In the world of modern philanthropy, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone more influential than Bill Gates. Through Microsoft’s business endeavors, Gates has been able to amass unconscionable amounts of wealth, with his net worth currently measured at north of a hundred billion dollars according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. So with such a high dollar count, does Gates’ charity-giving live up to his purported reputation, or is it but a thinly-veiled attempt to distance himself from the unruly havoc that the rich have wreaked upon the poor in America?
Untangling the many interlocking pieces to answering these two questions involves not only a succinct look at what Bill Gates has personally done through his charity ventures, but also the current state of social upheave where the rich are more-than-ever the target of scold from both reformists in the political system, and the least-fortunate among the populace alike. In answering the question of the former — after Elizabeth Warren released a detailed tax plan to address the thorny question of “How to pay for Medicare-for-All” — Bill Gates opened himself up to a deluge of criticism after jokingly saying that he wouldn’t have much left if he was taxed according to Warren’s proposal.
As varied as the reception to Gates’ comments is, the most vocal predictably came from the political left, claiming that Bill Gates is yet another example of someone who dons the costume of class-betrayal, only to sell the interest of the poor on a dime at the sight of a threatening prospect to their personal wealth. Gates — widely-attributed the democratization of modern computing — was suddenly exposed to the same veneer of criticism that serial labor law offenders and tax dodgers like Jeff Bezos receive on a regular basis.
The problem with that is its own complicated mesh of competing ideas, but one of the most prominent seems to be that Bill Gates isn’t doing enough in the poorer parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, where he seemingly could end the problem of poverty just by dumping truckloads of cash into local treasuries, in reference to a number of estimates floated about the necessary cost to end poverty in these territories at about $30 billion a year. It’s especially weird coming from self-adorned anti-capitalists who are essentially proposing a capitalistic solution to a capitalism-borne problem.
Solving the issue of poverty in territories embattled by the legacy of colonialism is a much bigger problem than any one individual — including Bill Gates — could solve. In the case of economically-unstable regions of Sub-Saharan Africa, the issue relates closest to a botched transfer of power from military-lead resistance back to civilian rule following colonial powers’ exit from the continent. France and Britain most-notably didn’t assist with any of its proceedings, leaving communities who share no unified sense of national identity to suddenly share space, and others split across border lines where they were once whole. That created the perfect conditions for civil unrest to become the norm in large swaths of the African continent, which makes it incredibly hard to approach charity from a purely-logistical point of view without inadvertently contributing to an adverse outcome in the process. Mismanagement remains a major point of deterrence for charity efforts, as it’s proven to go sideways if not handled with proper care.
Ideally, poverty should be solved by those who fomented it in the first place. The United States is in an especially weird spot as those it owes reparations to — but keeps refusing to yield —live right within its turf, but where Bill Gates operates, is where former global powers in Europe should’ve paid according the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission a whopping $777 trillion in return for centuries of slavery, resource exhaustion, and remorseless bloodshed–a figure which even if fulfilled, would bankrupt the culprits and victims of the colonial era all-the-same. Reparations is an area of the debate that didn’t have as much time to cement its ground, despite the real need to consider that the woes of the post-colonial era are ones that no amount of fragmented individual action — including from billionaires — could fully solve.
Another strand of argument posits that charity is inherently anti-democratic, and that billionaires shouldn’t be entrusted with redistributing their wealth, with that duty being only reserved for the state to perform. This read, as appealing as it is for the world of hot takes in socialist circles, completely overlooks the question of what would happen if these funds were to fall in the hands of a Republican legislature — as Bush proved it takes little to fund a war campaign with taxpayers barely batting an eye — or in their current state, as economist Paul Krugman argues, where the United States doesn’t do nearly enough to promote growth overseas. The American political system is particularly averse to public accountability, so the notion that the government would be held to keep its promise of providing much-needed assistance to struggling communities around the world is at best, wishful thinking.
This is literally the multi-billion dollar question: How will the money be spent? The case for asking this, isn’t strictly market-motivated as some would argue. There’s a way in which instituting change for the downtrodden many has to come from a place of moral responsibility, and not become contingent on an ideological principle whose application is fully dependent on the political system functioning correctly — which it often doesn’t. This election cycle, Democrats — save for Bernie Sanders — have fallen ill to a scheme where wealth inequality is bankrolling their efforts to push for popular legislation — in this case Medicare-for-All — but with none the bones of a truly cogent wealth redistribution plan where taxing the rich doesn’t just pay for healthcare, but also uplifts all aspects of American life for the bottom 50%, all-the-while aiming to care for those whose livelihoods have drastically worsened due to America’s dominion over the global economy. Warren’s plan if all-encompassing with regards to healthcare, doesn’t consider much in the way of foreign aid where the US has historically struggled to measure up.
“It seems dramatically less productive to shout at a billionaire who is openly calling for higher estate taxes and capital gains taxes to shrink his own fortune than to target the bulk of billionaires with much more self-interested political projects in mind,” argues Vox’s Dylan Matthews. It’s even more puzzling that the debate focused on the highest-hanging fruit of all — Bill Gates’ charity work — depicting him as an aristocrat who’s only interested in the project of human welfare only insofar as to further his own reputation. There’s no real way to know what Gates’ intentions are, but to infer so much from a throwaway quote he made in jest seems much more indicative of how prone-to-explosion the current political climate is, than proving with any kind of certainty that Gates would indeed be opposed to giving away the bulk of his wealth to the US Treasury for them to then decide how best to spend it.