Don’t Praise Bill Gates
Paris Marx is joined by Tim Schwab to discuss why the story we hear about Bill Gates and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation doesn’t reflect their real impact on education and health around the world.
Tim Schwab is an investigative journalist and the author of The Bill Gates Problem: Reckoning with the Myth of the Good Billionaire.
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Paris Marx: Tim, welcome back to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Tim Schwab: Thanks for having me, Paris. Great to be back.
PM: I’m very excited to chat with you. I was occasionally checking in to see when the book was finally going to arrive. It finally hit my post office box, earlier this month, I guess. I was very excited to finally get to read it, to finally read your big take on Gates and the Gates Foundation, because I think especially after what we saw with him during the pandemic, where he was really held up as this amazing figure. And then there was a bit more of a critical perspective that finally shoehorned its way in there. I love the book; I’m very happy that it’s out there. And I guess to start: Why did you turn your focus to Bill Gates, in particular? Why is this man — out of all the other people you could have covered and done work on — why was this the person who you wanted to really dig into and do this book-length investigation on?
TS: I had become a freelance journalist in 2017, and had a pretty unproductive, unsuccessful career doing it. I was sort of at the end of that. And it’s a last ditch effort. I started applying for fellowships, because you can’t really make money selling one-off articles. And I got a fellowship that gave me funding to spend most of the next year reporting on one topic, and you’re looking around at big topics that other journalists are, what I do is investigative journalists, have missed and Bill Gates, the Gates Foundation, just there’s this flashing signal I’m getting about. The news media covers the Gates Foundation constantly. But it’s very often in a one sided manner. It’s describing it’s big donations, it’s good deeds, and it’s ambitious plans to save the world. So it’s a really one-sided narrative.
Because at the same time, we know that critics of the Gates Foundation are legion. These are fancy people at fancy institutions from the first days at the Gates Foundation, that have questioned the logic of its work, its strategies, its approach, its undemocratic power. Yes, I mean, I approach this as a journalist, and the mantra you learn in journalism school is to afflict the comforted and comfort the afflicted. And if that is what you’re doing, then the Gates Foundation and Bill Gates as these wealthy powerful people and institutions should be among the most scrutinized by journalists, but they’re not. So, that’s where my reporting started is to try and fill that gap.
PM: I think you do so really well, of course, we’ve talked about Gates before. But I’m excited to follow up that conversation with this deeper talk based on the book that you’ve written. And I guess, when you think about the impact that Gates has had, and you talk about that coverage of Gates, why is the coverage of Bill Gates, why does he receive this, often, broadly uncritical coverage, it’s not even uncommon. I remember reading The Guardian, and you pull up an article on climate change, or a whole load of different kinds of topics are in the world. And you’ll have like, sponsored by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or, there are other ones that will talk about Gates and who have received funding but won’t even mention it. Maybe that’s leading the question of it, or prompting your answer. But, I think people will, if they hadn’t noticed that before, they certainly saw it during the pandemic, and on the recent coverage of his talks about climate change, that like this man is treated as this singular figure who can talk to us about so much. Why is he treated that way?
TS: I think to your point, it is true that the Gates Foundation has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to newsrooms, and I think it’d be naive of us to think that that doesn’t influence how journalism covers the Gates Foundation. I think in a lot of places where the Gates Foundation is donating money, it’s actually buying influence. I mean, but that isn’t the only reason that journalist I think, have been soft on Gates, I think part of it is just the sort of cult of personality. This is a guy who made incredible fortunes running Microsoft, and now he’s given it all away. It’s this hero narrative that’s irresistible. It’s also I think that Bill Gates brings to the table, a real neoliberal mindset, this idea about market-based solutions and the primacy of the private sector, ‘technology will save us’ that really chimes with the sort of mainstream, radically centrist sensibilities of a lot of news media houses, certainly a lot of mainstream news media houses.
I mean, a good comparison is someone like the Koch brothers, which journalists have spilled a great deal of ink looking at their money in politics, predations, the way that they’ve used philanthropy to influence university coursework to influence politics. And, part of the reason why the cokes are such a good and easy target is because there have this more ultra right-wing ideology, which doesn’t line up with the sensibilities of the news media. So, I think there are a number of reasons why the news media has been soft at the Gates Foundation, but I think that bias certainly is there, however we describe it.
PM: Absolutely, and I think what you’re talking about having this figure that we can hold up as someone who brings these solutions to us who has these seemingly easy solutions; we don’t need to deal with a difficult government bureaucracy. We’re just having this this man with all this influence, who is clearly a genius because of look at what he did in his previous career revolutionising the technology industry. And now he’s bringing that knowledge, that genius to these other big problems facing the world. And, of course, all of this money that he’s amassed, it plays into these narratives that it seems like media tend to like or even narratives that tend to do well and tap into this broader psyche.
TS: I mean, the problem is that this one side of reporting, it’s ended up producing what is essentially misinformation. It’s a lot of fictions really: this idea that Bill Gates is giving away all his money. That’s not true. His personal wealth is nearly doubled. During his tenure as a philanthropist. You go to the Gates Foundation’s website, and you’ll see lots of pictures of Black and Brown women and children, the so-called targets of the Gates Foundation’s charitable giving. But if you follow the money, almost all of the foundation’s charitable gifts go to rich nations like the United States, Switzerland, the United Kingdom. So, once you start to really peel back the layers, you realize that a lot of this sort of prevailing news coverage of Gates is telling a story that’s not just one-sided, but just it’s wrong.
PM: I think you put it well, in the book, you said something like: It’s not about a rich guy helping poor people. It’s like a rich guy helping rich people help poor people, because all this money goes to these other kinds of Western organizations, or Gates’ own kind of organizations to supposedly help poor people or whatever they’re claiming to do.
TS: It’s a very colonial model. It’s a model that seems, I think we could say, disempowering. It doesn’t expect or trust the global poor to have the sophistication required to solve their own problems. So, it means creating new organizations in Washington, DC or Geneva, to fix the problems of the global poor. So I do think it’s a colonial model. And I think that’s part of the reason why the Gates Foundation hasn’t been nearly as as as effective as it claims to be.
PM: It’s a really good point. And I want to dig a bit more into the foundation. But before we do that, I do want to pivot back to learn a bit more about Bill Gates himself. Can you give us an idea of who this man is, where he comes from, and what influenced him as he was growing up and building his business empire?
TS: So, Bill Gates grew up in a wealthy family in Seattle. To borrow a terrible sports metaphor, you could say he was born on third base. So his father was a prominent lawyer in Seattle and his mother came from a wealthy family. He had a very privileged upbringing, he went to like the finest private school in Seattle. And it was at this private school that he had access to a computer in the late 60s, which is a real rarity. Certainly that gave him a huge head start over his peers elsewhere in the United States or in the world, in terms of thinking about computer programming and learning about computers and thinking about the business dimensions of computers. So, he went on with that, with that sort of headstart, he and a friend of his from high school founded Microsoft, and it ended up becoming one of the most storied monopolies that we’ve ever seen. It’s first big coup or probably Microsoft’s biggest coup under Gates was creating the operating system that would shepherd in this unfolding computer revolution. That was MS-DOS and Microsoft Windows.
So, over the decades ahead, Microsoft grew and grew, acquiring other companies acquiring technology, exercising greater and greater dominion over the computer revolution that was unfolding. Eventually, the Department of Justice took an interest in Microsoft’s anti-competitive behavior. In around the turn of the millennium, the courts ruled that Microsoft was stifling industry. Microsoft appealed that decision, it was able to overturn a lot of the strictest penalties. But at that point, it garnered a really serious public reputation for its destructive and bullying, monopoly power, so that even in popular culture, there was resistance to Bill Gates as this monopoly nerd tyrant. The Simpsons were lampooning Bill Gates on the show. People were throwing pies in Bill Gates face when he went out and about in the public. So it was at this moment that Bill Gates really became a philanthropist. By the end of the year 2000, he had put $20 billion into the Gates Foundation. So, I don’t think it was a complete coincidence that it was the height of this PR crisis with Microsoft that he suddenly becomes the most generous man on earth.
PM: I think you’ve put that really well. And I think it’s interesting too. looking at not just how Bill Gates his reputation looks today versus around the turn of the millennium when all this monopoly stuff was going on, but also how we have this renewed antitrust push. And Microsoft is one of the giants who is actually probably getting the least scrutiny, compared to like Amazon and Facebook and the others, right? Even though it’s still very much a monopolist in its own right. And I believe part of the reason that it’s antitrust conviction, or whatever you will call it was overturned was in part because of a change of political administration, from Clinton to Bush. And of course, the Republicans not wanting to tamp down on private industry as much.
But to go back to what you were saying, on early Gates and whatnot. Obviously, we know him as Bill Gates. His legal name, as I understand is William Henry Gates III, which gives you a bit of a different picture of the man then the friendly, Bill Gates that that we usually know. But in the book, you also talked about his relationship with Paul Allen. And I feel like when we talk about these kinds of earlier, tech monopolies like the Apple’s and the Microsoft’s, we often think about the relationship between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and how Jobs took advantage of Wozniak. But I feel like the tale of Bill Gates and Paul Allen is not as discussed as much. Can you talk about what Paul Allen said, before his death, about how Gates actually treated him and that business relationship?
TS: About a decade ago, Paul Allen wrote an autobiography called “Idea Man.” And, on the surface of it, it’s about his unlikely path to becoming this multi-billionaire as the co founder of Microsoft. But the way I read it, it’s really him trying to understand his relationship with Bill Gates, this man that he clearly loved. They were best friends, they went to high school together, but a man who himself maybe was incapable of love. And you see this in the way that the relationship unfolded, in the way that Bill Gates essentially just kept screwing Paul Allen over so they started the company together. Paul Allen went into it thinking: Okay, we’re 50-50 partners. Right off the bat, Bill Gates says: No, it’s going to be 60-40. And then Paul Allen agrees to it. And Bill Gates, realizing how easy that was, brings him back to the negotiating table and ask for a larger share, 64-36. And Paul Allen, sort of the way he describes it, it sort of seems like he was so taken aback, so surprised that he didn’t really have the mindset to challenge it. But later, when Paul Allen had cancer and was taking sick leave from Microsoft, he overheard Bill Gates discussing the plan to dilute his shares in Microsoft even further.
So, I think the expression that Paul Allen uses is mercenary opportunism on the part of Bill Gates to screw him successively serially in this way. So, these were two kids, they went to high school together, they came up together, they came into the world into the business world together, but ultimately, they had a terrible falling out. And I don’t know maybe this level of narcissism is required for somebody who’s operating at this level of industry that Bill Gates is, but I still think it’s worth considering, given the way that the news media presents Bill Gates today as this kind-hearted, soft-spoken, avuncular billionaire in a pastel sweater, it’s really important we understand the other Bill Gates, and that there aren’t really two Bill Gates. Bill Gates didn’t have a massive head injury that totally changed his personality when he became a philanthropist. He remains today the exact same bullying, corporate-minded, business executive that he was at Microsoft. And once you start to understand that and think about his work in that ways, his philanthropic career makes a lot more sense and has a lot more dimension and a lot more complexity.
PM: I think it’s really important to understand, and just to pick up on what you’re saying, it’s quite a contrast to see that a man who presents himself as this figure that cares so much about public health and helping the poor would take advantage of his co founder when he has cancer, to try to dilute his shares so that he would have greater control piece of the company that they control, or that they started together. But then beyond that, you described in the book how people describe Bill Gates as an attack dog, when he was at Microsoft, his management style. There are obviously stories about kind of inappropriate relationships that he had with women at work. And even when we talk about the antitrust suit I think one of the main pictures and as you talked about Bill Gates being hit in the face with pies being made fun of on The Simpsons, a lot of that comes out of this deposition that he did during that suit where he came off as this arrogant man who felt that nobody could be smarter than him or could hold them to account.
And when I was reading that — I didn’t go back and watch the video before we spoke — but it really brought to mind what we’ve recently saw with Sam Bankman-Fried when he was testifying on the stand. And when I was talking to Jacob Silverman, he was describing how Sam Bankman-Fried would be asked to question by these lawyers, and then would say things like, I think you meant to say this, and answer whatever question he wanted to answer as though he knew better than everybody else. And he was going to school you, even though he was on trial, and now has been found guilty. So, I just wonder generally about this perception that we have of Bill Gates and who the man really is, and what you saw looking at both sides of that for the book.
TS: I mean, the YouTube clips of Bill Gates in the deposition are worth watching where he’s tediously rearranging every question. He’s challenging the definition of the word definition. He’s playing mind games with the other attorneys. And it clearly is this incredible display of arrogance and hubris. And, he brings that same level of arrogance and hubris to the Gates Foundation, for sure. And you see it in the way that the foundation really operates. I mean, on a micro level, but also on a macro level, where the number of different issues that Bill Gates claimed expertise and authority on today, it’s really stunning. He wrote a book about how to fix climate change, as though the 30-40 years of activism and researchers hadn’t didn’t already have solutions that he had some value add that he needed to put himself out into the public spotlight.
PM: And let’s be clear, I’m sure he did not write the book. I’m sure he had a ghostwriter. He just wanted to present himself as the authority on yet another subject that is top of mind for us, right?
TS: I don’t know, he has very strong opinions about public health, public education, contraceptive access, agricultural development. So, in all this is really driven by this classically neoliberal ideology. But I do think his most important driving ideology is his hubris — that he believes he is right and righteous in everything he does, the smartest guy in the room, a man born to lead, and that he really does know what’s best for other people, especially for the global poor, that he alone knows how to fix their problems, and that his great wealth entitles and privileges him to do so to put his hands on the levers of public policy, and remake the way the world works for the rest of us.
PM: And let’s talk a bit more about that. Because this is another thing in the book that really kind of resonated with me while I was reading it, this idea that Bill Gates feels that he is inherently smarter than everybody else, because it’s something that I’ve seen, obviously, with Elon Musk, people who listen to the recent Elon Musk series will have heard me talk about that. But with many of these other tech billionaires, as well, where they feel that they have this knowledge, this intelligence that is kind of unique or rare among the population. And that is the reason why they are in their positions of power and have all the wealth that they have. It’s not because of inherent privileges or anything like that, that they had, as you’re talking about Bill Gates coming from a wealthy and influential family already, but because they are brilliant, they did really well on tests, etc, etc. Can you talk about Bill Gates ideas on intelligence, but also how he seeks to push those out into the broader society to justify those ideas that he has about himself?
TS: One of the interesting things in the last couple of years in the in the media story around Bill Gates is that a former director of Microsoft, Maria Klawe a last I checked, she was president of Harvey Mudd College, I think in the United States. She’s a mathematician. And she came out about her experience serving on the board of directors with Microsoft, and talked about the infuriating experience of working with Bill Gates because he was so opposed to outside ideas, like increasing diversity at Microsoft, for example, bringing in other female leaders. But she talked about this idea about Gates intelligence and saying that Bill Gates really believes that he is one of the smartest people in the world. But she talked about having conversations — she’s a PhD mathematician with Bill Gates, who dropped out of college, about mathematics. And she talked about how Bill Gates would assert the expertise that he had on mathematics and talk about the whole field of mathematics and an authoritative way, in ways that were just wrong, and that she knew or were wrong, because she herself was an actual authority on mathematics. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.
But he has a sense of self in terms of his intelligence in terms of his IQ. He I think at this point in his life, he surrounds himself, or is surrounded by people who are constantly genuflecting into him trying to either get his money or his attention, because he’s such a powerful and wealthy figure. There is this idea the emperor has no clothes, whether by design or whether just unwittingly it’s happened. I don’t know that Bill Gates exposes himself to really outside criticism are critical points of views. I don’t know that he understands how much of his charitable work today is really engulfed in criticism, including by the very people he claims to help who are now explicitly publicly asking the Gates Foundation to stop helping because they’re doing so much harm. But I do think to your point that, yes, I think Bill Gates really does have an inflated sense of his intelligence. And that really is a driving feature in the work that he does.
I talk in the book about the Gates Foundation’s work and in public education in the United States, which has been a pretty big failure across the board. And it’s not just that it has failed to improve education. But there’s a lot of opportunity cost and collateral damage, every time the Gates Foundation throws the Dart and misses. If you’re changing the architecture of a school to make smaller schools, and it doesn’t work. There’s a real cost to that, when you’re imposing new measurement and evaluation structures on to teachers basically telling them they don’t know how to do their job. There’s a real cost to the morale of the teaching force in United States, when you’re subjecting students to all kinds of high stakes standardized tests and making them feel that they’re not smart or capable. The last morale and that exercise, also there are costs to all these things.
But Bill Gates went to a really elite private schools his entire life — he went to Harvard. Before that he went to the most elite school in Seattle. He’s somebody who I’m sure does super well on standardized tests. There’s kind of a funny story I came across of somebody who dated him when he was, I think, a freshman in college. The first question he asked was: What did you get in your SATs? And it was just a pretext for letting her know that he had gotten a perfect score. So, he really puts a lot of value in standardized tests, I talk in the book, he’s always talking about IQ about getting the most people with the most IQ to Microsoft, how do we get people with high IQs working with the Gates Foundation? So he has a very kind of a very narrow idea about what intelligence is, and how to measure intelligence? And how, of course, it’s according to metrics and rubrics that make him seem very intelligent.
PM: And, as you talk about in the book, and as I’ve written about with Elon Musk, like this obsession with IQ, this is a metric that was developed to be inherently racist, to push certain people out of programs that was used to justify sterilization of people in the United States in the past and to still hear this man who has so much authority, and so much power over these policies and these decisions, who has the ear of lawmakers to still be touting these antiquated ideas in in many cases is incredibly worrying.
TS: And you see this in the way that Bill Gates thinks and the way that he operates as a philanthropist, where he’s trying to reduce every social problem, every complex problem related to poverty into a math problem that he can solve. With climate change, he wants it to be all about just the simple issue of carbon emissions, and how can we look at this number and get this number down and suck the carbon out of the atmosphere? And I’ll keep flying on my jet airplane with huge emissions, because I’m doing carbon capture over here. I’m spending millions of dollars to get it back. It’s a really shallow and narrow approach to understanding the world.
PM: What you talk about about his own kind of intelligence, and people who actually have knowledge in those fields, hearing it and being like, What are you talking about? It brings to mind an article that Aaron Gordon wrote in Motherboard recently. And he said, there’s an adage that “everyone thinks Musk is a genius until you hear him talk about a subject you know something about.” These kinds of themes I feel like run through so many of these tech billionaires. But I do want to talk a bit more about the foundation. So you say that, after the antitrust suit, and Gates’ reputation is just torn to bits, he slowly starts to become more active in the work of the Gates Foundation. So, can you talk to me about what does the foundation claim to do? And how would you describe what it actually does and the impact that it has?
TS: So, the foundation is trying to use the word equity a lot as a driving feature, driving mission of its work, it’s trying to drive equity into the world to make sure that poor kids in the United States have a great, high quality education just like high-income kids do in the United States, to make sure that medicines and pharmaceuticals that generally there’s major access problems with the global poor can’t get to them because they’re so expensive. So trying to drive equity into vaccine access, for example. But the reality of what the Gates Foundation is doing is trying to achieve this idea of equity through again, this kind of classically neoliberal approach to things like corporate partnerships and technology and innovation. So, it hasn’t been terribly effective at delivering the equity claims. And certainly this idea that all lives have equal value. I don’t know how much the Gates Foundation has really moved the world in that direction.
PM: I think that’s a fair point, and one that you make really clearly throughout the book, again, not to constantly be drawing examples to other things in the tech industry. But this was always in my mind, as I was reading the book, in recent years, and of course, I mentioned Sam Bankman-Fried, there’s been a lot of talk about Effective Altruism, this idea that there’s this group of people, they want to do the most good in the world with their money. And they need to look at the data to figure out where they should deploy those things. And, I don’t believe you use the term Effective Altruism in the book. But when I was reading about the way that Gates approaches the work of the Foundation, this was something that really stood out to me, it was almost like Effective Altruism before, Effective Altruism that Gates was doing by being obsessed with metrics and data to drive the so called efficiency of the foundation. Can you talk about the role of this in what Gates is trying to do? Or at least claim to do with the Gates Foundation? And how that works out in practice?
TS: I don’t know that Gates is a card carrying member of Effective Altruism. But absolutely, features of that movement are part and parcel of what he does and what he’s been doing for decades. He’ll openly talk about what he’s trying to do with philanthropy is around optimization. So he’s doing things like market failures that he sees. He will acknowledge that the pharmaceutical industry the way it’s constructed right now, a lot of poor people aren’t going to have access to medicines. So, how do you fix this problem? There’s a lot of ways to fix this problem. During the pandemic, there was a global movement trying to push back on patent rights, the pharmaceutical industry was holding to say: Why don’t we waive the patents? Why don’t we share the technology? Why don’t we get every capable manufacturing facility in the world, pushing out COVID vaccines to get the supply up to get shots in arms? So, the Gates Foundation would take a different approach and did take a different approach during the pandemic, which was: We’re going to work with him through the private sector. The Gates Foundation for years has built these relationships with the pharmaceutical industry. It had the network and knew the CEOs, personally in some cases with Bill Gates.
So, Bill Gates thought that he could create a massive procurement mechanism driven by donor dollars from nations around the world. And that this would allow this organization based at the World Health Organization to negotiate lower prices for bulk purchases of COVID vaccines, and it would drive vaccine equity, it would protect the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world to make sure that they weren’t put in the back of the line. But the Gates Foundation’s pandemic response, it actually drove vaccine apartheid. It did not change the logic of the marketplace. Of course, the large pharmaceutical companies prioritize sales to the highest bidders in the richest nations in this meant that the Gates Foundation’s big solution in the pandemic, it didn’t really have an effect on vaccine apartheid, it didn’t protect the poorest and most vulnerable people. Yet, at the end of the day, years later, the Gates Foundation and his partners can claim probably honestly, that they’ve given out close to something like 2 billion COVID vaccines to the global poor. I mean, yes, they did that. But they did it in the most inefficient and unjust manner possible. And so this gets at a question about effectiveness that I look at, in many of the chapters of the book, is that Gates Foundation is really understood according to its own metrics, the research that it funds, sometimes the journalism that it underwrites.
To a large extent, it’s been able to write its own story, and it’s a very simplistic story. It’s about dollars in vaccines out equals lives saved. But if you take a more complex look at what’s happening, you have to consider like the counterfactuals, the opportunity costs, the collateral damage, how many more lives could we saved if we took a different approach? If Bill Gates wasn’t involved, if we had challenged Big Pharma, instead of partnering with Big Pharma, where if we had addressed public health in ways that went beyond the provision of pharmaceuticals, building clinics, building roads that helped people to get clinics, training, doctors, all of these things help public health, but those kinds of activities maybe don’t lend themselves as well to the logic of Metrics and Evaluation that gates likes. For Gates, the simplicity of a techno solution like a new fertilizer, a new GMO seed, a new vaccine, a new drug. All of this fits really well within his paradigm that you’re describing, which, I do think there are some overlap with Effective Altruism. It’d be interesting to take that further, though. It’s something I’m going to think about.
PM: I’ll be looking forward to the article you write in a couple months that compares him to Effective Altruism! But I think what you’re describing there picks up on something that is really important, like a point that is throughout the book, basically, right is that there are on one hand, the actions that the Gates Foundation is interested in, and that Bill Gates personally thinks will make a difference, because he thinks he’s the smartest man in the world, or at least one of them. And then on the other hand, what the people in local communities say, would actually make a difference for them if they were actually trying to approach addressing this issue. So can you talk about that divide and how the power and wealth that gates and the foundation have allow it to set priorities for people despite claiming that they’re helping them and listening to them and all these sorts of things?
TS: During the pandemic, you had more than 100 nations, including many poor nations petitioning the World Trade Organization asking for a waiver of patents. Yet, at the same time, Bill Gates became one of the most public apologists and defenders of the patent rights for pharmaceutical companies, which, of course, are the same patent rights and intellectual property rights that undergird the profits of Microsoft, in which Bill Gates remains a big investor in which Bill Gates supposedly still spends a third of his work week at, there’s a lot of ways that the ideology of the Gates Foundation does overlap with financial interests. But I mean, another example that I think is useful is to look at the Gates Foundation’s work in African agriculture, which is an underfunded sector where the Gates Foundation has really taken a loud voice in shaping policies, rules, regulations, in a really classically, top down, undemocratic manner.So, the foundation promised it would deliver a new Green Revolution throughout many African nations and the continent and Sub Saharan Africa. And it was going to cut hunger in half. It was going to double yields that farmers had. It was going to dramatically increase farmer income.
And 15 years later, more than 15 years laters, it’s done none of that. So, the revolution did not arrive. But not only that, but you have pharma organizations across the African continent now who are calling on the Gates Foundation to end its charitable crusade, because it’s causing so many problems. And it’s obstructing the pathway to better solutions, which African farmers themselves are proposing that they already have this model in place that they can pursue a different model of agricultural development that doesn’t rely on imported fertilizers and high tech seeds from Europe and the United States. Nobody is saying that agriculture in many of these nations couldn’t be improved or couldn’t be helped. But you could look at the agriculture in the United States where I live, for example, there’s plenty of room to criticize the American model. And that’s it. That’s the American model that gates is trying to push into Africa says high tech industrialization, commodities.
PM: As you describe that, it basically shows us the flaws in this approach that privileges new techno solutions and new technologies over local knowledge or the things that people locally think would make a difference. As you’ve described, Gates is really interested in vaccines and fertilizers and GMO seeds and things like that, but less interested in, for example, agro ecology, if we’re thinking about agriculture, or the broader focus or scope of public health, if we’re thinking about actually rolling out things that are going to make people’s lives better, or improve their health outcomes in parts of Africa or India or wherever else the Gates Foundation has been involved in. So, when we look at these technical solutions that gates pursues, what are the real flaws in them when the idea of the techno solution meets the reality on the ground?
TS: I think there’s different ways to look at it. On the one hand, it hasn’t been effective. It hasn’t achieved what the Gates Foundation wanted to achieve. In an area like pharmaceutical development, for example, the foundation today plays a very heavy hand, interestingly, even in private sector, pharmaceutical development. It’s making charitable donations to pharmaceutical companies. It’s providing startup money to create new pharmaceutical companies, it’s sitting on boards of directors, it’s even making licensing claims on technology on pharmaceutical companies. And, the foundation had promised that its work with the pharmaceutical industry would deliver all kinds of game changing revolutionary new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics, and we really haven’t seen that. So I mean, the practical effect of the Gates Foundation’s innovation forward, technology forward agenda, it hasn’t really delivered. At a point, we probably could go back to Microsoft, which was a company not known for innovation, but for stifling innovation. Bill Gates, as much as he wants to be seen as this genius, this intelligent guy, he also wants to be seen as an innovator as somebody who’s really ahead of the curve with technology. And that could use apply technology ready to readily to solve any problem. But if you look at the practical effect of its work around technology, and innovation, you don’t see much in the way of success.
PM: So what do we see in terms of outcomes, then, because we’ve talked about education, we’ve talked about health and public health, and what he’s been trying to achieve in the Global South, through vaccines and whatnot. And we also talked about agriculture. So what are the promises that the Gates Foundation more specifically is kind of making in those areas? And then what are the results after it throws all of this money at the problem? Are there any real improvements that are being realized here, as a result of that?
TS: We can definitely point to improvements for sure the Gates Foundation has at this point pledged to give away some $80 billion — huge sums of money. Of course, there are times and places where the Gates Foundation is helping people and even saving lives. Again, the foundation has put a great deal of money into the distribution of vaccines, for example. We know that vaccines and arms save lives, improve lives. But the onus is on us, though, to think more deeply and understand are there other ways that we can distribute vaccines? Are there other ways that we could address public health that could also improve lives or save lives? And of course, there are. One of the things I discovered in writing the book is how much taxpayer money and public funds goes into the Gates Foundation’s charitable projects, like its signature work and vaccines is a Swiss organization named Gavi, the Gates Foundation provided the seed money to get it off the ground, it sits on the board of directors, many of gates partners, allies, surrogates also sit on the board of directors, and is the top destination for the Gates Foundation’s funding, I think it’s $6 billion, the foundation is put into it. It’s one of the things that Bill and Melinda Gates say that they’re most proud of in their work.
And so for that reason, I give it special attention in the book. This is the thing Gates is most proud of that, says it’s one of their biggest achievements. But if you look at the budget of this organization, Gavi, the vast majority of it actually comes from taxpayers, 10s of billions of dollars from us, from public funds are going into this vaccine procurement organization. And I think it would be naive for us to say: Well, couldn’t these 10s of billions of dollars going into this private, unaccountable, non-transparent organization, couldn’t those save and improve lives if we spent them in other ways on public health? Why does it makes sense to put them in an undemocratic forum or an undemocratic organization? Government, yes, messy as it is, at least there are some measures of checks and balance, some transparency around how this works.
But this is a trend you see, throughout the Gates Foundation’s work that many of its largest projects are organized as public-private partnerships, where Gates is involved and probably sits on the board of directors. And yes, it donates money, but much of the money actually comes from public funds from taxpayers. So, it should be a real trigger for accountability. If they’re using our money, we should be able to follow the money, we should be able to ask questions, and we should be able to get answers. Or we should be able to say this is not a legitimate structure. And we should dismantle it. But I think that’s the kind of debate that I hope the books helps inspire us to rethink the way that the Gates Foundation works in so many areas.
PM: It was one of the big concerns that I had when I was reading the book as well. Because you really effectively illustrate not just the influence that gates and the Gates Foundation has with Western governments and Western politicians where it can use not just the money and influence that it has, but also the reputation of Bill Gates in order to get access to so many lawmakers and even wiggle its way past lobbying rules and things like that to say it’s not actually lobbying, it’s actually doing something else. But even more than that, how it uses that wealth and power to then shape international institutions, like the World Health Organization, around the key areas that it’s focused on. Can you talk to us a bit about that angle of it and the risks that come of that?
TS: And I think it’s worth mentioning too, that while rich nations contribute so much money indicates charitable interventions, oor nations also put large resources into making sure that these Gates-led vaccine distribution efforts, for example, work. And all of these nations, whether rich or poor have limited capacity, limited resources what the Gates Foundation is able to do is put its priorities. It wants to handle public health, narrowly to the provision of pharmaceuticals like vaccines, there are lots of different ways to deliver public health. But when Gates is able to mount these massive projects, poor nations and rich nations alike end up putting a lot of resources that could be spent on other projects. To your question about international institutions, I track the money from the Gates Foundation, and the two top destinations for it are Washington DC and Geneva. Washington DC is obviously a seat of power because the United States government’s there.
You have Bill Gates going to Washington all the time meeting with members of Congress, essentially lobbying them certainly pushing them to think about keeping up congressional spending on charitable projects, aid giving all these billions of dollars that help keep the Gates Foundation going to help keep their charitable projects successful. And in Geneva, you have the World Health Organization, which is part of the United Nations. So during the pandemic, for example, the Gates Foundation’s massive COVID vaccine distribution program, it was it was organized at the World Health Organization, but it was really run by the Gates Foundation in some several of its private sector partners. So having that influence in places like Geneva allows it a great deal of influence over institutions like the World Health Organization. One of the most famous public criticisms of the foundation came from the head of malaria at the World Health Organization, in I think it was 2006. He had issued an internal memo, which was leaked to the New York Times, but it talked about the Gates Foundation was putting so much money into malaria research, that it had effectively co-opted the field that had put researchers into a cartel was the word to use.
This was essentially a classically sort of Microsoft-like model where Bill Gates had planted his flag and claimed dominion. He and the army of former pharma industry alum that now populate the ranks of the Gates Foundation, really thought they knew themselves, how to fix malaria, how to solve it, and what the head of the WHO at the time was saying was that this has potentially destructive consequences on the WHO’s policymaking, that Gates had so much influence, and that it seemed to be using that influence to steer the field in the wrong direction. So, in the decade ahead, the Gates Foundation became one of the largest funders of the World Health Organization. So, that gives it influence on what who works on and what it doesn’t work on. So, it absolutely is having a great deal of influence through, again, this is all through charitable donations, on all kinds of institutions around the world rich and poor.
PM: And it feels like it goes beyond the United Nations and our governments as well, because in the book, and in some of your previous work, you talk about how the Gates Foundation also makes a lot of investments or grants to companies themselves. And as a result of that tends to get a lot of data and a lot of control and a lot of influence over say the direction of pharmaceutical development and all of these sorts of kinds of key topics that it’s interested in. What’s the risk of something like that? And how does that actually work? Like how is the charitable organization able to do that?
TS: Before I started my reporting, there was a robust body of scholarship and research around this idea of philanthropy, capitalism. And scholars like Lindsey McCoy, if you’ve read her book, it’s a great book, she had talked over the years about it’s a paradox at the Gates Foundation is donating money to private companies to private for profit companies. How were these deserving claimants of charity? In one of the earliest pieces? I did, as I tried to quantify that how much money is the Gates Foundation donating to companies at the time in 2019? It was like $2 billion. I think it’s about twice that amount now. And what I did in the book is I just took that analysis much further to look at all the ways that the Gates Foundation, which is a nonprofit, tax, privileged, private foundation in the United States, how it’s blurring the line with for profit activities. The foundation says, when it gives money to say a private vaccine company to develop a new vaccine for a disease that big pharma won’t touch because there’s no revenues making money for from malaria, for example. The Gates Foundation could say: Well, this is charity. Yes, it’s a for profit company, but they’re going to use our money to develop a new vaccine that’s going to save lives.
So that’s kind of the logic of the foundation’s engagement with the private sector. But the lines are increasingly blurred, and I think in part because there’s so little oversight from government over the operations of the Gates Foundation, again, where it’s making equity investments, it’s making charitable donations. Sometimes it’s making charitable donations to companies in which the Gates Foundation itself is invested in. It’s sitting on boards of directors. The other, I guess, really groundbreaking thing I did in this book is at a point I started reaching out to the private companies that the Gates Foundation is working with. And most of them don’t respond. But some of the ones that did respond said, working with the Gates Foundation was like a corporate takeover, where once you take the Gates Foundation’s money, suddenly the foundation, they would justify it and say: Well, we have to make sure this money is being used responsibly.
But the companies that work with says Gates is telling them who they could and couldn’t hire in their own organization. They’re setting the endpoints for clinical trials that have massive impacts on the trajectory of a company’s technology. When the Gates Foundation donates money to a pharmaceutical company, it puts a licensing claim on any technology produced with its funding, again, the foundation could claim: Well, we need to do this to make sure that whatever vaccine is produced with our money, it ends up in the arms of the global poor, but through another lens, is it just a coincidence that Bill Gates, the guy who ran Microsoft, is organizing his charitable empire around the acquisition of technology, and IP and patents from all of the different companies that he works with? Is this appropriate? Is anyone even aware that this is happening, this blurring the lines so greatly between for profit and nonprofit?
PM: I feel like one of the things that really comes out through the book and through what you’ve been describing through this entire interview is just the way that Gates acts like this figurehead of capitalism, or even capitalist expansion, where, at Microsoft, he was enclosing the software market to create this whole new market in this thing that didn’t previously exist. But now, even as he’s moved into, suppose, a charitable work, he’s interfering in education to try to expand private education, through charter schools in the United States, or, through expanding private schooling, through really terrible model in Africa, or, pushing for vaccine patents, and through the expansion of fertilizers and GMO seeds into the global south in these markets, where there are not as many people who have access to these things now. So it just seems like on every front, certainly he can present it as charity, as his work on public health or whatever, to try to improve these outcomes for poor people. But every action that he takes seems to be designed to ensure that these various companies that he often has commercial relationships with can expand their markets into new areas. In
TS: some cases, yes. In some cases, no. And one thing I found researching the book is that, for example, in the pharmaceutical markets, he treats Big Pharma did very different than he treats little Pharma. His idea is that it just makes sense for a few large multinational companies to control a marketplace. Of course he does. That’s the Microsoft Software. Of course, Pfizer should have a monopoly on a pneumococcal vaccine. Of course, that makes sense to him. Little pharmaceutical developers like academics, academic universities, small startups, those are, treated by the Gates Foundation, and kind of everyone else as well as the real engines of innovations. They’re the ones that are coming up with the new technology. And the prevailing model, which I think Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation supports is that their job is to produce the technology so that the large pharmaceutical companies can acquire it, and can market it and make sure it gets out into the world. That’s what these large pharmaceutical companies are.
So, you could talk to — as I have — small pharmaceutical companies who Gates isn’t helping. They would say that the Gates Foundation is hurting them. Some would even allege that the Gates Foundation’s meddling and micromanaging is preventing better, cheaper drugs, vaccines diagnostics, from reaching the marketplace, an extraordinary claim, considering the Gates Foundation’s mission about driving equity and being an innovator. But for sure, the foundation in many different areas where it works, is sort of shepherding corporate ideology, corporate humanitarianism, under the banner of philanthropy. It’s creating corporate partnerships. It’s working closely with Big Ag, Big Pharma, Big Consulting, and it’s really presenting them as humanitarian partners, which is hugely helpful to their reputations to their business interests, as well.
PM: A couple final questions for you before we wrap up our interview. Was there anything as you were reporting this book and as you were putting it together, that really shocked you or stood out to you that you weren’t expecting to discover in the course of this investigation into the Gates Foundation?
TS: I think one thing that I didn’t fully appreciate was how much public funds and taxpayer dollars went into Gates’ charitable work. And that happens on a number of different levels. So, you have Bill and Melinda French Gates who donate money to the Gates Foundation. And when they do that, they avoid a massive tax bill. That money then sits in the Gates Foundation’s bank account, which today is $67 billion. And that generates billions of dollars in investment income most years, that’s also virtually tax free. And then you have the Gates Foundation, creating these large public private partnerships as sort of the way its whole charitable Empire works. And those also are drawing 10s of billions of dollars in public funds into them. So, just the level and the scope of the public funds and the taxpayer dollars that go into this. I just find it surprising that Bill Gates is one of the richest guys in the world. He’s getting richer and richer year over year. Why would we give him any tax benefits or any tax allowance for any of this work he does?
If he wants to give away his money — I mean, I think we should even still debate that, whether we should allow anyone to have this level of money. Because we know once we allow people to become this rich, they will use it for political purposes, if not campaign contributions, if not lobbying, if not political advocacy, then through philanthropy. And Bill Gates shows us that philanthropy in the hands of a multibillionaire, like Gates, is a political tool. It’s something that an individual like Bill Gates can use to shape politics and public policy, to bend it towards his own interests, his own narrow ideologies. I think we should debate whether it’s good for the world to let Bill Gates be a philanthropist in any way in any domain, but certainly not with our money with our taxpayer dollars.
PM: And I think that leads perfectly into my final question, which is recognizing all of these problems with the influence that Bill Gates has and how the Gates Foundation works, what should be done to rein in the power that they are able to exert over public health or over education or over agriculture in the global south and these other issues that they get very involved in, because they have so much money to deploy, so that people listen to them.
TS: There are a lot of solutions to the Bill Gates problem. One is trying to regulate philanthropy. Congress in the United States has latitude that it could impose new rules and regulations over the operations of how charity operates in the United States. It hasn’t looked at philanthropy in 50 years. So you could create new rules that limit its political activities, that limits its political influence, for example, the problem with that, is that if you start to create rules and the Gates Foundation, there’s nothing stopping Bill and Melinda French Gates, who are private billionaires in their own right, from simply engaging in the same activities as private citizens. If you squeeze the foundations that you can’t do this, why can’t Bill Gates just go off and fund a different organization or different company to engage in the exact same activities? So, I say that to say that the real solution is to make sure that we don’t let anyone become this rich in the first place. And that is a longer-term political goal.
Myself, I’m inspired to see all the political and social movements already moving us in that direction, if you think about from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter. Now, in in public health for poor people that feild called Global Health, there’s a growing movement around decolonize global health, which directly poses an existential challenge to the way that Gates Foundation does business. In the United States, many political figures are going to be asked directly: Should billionaires exist? So, I do think that the world is turning against Bill Gates against what he represents and what he stands for, mean, how exactly we get there through taxation or regulation, to prevent people from becoming this wealthy. I said, it’s a long-term political goal. And unlike Bill Gates, I don’t have a confidence in articulates solution to every single problem. I can’t tell you the exact pathway. But I do feel like it’s already happening. The world is already turning in that way. And we just need to build that political power to keep things moving in that direction.
PM: It’s a fantastic point and I think at a moment when we are talking about these billionaires, and we are scrutinizing them and talking about whether they should have this much power, we often talk about the Elon Musk’s of the world, or the Jeff Bezos of the world, or the Mark Zuckerbergs. And because Bill Gates has worked so hard to create this persona, that he has — to craft this narrative about himself — he’s one of the figures that we look at less and less. So that’s why I think a book like the one you’ve written “The Bill Gates Problem,” is really important, and I highly recommend people check it out. If they want a more honest perspective on the real impact of Bill Gates. So Tim, thanks so much for the book, and thanks so much for coming back on the show.
TS: Thank you so much for having me Paris, I appreciate it.