Earth to Bill Gates: Thank you

Yes, Microsoft is a bullying monopoly. But the software king may go down in history as the single individual who did the most to help the world's neediest people.

Published May 9, 2003 7:37PM (EDT)

Five years ago, in a story on Bill Gates' philanthropy, Salon asked the question, "Is Bill Gates a Closet Liberal?" At the time, Gates had not yet really opened the floodgates of his charitable giving, but a close look at the causes he had supported indicated he was interested in reproductive health and family planning issues, and fighting the spread of infectious diseases, with a focus on the Third World. Since then, Gates has publicly promised to give away 95 percent of his wealth -- $43 billion as of September 2002 -- and he appears to be living up to his words.

In "Health, Wealth, and Bill Gates," a new installment of "NOW With Bill Moyers" airing Friday night on PBS, Gates talks at length about his involvement in global health issues. The interview is a fascinating, detailed look at how and why Gates is giving away his billions. And while it doesn't definitively answer the question of whether Gates is a liberal -- saving dying children is not the province of a particular ideology -- one thing emerges: Gates may go down in history as the single individual who did more to help the world's neediest people than anyone who has ever lived. In the interview, Gates comes off as knowledgeable, sincere and determined to use his wealth to effect massive change. Whatever you think of his business practices, when it comes to global health he is one righteous dude.

Gates may not show his hand politically, but he is surprisingly willing to critique the almighty market, going so far as to call the plight of poor women and children in developing nations "a failure of capitalism." In rich nations, he notes, market forces deliver advanced medical services to the population, but in poor nations, especially in the area of infectious diseases, "[capitalism] has let us down."

One can sense the frustration of a successful computer programmer in Gates' approach. As he stresses repeatedly, when a plane crashes in India and 100 people die, it makes news all over the world. Meanwhile, 8,000 children are dying every day of preventable illnesses, and there is no coverage. Gates doesn't come out and call this disparity a "bug" in global attention span software, but he does label it "a mistake." And he intends to correct it.

Gates isn't a bomb-thrower. He blandly ducks a pointed question from Moyers asking him to comment on the Bush administration's opposition to funding for reproductive health and family planning services worldwide. Instead, he takes the American citizenry to task, finding them at fault for not making global health "a grass-roots" issue. It's hard to argue with this in the abstract, but in the context of the question it amounts to blaming U.S. citizens for their president's actions.

But then he makes an interesting, indirect critique, referring to unnamed "leaders" who have made fighting global terrorism a long-term goal. Gates suggests that "young people" around the world are watching the United States to see how it acts on the global stage. "If we don't step up to these health issues, we're not addressing these issues," he says, with the implication that it will hurt us in terms of world perception, and possibly fuel further terrorist acts against the U.S.

It would be foolish to expect Bill Gates to start flinging direct attacks at George Bush -- indeed it might even be seen as ungrateful, after Bush's new Justice Department made the decision to settle the government's long-running antitrust action against Microsoft with a pathetic slap on the wrist. But in this case, actions speak louder than words.

Salon has devoted years of coverage to arguing that Microsoft's monopolistic behavior has hurt American consumers and unfairly destroyed its business competitors. And we're not going to stop criticizing the Redmond giant when we think criticism is warranted. But watching this show places those sins in perspective. Gates may be a ruthless businessman, but he is giving away billions of his dollars in a dedicated effort to fight AIDS, develop vaccines for scores of deadly diseases, and improve educational and healthcare opportunities for millions of impoverished women and children. Yes, our right to have a choice in operating systems is important. But it is nothing compared to the right of a child in India or Uganda to live free of crippling disease. On the most important issue, Gates passes the test with flying colors.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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