article: Bill Gates’s Decision

June 21, 2006 

Bill Gates’s Decision

Gates’s announcement that he will shift the focal point of his attention from software to philanthropy was a surprise to the public. Despite the pledge, clearly aimed at reassuring investors, about remaining Chairman of Microsoft and the gradualness of the transition, this was—and may have even been intended as—a  dramatic gesture, since Gates could have chosen to make the change without a formal statement.

In the media, the news was often accompanied by the comment that Microsoft has been losing ground over the past few years. The reader was left with a vague impression that the move showed parallels with Seinfeld who announced that his series would end at a time when, though still immensely popular, it had reached a plateau, and he felt that from there on the road could only go downhill.

While we can conjecture about the variety of motives that entered into Gates’s decision, his 1994 interview in Playboy should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that giving away the bulk of his fortune  has been his long-time resolve. And this man prides himself on his ability to make long-range plans.

The case of the industrial magnate who at one point starts to distribute his wealth, eventually giving most of it away for humanitarian causes, has numerous precedents, and is perhaps most spectacularly exemplified in Andrew Carnegie. He was ruthless to his workers throughout much of his life, yet devoted himself single-mindedly to philanthropy towards the end of it. Microsoft under Gates’s leadership had the reputation of being fiercely competitive; the lawsuits filed against the company are part of a well-publicized record.

In fact, it would seem that if there is one underlying master trait to Gates’s character, it is competition. Decoding that character is no mean task, by the way; it has been pointed out that he is “somewhat defensive” about his personal life. His public persona is all smiles. Grin may be a better term: a bland, cool, noncommittal expression somewhat reminiscent of Walter E. Newman, it has just a suggestion of the grimace in it, of a warning that he may be making fun of you, or defying you—mocking the world. At one period, he says, he played the class clown. He was likely casting around for the appropriate role that would enable him to cope with his peers for whom being smart and learning-oriented just made you a freak; what gave you status was primarily excelling in sports. In that milieu, to be sure, Bill was a picture of the quintessential nerd.

Building up Microsoft into the biggest company of its class took of course extraordinary ability, a rare combination of technological talent and business acumen. And it was fired by the competitive zeal mentioned above. In the circumstances, the capitalist system enabled him to accumulate his fabulous wealth. Therefore we should not be surprised to find that he votes Republican and, despite the fact that he recognizes the Internet as a potential tool for introducing direct democracy, an advocate of representative  democracy, believing that legislators are an “above-average group” who are “hardworking, intelligent, and interested in long-term thinking.”

It is here that the paradox appears. For as a spokesman of his foundation, Gates pleads on behalf of equality and even makes the rather optimistic assertion that all students have the ability to go on to college. Self-made millionaires are not infrequently fond of declaring that “everyone can be a success” or “anyone could have done it,” but this must be considered patently false if, as is usually the case, by “success” they actually mean getting ahead of others. Their game is in reality apt to be zero-sum.

“Every human being has equal worth,” as Gates has rather eloquently put it. But can all human beings have 125-million-dollar homes, and do those who have make it ultimately better or worse for those who don’t? While Gates’s philanthropic activities are inspiring and deserving of admiration, it still remains a moot question that can be argued pro or con whether on the whole society benefits by permitting the accumulation of such extreme wealth in the first place.

Lester Shepard

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