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There’s No Appeasing Bill Gates

Bill Gates has managed to craft a reputation as a billionaire with a social conscience. But his recent comments on proposals for a wealth tax leave no room for doubt about whose side he’s on.

Bill Gates speaks onstage at the 2019 New York Times Dealbook on November 6, 2019 in New York City. Mike Cohen / Getty for the New York Times

The popular caricature of billionaires is largely as you would expect, given the widespread contempt in which they tend to be held. Imagine, for a second, a billionaire in your mind’s eye: unless you frequent the CPAC conference, are employed by the National Review, or unironically follow Elon Musk on Twitter, chances are you’re picturing a greedy tycoon in an expensive suit, possibly brandishing a monocle or, at very least, giving off distinctly Monopoly Guy kind of energy.

If this caricature persists, one reason is that it happens to be very close to the truth. As the 2018 book Billionaires and Stealth Politics found, the typical billionaire is intensely secretive about their politics while doing everything they can (in private) to further what are almost invariably right-wing policies designed to protect and deepen their wealth and power. This activist strategy, at once subtle and sinister, flies in the face of an alternative image of the billionaire popularized by the likes of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates: that of the generous and socially conscientious philanthropist concerned with global poverty, education, and even occasionally prone to suggesting that rich people should pay slightly higher taxes.

The public perception of Gates used to be a lot closer to the former. As Nicole Aschoff writes in her 2015 book The New Prophets of Capital: “The transformation of Gates’s image over the past two decades is remarkable. Gates, the ruthless, greedy monopolist, caricatured by Tim Robbins in the 2001 film Antitrust has been supplanted by the earnest, humble Bill, a ‘worldwide force for good.’”

But whether the figure in question is privately conservative, an outright reactionary in the mold of Charles Koch, or someone who takes care to emphasize social concern, billionaires will always be more of a class unto themselves than a force for good. Despite Gates’s comparatively innocuous public image, he and his ilk of billionaire are still an unfathomably self-interested group whose wealth and power represent real obstacles to a fairer, more equal, and more democratic society.

This fact was driven home by Gates himself in an interview earlier this week, in which the billionaire founder of Microsoft took aim at a wealth tax proposal put forward by Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. Suggesting he’d happily pay $20 billion in taxes, Gates added:

You know, when you say I should pay $100 billion, O.K., then I’m starting to do a little math about what I have left over … Sorry, I’m just kidding. So you really want the incentive system to be there and you can go a long ways without threatening that.

Asked whether he’d vote for Warren or Donald Trump in a hypothetical matchup, Gates rather revealingly demurred: saying only that he’d vote for the most “professional” candidate in the race.

It’s remarkable, to say the least, how much work these two comments alone do to undermine the socially conscious image Gates has spent the last two decades trying to construct.

Being even slightly open to the possibility of voting for Donald Trump more or less speaks for itself. But, as several were also quick to point out, even under a scheme that did hand Gate a $100 billion tax bill (far more than Warren’s wealth tax proposal actually pledges to do) he would still have a whopping $6.8 billion left over — an astonishing sum that only an unfathomably avaricious person could ever want, let alone consider an inadequate “incentive” to make a productive contribution to society.

This sentiment is perfectly consistent with Gates’s actual behavior in recent decades, despite the careful manicuring of his public image. For all of Gates’s supposed generosity, in fact, he has had to sacrifice suspiciously little to become the world’s most famous philanthropist. As Zach Carter and Ryan Grim noted in 2014:

After he became a very, very rich man, Gates stopped laboring and focused instead on giving away his money. Yet, more than a decade later, his wealth has actually skyrocketed. In 1998, Gates’s net worth was valued at $50 billion. By October 2014, that number had increased nearly 60 percent to $79.3 billion, despite his having given away tens of billions of dollars.

Another way to consider the scope of Gates’s greed is to imagine what could be done with so much wealth had it been taxed away and invested in public goods — or, alternatively, what isn’t being done because Gates and people like him have hoarded billions of dollars and resisted efforts to reign in extreme wealth. This was precisely the point made by Bernie Sanders, who opted for a decidedly more confrontational tone than Warren in his response to Gates’s comments:

Say Bill Gates was actually taxed $100 billion. We could end homelessness and provide safe drinking water to everyone in this country. Bill would still be a multibillionaire. Our message: the billionaire class cannot have it all when so many have so little.

There may have been some implied sarcasm in Warren’s reply, but the tone it struck was certainly more conciliatory than Sanders’s — and it was echoed in Gates’s cordial response “I’m always willing to talk about creative solutions to these problems.”

Make no mistake: no solution is creative enough to appease someone as greedy as Bill Gates.