Is it immoral to be a billionaire? That was the motion before the Oxford Union in a debate held last September, emphatically proposed by the journalist Anand Giridharadas. Billionaires, Giridharadas argued:
…find clever new ways to pay people as little as possible and as precariously as possible. They avoid taxes illegally and legally, with trillions hiding offshore, as we’ve heard tonight. They lobby for public policies that don’t benefit the public interest—in fact, cost the public interest but enrich them. They form monopolies that asphyxiate competition. They cause social problems to make a profit: obesity by selling sugary drinks; the opioid crisis by selling OxyContin; the housing calamity by speculating in dodgy mortgages; climate change by selling fossil fuels.
After outlining all the ways in which billionaires are marauding thieves and parasites, Giridharadas explained that they “then use philanthropy, some of the spoils of dubiously gotten wealth, to whitewash not just their reputations, but to actually create the ability to keep doing what they are doing.”
In many cases, this bleak and cynical view of billionaire philanthropy is probably justified—of course some wealthy people are more interested in carving their names into buildings and getting sycophantic receptions at art galleries than helping people in need. But Giridharadas didn’t mention any names in his speech at Oxford—particularly names like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. It’s one thing to offer a token donation to your elite alma mater, but it’s something else entirely to pledge to donate 99 percent of your vast fortune to effective causes or set up the largest charitable foundation in the world.
When the organizers of the Oxford debate asked the philosopher Peter Singer to participate, they probably assumed he would join Giridharadas in proposing the motion. Ever since the publication of his 1972 paper “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Singer has been one of the most vocal proponents of what’s now called effective altruism—the idea that we should use our resources to do as much good as possible in the world. “If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening,” Singer wrote in 1972, “without thereby sacrificing anything else morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.” Considering the fact that billionaires could give away hundreds of millions of dollars (at a minimum) and still have far more than they need, it seems clear what Singer’s position would be.
But Singer spoke against the motion: “If you vote for this motion, you are condemning all people who are billionaires … You’re saying that Bill and Melinda Gates are immoral, despite the fact that they set up the Gates Foundation,” an organization which has “undoubtedly already saved several million lives.” Between 1994 and 2018, Bill and Melinda Gates personally donated $36 billion to the foundation, which has issued more than $50 billion in total grant payments since its inception.
A glimpse of what that money has accomplished: The Gates Foundation was a founding partner of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (Gavi), pledging a five-year commitment of $750 million which launched the program in 1999. Since 2000, Gavi has immunized more than 760 million children to protect them from rotavirus, meningitis, polio, measles, and many other deadly diseases. The World Health Organization and UNICEF estimate that Gavi has saved 13 million lives since its inception. After providing the seed money for Gavi, the Gates Foundation continued to support the program with billions of dollars—$4 billion to date, and $1.5 billion between 2016 and 2020 alone, around one-fifth of all donations. And this is just one of the programs the foundation supports—in 2018, it spent more than $4.3 billion on global health and development. When Singer credited Bill and Melinda Gates with saving several million lives, it was almost certainly an understatement.
So, when Giridharadas accused philanthropic billionaires of using “some of the spoils of dubiously gotten wealth” to “whitewash their reputations,” would he make an exception for Gates? On the contrary, Giridharadas considers Gates a prime example of what he has has called “one of the great pretensions of our age”:
We are witnessing the unraveling of one of the great pretensions of our age.
All along, we were told that these billionaires really cared about equality and justice above all. Bill Gates was trotted out as the example of choice when others behaved more dubiously.
— Anand Giridharadas (@AnandWrites) November 6, 2019
But the mask, according to Giridharadas, has finally slipped. He cites an interview at the New York Times DealBook Conference in which Gates argued that Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax is too extreme: “I’ve paid over $10 billion in taxes. I’ve paid more than anyone in taxes. If I’d had to pay $20 billion, it’s fine. But when you say I should pay $100 billion, then I’m starting to do a little math about what I have left over.” Giridharadas quoted this portion of the interview and then observed: “When you start to come after his wealth, even Bill Gates gets cagey.” Neither Giridharadas nor the Mediaite article he cited bothered to report the lighthearted tenor of these remarks, or that Gates immediately followed them by admitting, “I’m just kidding.”
Giridharadas isn’t the only one who took Gates’s joke literally—Bernie Sanders tweeted:
Say Bill Gates was actually taxed $100 billion.
We could end homelessness and provide safe drinking water to everyone in this country.
Bill would still be a multibillionaire.
Our message: the billionaire class cannot have it all when so many have so little. https://t.co/fVlxuIGygf
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) November 7, 2019
Of course, if Gates spent that money on international health and development over the next few decades, it would have a much greater impact, but Sanders has an election to win.
It isn’t really Gates’s “caginess” that upsets Giridharadas—it’s the fact that he’s allegedly “vacillating on the clearest moral choice of our time.” As he announced to his 541,000 Twitter followers: “Bill Gates, the great philanthropist of our age, is so attached to his own wealth that he refuses to rule out voting to re-elect a white nationalist demagogue over Elizabeth Warren.” What’s the evidence for this claim? When Andrew Ross Sorkin asked Gates what he would do if Warren ends up as the Democratic nominee against Trump in 2020, here’s how he responded:
I’m not going to make political declarations. But I do think, no matter what policy somebody has in mind, a professional approach—as much as I disagree with some of the policy things that are out there—I do think a professional approach to the office, whoever I decide would have the more professional approach in the current situation probably is the thing that I’ll weigh the most. And I hope the more professional candidate is an electable candidate.
Gates’s repeated use of the word “professional” makes it almost impossible to imagine he was talking about Trump. And his use of the word “electable” suggests that he wants the Democrats to nominate a candidate capable of defeating Trump. Finally, Gates specifically said he isn’t interested in making “political declarations,” about which he has every reason to be wary.
The Gates Foundation works closely with U.S. foreign aid agencies. Would it really make sense for Gates to openly antagonize a vindictive president who’s already deeply hostile to foreign aid spending? The Trump administration tried to cut State Department and USAID funding by 28 percent in 2017, which would have meant dramatic cuts in global health and humanitarian assistance. In a 2017 report, the Gates Foundation lamented the fact that “Congress is currently considering how to deal with the big cuts to foreign aid proposed in the president’s budget.” In March 2017, Gates met with Congressional leaders to discuss foreign aid spending: “In his Capitol Hill meetings,” according to a report in the Hill, “Gates stressed the potential impact that budget cuts could have on programs backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”
Unswayed by any of the obvious explanations above, Giridharadas pressed on with a 16-tweet indictment of Gates as a man willing to watch the country burn if it would save him a few bucks. Having declared that Gates is “open to voting for a racist, misogynist, lawbreaking tyrant,” Giridharadas arrived at this terrifying conclusion:
And now think of this.
This is the same mind making big decisions about Common Core and your kids’ public education. About health priorities for entire societies. About pandemic preparedness. How do we trust these solutions once the mask slips and we see the paramount need?
— Anand Giridharadas (@AnandWrites) November 6, 2019
The suggestion that we ought to be suspicious of Gates’s work on global health—work that has saved millions of lives—because he made a slightly ambiguous comment about U.S. politics is not only absurd, it is also pernicious. What makes this vitriolic scapegoating even more gratuitous is that Gates repeatedly expressed his willingness to pay higher taxes in the interview. A few examples: “Both Warren [Buffett] and I are glad in whatever way to pay a fair bit more in taxes”; “Should rich people pay more in taxes? The answer is yes”; “I’m all for super progressive tax systems.” He also called for increasing the estate tax, potentially taxing “people who’ve sat on huge gains for, say, ten years,” taxing contributions to private foundations, and “treating capital income the same as labor income.” However, Gates still argues that philanthropy “plays a role that neither the private sector or the government are able to do in terms of various innovative approaches to, say, malaria or nutrition or trying out new models of education through things like charter schools.”
Giridharadas clearly disagrees, but isn’t this a debate worth having without an avalanche of bad faith and scornful remarks about how we “can’t even trust Bill Gates to put his desire for a better world above his self-preservational plute drive” or how “one by one, these plutes are revealing themselves”? When a person has given away tens of billions of dollars and plans to give away billions more, you’d think he’d have earned the benefit of the doubt about his motives. But it’s inconceivable to Giridharadas that Gates genuinely disagrees about the effectiveness of Warren’s wealth tax—his disagreement must be evidence of his unquenchable greed and his “paramount need” to protect his fortune.
After a Recode journalist tweeted Gates’s joke about paying $100 billion under Warren’s wealth tax (again without mentioning the fact that it was a joke), Warren responded: “I’d love to explain exactly how much you’d pay under my wealth tax. (I promise it’s not $100 billion.)” Two days later, she tweeted a New York Times editorial entitled “The Billionaires Are Getting Nervous” along with a picture of Gates, adding:
The status quo is working great for the wealthy and the well-connected, but not so much for everyone else. Big, structural change is coming—and I’m not afraid to fight for it. https://t.co/QOpYz3uGD2
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) November 8, 2019
In the editorial, the New York Times describes Gates as a “perturbed plutocrat” and argues that the “alarm bells are out of all proportion with Ms. Warren’s plan. Describing his concerns on Wednesday, Mr. Gates at one point suggested he might be asked to pay $100 billion.” You’d think that editors at the New York Times would be capable of comprehending the words “I’m just kidding,” but apparently not. The editorial goes on to lecture Gates, who can “demonstrate that he’s serious about tax increases by setting aside the hyperbole and engaging in principled and factual debate about the details.”
But Gates isn’t the one engaging in a dishonest debate. According to Giridharadas, “When critics like me argue that philanthropy is no substitute for taxation and a fairer set of social arrangements, billionaires like Gates fire back: Yes, I support higher taxes. But we don’t have them now, so I need to do this philanthropy.” But Bill and Melinda Gates didn’t, in fact, start their foundation because they think taxes are too low in the United States—they started it because they discovered that millions of children die every year from treatable and preventable illnesses or a lack of food and water. In 2018, the Gates Foundation invested roughly 90 percent of its program funding in international health, development, and advocacy, with the remaining 10 percent allocated to programs in the United States.
There’s a good reason why Bill and Melinda Gates focus on international programs to alleviate poverty and control infectious diseases: That’s where their fortune can do the most good. There are still 736 million people living on less than $1.90 per day, while half the planet lives on less than $5.50 per day. Meanwhile, according to the World Health Organization, “In 2018 an estimated 6.2 million children and adolescents under the age of 15 years died, mostly from preventable causes. Of these deaths, 5.3 million occurred in the first five years, with almost half of these in the first month of life.”
Aren’t Warren, Sanders, Giridharadas, and members of the New York Times editorial board supposed to care about inequality? Or do they only care about inequality in the richest country in human history? Giridharadas is thrilled that there are “major proposals to take away a big share of Gates’s wealth in order to build a more equitable society,” but a big share of that wealth is already being used to build a more equitable world. Does anyone really think the $50 billion the Gates Foundation has spent on addressing extreme poverty, disease, and the worst forms of inequality on the planet over the past two and a half decades would have been put to better use by the U.S. government? I suppose we could really use a few more Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers at $13.1 billion a pop.
But you aren’t going to see an indignant rejoinder from Gates on the New York Times op-ed page pointing all this out—his work speaks for itself. While Bernie Sanders furiously tweets about the “billionaire class” and Warren staffers sip coffee out of their “BILLIONAIRE TEARS” mugs, Bill and Melinda Gates will quietly get on with saving millions of lives.
Matt Johnson has written for Stanford Social Innovation Review, the Bulwark, Editor & Publisher, Areo Magazine, Arc Digital, Splice Today, Forbes, and the Kansas City Star. He was formerly the opinion page editor at the Topeka Capital-Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjj89
Featured Image: Bill and Melinda Gates during their visit to the Oslo Opera House in June 2009 (Pic: Kjetil Ree)
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