At the beginning of the year, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates was making pronouncements about poverty coming to an end. Now, he is advising graduates at Stanford that profit should not be the only motive for innovating.
What is it with this man? Having made billions by unloading poor-quality software on the world by using monopolistic practices, why doesn’t he just buy an island somewhere, disappear into obscurity and stop his malign influence on others?
Or why not follow the example of fellow co-founder Paul Allen who has been quiet for most of his adult life?
Gates offered the advice when, along with his wife Melinda, he gave the commencement address at Stanford University on Sunday. This is the first time that a joint address has been given – but that doesn’t mean it was any better than the usual pap that is spouted on such occasions.
Both the Gates spoke of the admiration they had for Stanford and the “innovation” that emerges from its portals; at the same time, they told the students not to avoid tackling problems like disease and poverty because they could not profit from it.
This was the biggest joke of the 24-minute address. Every time I read something about Gates, his fortune seems to have increased by quite a large amount, despite his so-called philanthropic work. If he’s giving so much money away and not profiting from it, how come his bank balance seems to be growing so fast?
The truth of the matter is that Gates is into philanthropy because he is now bothered about his legacy. It is a good path to tread because it costs him nothing; indeed, it enriches him. Having used methods that bordered on the illegal to amasss a fortune, he now wants to be thought of as a good guy. Most people who have done shady things in their lifetime have similar desires – my favourite examples are Richard Milhous Nixon and Robert McNamara.
Philanthropy is a paying concern. Donate computers running Windows and Office to all and sundry – and when they come back for upgrades, your Microsoft stock will benefit. Gates still does own stock in the company he co-founded.
Investments in pharmaceutical companies ensure that when vaccines made by these companies are used in poor countries, the investor benefits. Of course, the investor can go around giving speeches in a whiny voice about how much good he is doing. The world, for the most part, swallows what the rich say hook, line and sinker.
Melinda Gates spoke about her interaction with poor people in India. Of course, when a rich woman tells a tale like this to students at one of the most privileged educational institutions, it goes down well. The reality of it is very distant. But her presence made for a much better photo opportunity; Gates, himself, cannot be exactly described as photogenic.
Years ago, I recall that two very photogenic women, Tansu Ciller, and the late Benazir Bhutto, who were at that time the prime ministers of Turkey and Pakistan respectively, visited Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war. Their picture appeared on the front pages of many newspapers the next day; I myself used the picture on the front page of the paper I was in charge of in the Middle East. It made no difference to the war. It looked good.
The same thing applies to all that Melinda Gates spoke about; she is as much committed to her husband’s agenda as he is. But you can only hide the reality by talking about the poor and under-privileged.
When Gates talks about innovation, does he really understand the meaning of that word? Microsoft has been a company that has copied things from others right through its existence, and paid to settle cases when matters went to court. There has been no innnovation – all that the company has done is take from others without acknowledging the source, and paying up only when forced to do so.
It speaks volumes for the kind of global society we have become that people like Gates are even called upon to speak to students. The man screwed up one generation; surely we can keep him from spoiling the next?