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Pogue on Gates

In his blog today, New York Times technology writer David Pogue gets Bill Gates exactly right:

A few days ago, the richest man in the world, Bill Gates, announced that he’d be stepping down from daily Microsoft activities in order to devote himself to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Through this foundation, Mr. Gates has said that he intends to give away 95 percent of his wealth. The foundation’s primary interests are education, poverty and global health -- saving the lives of the millions who die of preventable diseases, mostly in poor countries.

Now, as faithful readers know, I don’t always find Microsoft’s software-design work very impressive. And, under Mr. Gates’s watch, Microsoft has done a lot of ruthless and sometimes sleazy things over the years...

But until last week’s announcement... I never really allowed myself to confront the apparent contradiction between Bill Gates, the merciless businessman with ambitions for world domination, and Bill Gates, the compassionate scientist whose goal is to save millions of lives...

It’d be one thing if he were retiring to enjoy his fortune, or if he were using it to buy football teams or political candidates. But he’s not. He’s channeling those billions to the places in the world where that money can do the most good. And not just throwing money at the problems, either -- he’s also dedicating the second act of his life to making sure it’s done right...

I know this is going to earn me the vitriol of Microsoft-bashers, but I’ll say it anyway: Bill Gates has the money, the brains and the connections to really, truly make the world a better place. I admire him for the attempt. And I believe that if anyone can succeed, he will.

I, too, have found it hard to reconcile the contradiction between Gates the businessperson (whom my friend Mike Backes was, I believe, the first to call "a wolf in nerd's clothing") and Gates the humanitarian. Given his company's poor track record of innovation (quick, name something Microsoft invented), and its predatory behavior, it would be all too easy at this point to dismiss as posturing (or worse) anything Gates does. But what he's doing can't be dismissed. Everything I've read about his charitable efforts -- every single thing -- suggests that he's doing great works, using his money to address big problems, and involving himself deeply in the process. It's a profound transformation, and if he keeps it up, he will leave a staggering legacy.


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It's not surprising that children, peasants, academics etc. think that economic activity is a zero sum game (ie, you can't make money without taking it from someone else) but it is disheartening to see how common this fallacy is among businessmen.

Gates has CREATED untold wealth. Just consider how many jobs have been created through his activities. He produces a product that millions of people find it to their advantage to buy. Many people would be pleased to comtemplate how tax he's paid.

The wealth of the world, by the way, has increased 100-fold since WWII. That wealth has been created by people like Gates.

And yet in his innocence he thinks he has to "give back" to the world. Astounding.

I don't think you have to believe in zero sum economics -- I don't, and I'm sure Gates doesn't -- to believe in the value of giving to the world when you've been successful and accumulated wealth.

Anyway, if he doesn't give away his money, what happens to it when he dies? Some of it would go to the government (which would undoubtedly do far less useful things with it) and some of it would go to his children (and like Buffett, he doesn't believe in dynastic wealth).

I assume most of his money is in MS stocks? Again, most people think he could sell out tomorrow and fill up several 18-wheelers with cash. As you know, if he put up all his stocks for sale tomorrow they would devalue rapidly and he wouldn't have anything near the 50 billion or whatever it is anymore.

I assume further that by putting his fortune in a charity trust or whatever it's called, he'll be keeping the taxman at arm's length? Think of all those thousands of single moms he supports now. What will they do? I guess taxes will have to be raised, thereby discouraging further wealth creation.

Let's say he gives $100,000,000 to India's AIDS industry - won't that just be a $100,000,000 windfall India will have left over to build, say, more nukes?

And what about corruption? I hope Gates isn't as idiotic as the pop stars he poses with (why doesn't "Bono" encourage in Africa the kind of economic activity, rule of law, sanctity of contracts etc. that made him a multi-millionaire?) but all indications are that he is.

Again, Gates literally enriches the world with what he does best. Too bad he just gets slammed for leaving the world a much better place than he found it, but gets grudging admiration for in all likelihood pissing his money away.

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