Personally, I like Bill Gates. He gave me an interview for my first serious business book back when I literally was a nobody. Since then, I've been impressed (as have others) by his charitable giving and I appreciate that, during the pandemic, Gates been a spokesperson for science, as opposed to, say, Elon Musk, who's been a misinformed gadfly.
When I recently posted about Gate's faux-diplomatic takedown of Musk, I received dozens of tweets from conspiracy theorists who truly believe that Bill Gates is some kind of mustache-twirling supervillain. That's pretty silly, since there are more effective ways for Gates to increase his wealth than by attempting to give most of it away.
As ridiculous as those conspiracies theories are, though, it's also true Bill Gates is neither a scientist nor an epidemiologist. So why exactly are we listening to him?
Yes, I get that he's studied the subject and given plenty of money to disease eradication efforts. But that doesn't make him an expert; it makes him a well-informed civilian. There are probably dozens of better-informed individuals within 10 miles of wherever you live. Even if you live in the boonies.
Let's face it: The real reason we listen to Gates is because he's a billionaire. And there's something profoundly broken about that.
I understand why we'd look to self-made billionaires for business strategies, but much of what's written about billionaires--like articles about what Warren Buffett eats for breakfast--aren't case studies. They're hero worship.
This demi-deification of the superwealthy is quite new in our culture. FDR and JFK, for example, were elected not because they were wealthy but in spite of it. While there was some fringe celebration of the filthy rich in the past (e.g., the 1937 bestseller Think and Grow Rich), if Andrew Carnegie, for instance, had publicly opined on, say, polio, most people would have thought he'd gone over the twist.
It's no coincidence that the rise of the "billionaire as role model/expert" emerged in parallel with the wide popularity of the superhero mythos in cinema. Indeed, Oracle founder Larry Ellison and Elon Musk both did cameos in 2010's Iron Man 2, clearly thinking that they were an appropriate part of the superhero vibe.
Since then, this conflation of billionaire with superhuman has continued apace. In 2018, for example, a documentary literally declared Elon Musk to be a "real life Iron Man." And what could be more supermanish (and not in a Nietzschian way) than a (reputed) billionaire presidential candidate claiming that "I, alone, can fix it"?
The problem is that while a few (very few!) billionaires understand and take seriously the credo that "with great power comes great responsibility," almost none seem to understand that "doing good by doing well" does not make you a hero. What makes a hero is a willingness to sacrifice yourself for the greater good.
Take Bill Gates. Although he's shoveled billions into his foundation, he's now worth considerably more than he was when he first made that pledge. So where is the sacrifice? Where is the personal risk? His foundation does some good things, but like other billionaire philanthropists, he retains control of the money and determines how it can be spent. That's not sacrifice; that's spending money on your favorite hobby.
The sole billionaire who appears to be actually making a real-life sacrifice is the novelist MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of the famously skinflint Jeff Bezos. Scott gives large sums of money to causes in which she believes with no strings attached, figuring (no doubt correctly) that they know better than she how to best spend that money.
Unless the rest of the billionaire community follows suit (in which case, I'm pitching SpaceHeatersInHell.com to Shark Tank), it's time to stop believing and acting as if billionaires are going to swoop down and save us. Billionaires are not the solution. If anything, they're a symptom of a rigged financial system that shovels money upward.
Seriously, if billionaires, including Bill Gates, were as smart as they seem to think they are, they'd avoid calling attention to themselves.