The news this afternoon that Bill Gates is embarking on a "two-year transition" from his role at Microsoft to greater involvement with his foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is not your average corporate retirement announcement. The Gates Foundation currently has an endowment of about $30 billion, and is required by law to give away 5 percent annually. That's about $1.5 billion of philanthropy a year, which is a nice chunk of change.
What's even nicer are the priorities of the Gates Foundation -- reproductive health and family planning, research and development into diseases that afflict the populations of developing nations, access to education and information technologies. I spent a prime chunk of my reporting years writing critically about Microsoft and I'm no fan of his company's business tactics or approach to software development. But I've certainly come around to believing that Bill Gates' heart is in the right place when it comes to what should be done with all his unbelievable riches.
Almost 10 years ago, back when Gates was still widely regarded as a skinflint, I wrote a story for Salon that looked at some patterns that were beginning to become visible in his individual philanthropy, and I asked the question, partly tongue-in-cheek, "Is Bill Gates a closet liberal?" I also quoted a speech he gave at that time to an audience in Silicon Valley, in which he said, "I'm just a steward of this wealth and someday I will return it to society." I can't say I really believed him then. I do now.
And if you believe, as I do, that there are few better ways to attack the root causes of inequality on the globe than by assuring that women in developing countries have access to healthcare and education, then you must concede that the Gates Foundation is tackling some of the biggest challenges on the planet head-on. In 2003, Gates told Bill Moyers that the plight of poor women and children in developing nations was a "failure of capitalism." That's strong stuff from one of capitalism's most famous latter-day robber barons. Would that more of his colleagues at the helms of the world's biggest corporations could see beyond their boardrooms and realize that, yes, the market does fail us, all the time, and we should do something about it. And don't even get me started on our political leaders.