Three years ago, Bill and Melinda Gates answered a range of personal questions in their annual letter — a rare peek into what kept one of the world’s most powerful couples together.
“I love Bill because he has a kind heart, listens to other people and lets himself be moved by what they say,” said Melinda. She mentioned a sculpture of two birds staring into the horizon, a wedding gift from his parents. “And it’s still in front of our house.”
For his part, Bill said, “We are partners in both senses that people use the word these days: at home and at work.”
Reading that now, weeks after the couple announced that they were ending their marriage of 27 years, is both saddening and maddening. Even allowing for the careful curating of their image, the fact that the billionaire pair opened a small window into their private lives makes the crash of that union all the more consequential.
For those of us who admired the moral power of a single married couple using their disproportionate wealth to save untold numbers of lives around the world, the details of the marital fallout make me wonder if we’ve been played. Or perhaps we just put too much faith in people who are as human as anyone else.
Every marriage is a mystery, of course, which no outsider can ever truly understand. But it’s the rare union that guides the Gates Foundation, one of the largest charitable foundations — which projects an image of a global do-gooder and promoter of women’s empowerment.
Reports about the questionable behavior of Mr. Gates, particularly his association with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, are troubling, to say the least. Equally upsetting are reports that Mr. Gates was reluctant to take decisive action in response to complaints of a pattern of workplace misconduct by his financial manager, Michael Larson. (Mr. Larson and Chris Giglio, his spokesman, denied some but not all accusations of misconduct by Mr. Larson.)
The power of the Gates union was greater than the sum of the two parts. Bill and Melinda must have understood this when they invited us to care about them, through the books, the annual letter, the TED talks, the commencement speeches and the Oprah Winfrey interviews. There’s even a Netflix docu-series in which mundane details of their private lives are revealed. All that quasi-public effort worked: In 2019, Mr. Gates was the world’s most admired man in one YouGov survey.
And yet the rapidly emerging fourth act of Bill Gates’s life could certainly overshadow the three that came before it, and cloud the disposition not only of the man but also of the world’s most influential charity.
In my hometown, Seattle, Mr. Gates has long been both hero and scourge. He was a son of privilege, defiantly dorky and a prodigy through a prolonged adolescence.
In his first public act, he was a brilliant Harvard dropout and also a narcissistic nerd smirking in his mug shot after getting arrested for traffic violations. Building the colossus of Microsoft and becoming the world’s richest man, he was a nightmare of a boss. He memorized license plates of co-workers in order to monitor the parking lot to see who was working at night and on weekends.
In his second act — the petulant monopolist — he was more likely to be paired with Darth Vader in Google searches. The federal judge overseeing the antitrust case against Microsoft said Mr. Gates had “a Napoleonic concept of himself and his company, an arrogance that derives from power and unalloyed success.” I’m not sure Mr. Gates disliked the comparison.
His Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, detailed his partner’s quirks; he said Mr. Gates ate his chicken with a spoon (you read that correctly) and “came on like a force of nature.” Later, Mr. Gates appeared to betray his business partner, as Mr. Allen wrote in his book.
It was Melinda, née French, who humanized him from the outset. You sensed that she was the one who told him he’d be so much more presentable if he just ran a comb through his hair or tried to make eye contact.
She may have been the guiding force in shaping Act III — Bill Gates, world saver. In this iteration, the Gates unit put its billions to work crushing disease, building sanitary water supplies, lifting up women.
“These two have donated more money to charitable causes than anyone, ever,” said Barack Obama in presenting the couple with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. Even if they wielded too much power, it’s better that they spent their billions trying to improve life, rather than simply amusing themselves.
In the late stage of his third act, Mr. Gates was the peripatetic polymath — book critic, toilet visionary and Nostradamus. He warned us about the current pandemic. In print, one year ago, I called him “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”
Now we enter Act IV, the unraveling. Details about the conduct of Mr. Gates in work-related settings and the visits to Mr. Epstein even after he pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitution with a minor, leave an unsettled feeling in the stomach. Mr. Gates said he didn’t have any business relationship or friendship with Mr. Epstein. But he found Mr. Epstein’s lifestyle “kind of intriguing,” he emailed colleagues in 2011. Which part, he did not say.
People at the Gates Foundation say privately that they are very worried about the future. If the foundation were just a robo entity, doling out billions based on nothing more than outcome metrics, it might not matter what happens to the Bill and Melinda on the letterhead. But the shared lives made the personal inseparable from the philanthropic. The unraveling will be messy.
Nonprofits should not allow themselves to be used by the wealthy to scrub their consciences.
When it comes to blood money for the arts, how bloody is too bloody?
On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided that money made from selling the opioids that have killed several hundred thousand people is too bloody. It announced it would no longer take donations from members of the Sackler family linked to OxyContin. “On occasion, we feel it’s necessary to step away from gifts that are not in the public interest,” Daniel H. Weiss, the Met’s president, said.
“Gifts that are not in the public interest.” It is a pregnant, important phrase. Coming on the heels of similar decisions by the Tate Modern in London and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the spurning of Oxy-cash seems to reflect a growing awareness that gifts to the arts and other good causes are not only a way for ultra-wealthy people to scrub their consciences and reputations. Philanthropy can also be central to purchasing the immunity needed to profiteer at the expense of the common welfare.
Perhaps accepting tainted money in such cases isn’t just giving people a pass. Perhaps it is enabling misconduct against the public.
This was the startling assertion made by New York State in its civil complaint, filed in March, against members of the Sackler family and others involved in the opioid crisis. It accused defendants of seeking to “profiteer from the plague they knew would be unleashed.” And the lawsuit explicitly linked Sackler do-gooding with Sackler harm-doing: “Ultimately, the Sacklers used their ill-gotten wealth to cover up their misconduct with a philanthropic campaign intending to whitewash their decades-long success in profiting at New Yorkers’ expense.”
It was strong stuff: The State of New York was officially claiming that in taking Sackler money, arts institutions had allowed themselves to be used as lubricant in a death machine. “It’s a remarkable statement,” Benjamin Soskis, a historian of philanthropy at the Urban Institute in Washington, told me this week, “the sort of thing we heard from critics of philanthropy on the periphery of power but rarely, in recent decades, from those at the center.”
Are museums, opera houses, food pantries and other nonprofits to be held responsible for how their donors have made their money? It is a question being asked more and more as a century-old taboo shatters.
“No amount of charity in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them,” Theodore Roosevelt said after John D. Rockefeller proposed starting a foundation in 1909. It was not a lonely thought at the time.
But in the decades since, not least because of the amount of philanthropic coin that has been spent (can it still be called bribing when millions are the recipients?), touching all corners of our cultural life, attitudes have changed. And, as I found in spending the last few years reporting on nonprofits and foundations, a deeply complicit silence took hold: It was understood that you don’t challenge people on how they make their money, how they pay their taxes (or don’t), what continuing deeds they may be engaged in — so long as they “give back.”
When I speak privately with people working in nonprofits, as I often do, especially younger people, I hear this complaint again and again: They agonize about having to stay quiet not only about their donors’ membership in a class that has benefited from an age of inequality but also about specific conduct by many donors that often worsens the problems the donors and nonprofits are working to solve.
And so the decision by the Met and the other museums may be a small sign that this compact is cracking — and perhaps that nonprofits are taking a broader view of their role in public life: not only as doers of good in a particular area of work but also, if they’re not careful, as enablers of broader, if more generalized, societal harm.
“Turning down money runs against the grain of the thinking that’s long governed charitable boards — that they are stewards of the interests of particular institutions, with considerations of broader public interest being peripheral,” Mr. Soskis, the historian, said when I asked him about the Met. “What we are seeing more and more of, through the spread of social media, and an increased willingness to critically engage major philanthropic gifts, is the assertion of the public’s interest in the philanthropic exchange.”
It remains to be seen whether other arts institutions will follow the lead of the Met, Tate and Guggenheim — and more broadly, whether the nonprofit sector will begin asking itself some deeply uncomfortable questions.
Should anyone working to make cities better and more equitable take money from JPMorgan Chase, which paid a huge sum for its role in helping to bring about the 2008 mortgage disaster and financial crisis? Should anyone working to help families affected by President Trump’s immigration policies take money from Mark Zuckerberg, whose soft-pedaling of Russian interference in the 2016 election allowed anti-immigrant hate to spread and potentially helped Mr. Trump gain votes?
It remains to be seen whether other arts institutions will follow the lead of the Met, Tate and Guggenheim — and more broadly, whether the nonprofit sector will begin asking itself some deeply uncomfortable questions.
Should anyone working to make cities better and more equitable take money from JPMorgan Chase, which paid a huge sum for its role in helping to bring about the 2008 mortgage disaster and financial crisis? Should anyone working to help families affected by President Trump’s immigration policies take money from Mark Zuckerberg, whose soft-pedaling of Russian interference in the 2016 election allowed anti-immigrant hate to spread and potentially helped Mr. Trump gain votes? Should any health institution take money tied to Pepsi or Coca-Cola?
Make no mistake: To ask these questions opens a can of worms. The Sacklers are an easy case. Once the complicity turns more diffuse, it is hard to say whether a nonprofit is participating in an injustice by taking money — or doing the best it can in a flawed reality. What’s next after this? Is there a statute of limitations on looking for blood money? What kind of moral purity test are these institutions supposed to use? Once you begin to raise these dilemmas, how do you actually draw those lines around what’s acceptable?
The Met has already drawn some lines. It won’t remove the Sackler name from its galleries; it won’t return money already donated. What it should do is go beyond a single act of rebuffing to model a new process for evaluating money.
Past and future donations could be judged on various criteria:
- Was the money legally and fairly made?
- Is the money owed to tax evasion or extreme legal tax avoidance?
- Is the museum effectively selling a modern papal indulgence for a sin that shouldn’t be so easily pardoned?
- Does the donor have a duty of reparation to people they have exploited or harmed that gives those parties more of a right to the money?
And the public should be brought into the process. Public-facing institutions enjoy the privilege of being untaxed, so citizens should be able to comment on and scrutinize prospective donations.
These questions will long be with us. These museums have forced an essential conversation. For far too long, generosity has been allowed to serve as a wingman of injustice; giving back disguises merciless taking; making a difference becomes inseparable from making a killing — sometimes literally. It is high time to reject these alibis for treachery.
For the past several decades, world leaders, CEOs, tech titans, billionaires, philanthropists, and celebrities have descended upon Davos, Switzerland with the goal of “improving the state of the world.” Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, says they are part of the problem.
Trade wasn’t working for everyone.
Dynamic scheduling, underpaid, contractors, fight minimum wage, more flexible labor, tax cults for the wealthy anti-inheritance taxes, evade existing taxes, rewards offshoring, expresses no loyalty to communities. (5 min)
I don’t think arsonist need to attend at a firefighter’s convention.
Poor people are very accessible. They want someone to bear witness. They don’t have publicists.
You can’t understand inequality without understanding rich people and the systems they use to justify themselves (10 min)
Today’s elites are among the most socially away, yet also predatory
I don’t think we have free markets, we have a capitalism of monopoly, and rent seeking
Jane Meyer’s Dark Money: how we got here.
Business didn’t have power (Nixon started the EPA) and worked to understand it. They used an alliance with evangelicals and philanthropy to build power.
History is life a mob boss: we can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way. It can go down like the civil war or women’s suffrage.
82% of new money was in the 1 percent’s hands.
It’s going to require many to become traitor’s to their class. If Gates devoted as much to pushing an estate tax, he could have a bigger impact.
I think things are changing. There aren’t going to be as many Goldman Sachs and McKinsey people in the next administration.
At the same time, they panned the idea of higher tax rates for society’s wealthiest
Leaders of the world’s largest and most powerful companies are on edge. A decade after the financial crisis, their businesses are thriving and their pocketbooks are overflowing, but they worry about populism and the threat it poses to the global order they helped build.
Many executives gathered at the exclusive World Economic Forum this week acknowledged that inequality is a major problem fueling populist backlash, and that some middle-class jobs in the West are being lost to trade and automation (even though more jobs overall are being created around the world).
A few business leaders in Davos went so far as compare today’s situation to the late 19th century, an era when tycoons like Andrew Carnegie, Andrew W. Mellon, and John D. Rockefeller amassed huge fortunes while most in the working class toiled under harsh conditions.
“We’re living in a Gilded Age,” said Scott Minerd, chief investment officer of Guggenheim Partners, which manages more than $265 billion in assets. “I think, in America, the aristocrats are out of touch. They don’t understand the issues around the common man.”
The solution to inequality, many in Davos said, is “upskilling” people so that they can obtain better jobs in the digital economy.
“The lack of education in those areas in digital is absolutely shocking. That has to be changed,” Stephen A. Schwarzman, chief executive of Blackstone, told a panel. “That will very much lessen the inequalities that people have in terms of job opportunities.”
Schwarzman, whose net worth is estimated at $13 billion, said it is “up to the grown-ups” to make digital upskilling happen in K-12 schools.
.. His calls were echoed by others, including Ruth Porat, chief financial officer at Alphabet, Google’s parent company; Keith Block, co-chief executive of Salesforce; C Vijayakumar, chief executive of HCL Technologies; and Michael Dell, founder of Dell Technologies.
“All of us collectively can do quite a lot to create opportunities so that everybody is included in this growth,” said Dell, who is worth an estimated $28 billion. “It’s going to require lots of new skills, capabilities.”
Dell said the issue goes beyond K-12 education and that companies need to train workers continuously. His own company struggles with finding enough skilled workers, and poaching them from other companies doesn’t work, Dell added. “You need to hire and train and grow them from within.”
.. In a report released earlier this month, the forum estimated it would cost the United States $34 billion to reskill the 1.37 million workers expected to lose their jobs to automation in the next decade. The forum said 86 percent of the cost “would likely fall on the government.”
“Upskilling is not going to alter the insecurities and inequalities,” said Guy Standing, author of “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class,” who spoke on four panels at Davos this year. He said most executives still don’t understand what is needed.
Standing said calls for more education and training were a “cop-out,” and that the result would undoubtedly help only a small number of people, which in turn could bring down wages and status in whatever new jobs they went on to obtain.
A study in 2015 by economists Brad J. Hershbein, Melissa S. Kearney and Lawrence H. Summers postulated what would happen if 10 percent of American men, ages 25 to 64, who did not have a bachelor’s degree suddenly obtained one. They found that it would improve pay and job prospects for the men who earned the degrees, but would do little to reduce the inequality gap because the richest Americans have so much more income and wealth.
But millionaires and billionaires in Davos panned the idea of higher taxes, arguing that the private sector does a better job than the government of spending money wisely.
“No, I am not supportive of that, and I don’t think it would help the growth of the U.S. economy,” Dell responded when asked about his views of Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a 70 percent marginal income tax on earnings above $10 million.
Dell noted that he and his wife contribute most of their wealth to a foundation. “I feel much more comfortable with our ability as a private foundation to allocate those funds than I do giving them to the government.”
Others argued that their tax rate is already high and that raising tax rates could push people to move abroad or not invest.
“If I look at my tax rate now, it’s probably well into the 60s,” said AECOM chief executive Michael S. Burke, adding that he pays federal taxes, California income taxes, sales tax and a significant property tax. “I think we ought to have a competitive tax rate.”
.. When asked whether corporations should pay higher taxes, executives again criticized the idea. In 2017, President Trump and the Republicans in Congress passed a sweeping tax bill with the largest corporate tax cut in U.S. history.
“It’s an easy fix, I think, for many people to say, ‘Well, let’s just tax,’” Block said during a panel.
By contrast, leaders from academia and the nonprofit world were quick to call for higher taxes and a redistribution of income.
.. An Oxfam report this week found that the share of wealth held by billionaires was increasing by $2.5 billion a day, while the share of wealth among the 3.8 billion of the world’s poorest was decreasing by $500 million dollars a day. While some quibble with the methodology of the Oxfam report, there’s widespread consensus that inequality is getting worse in many parts of the world.
.. “Davos is always in favor of reducing inequality and poverty: locally, nationally and globally — but not if they have to pay for it,” tweeted economist Branko Milanovic who studies inequality at the City University of New York (CUNY).
However, others said it was not practical to look for solutions to the problems of the common man from the top echelons of society.
“There’s an uncomfortable awareness that things are not right, the ecological crisis, the angst out there, the Brexit vote, the Trump vote, but then they come up with these bromide platitudes,” said Standing. “But in a sense, we can’t expect them to provide the answers. They are part of the problem.”
In “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” Anand Giridharadas compels us to take a deeper look at elite leaders, their institutions, and their initiatives to make the world a better place. “In the very era in which elites have done so much to help, they have continued to hoard the overwhelming share of progress, the average American’s life has scarcely improved, and virtually all of the nation’s institutions, with the exception of the military, have lost the public’s trust.”
Today’s elites are some of the more socially concerned individuals in history. Yet, according to Giridharadas, while their philanthropic missions may attempt to reform the root causes of unjust systems, many elite initiatives serve only to maintain the very power structures they claim they want to fix. So, who really benefits? To what extent are the elite working to create real progress and systemic change for people and communities?
Anand Giridharadas was a foreign correspondent and columnist for the The New York Times and currently teaches journalism at New York University. He joins us for an in-depth discussion on elite leaders, how their philanthropic efforts preserve the unjust status quo, and how communities might work together to create a more participatory democracy.
We have 74 billionaires in San Francisco and 74,000 homeless.
- changes the public conversations
- how many newspapers have a philanthropy correspondent?
Ask not what you can do for you country, first ask what you’ve done to your country and stop doing what you’ve done. Let’s stop the bleeding. (43:20)
Bezos made his money because workers didn’t have bargaining power in the time in which the internet rose.
Jeff Bezos should give money away in a way that can make sure there isn’t another Jeff Bezos.
Google’s maturity will have them accept that they are power, not fighting the power.
There is nothing more dangerous than a Goliath who thinks he’s a David. (Google didn’t want to release it).
Lebron James is making small change to a school (a band-aid), and using it as a cudgel against the cancer.
inviting documentary film makers to compare it with a “regular school”
Henry Crown fellow Anand Giridharadas delivers his keynote address, “The Thriving World, The Wilting World, & You,” at the 2015 Aspen Action Forum.
Elon Musk, didn’t improve nerds’ image when he tweeted that a diver who assisted in rescuing 12 boys trapped in a cave in Thailand was a pedophile. Mr. Musk later apologized, and said he had been angry with the diver for criticizing Mr. Musk’s design of a mini-submarine to rescue the boys.
.. The notion of nerds being kinder than other men fades faster every day. Part of that has to do with the way nerd culture has subsumed popular culture. Some of the most popular movies in America are based on comic books. If it was a little nerdy to spend too much time on the internet in the ’90s, well, everyone is now on the internet essentially all the time.
.. Nerds are the overdogs now. If they got into tech early, they’re obscenely wealthy, and all of America now likes the stuff they enjoyed as kids. But they’re not wielding that power in a way that is especially kind or thoughtful.
.. So what about their old schoolyard nemeses, those heartless bullies — the jocks?
Well, they suddenly seem pretty great by comparison.Last week, another N.B.A. player, Stephen Curry, raised over $21,000 through a live-streamed event to help benefit the family of Nia Wilson, a young woman who was stabbed to death at a train station in Oakland, Calif.
In June, the former N.F.L. player-turned-actor Terry Crews gave Senate testimony in which he spoke about having been sexually assaulted and warned against the “cult of toxic masculinity” that led him to believe he was more important than women.
.. And of course there’s Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback, who drew national attention to police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem.
.. None of these guys sound like the heartless, monosyllabic brutes pop culture made jocks out to be. They sound like the kind of men who would patiently listen to you and commiserate after a nerd sexually harasses you.
.. These jocks are deeply decent men standing up to bullies in power. Just like nerds in old movies used to do.