Gate­ses see a na­tion­al­ist ar­gu­ment for glob­al­ism

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS BEAT - By Sam Dean

Bill Gates has spent the last five years work­ing with his wife, Melinda, at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion, pour­ing the ocean of cash he made cor­ner­ing the mar­ket on desk­top com­puter soft­ware into projects that im­prove the health of the world’s poor­est peo­ple.

Along­side War­ren Buf­fett, Gates has per­suaded 186 of his fel­low bil­lion­aires to sign the Giv­ing Pledge, af­firm­ing their in­tent to give — dur­ing their lives, or at least in their wills — half of their wealth to char­i­ta­ble causes. But he’s still out­stripped them all when it comes to char­i­ta­ble giv­ing, dis­burs­ing more than $45 bil­lion through his foun­da­tion on the dis­tri­bu­tion of vac­cines and ini­tia­tives to fight tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, HIV, and malaria.

Each year, the Gate­ses pub­lish a let­ter to re­flect on their foun­da­tion’s work and fo­cus at­ten­tion on is­sues they care about. Last year, the bil­lion­aires asked them­selves tough ques­tions, such as why they don’t give more in the U.S. (an­swer: be­cause a dol­lar spent in poor coun­tries has a big­ger ef­fect than in the de­vel­oped world) and whether it’s fair they have so much power (no).

Since then, the world has seen glob­al­ist ideals of open borders and free trade crum­ble in the face of trade wars and re­ac­tionary an­ti­im­mi­grant poli­cies. So maybe it’s not sur­pris­ing that this year’s let­ter fo­cuses on what sur­prised the cou­ple in 2018.

Some sur­prises stay in their global health lane — ath­ome DNA tests can help stop pre­ma­ture births, mo­bile phones em­power poor women. Oth­ers reach fur­ther. “There’s a na­tion­al­ist case for glob­al­ism,” they write, ar­gu­ing that Amer­ica’s for­eign aid helps en­sure sta­bil­ity and re­duce health crises that lead to mass mi­gra­tion. “Data can be sex­ist” is an­other sur­prise, based on Melinda’s dis­cov­ery that good data on most as­pects of women’s lives around the world are hard to find. The Times spoke with the cou­ple in late Jan­uary.

Your com­ment on glob­al­ism be­ing good for na­tions feels pretty pointed. Are you dis­ap­pointed with the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment these days?

Melinda: Cer­tainly the pro­posal that came out from the ad­min­is­tra­tion on the first round of the bud­get was dis­ap­point­ing to us, in­cred­i­bly dis­ap­point­ing. But the good news is that Con­gress ac­tu­ally dis­poses the money, and Con­gress knows the im­por­tance of for­eign aid.

It’s less than 1% of the U.S. gov­ern­ment bud­get, but if you in­vest in peo­ple around the world you will get peace and pros­per­ity and you won’t get Ebola and dis­ease cross­ing the borders.

A lot of other wealthy peo­ple in­ter­act with the gov­ern­ment by fund­ing politi­cians who sup­port their vi­sion or choos­ing to run for of­fice them­selves — Howard Schultz and Michael Bloomberg come to mind. Do you see that as a good use of your money? Is there no re­turn on in­vest­ment in push­ing the huge gov­ern­men­tal ma­chine to­ward what you be­lieve in?

Bill: Our ex­per­tise across all gov­ern­ment is­sues is pretty spe­cific — we make vis­its, meet with sci­en­tists, meet with he­roes in the field in global health and in the U.S. ed­u­ca­tion work we do.

So in those two ar­eas we do have opin­ions about, you know — mak­ing Pell Grants more ef­fec­tive for ed­u­ca­tion, and spend­ing the NIH re­search dol­lars, where the U.S. is very gen­er­ous on the dis­eases of the poor.

A lot of that is meet­ing with the con­gres­sional com­mit­tees that work on those is­sues. So we speak out, and to re­ally make our money ef­fec­tive we’ve had to fo­cus in on what we chose as pri­or­i­ties.

The makeup and dis­po­si­tion of con­gres­sional com­mit­tees can po­ten­tially be in­flu­enced by a rel­a­tively small amount of money, when it comes to cam­paign fi­nance con­tri­bu­tions. Have you con­sid­ered throw­ing your weight be­hind chang­ing the bal­ance of power to make your work eas­ier?

Bill: If you saw that ed­u­ca­tion was fan­tas­tic in the states run by one party and ter­ri­ble in the states run by the other party, then you might say to your­self: Wow, some­body seems to have the an­swer. Let’s make sure that the other party hears about it, the vot­ers ought to know that.

But these are com­plex is­sues about how to in­vent new vac­cines, or in ed­u­ca­tion, where does a bet­ter cur­ricu­lum come in. There’s a lot to be learned which doesn’t boil down to, hey, one party has the so­lu­tion and the other party doesn’t.

You write in the let­ter about fund­ing re­search into a new type of toi­let, and have talked in the past about phi­lan­thropy step­ping into gaps left by mar­ket and gov­ern­ment forces. What is it about some­thing like toi­lets that re­quires phil­an­thropic in­ter ven­tion?

Bill: The tricky prob­lem is that in up­per-in­come coun­tries and mid­dle-in­come coun­tries, there was a huge in­vest­ment put into sewer sys­tems. If you do that early, the eco­nomics can be rea­son­able. But in many cities, par­tic­u­larly the poor parts of them, the sewer so­lu­tion just is never go­ing to hap­pen — the cost would be too high

Melinda: What the foun­da­tion fo­cuses on are the in­equal­i­ties, the gaps that ex­ist in so­ci­ety, and a lot of times be­cause these prob­lems — as War­ren Buf­fet re­minds us — are hard, and so so­ci­eties left them be­hind. Cap­i­tal­is­tic struc­ture isn’t nec­es­sar­ily go­ing af­ter some of these prob­lems, and so we look at where can phi­lan­thropy be a cat­alytic edge.

Both of you are in the mid­dle of a suc­cess­ful and seem­ingly happy sec­ond ca­reer out­side the tech world. The last year has seen tech com­pa­nies and their lead­ers come un­der fire for is­sues of data pri­vacy, mo­nop­oly, la­bor — and their in­flu­ence on so­ci­ety at large. Would you rec­om­mend a shift to phi­lan­thropy for these high­pro­file CEOs?

Bill: Well, each of those peo­ple will de­cide what works for them and their com­pany. And I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is the first time that CEOs of tech com­pa­nies have been crit­i­cized. But I agree that it’s at a broader and stronger level than be­fore. That’s partly be­cause tech is so suc­cess­ful in terms of how peo­ple com­mu­ni­cate and get news and or­ga­nize things and so it’s so­ci­etally more im­por­tant to make sure all of that’s work­ing well.

Ted S. War­ren As­so­ci­ated Press

MI­CROSOFT co-founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, at their home in Kirk­land, Wash. Each year, the cou­ple pub­lish a let­ter to ref lect on their foun­da­tion’s work and fo­cus at­ten­tion on is­sues they care about.

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