Is Bill’s philanthropy just another form of control?

On a flight back from LA last week I found myself in that brain limbo that too much air travel can impose. Too wired to sleep but too tired to sit through a whole movie so breaking with my normal obsessive need to watch all the new movies on the plane I opted for some TV and chanced on the BBC Money Programme Interview with Bill Gates which aired last June.

I missed it at the time, probably consciously expecting it to be more glossed over mainstream coverage of Bill. For the most part it was exactly what I expected with presenter Fiona Bruce steering clear of asking Bill too many of the tough questions despite claiming that  it had taken the Beeb almost two years of negotiations with Microsoft to secure the interview. The programme delved into the history of MS and went over the usual ground and then tackled Bill’s new philanthropic career.

Various talking heads popped up around the issue including US tech journo and super-geek Robert X Cringely who basically claimed that Bill’s latest venture is all about securing a nobel peace prize! Well that makes sense but then thinking about another aspect of philanthropy, the tax saving, it struck me that while it might seem on one hand that Bill is being supremely altruistic with giving away billions the fact is that he has to to do that anyway through taxation. So by setting up this huge philanthropic effort he is able to take back some control of that vast chunk of cash that he was previously sending off to the US Treasury and Bill likes control. 

I am sure that there is a lot of genuine altruism here but people don’t really change that much. The single-minded focus on achieving a goal has characterised Microsoft’s rise to to top and the fact that Gates would suddenly shift gift and become some touchy-feely Mother Teresa-like figure just doesn’t wash. There is a plan here with a definite end-game, probably the nobel peace prize, with the handy by-product of being able to have more say over the vast swathes of tax dollars.

Gates wasn’t given a completely free-ride by the BBC, the parting segment had Fiona Bruce being shown around the MS Campus by Gates. The pair came up against what seemed to be a locked door. Gates assumed that the door was secured by the high-tech security system and search vainly for his swipe card before resigning himself to calling for help. After credulously asking if Bill was locked out of his own building, the BBC presenter simply leant on the door and strolled in. And neat little segment that said it all really.

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