Last week, Bill Gates called on political leaders to accelerate innovation. “But innovation starts with government support for the research labs and universities working on new insights,” he said. “The public sector’s investments unlock the private sector’s ingenuity.” His goals are admirable: sustainable energy, curing diseases and a world-class education for all. But his privilege as the wealthiest man in the world keeps him blinded to reality and his own hypocrisy, something he’s made incredibly obvious these past few weeks.
Before I explain, let me say Bill Gates changed my life. Working for Microsoft in the ’90s made me a multi-millionaire. This wealth has given me a level of privilege and independence that has allowed me to write with an independent voice, to pursue my activism vocally without consequence and even to more ably afford life-preserving brain surgery. I only met him a handful of times but one of my favorite memories was a twenty-person meeting where he asked me, “What!! Do you think I’m stupid?” The room went quiet because privilege and authority is intimidating.
But Gates’ privilege blinds him to how things work for real people and his own role in the actual barriers between where we are and the innovation he seeks. Bill, you’re not stupid but there’s a lot you don’t understand and it’s holding you back from becoming a truly enlightened leader.
Gates Has a Legacy of Hypocritical Tax Dodging
I first called out Gates’ hypocrisy in 2004 for advocating for public education funding while simultaneously overseeing Microsoft’s tax dodging in Washington State. And, I’m thankful to public school teacher Peter Greene for pointing out the offensiveness of Gates’ latest innovation effort.
You see, Microsoft has more than $108 billion offshore to prevent the U.S. from taxing its profits. His fellow private sector peers are already so innovative as to have kept $1.3 trillion offshore. I often joke about Gates’ foundation as a way to spend his tax dollars on whatever he’d like as opposed to submitting payments to the IRS like the rest of us and taking part in our national community, collectively deciding where to invest with a corporate congress controlled with money and gerrymandering.
Gates Has “Huge Concerns” About Populism
While Gates has promoted globalization for more than 15 years, last month he called the groundswell of populism against it, “a huge concern,” populism as in lots of people having opposing concerns to his.
Back home in Washington State, Gates writes, “[I] was lucky enough to be a student when computers came along in the 1960s… made possible by U.S. government research” and in 2016, Microsoft surpassed $1 trillion in revenue. Its Seattle-neighbor, Amazon, $.5 trillion in revenues. How well has Gates’ home state been innovating with all this wealth? Not well.
Currently, the Washington State Supreme Court has held the Legislature in contempt for two years for failing to meet its constitutional duties to fund education first. The state ranks 47th nationally with one of the highest students per teacher ratios. Seattle’s experiencing a homelessness epidemic, a heroin epidemic, an affordability crisis driving longtime income residents out and spikes in gun violence, prostitution and rapes.
There has probably never been a better example of the failure of trickle down economics than Washington State.
However, one person the wealth has trickled down to is Brad Smith, its President, Chief Legal Officer and master architect of the company’s tax avoidance operations. He earned $8.6 million last fiscal year. Smith’s influence in Washington State government has made him a kind of de-facto governor.
Populist Concerns Are Driven by Conditions Outside Gates’ Mansion
Growth of the wealth gap expanded by executives such as Smith earning more than 373 times line workers is a key concern to social justice activists with concerns about globalization. Globally, the top 1% now owns half the world’s assets. CNN reports that, “Prices for medicine, doctor appointments and health insurance rose the most last month since 1984.” And, since Gates wrote for Wired promoting globalization in 2000, the United States has lost five million manufacturing jobs.
I agree with Gates that we should be investing in government to fund research and provide fair public access to it, including some sharing of intellectual property for private companies. But, to do that, we need to tax corporate profits and rein in the salaries of executives and provide actual control to shareholders. And, we need to transparently regulate industry to support fair markets and avoid fiasco’s like Epi Pen pricing.
Bill’s Goals Are Admirable
Bill, your goals are admirable and you have the potential to be a truly great leader but right now, your privilege is blinding you from understanding the cause of delayed innovation and the concerns of everyday people.
Come take a walk with me a few blocks from your foundation headquarters and let’s talk to a homeless man who has hung out on the same street corner there for six years. Let’s talk about Microsoft’s offshore revenues and its Nevada tax dodge. Then we can talk about accelerated innovation.