November 29, 2023 - 4:00pm

Bill Gates has long been held up as the shining example of a “good billionaire”. The story goes that, having amassed an eye-watering fortune with Microsoft in the ‘90s, Gates decided to take a step back from the rat race to take on a new role: that of the selfless philanthropist. Since then, he has — by his own estimation — helped save millions of lives across the world and changed the face of charity forever. A mythology built up around Gates; he became both the richest but also the most generous man on the planet, revolutionising education, public health and agriculture in the developing world. 

In his new book, “The Bill Gates Problem”, investigative journalist Tim Schwab turns this narrative on its head. Schwab has spent years digging into the Gates Foundation’s activities, and comes to far less flattering conclusions about the billionaire. Schwab lays bare an organisation that operates more like a corporation than a charity, one with a narrow and neoliberal agenda at its core that he argues undermines democracy and is a global “net-negative”. 

Schwab dialled in from Washington DC to talk to UnHerd’s Flo Read about his new book. It begins with demystifying the man himself. Schwab takes us back to the ‘90s when society had a more accurate understanding of Gates’s character. Gates is no reformed capitalist, according to Schwab, capitalism is all he knows: 

It’s easy to imagine that there are two Bill Gates. There’s the corporate titan, the bully who ran Microsoft. And then there’s the kind-hearted, soft-spoken philanthropist today at the head of the Gates Foundation…. He clearly is the exact same person who led Microsoft, and his philanthropic career makes a lot more sense if you understand him in that way.
- Tim Schwab

As far as Schwab is concerned, the billionaire-philanthropist continues to be driven by a quasi-God complex and an irrepressible belief in his own righteousness, regardless of expertise:

A man driven by hubris. He believes that he is right and righteous in everything he does; he’s the smartest guy in the room and a man born to lead… I don’t doubt that he’s well-meaning in the sense that he thinks he’s helping the world. But he’s helping the world the only way he knows how, which is by taking control.
- Tim Schwab

However, the fact remains undisputed in Schwab’s book that Bill Gates does donate huge sums of money to charity. It is difficult to fathom how the world would be better off were Gates to squirrel his billions away. In response to this, Schwab argues that Gates’s philanthropy should not be thought of as  “innocent, unimpeachable charity” but as an “exercise in political power”:  

The Gates Foundation and Bill Gates have become some of the most important influencers and shapers of a great many different public policies from public health to public education… Through philanthropy, he’s able to turn his vast wealth into political influence over the way the world works for the rest of us […] Bill Gates can quite literally plant his flag and claim dominion over an entire corner of public policy areas.
- Tim Schwab

Schwab is also concerned that the billionaire’s mindset makes him uniquely ill-equipped to “heal the world”. He is a techno-utopian with a perilously narrow vision when it comes to problem-solving. This was demonstrated in public health in developing countries: 

The vaccine market and pharmaceutical market is pretty similar to software markets[…] Vaccines are important. Vaccines are vital, vaccines save lives […] However, it’s a very narrow conception of public health. It’s a pharmaceutical-driven approach to public health. There are a lot of ways to save lives in public health. You can build clinics, you can train doctors, you can build roads that help people in distant villages get to clinics in urban areas.
- Tim Schwab

The solution to the Bill Gates problem, Schwab says, must be radical:

The long term political goal is to reorganise the economy and our tax code so that you prevent people from becoming this wealthy in the first place… I think the most aggressive [wealth tax suggested] would be taking 8% of a billionaires accumulated fortune every year, that would prevent someone like Bill Gates from becoming richer, but it wouldn’t actually diminish his existing fortune. So, no, unlike Bill Gates, I don’t have the confidence to  posit a solution to every problem and a competent answer to every question. But I do have, like Bill Gates, a sense of impatient optimism to believe that another world is possible.
- Tim Schwab