Bill Gates is getting bashed over comments he made that are critical of capitalism, and I think he’s getting a bad rap.
Wired reported on comments Gates made in London last week in which he complained that more funding is directed to male baldness research than to malaria vaccines because the wealthy people who write the checks are more concerned with their own problems than bigger humanitarian issues. He said governments and philanthropic organizations have to take steps to correct this “flaw in the pure capitalistic approach”.
Reader comments on Wired are a bit more thoughtful than the ones on the U.K.’s Mail, but the criticism in both forums centers on Gates’ implied criticism of capitalism, which made him one of the richest people on earth.
For one thing, Gates didn’t trash capitalism in general. What he said was that there was a “flaw in the pure capitalistic approach” that created funding inequities. Most people would agree that capitalism in its purest form creates imbalances that lead to lead to things like the Great Depression, and that’s why some regulation is needed. It’s the best economic model humans have yet invented, but it isn’t perfect.
I also think Gates’ image needs revisiting in light of all the good he has done over the last decade.
If you read the rest of the Wired story, you see that Gates has his fingers on the pulse of some huge humanitarian issues, and the Gates Foundation is doing some of the world’s best work to address the problems of the desperately poor. I now believe that the Gates Foundation – not Microsoft – has been Bill Gates’ life goal for a very long time. Microsoft was his way to make the Foundation real.
Back in my technology media days I had the chance to interview Gates on several occasions. I once asked him why he continued to accumulate so much wealth. Did he ever think about scaling back and enjoying the fruits of his success (This was in the early 90s, when he was worth only around $8 billion)?
Gates’ answer surprised me. He said he planned to give away most of the money eventually and that he was in the best possible place to generate the maximum amount of wealth for that purpose While the Gates Foundation didn’t have a name at the time, it was clearly a goal in his mind.
Since leaving Microsoft in 2008, Gates has all but disappeared from the industry he helped create, devoting himself instead to his foundation. He has thrown himself into that task with all the energy he brought to crushing Microsoft competitors, only this time has goals are perhaps more commendable. Microsoft stock has languished for a decade. Gates cashed out his winnings when there was nothing more to be gained, just as he told me he would 20 years ago.
I think we’re seeing another side to Bill Gates, and I hope it’s part of his legacy. While he is a brilliant and often ruthless competitor, he’s also capable of great compassion. I think it’s a shame that Steve Jobs, who gave away very little of the wealth he accumulated, is viewed more positively than a man who seems determined to spend the rest of his life tackling some of the world’s toughest health and humanitarian issues.