Saturday, November 25, 2006

For What Should We Thank Bill Gates?

Tibor R. Machan

When a few days ago PBS's Charlie Rose had Bill Gates back on his show, it was Thanksgiving and Rose began with noting how much Bill Gates had to be thankful for and how we should thank him “because of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which has given a lot to education and global health.” During the entire interview the focus was mostly on this feature of Gate’s—and Warren Buffett’s—life, namely, their charitable endeavors.

Of course, there was some discussion about technology in general, computers, and so forth, but the one topic completely ignored was Bill Gates’ contribution to commerce—to serving his customers well, to creating thousands and more jobs around the world, to investing in new technology and the like. In short, it was as if Bill Gates were nothing but a philanthropist and computer guru, totally removed from the economics of the field in which he has been such an enormous success. The idea that perhaps Gates deserves thanks from us because he makes and sells very desirable merchandise simply never came to Charlie Rose’s mind—nor to Bill Gates’, oddly enough.

As I was watching and listening very closely to the interview I was baffled by why both interviewer and interviewee so assiduously avoided talking about making money and focused only on giving it away—as if one could do the latter without the former. It occurred to me that perhaps Charlie Rose thought nothing of such feats at all and Gates has been instructed by spin doctors to avoid making any mention of his commercial achievements. Or perhaps the producers of the show waved off any such discussion, fearing that viewers of PBS programs would be offended if the subject matter of making money got any attention.

Bill Gates would hardly be of public significance if he hadn’t made a great deal of money from his creativity and diligence, his business savvy. None of his talk of “giving back” would be of much significance if what he gave back amounted to no more than, say, a bit of volunteering at a homeless shelter or making the kind of contributions most of us can make to various charities and other worthy causes. Bill Gate matters mostly because of his technical and entrepreneurial genius which then enabled him to be a philanthropist.. But that issue seems to be taboo, at least during an hour long interview on Charlie Rose’s prestigious PBS program. Why?

My guess is that part of it is that Bill Gates would much rather be liked than being admired for what he actually accomplished in his career. He has become a celebrity. Perhaps enough people in his industry show him professional respect so he can parade for the rest of us his goody two shoes persona. Assuming that he sincerely wants to spend a good deal of the money he has made to help out the unfortunate around the globe, even there it would be of some interest whether giving away the bulk of his wealth is a better way to do this than making more money by, say, building new research facilities and manufacturing plants and providing steady jobs for the poor in Africa. Maybe the example of Mother Theresa has influenced Gates—the lady, after all, did very little of permanent significance for those whom she helped, given that she, too, just gave away mostly perishable goods and did not focus mainly on helping the poor help themselves.

Or maybe the customary guilt that sadly afflicts so many honest wealthy people around the world is at the bottom of Gates’ failure to acknowledge his own true achievements, figuring that he is just one of the lucky ones and doesn’t deserve any pride at all in what he has done. I don’t know Bill Gates but to find out about why he is disclaiming any credit for what should in point of fact gain him the most of it would be worth making some effort to find him and ask him some questions if one were permitted to do so. Maybe we would discover that in his private thoughts he is well aware of why he really counts for something to us all in his life and that the kind of stuff he gets singled out for on Charlie Rose is but a sideshow, one that may or may not be of some serious help (since it might in fact lead mostly to people becoming dependent upon others for their well being).

Don’t please misunderstand—emergency help to those who need it is often crucial and many of us do our own share to provide a bit of it when the occasion for it arises. But even the meager emergency support to the unfortunate many of us provide would be impossible if we didn’t work hard at our professions and earn a decent living. That, not giving things away, is the crucial issue to keep in mind, especially when it comes to a creative entrepreneur like Bill Gates.

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