Did you happen to catch Bill Gates talk at TED ? I'm no fan of Mr. Bill, so I approached that with a lot of built in prejudice, but I really tried to give him a fair hearing. Unfortunately I was in a bad mood just after reading the "About Bill Gates" blurb. That informed us that Bill is:
A passionate techie and a shrewd businessman, Bill Gates changed the world once, while leading Microsoft to dizzying success. He plans to do it again with his very own style of philanthropy.
I had to hit the pause button while I digested that. We all know that Microsoft achieved its domination by dirty deals: squashing competition, lying to supposed partners, bullying distributors.. this is NOT a "nice" company! I simply can't imagine how the same tactics could be applied to philanthropic efforts. Perhaps I'm not creative enough - if anyone can find a way to make unethical behavior pay off in philanthropy, Bill probably has the best shot.
Most of the comments lauded Bill as a hero. I'm not the only one who doesn't quite see it that way. Admittedly, this post about the foundation's unethical investments has an axe to grind, but the reality of the Gates Foundation is hardly what most people think it is. In fact, some say it sounds more like a scam than a legitimate philanthropy.
In fairness, the foundation reacted to that "ethical investing" story by saying that they would re-examine their investments.
I have to ask this though: why is it that Bill never seems to do the right things until the bright light of scrutiny turns upon him? Could it be that his moral compass just naturally spins toward money rather than what is obviously right? I think so.. at the end of the day Bill decided that "divesting from firms that harm society would make little difference." Good call, Bill: money IS what is important!
(See the "Criticisms" section of the Wikipedia entry on the foundation for more problems.)
I also thought that the business of releasing live mosquitos was a bit over the top. I left a comment about that and also complained that the obvious hero worship annoyed me a bit. Specifically, I said:
I was a little surprised that one person reacted rather violently:
I checked his profile - he's just twenty years old so of course he could only know about Microsoft's shady history if he has read about it - he didn't live through it as I did. Maybe he works for the great benefactor, I don't know. Or maybe he does know about Microsoft's business shenanigans and thinks that the ends justify the means. I'm not sure which explanation would bother me more.
Of course not all comments praised Bill or his talk. There were a few of us who don't think Bill is quite the saintly soul to deserve such adulation. Still, most people applaud loudly whenever any rich person speaks - it's a bit of hero worship that I find puzzling and disheartening, but it's all too easy to observe.
I am happy that Bill is doing something - as paltry and self-serving as it is. That's certainly better than doing nothing. Still, I refuse to give him an overall pass because of these little efforts. It isn't enough and frankly never can be. I also can't give him a good grade on that talk - and I don't think that's entirely due to my prejudice. I didn't find it inspiring or even educational - it wasn't up to the standards I expect from TED. That's just me, though; you should feel free to disagree in the comments.
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