Review: The Bill Gates Problem

Cover of The Bill Gates Problem, by Tim Schwab

The Bill Gates Problem: Reckoning with the Myth of the Good Billionaire
By Tim Schwab
Metropolitan Books
ISBN: 978-1-25085009-6

Thirty years ago, the Federal Trade Commission began investigating one of the world’s largest technology companies on antitrust grounds. Was it leveraging its monopoly in one area to build dominance in others? Did it bully smaller competitors into disclosing their secrets, which it then copied? And so on. That company was Microsoft, Windows was giving it leverage over office productivity software, web browsers, and media players, and its leader was Bill Gates. In 1999, the courts ruled Microsoft a monopoly.

At the time, it was relatively commonplace for people to complain that Gates was insufficiently charitable. Why wasn’t he more philanthropic, given his vast and increasing wealth? (Our standards for billionaire wealth were lower back then.) Be careful what you wish for…

The transition from monopolist mogul to beneficent social entrepreneur where Tim Schwab starts in The Bill Gates Problem: Reckoning with the Myth of the Good Billionaire. In Schwab’s view, the reason is well-executed PR, in which category he includes the many donations the foundation makes to journalism organizations.

I have heard complaints for years that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s approach to philanthropy favors expensive technological interventions over cheaper, well-established ones. In education that might mean laptops and edtech software rather than training teachers; in medicine that might mean vaccine research rather than clean water. Schwab’s investigative work turns up dozens such stories in the areas BMGF works in: family planning, education, health. Yet, Schwab writes, citing numerous sources for his figures, for all the billions BMGF has poured into these areas, it has failed to meet its stated objectives.

You can argue that case, but Schwab moves on from there to examine the damaging effects of depending on a billionaire, no matter how smart and well-intentioned, to finance services that might more properly be the business of the state. No one elected Gates, and no one has voted on the priorities he has chosen to set. The covid pandemic provides a particularly good example. One of the biggest concerns as efforts to produce vaccines got underway was ensuring that access would not be limited to rich countries. Many believed that the most efficient way of doing this was to refrain from patenting the vaccines, and help poorer countries build their own production facilities. Gates was one of those who opposed this approach, arguing that patents were necessary to reward pharmaceutical companies for the investment they poured into research, and also that few countries had the expertise to make the vaccines. Gates gave in to pressure and reversed his position in May 2021 to support a “narrow waiver”. Reading that BMGF is the biggest funder of the WHO and remembering his preference for technological interventions made me wonder: how much do we have Gates to thank for the emphasis on vaccines and the reluctance to push cheaper non-pharmaceutical interventions like masks, HEPA filters, and ventilation in countries like the UK?

Schwab goes into plenty of detail about all this. But his wider point is to lay out the power Gates’s massive wealth – both the foundation’s and his own – gives him over the charitable sector and, through public-partnerships, many of the nations in which he operates. Schwab also calls Gates’s approach “philanthropic colonialism” because the bulk of his donations go to organizations based in the West, rather than directly to their counterparts elsewhere.

Pointing out the amount of taxpayer subsidy the foundation gets through the tax exemptions charities get, Schwab asks if we’re really getting value for our money. Wouldn’t we be better off collecting taxes and setting our own agendas? Is there really any such thing as a “good” billionaire?

Author: Wendy M. Grossman

Covering computers, freedom, and privacy since 1991.

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