And but so I had some old friends in town, from Berzerkely, no less, and we were in my local, the Anglesea Arms, debating socio-politics, and but of course the iniquities of capitalism came up. They suggested that Wal-Mart should really be paying its employees more. I pointed out that even leaving aside the question of whether or how it's any of their or my business how Sam Walton contracts with other free people in a free society there are almost always less-discussed down-sides to lefty social prescriptions.
For instance, when you institute a minimum wage, you make a lot of people unemployable (and, perforce, unemployed). Paid maternity leave is a totally lovely and civilized idea except that when you mandate it, you make it impossible (or at the very least unattractive) for smaller businesses to hire women of childbearing age. When you craft a more pleasant society with eight weeks of holiday and jobs for life and full pensions at 55, you hobble economic growth, meaning everybody's poorer (no matter how much of other people's money government shuffles around).
And this gets at the real issue, which is that the only things that have ever lifted anybody out of poverty and they've lifted billions out of poverty are industry and manufacture, commerce and trade (and all super-charged by the productivity gains delivered by science and technology). You don't create any wealth by redistributing it, and you ultimately don't help anybody. (*)
And my very lovely lefty friends riposted all this by bringing up the iniquities of executive compensation. Why should the CEO be making 400 times what the average employee does? Again, leaving aside whether this anybody's business but that company's board and shareholders, I couldn't believe it (and couldn't believe my luck) when the example they reached for was . . . Bill Gates.
I paused a heavy beat. Then I said: "Are you aware that Bill Gates has almost certainly, quantifiably done more good than anyone who has ever walked the Earth?"
They really weren't aware, which is why I'm publishing this dispatch. (And also because of the profile of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that appeared in the Guardian today.) At any rate, if you want to pick a posterchild for the evils of capitalism, well, Gates is the perfect child for the other poster the one about the unalloyed wonderfulness of capitalism.
Quantifiable? Done quantifiably more good than anyone ever?, you ask? Yes. Just for starters, Bill Gates has saved the lives of five million children. (This is an estimate, but a good one, based on him providing vaccinations for 250 million at-risk children in the developing world.) Can you imagine if you were strolling over the bridge in your town, and you looked over and saw a drowning child in the river, and jumped in and saved her? What a hero you'd be. You'd be feted. You'd be written up in the papers. You'd be admired and loved.
Well, start jumping, because you've got five million rivers to jump into to catch Gates. Can you imagine? It's like a Holocaust in reverse. Can you imagine if some one person had managed to save 5/6th of the Jews in Europe during the Holocaust? What would we think of that person?
Anyway, if you're unaware, Gates has given about half of his total wealth, so far, to the foundation, which now with $24 billion makes it the world's biggest charity. (*) The money is targeted on high-impact and often otherwise neglected needs in vaccination, vaccine development, malaria, HIV/AIDS, pneumonia, agricultural development, financial services for the poor, libraries, sanitation, and emergency response. They focus on science- and technology-based solutions, they look at results, they move very quickly, and they throw an absolutely staggering amount of money around.
Here's that article from the Guardian, which went looking for something bad to say about them, and failed. It's well worth reading.
For 14 of the last 16 years Bill Gates has been the richest person on earth. More than a decade ago, he decided to start handing over the "large majority" of his wealth currently £36bn for the foundation to distribute, so that "the people with the most urgent needs and the fewest champions" in the world, as he and his wife Melinda put it on the foundation website, "grow up healthier, get a better education, and gain the power to lift themselves out of poverty". In 2006, Warren Buffett, currently the third richest person in the world, announced that he too would give a large proportion of his assets to the foundation. Its latest accounts show an endowment of £24bn, making it the world's largest private foundation. It is committed to spending the entire endowment within 50 years of Bill and Melinda Gates's deaths.
As well as its money, it is the organisation's optimism and the fame of its main funder in 2008 Bill Gates stopped working full-time for his computer giant Microsoft to concentrate on the foundation that has given it momentum. Last May an editorial in the revered medical journal the Lancet praised it for giving "a massive boost to global health funding . . . The Foundation has challenged the world to think big and to be more ambitious about what can be done to save lives in low-income settings. The Foundation has added renewed dynamism, credibility, and attractiveness to global health [as a cause]."
Two bodies that the foundation funds heavily, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (Gavi) and the Global Fund to Fight HIV/Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, have, according to the foundation, delivered vaccines to more than 250 million children in poor countries and prevented more than an estimated five million deaths.
Seth Berkley, head of the International Aids Vaccine Initiative [IAVI], says: "The foundation has the advantage of speed and flexibility. When they want to, they can move quickly, unlike many other large bureaucracies. Most of the other private foundations in the US don't work globally. Others are more staid than Gates. I used to work at the Rockefeller Foundation [an older American charity] and dole out grants in small amounts. The Gates foundation gave us at IAVI a grant of $1.5m (£1m), then $25m. Then they gave us a line of credit which is extremely unusual in grant-making of $100m, to give us assets to be able to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies and initiate vaccine development programmes. Using that $100m, we were able to leverage lots more funding $800m in total. What Gates allowed us to do was go out and search for new ideas and move quickly on them.