In their 2018 Annual Letter, Seattle-area billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates address some frequently asked questions about influence, inequality, the perils of aid, and, of course, the Twitter troll currently sullying the White House.
It's an interesting read: While the couple's optimism may seem slightly out-of-touch to those who don't have a few billion dollars at our disposal, they are fairly candid and they acknowledge the problems with charitable giving. Just look at the Red Cross—the No. 1 organization in charitable giving has long been plagued by allegations of corruption and mismanagement, and the Gates Foundation has detractors of its own, especially those against their vision for education. The foundation, which has spent billions on education in the US, bankrolled and pushed for the development of Common Core, a set of national educational standards that proved to be hugely controversial (and which Trump promised to do away with, even though he can't). They also funded hundreds of new secondary schools in the US, and paid for some of the most aggressive school reforms in the last 20 years—with very mixed results.
However, unlike some people, the Gateses are committed to giving away their fortune, not collecting more and more of the world's capital while putting everyone from booksellers to grocery checkers out of business, and so despite what the Lord God Jesus Christ said about it being easier for a rich man to jump through a needle than get into Heaven, perhaps the clouds will part for the Gates family yet.
Here's what they had to say about Trump:
How are President Trump’s policies affecting your foundation’s work?
Bill: In the past year, I’ve been asked about President Trump and his policies more often than all the other topics in this letter combined.
The administration’s policies affect our foundation’s work in a number of areas. The most concrete example is foreign aid. For decades the United States has been a leader in the fight against disease and poverty abroad. These efforts save lives. They also create U.S. jobs. And they make Americans more secure by making poor countries more stable and stopping disease outbreaks before they become pandemics. The world is not a safer place when more people are sick or hungry.
President Trump proposed severe cuts to foreign aid. To its credit, Congress has moved to put the money back in the budget. It’s better for the United States when it leads, through both hard power and soft power.
More broadly, the America First worldview concerns me. It’s not that the United States shouldn’t look out for its people. The question is how best to do that. My view is that engaging with the world has proven over time to benefit everyone, including Americans, more than withdrawing does. Even if we measured everything the government did only by how much it helped American citizens, global engagement would still be a smart investment.
We have met with President Trump and his team, just as we have met with people in previous administrations. With every administration—Republican and Democrat—we agree on some things and disagree on others. Although we disagree with this administration more than the others we’ve met with, we believe it's still important to work together whenever possible. We keep talking to them because if the U.S. cuts back on its investments abroad, people in other countries will die, and Americans will be worse off.
Melinda: We need to work with the administration to garner as much support as we can for policies that will benefit the most impoverished people in the world. In our U.S. work, one premise we start with is that a college degree or career certificate is critical to a successful future. In short, a college education should be a pathway to prosperity for all Americans. The Trump administration’s leadership, along with Congress’s, will have a lot to do with whether it is.
Specifically, student aid programs need to work better for low-income students. Right now, 2 million students who are eligible for aid don’t even apply for it, because the process is so burdensome. Some go into debt. Even worse, many don’t go to college at all. The government must continue to be generous in funding aid programs while following through on simplifying the application process. The futures of millions of young Americans are on the line.
I would also say that I believe one of the duties of the president of the United States is to role model American values in the world. I wish our president would treat people, and especially women, with more respect when he speaks and tweets. Equality is an important national principle. The sanctity of each individual, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender, is part of our country’s spirit. The president has a responsibility to set a good example and empower all Americans through his statements and his policies.
Later in the letter, they acknowledge something perhaps even more disturbing than the current state of the White House: Why they have so much power and the rest of us have so little.
Is it fair that you have so much influence?
Melinda: No. It’s not fair that we have so much wealth when billions of others have so little. And it’s not fair that our wealth opens doors that are closed to most people. World leaders tend to take our phone calls and seriously consider what we have to say. Cash-strapped school districts are more likely to divert money and talent toward ideas they think we will fund.
But there is nothing secret about our objectives as a foundation. We are committed to being open about what we fund and what the results have been. (It’s not always immediately clear what’s been successful and what hasn’t, but we work hard to assess our impact, course correct, and share lessons.) We do this work, and use whatever influence we have, to help as many people as possible and to advance equity around the world. Although we’ve had some success, I think it would be hard to argue at this point that we made the world focus too much on health, education, or poverty.
Bill: As much as we try to encourage feedback, we know that some of our critics don’t speak up because they don’t want to risk losing money. That means we need to hire well, consult experts, learn constantly, and seek out different viewpoints.
Even though our foundation is the biggest in the world, the money we have is very small compared to what businesses and governments spend. For example, California spends more than our entire endowment just to run its public school system for one year.
So we use our resources in a very specific way: to test out promising innovations, collect and analyze the data, and let businesses and governments scale up and sustain what works. We’re like an incubator in that way. We aim to improve the quality of the ideas that go into public policies and to steer funding toward those ideas that have the most impact.
There’s another issue at the heart of this question. If we think it’s unfair that we have so much wealth, why don’t we give it all to the government? The answer is that we think there’s always going to be a unique role for foundations. They’re able to take a global view to find the greatest needs, take a long-term approach to solving problems, and manage high-risk projects that governments can’t take on and corporations won’t. If a government tries an idea that fails, someone wasn’t doing their job. Whereas if we don’t try some ideas that fail, we’re not doing our jobs.
Under normal circumstances, I would disagree with them here. If the United States (and Washington State) taxed our rich adequately (say... anyone with more than a half billion dollars in wealth has a tax rate of 100 percent), the government could distribute that money in an equitable way that doesn't depend on the whims of billionaires and their pet causes. However, with Cadet Bone Spurs (as Tammy Duckworth has so vividly named him) in the White House, and the GOP running (or failing to run) Congress, it seems unlikely that the feds would spend Bill Gates' tax dollars on anything more important than say... a military parade.
There's a lot more in the letter, from how they resolve disagreements to why they work with corporations. And while I'm generally more in favor of eating the rich than complimenting them, it's refreshing to see that not all billionaires (or, in the case of Donald Trump, "billionaires") are ego-driven blood-suckers—just most of them.