Earlier this week, Microsoft founder and man-with-$106-billion Bill Gates intimated that he may vote for Trump over Elizabeth Warren. He is one of many supposed anti-Trump billionaires who have communicated to everyone that they view Sanders’ and Warren’s politics as more of a threat to them than Trump’s, proving the overwhelming power of class solidarity among the most wealthy in this world. Because we live in a society that treats rich people like demigods who have figured something out that the rest of us puny mortals can’t wrap our feeble minds around, many folks rallied behind Gates as he backtracked a bit on his statement (tweeting that he was worried Warren’s wealth tax would take $100 billion from him—which would leave him with just a measly $6 billion), and the discussion turned to who could manage Gates’ wealth for the greater good the best: Bill Gates or the government? This sarcastic tweet is the prevailing wisdom among many of those in the neoliberal center.
Now I’m not here to argue the opposite, and say that government is always better at making decisions than the private market, but I want to point out how fundamentally short-sighted this debate is. At the core of this issue, we’re talking about people operating systems. We lionize “the market” and denigrate “the government” as if they are individual entities separate from humanity themselves. The world is unfathomably complex, and boiling it down to “business good, government bad” is an insultingly simplistic description of how these two interconnected entities with different priorities operate. Plus, as anyone who has ever had to deal with his or her insurance company can attest, the notion that red tape and heartless, inefficient bureaucracy only exists in government and not in industry is an assertion so detached from reality that it belongs on Fox News.
Ne0liberal(s) believes that Gates’ genius was proven through the overwhelming amount of money he made from Microsoft, and therefore his decision-making with that money should not be questioned nor overruled by the government. However, Microsoft would have never grown into the behemoth it did if IBM did not make one of the worst business deals of the 20th century, and allowed Microsoft to own the software on their computers. This is not up for debate—it’s a classic example of market dynamics used in basic business and economics classes. The Microsoft kingdom was built on the foundation of a self-inflicted wound by IBM. If IBM had fully understood the power of software and did not give Microsoft free reign over their product by just licensing MS-DOS from the entity they enlisted to build an operating system for their computers, Bill Gates would be FAR less wealthy than he is today, as IBM would have scooped up the majority of the money Microsoft wound up making off the rise of the internet. According to the argument buttressing ne0liberal’s tweet, that world where IBM makes the right decision and profits most from his operating system would make Gates less trustworthy with his money, despite the fact that Gates had no control over IBM’s decision that ultimately decided much of his own economic fate.
Plus, Gates’ company could not even exist without the government pouring billions of dollars and decades of manpower into the creation of the internet. Asserting that Gates’ empire proves he’s better with money than the entity who constructed the network upon which Gates’ kingdom rests is a pretty hard argument to square, especially given how both the internet and Microsoft are tied together thanks to Microsoft’s first-mover advantage gained during the rise of the web. Neither “the government” nor “the market” has a monopoly on competence, especially in situations like this where the relationship is symbiotic.
Let’s take this one step further, and poke a giant hole in the notion that Gates definitely knows how to use his wealth to do good for the world better than the government does.
Africa commands much of Gates’ attention when it comes to his philanthropy. In 2016, the Gates Foundation pledged to invest $5 billion on the massive continent over the next five years. Now, we are living in an age that is finally lifting the veil on philanthropy, as Anand Giridharadas’ book, Winners Take All, highlights how philanthropy is more of a PR/business venture for billionaires than it is an altruistic one. If you’re a billionaire, you know what’s also a good way to make sure your money can get to people who need it? Paying taxes!
While most of the talk about Gates’ work in Africa seemingly begins and ends at the dollar figure he invests, if you begin to scratch the surface of where those dollars go, the supposed humanitarianism behind the venture begins to fade away in some areas. Per The Guardian in 2010:
Trouble began when a US financial website published the [Gates] foundation’s annual investment portfolio, which showed it had bought 500,000 Monsanto shares worth around $23m. This was a substantial increase in the last six months and while it is just small change for Bill and Melinda, it has been enough to let loose their fiercest critics.
Seattle-based Agra Watch – a project of the Community Alliance for Global Justice – was outraged. “Monsanto has a history of blatant disregard for the interests and well being of small farmers around the world…[This] casts serious doubt on the foundation’s heavy funding of agricultural development in Africa,” it thundered.
But it got worse. South Africa-based watchdog the African Centre for Biosafety then found that the foundation was teaming up with Cargill in a $10m project to develop the soya value chain in Mozambique and elsewhere. Who knows what this corporate-speak really means, but in all probability it heralds the big time introduction of GM soya in southern Africa.
Bill Gates’ master plan to help economically develop parts of Africa involves heavy influence from some of the world’s most massive and pernicious companies. Sure, not all of it is bad, and Gates giving billions to the poverty-stricken regions of the continent inevitably creates much good, but returning back to the central question of competence here: simply saying “give mega-conglomerates more control over economically dilapidated regions” is more colonialism than it is charity.
To fully provide a contrast between Gates’ work in Africa and what the United States government could do on the continent with Gates’ wealth, let’s turn to the worst president of most people’s lifetimes, George W. Bush. Between the lie that is the Iraq War to letting New Orleans drown under Hurricane Katrina to crashing the global economy to a litany of Trump-like anti-democratic measures, the Bush presidency is known across the ideological spectrum as an unmitigated disaster. That being said, there is one program enacted by our legacy kid president that will stand as one of the greatest and most successful outcomes any politician in the world has ever achieved. In between all the criminality, madness and criminal madness, George W. Bush found a moment to do something truly profound for millions of people across the world. Per Vox:
PEPFAR is the federal government’s anti-HIV/AIDS foreign aid program, established by the Global AIDS Act of 2003 and renewed in 2008 and 2013. It is the single largest global health initiative targeting a single disease in history. It currently provides support for antiretroviral treatment for 7.7 million people, both directly and through technical support to partner countries; in fiscal year 2014, it provided HIV testing and counseling to more than 56.7 million people, including 14.2 million pregnant women.
“PEPFAR has helped changed the equation on what was once — not too long ago — seen as an insurmountable plague,” the Center for Global Development’s Amanda Glassman and Jenny Ottenhoff write.
The results are nothing short of extraordinary. A 2009 study by Stanford medical professors Eran Bendavid and Jayanta Bhattacharya, comparing HIV mortality in African countries receiving PEPFAR support between 2004 and 2007 and countries not receiving it, found that the program reduced the HIV death rate by 10.5 percent — preventing 1.2 million deaths, at a startlingly low price of only $2,450 per death averted. If you extrapolate out that figure for subsequent years, that’s 3 to 4 million lives saved so far — but given that the study only focused on 12 African countries rather than every PEPFAR partner, and that funding for and the reach of PEPFAR has grown dramatically since, that’s likely an underestimate. The true number saved could be significantly higher.
We have been sold a lie in America, and we have been led to believe that if we just throw more capitalism at a problem, it will solve itself. The George W. Bush enacted both a stunningly successful and cost-effective program to save millions of lives is proof the fallacy of that argument. That’s the kind of outcome one would expect from Bill Gates if the legends about his supreme competency are true. Instead, Gates has yet to create something more successful than this program established by a president who was nearly assassinated by a pretzel.
The oligopolist dystopia surrounding us (which is exactly what the laws of supply and demand say should happen over time under the rules of capitalism) disproves the supposed inherent “wisdom of the market.” Profit does not equal efficiency nor quality—it just equals profit. Profit can be used to create efficient and quality systems and products, but it can also be used for harm. Monsanto and Cargill are examples of the latter while PEPFAR is an example of the former (what are taxes other than reinvesting society’s profits in society?), and arguing on behalf of Bill Gates’ vision of philanthropy is to support the largest companies in the world stepping into situations ripe for exploitation, and trusting them not to do what they have done time and time again. The fact that George W. Freaking Bush created one of the most overwhelmingly effective, economical and altruistic programs to ever come out of any government is proof that government can invest money in society smarter and more efficiently than the private sector can. Anyone asserting otherwise is swapping ideology for lessons learned from recorded history.
Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.