K through 12 education is six hundred million years of money, a year that it spent and, trying to compute the R and D percentage of trying out new things…. The, the Common Core, people side, and, you know, we don’t, we don’t fund, you know, some right wing groups that we fund, and you know, some left wing group. I don’t know. I, I have no idea what you’re talking about… we, we don’t…
L: The American Enterprise Institute…
G: We don’t fund political groups. We’re not…
L: …think tanks…
G: …we don’t, like Heritage, CATO, people like that. Uhh….
L: The American Enterprise Institute…
G: That’s some experts on educational policy.
L: Fordham, the Fordham Institute, to do their writing….
G: These, these are not political things. These are things where people are trying to apply expertise to say, ‘Is this a way of making education better?’ But at the end of the day, I don’t think wanting education to be better is a left wing or a right wing thing. And, so making sure there’s as many experts, and, yes, some of them will have political… we’re doing evaluation.
But of course, they are political things. Seemingly neutral technocracy always has an ideology. (Gates openly described his approach as “technocratic.”) You’re evaluating. But what you’re evaluating depends on what your values are. What you think a “good school” is, and how it should run, depends on normative conceptions of education that cannot help but overlap with “politics.”
The three-part Netflix documentary Inside Bill’s Brain has a simple thesis: Bill Gates is a genius. He is not like you and me. He is a fascinating problem-solver dedicated to saving the world. The film features all sorts of people close to Gates praising his intellect and public-spiritedness. Inside Bill’s Brain is directed by Davis Guggenheim, who also made the pro-charter school documentary Waiting For Superman (the film’s production company received $2 million in Gates Foundation money). Guggenheim is clearly in awe of Gates, asking endless softball questions including asking about his favorite animal (dog) and food (burgers).
Inside Bill’s Brain partly follows Gates’ effort to “reinvent the toilet” in order to improve sanitation in developing countries. Gates speaks movingly of the completely unnecessary deaths that occur each year because of diseases that spread through human waste, and the urgency of preventing those deaths. But he also tells us that it would not be feasible to build conventional sewerage systems, because in a typical city it could cost $10 billion. Hence the “Reinvent the Toilet” challenge, which seeks to solve the problem by inventing an entirely new type of toilet that converts human waste into something sanitary.
The toilets that have been invented in response to the challenge are cool. If they can get the cost down, they might do a lot of good. But we also see here a problem with “Bill’s brain” that recurs in his climate ideas: Gates believes in new technology as a solution to problems that already have solutions. It’s just that the existing solutions would require the kind of transfer of wealth from rich to poor that he sees as unacceptable. In fact, we can come up with a set of rules about what kinds of solutions to social and economic problems are acceptable to Gates. The rules are:
- It has to include Innovation
- It should not be “political”
- It cannot in any way threaten Bill Gates’ power
- It cannot violate intellectual property laws in a way that threatens the profits of large multinational corporations
- It is decided upon by Bill Gates rather than ordinary people
Gates clearly loves new technology, but it means that boring projects like building infrastructure or strengthening public agencies are less interesting to him than solving a problem with a new invention. The head of the WHO’s malaria research, Arata Kochi, at one point complained that the foundation was “prioritizing only those methods that relied on new technology or developing new drugs,” and thus “stifling debate on the best ways to treat and combat malaria.”
The same focus on apolitical tech-based solutions that do not indict Gates personally is present in his new climate change book. Gates admits he is an “imperfect messenger” on climate change, but this is an understatement. Gates’ personal carbon footprint, as mentioned earlier, is enormous. In a fascinating academic report by management economist Stefan Gössling, the air travel of various elite people and celebrities are roughly estimated based on social media posts. By evaluating the minimum amount of air travel necessary to account for celebrity post locations on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, flight reconstructions of varying completeness can be compared. And by considering the model of private plane used by each person and its known fuel efficiency, Gössling estimates the total private air emissions from Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey, and others. In a hilarious outcome for someone so often praised for his climate conscience, Gates had the very highest private plane emissions in the entire study—as you might remember from earlier, this was a stunning 1,629 tons of CO2. The author notes this is in the neighborhood of 325 times the global average person’s entire annual carbon footprint, although in his book Gates claims he will buy “sustainable jet fuel” going forward. The paper also includes reconstructions of where the famous and powerful people flew globally, showing world-encircling paths stretching thousands of miles, blasting out climate emissions high above our heads.
In his book, Gates claims to have divested from the fossil fuel industry in 2019, following in the footsteps of other billionaires, university endowments, and financial companies. Of course, with the industry in the doldrums since the oil price crashes of last year, this isn’t quite the grand gesture it used to be. However, Schwab observes that while the Gates’ personal wealth portfolio is private information, the Foundation’s publicly-required disclosures include millions in direct investments in the oil industry itself, plus other major emitters like the auto and air travel industries, and construction.
Gates, while praising climate activists for drawing attention to the issue, is actually dismissive of the part of climate activism that includes environmental justice, rather than simply funding new technologies (like those developed by the nuclear power company he owns). In fact, Gates is wary of even acknowledging the politics of the climate issue. His book encourages people to get involved in politics, but, asked directly whether he felt he should have invested in the 2016 election, and thus kept a climate change-denying president out of office, he said that it is actually good to have Republicans in charge of climate policy sometimes. You know, for intellectual diversity.
This country needs changes of party. You can’t have just Democrats in charge. It’s not going to happen. And it’s not good for the country. The Democrats do not think resources are finite. Resources are finite. I’m enough of a centrist to look at the Green New Deal and say, what world do you people live in that you’re going to give everyone a job, and you stuck that in a climate bill? You must not be serious about climate. You must be singing the theme song of the Internationale and reading Marx. Do you want that party to be in charge forever? No, no…
This is disgusting. Gates, having come around to seeing climate change as important only recently, and contributing far more than his fair share to the problem, is telling activists like the Sunrise Movement that they must not be serious about climate change because there is a jobs component to their giant infrastructure overhaul plan. This, he says, is communism and shows that Republicans should share power. Gates clearly has done no engagement whatsoever with the movement activists he is so contemptuous of, nor has he even read any of their literature. It is certainly true that today’s activists increasingly want to change the political and economic system he sits at the top of, and it’s understandable that he would want to direct the conversation away from the economic justice part of the activist agenda. But the idea that Republicans should have a role on climate policy because Democrats are proposing a bill that tries to fix multiple problems at once shows Gates is not actually serious about the politics of climate change. As Bill McKibben pointed out in his review of Gates’ book, Gates says he believes in ambitious policies, but if Republicans get into power “the chances for those ambitious climate policies would have been nil.”
Bill Gates is not the person you want in charge of policy, in part because Gates is driven by an ideology that does not allow interventions that threaten corporate profits. The Gates Foundation helped urge Oxford University to back off its pledge to give away the COVID vaccine it was developing, instead signing a deal with AstraZeneca that “gave the pharmaceutical giant sole rights and no guarantee of low prices.” Gates defended this as coming from a concern with vaccine quality and safety, but we know that his belief in strict IP protections, and the “incentive to innovate,” is a deep part of his ideology. James Love, director of the NGO Knowledge Ecology International and a Gates critic, says that:
He uses his philanthropy to advance a pro-patent agenda on pharmaceutical drugs, even in countries that are really poor,… Gates is sort of the right wing of the public-health movement. He’s always trying to push things in a pro-corporate direction. He’s a big defender of the big drug companies. He’s undermining a lot of things that are really necessary to make drugs affordable to people that are really poor. It’s weird because he gives so much money to [fight] poverty, and yet he’s the biggest obstacle on a lot of reforms.
Do people want this? How much of the world approves of Oxford’s licensing decision? There is no way for the public to exercise veto power over what Gates chooses to do. Alexander Zaitchik, in an excellent expose for the New Republic, shows how Gates insistence on protecting pharmaceutical profits is “reinforcing the system responsible for the very problems he claims to be trying to solve” and throughout his health initiatives the “through-line for Gates has been his unwavering commitment to drug companies’ right to exclusive control over medical science and the markets for its products.” With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging in the developing world, this is monstrous.
There is one argument worth addressing here, which is that while having Bill Gates make important public health decisions may be non-ideal, governments are slow and self-interested. This means that if you want programs like the Gates Foundation’s efforts to eradicate malaria and polio, it’s good to have the “nimble” benevolent billionaire whose work doesn’t have to be approved by a sluggish democracy. But this is a false choice. These are not the two possible worlds. What we need to do is not only eliminate the power of billionaires to control policy, but also ensure that the public sector works. It is not utopian to believe in a possible world in which there are non-sociopathic public institutions that are just as committed to making sure services are delivered quickly to those most in need around the world.
In fact, examining Gates should cause us to think hard about what alternatives look like. What could the computer revolution have looked like if Gates and his ilk hadn’t tried to smother the open source movement and end collaborative computing culture? (Perhaps many more things would be run on the Wikipedia model.) How much wealth and power is too much? How do we ensure that the world’s poorest are given justice without being dependent on Good Billionaires? To what extent are new technologies important compared with building strong public institutions? How do we get from where we are to where we want to be? We know that these questions are not easy. But we also know that the answer can’t involve Bill Gates.
Bill Gates’ career has two parts: the part in which he was monopolizing industries and destroying competitors’ (often better) products and the part where he became a jet-setting billionaire philanthropist whose work is hard to hold accountable and who sometimes directly undermines the public good. It is frustrating, then, to see certain anti-Gates conspiracy theorists online, who hate Gates for the wrong reasons, falsely accusing him of absurd crimes like paralyzing thousands of children with vaccines. The BBC reports that in the COVID era, Gates has been the “voodoo doll” of conspiracies, which take various forms:
Some accuse him of leading a class of global elites. Others believe he is leading efforts to depopulate the world. Still more accuse him of making vaccines mandatory, or even attempting to implant microchips into people.
The problem is that one of these things is kind of true. Gates is not a Lizard Person, and his foundation has done some excellent work, but he is part of a small class of elites who are able to bypass democracy, and does embody many aspects of contemporary society that need to change. The decision of individual billionaires to be useful is better than pure self-regard, but ultimately billionaires should not exist in the first place. Bill Gates is richer than 140 different countries. This is too much concentrated wealth and power and it makes a farce of democracy. The question of how the huge resources of the modern world are used to meet our broad social needs should be decided on democratically, not by the whim of a rich person.
Let Gates jet off into the sunset.