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This attack on Bill Gates only proves capitalism’s point


Schwab’s book may be highly detailed, but it appears to view whatever Gates does through a political prism

by Tim Schwab 496pp, Penguin, T £19.99 (0844 871 1514), RRP£25, ebook £9.99 ÌÌÌÌÌ

Good deeds are getting a bad press these days. In Going Infinite, an account of the rise and fall of Sam BankmanFried, who was this month convicted of fraud over the collapse of his cryptocurrency exchange FTX, Michael Lewis details how that company was founded and run by a group of “effective altruists”. This is a form of utilitarianism in which people attempt to do the most good by earning as much money as possible, then using their wealth to improve the lives of others.

Sounds great: but it appears that this philosophy was part of the latest techno-Icarus’s motivation for flying so close to the sun. One astounding episode in Lewis’s book, which highlights the extent of Bankman-Fried’s hubris, is the revelation that he explored the possibility of paying Donald Trump $5 billion not to run for president again. You don’t have to be a fully-paid up, Maga-capwearing supporter of the Orange One to worry about the implications for democracy of this kind of thought-experimentmade-flesh.

Rich people have long used their wealth to influence politics, burnish their image with good deeds and get their names slapped on the side of important buildings. The difference now is the sheer amount of money involved, and the extent to which it can blur the lines between philanthropy and democracy. Does a God complex become inevitable when your bank balance starts to rival the Almighty’s? This is one of the many questions posed by The Bill Gates Problem, in which the American journalist Tim Schwab forensically details how the Microsoft founder uses his vast fortune to fight poverty, champion causes and spur innovation (especially in relation to vaccine research).

I’m torn about this book. On the one hand, it’s an extraordinary and detailed work of investigative journalism into an underexplored nexus of influence in global affairs. The details about the scope and sway of the Gates Foundation are fascinating. If Bill calls, prime ministers and presidents answer the phone. As Schwab shows, the foundation is such a large philanthropic centre of gravity that it sucks in, co-opts and corrals money from a variety of sources to back its chosen endeavours. Very often this includes taxpayer money. We all, therefore, have a vested interest in knowing how the foundation operates: more transparency is almost always a good thing.

On the other hand, Schwab appears to view everything Gates does through a particular political prism. He contends that, while attempting to battle inequality, Gates’s work can inadvertently exacerbate it; for example, by perpetuating commercial-minded thinking around drug patents, meaning they remain unaffordable to many. The author clearly has a low tolerance for the involvement of the private sector in areas he believes should be the preserve of the state. I regret to report that

there is neo-liberal use of the word “neo-liberalism”, while the phrase “philanthro-capitalism” is deployed like a profanity.

Another issue is the inconsistency of Schwab’s criticism. At one point, he writes: “As sources told me, the Foundation today is not just a friend to Big Pharma; it is Big Pharma.” Just four paragraphs later, he details how the foundation spends more money on malaria than the entire pharmaceutical industry combined, “which speaks to the fact that this disease affects primarily poor people, from whom the pharmaceutical industry cannot profit”.

So, which is it? You can say the Gates Foundation is indivisible from Big Pharma, or you can say that the Gates Foundation focuses on areas ignored by Big Pharma because there’s no profit in it. Saying both things on the same page suggests a degree of mental gymnastics to make the facts fit a thesis. Gates ends up damned both ways: at times, Schwab concedes that the foundation does some good, saves some lives and isn’t entirely a PR exercise in making a grouchy billionaire look cuddly – but he does this grudgingly.

A good litmus test appears early in the book. Schwab writes: “How can capitalism, an economic system that depends on winners and losers, deliver equity?” If you find yourself nodding along to that entirely rhetorical question, you’ll likely eat this book up with a spoon. But if, like me, it makes you grind your teeth with frustration, maybe you won’t. In a perfect world, sure, we’d want democratically accountable politicians to be solving all our problems, rather than who gets helped and how depending on the whims of the rich. But take a look around: global governments are up to their eyeballs in debt, squeezing their electorates for increasing amounts of tax and yet still unable to pay the bills. If the likes of Gates aren’t helping solve some of these issues, they’ll likely remain unsolved.

Of course, capitalism has its issues. But, at best, the suggestion that the whole shooting match is by definition a zero-sum game, rather than the least-bad mechanism with which humanity has come up for organising its affairs, is merely ahistorical. And, at worst, a widespread belief that such an approach is incompatible with philanthropy may prevent more good being done than harm.

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