Bill Gates and Wal-Mart want to save the world

Call it Capitalism 2.0: Microsoft's founder and Wal-Mart's CEO say there's got to be a better way.

Published January 24, 2008 5:17PM (EST)

Ten years ago (almost to the day) I thought I was being provocative when I called Bill Gates a "bleeding heart do-gooder liberal," based on a relatively small contribution the Microsoft founder had made to a Washington state handgun control initiative and some grants given by the nascent Gates Foundation to reproductive health and family planning groups. Reporters love contrarian takes on reality, and back then, calling Gates a liberal, even as his company was establishing itself as a global avatar of rapacious capitalism, crushing all who dared oppose it, seemed daring.

So I would not have predicted that a decade later, Gates, channeling Mohammad Yunus, would address the mighty potentates gathered at Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum and tell them, "We have to find a way to make the aspects of capitalism that serve wealthier people serve poorer people as well."

The Wall Street Journal has the scoop: Bill Gates "has grown impatient with the shortcomings of capitalism."

Among the fixes he plans to call for: Companies should create businesses that focus on building products and services for the poor. "Such a system would have a twin mission: making profits and also improving lives for those who don't fully benefit from market forces," he plans to say....

In particular, he said, he's troubled that advances in technology, health care and education tend to help the rich and bypass the poor. "The rate of improvement for the third that is better off is pretty rapid," he said. "The part that's unsatisfactory is for the bottom third -- two billion of six billion."

You go, Bill. But in a bizarre manifestation of über-capitalist harmonic convergence, on the same morning that the Journal was hyping its Bill Gates scoop, the New York Times reported that Wal-Mart's CEO, Lee Scott, gave a speech on Wednesday declaring that the world's biggest retail chain was determined to drastically change the world for the better, by simultaneously solving the world's energy, healthcare and environmental crises.

Scott's "social manifesto" left no social ill unturned:

It is important for all of us to understand that there are a number of issues facing the world that will profoundly affect our lives and our company. I am talking to you about issues like international trade, climate change, water shortages, social and economic inequities, infrastructure and foreign oil...

We live in a time when people are losing confidence in the ability of government to solve problems. But at Wal-Mart, we don't see the sidelines that politicians see. And we do not wait for someone else to solve problems that might hurt our business or affect our customers in a negative way.

Scott, if taken at his word, proposed a platform even more radical than Bill Gates':

In the next three years, we would like to build a very different system. We believe that there should be one framework of social and environmental standards for all major global retailers. And there should be one third party auditing system for everyone.

That sounds suspiciously like a New World Order agenda. Who would impose this "one framework"? Who would provide the "third party auditing system"? Dare we suggest, the United Nations?

Given Wal-Mart's track record on its treatment of its own employees, it is easier to be skeptical of Scott's promises -- cheap, energy-efficient air-conditioners for the people!-- than Bill Gates'. Gates is clearly devoting the rest of his life to spending his accumulated billions to improve the quality of life for the people living on this planet. Whether that can be done via a "bottom-of-the-pyramid" strategy in which businesses sell products such as cheap skin whitener to poor Indians is very much open to question, but Gates' commitment is not. Meanwhile, Scott's speech rings with all the sincerity one would expect from a major public relations campaign.

But even if you dismiss both speeches as self-serving grandstanding, it's still worth noting the direction in which the rhetoric is flowing. That Lee Scott should feel compelled to pledge that Wal-Mart is going to do the right thing, because it's the right thing to do, signals that the once all-conquering ideology of free-market greed-is-all-we-need-ism is no longer acceptable to tout in polite company.

The world's problems need fixing, and unregulated markets are not up to the job. Bill Gates and Lee Scott said so. Pass the word.

By Andrew Leonard

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

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Globalization How The World Works Wal-mart