The typical question to ask about Bill Gates is: what happens when the boss from hell decides to save the world? A new book suggests there is a deeper and more interesting one: what does Bill Gates want from human life?
William Henry Gates III, who was born in 1955 in the dead centre of the baby boom to a wealthy Seattle lawyer and a banking heiress, is among the vanishingly small group of people who can not only imagine a different future for humanity, but has a reasonable chance of realising it. He is able to do so because of the laws of his native US. The most important is the tax code, which allows Gates to transfer large amounts of money to his philanthropic foundation’s fund, from which he can spend on purposes of his own devising.
Needless to say, most of us do not enjoy the same privilege. We take for granted that the fiscal clause of the social contract means that we abdicate powers of state spending to elected officials and laws. Gates, by contrast, has a free hand to build a quasi-state of his own. In his book Empire, Incorporated, Philip J Stern writes about chartered entities that predate nations, but continue to exist inside of them. His main examples are universities such as Harvard and Yale, which continue to enjoy a level of self-government that other entities do not. (Harvard boasts that it is, formally speaking, “the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere”.)
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) is something similar, an imperium in imperio, a state within a state with an endowment that, at more than $63bn, is worth more than the GDP of half the world’s nations (and $10bn more than Harvard). Unlike those chartered universities, which have over centuries accumulated norms, expectations and internal legislation, the BMGF has existed for only two decades and its raison d’être remains open to revision according to the often wandering aims of the man at its centre.
What is the target? As a businessman Gates – who co-founded Microsoft in 1975 – was oriented towards achieving the same aims as all businesspeople: making more money than you spend and expanding your clientele. The metric is clear. Success is measured in profits, stock price and market share. As fellow tech titan Peter Thiel has been helpfully honest about in his own writings, businesspeople do not fear monopoly, they seek it. “Competition is for losers,” he put it neatly.
What happens when the businessperson directs the quantifying and tabulating impulse towards the goals of humanity at large? The most vulgar answer is the correct one. You measure success in terms of human lives.
In his final book, The Fatal Conceit, the Austrian-British political philosopher Friedrich Hayek declared that “the calculus of costs is a calculus of lives”. For him, capitalism was the most successful system because it had produced the most humans. Any other metric paled next to this one. We are familiar with this utilitarian logic from recent discussions of the giving strategies offered by effective altruism and long-termism, as channelled by the giga-fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF) – who, a year before his conviction on seven counts of fraud and conspiracy, signed the Giving Pledge written by Bill and Melinda Gates alongside Warren Buffett. Gates blazed the trail that SBF followed. As the US journalist Tim Schwab shows in The Bill Gates Problem, Gates defended his charitable undertaking with the number of lives he had saved, which in 2013 he put at ten million.
Schwab explains the creative arithmetic that produces such curiously round numbers, but it’s clear that Gates agrees with Hayek in understanding success as the maximisation of the global population. What should we make, then, of the paradox that Schwab overlooks: that Gates’s other major undertaking works to reduce the number of lives in the world through the extension of birth control and family planning? Do we want more lives or fewer? There is a long history of people solving this paradox under the rightly maligned term of eugenics. The eugenicist wants to reduce the number of lives at the less-endowed left end of the bell curve and maximise the number of lives on its right.
There are ways that a critic could see this logic in some of Gates’s undertakings. He does sometimes seem to be giving social Darwinism a helping hand or, to put it more positively, reinforcing the dynamics of meritocracy. This is most obvious in his support for charter schools in the US, a policy embraced by both political parties in the early 2000s and pushed especially hard by Silicon Valley “thought leaders” as a necessary technical fix for the plague of inefficient public teachers on union sinecures. In start-up schools, they would be replaced by teachers on flexible contracts measured by a slate of indicators and rewarded and punished according to performance. The same approach underwrote the Common Core State Standards Initiative for US government-funded public schools, which was rolled out with Gates Foundation support during the Obama years. The scheme’s dashboard approach to success or failure led to an epidemic of what is now described as “teaching to the test”, which is resented by many teachers and students.
Is this part of the answer? Is Gates’s logic that he is seeking to boost the best and maximise lives at the upper end of the IQ spectrum to consciously or unconsciously fill his business needs as a tech entrepreneur? In 2005 a Forbes journalist wrote: “I spent five days travelling the country with Gates, and he must have talked about IQ a hundred times. Getting the brightest bulbs to work at Microsoft has always been his obsession.” Gates would be an unusual denizen of the tech world if he did not see cognitive capital as influential in world-changing breakthroughs.
At the same time, Gates’s philanthropy beyond the US is much less education-oriented and more focused on a blanket reduction of deaths, especially by infectious disease. Here there might be an even more basic psychological impulse at work – the desire to be the best. Take polio. Gates seems fixated on being the person to eradicate polio by funding vaccination programmes, yet this may have actually helped to increase the number of people affected by the disease. Schwab cites reporting from the British Medical Journal that estimates more than 1,000 people throughout Africa were paralysed in 2020 by vaccine-driven polio.
Gates may have been influenced by the mythology of Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine in the Fifties, when Gates was a child. It is easy to imagine Gates placing himself in this pantheon as the person who finally delivered the disease its death blow.
The easiest way to get into the pantheon is to build one of your own. Like many rich people, Gates fancies himself a polymath because there is always an employee around to admire his new titbit of learning. His masterstroke was to transform an entire media ecosystem into an army of yes people. A broad swath of what is usually considered the centre-left wing of global journalism– such as the BBC, the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Atlantic, the New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and Al Jazeera – is funded by money from the Gates Foundation. Time and again, Schwab gives examples of those outlets soft-pedalling criticism of Gates’s philanthropy. As he points out, there is something odd about the media commentators raising concerns when Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, spent $250m to buy the Washington Post – but were much less interested in BMGF’s spending ten times this figure on media since 2009.
[See also: Monster of the mainstream]
There is a common conspiratorial image of Bill Gates as a diabolical genius or mastermind. One extreme theory is that he concocted the Covid epidemic as a pretext to inject nanobots into the arms of a gormless global public. The truth from Schwab’s book is more banal. Gates is actually not very good at creating a world that functions according to his own principles. His “bold interventions have been wildly successful in elevating Bill Gates on the world stage,” Schwab writes, “but, in a practical sense, these efforts have all been major failures”.
The vaccines Gates promotes are rarely the silver bullets he claims. In 2022 he attributed the fall in deaths from rotavirus to his vaccine, but the decline was largely due to trends in public health that began years before he intervened. His near-religious faith in commodifying intellectual property means that even the success stories – in vaccinations for childhood pneumonia, for example – are overshadowed by the lives lost because of patent monopolies. That same faith in market magic led him to reportedly block Oxford University from offering what might have been a “people’s vaccine” to Covid-19. To a journalist’s query about a patent waiver, he responded, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
The solace is that although Gates spends a great deal of money, there is growing scepticism about the intervention of billionaires as a panacea for humanity’s problems. One can see the often comical conspiracies around Gates (and the World Economic Forum with which he is often paired) as an exaggerated symptom of an actual overreach by private actors, who have over the past two decades sought to make policy from business class 40,000ft above democratic governments. That Gates effectively bought the silence of the journalists who could have been his most incisive critics only drives people understandably further towards marginal outlets that have the virtue, at least, of not being supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as they report on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Although Schwab’s book is a tale of frustration and even rage at the culture of secrecy and often incompetence inside Gates’s philanthropic world, it is also strangely heartening. Perhaps we are starting to solve the “Bill Gates Problem” by the creeping (if highly uneven) return of faith in the ability of public authorities to do better than private world-makers, alongside the ongoing discrediting of the tech saviours who enjoyed such a gullible audience in the early years of the millennium. The latter process of disillusionment was hastened by the revelations surrounding the late sex offender and billionaire Jeffrey Epstein and his lengthy list of social callers – which included Gates. In an email to colleagues Gates wrote of a social event hosted by Epstein: “A very attractive Swedish woman and her [15-year-old] daughter dropped by and I ended up staying there quite late.” (Gates has since expressed regret for his connection to Epstein.)
While much more space could be devoted to the role of Bill’s ex-wife, Melinda, who co-chairs the foundation, it is worth noting that she left her husband of 27 years in part over lingering questions about his links to Epstein. These parts of the book can seem gossipy but they are not immaterial when so much stands and falls on personal reputations and trust.
Solving the Bill Gates Problem doesn’t mean larger problems are solved. It just leaves us with the usual ones of democratic gridlock, evaporating public funding for higher education and basic research, and vaporised revenue models for journalism and publishing. Dispelling the Noughties mirage of celebrity-billionaire global governance does help clear the mind, though. Human lives have to be more than notches on a plutocrat’s bat.
The Bill Gates Problem
Penguin, 496pp, £25
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This article appears in the 22 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The paranoid style