When I was growing up, a friend’s middle-class parents had a list of wisdom allegedly passed down from Bill Gates taped to their refrigerator titled, “Some Rules Kids Won’t Learn in School.” It included advice such as “Sorry, you won’t make $40,000 a year right out of high school,” “When you’re 18 it’s on your dime. Don’t whine about it, or you’ll sound like a baby boomer,” and “Be nice to nerds. You may end up working for them.” These words weren’t actually written or spoken by Bill Gates, however. They were, in fact, written by the deeply unpleasant seeming Charles J. Sykes, author of the 1996 book Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write, Or Add, according to Snopes. But the fact that they were widely attributed to Gates on the late ’90s and early 2000s internet makes sense: the list is a didactic, patronizing load of crap, implying that, no matter their circumstances, anyone who fails has failed because they are personally lacking, exactly the kind of acuity most Americans have come to expect from our “great” men.
In my own home there was a battered copy of The Warren Buffet Way, a book my working-class family thought must contain the secret to becoming as rich as Buffet. Likewise, Gates did actually publish a collection of “rules” of sorts, in 1999's Business at the Speed of Thought. In the coming decades, tech titans like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk would join the ranks of, not only America’s richest men, but its most respected captains of industry and drivers of technology, the staggering numbers in their bank accounts equal to their brains’ contributions to the betterment of American life. But of these billionaires, Bill Gates has long served as the cohorts’ supposed moral compass, writing widely recirculated blog posts about how he’d like to pay more in taxes and helming the education-focused Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with his wife Melinda Gates, who has her own philanthropic ventures, including one devoted to “conversations” around “gender inequality.” For three decades, Bill Gates has been America’s arbiter of benevolent wealth, a role he seems to relish, and one that cloaks his every action with an air of beneficence, no matter how ultimately self-serving.
The recent announcement of Bill and Melinda Gates’s imminent divorce also draws attention to the pair’s staggering wealth. The Guardian puts the couple’s net worth at $146 billion and speculates that the split could make Melinda the second-richest woman in the world, with $73 billion, as the couple had no prenup. Talk of that wealth, in turn, begets talk of what Gates has done with it, whether it’s the ostensible “good,” such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or bad, like his ongoing friendship with Jeffrey Epstein that began after Epstein became a convicted sex offender or his hoarding of the covid-19 vaccinations from poorer nations in the name of intellectual property rights. Bill Gates’s “charity” is generally tethered to the PR needs of other wealthy individuals, like Epstein, with whom he met for to arrange a “multi-million dollar charitable fund,” according to the New York Times, or giant corporations, like JP Morgan Chase and MasterCard, with whom Gates partnered for accelerated covid-19 research. Gates’s power as a great man who can both giveth and taketh away based on the air of wisdom his vast stores of wealth imply is the stuff of beneficent fairy tale kings or, more recently, the Victorian “humanitarian discovery of hunger,” which made heroes of those Industrialists (and their wives) offering soup to the very people they had worked to impoverish.
In the climax of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge realizes that he’s been exploiting his employee and hoarding his vast wealth; he has a Christmas Day change of heart, and raises wages while also donating to a charitable organization he had earlier rejected. But the enduring idea of that story—that bosses can change and learn empathy—changes a great deal if the tale is told from the point of view of Bob Cratchit’s neighbor, who likely still has to work for less than a living wage for his boss and will have to take his family to some gruel-slopping soup kitchen for their meal. Because the myth of the big-hearted “great man” is still predicated on the idea that others, who are not the second-richest man in the world like Bill Gates or business owners like Ebenezer Scrooge, are somehow smaller and therefore only deserving of what the great men decide they’re worth.
In Victorian England, joining a charitable society was as popular for England’s wealthy as it is for America’s billionaires, with the Victorian equivalent of the MasterCard, Epstein, and Gates debating among themselves whether soup kitchens would only contribute to the widespread drunkness, laziness, and propensity for forming labor unions they imagined were the cause of hunger among the lower classes, not unfair living wages and systems stacked ever-increasingly in favor of the masters, with weak governmental intervention meaning that the hungry had to rely on the kindness of the wealthy. And for those paupers who refused to live by charitable organizations’ definitions of respectability and self-reliance, there were the horrors of the workhouse, prisons for those whose crime was being poor in a way the generous rich found distasteful.
Even reformers, like the historian Arnold Toynbee, who dedicated his life to fixing the broken Victorian philanthropy system and improving the lives of workers (who could not even vote) couldn’t help in one of his final lectures but see a better life as something “given” by the powerful with strings attached, rather than a right:
“We will ask you to remember this - that we work for you in the hope and trust that if you get material civilisation, if you get a better life, you will really lead a better life. If, that is, you get material civilisation, remember that it is not an end in itself. Remember that man, like trees and plants, has his roots in the earth; but like the trees and plants, he must grow upwards towards the heavens. If you will only keep to the love of your fellow men and to great ideals, then we shall find our happiness in helping you, but if you do not, then our reparation will be in vain.”
Social reformer Jane Addams used Toynbee’s ideas for her own work founding and shaping America’s social work system, and she listed her reasons for founding Chicago’s Hull House as a means of giving purpose to her own life before mentioning her desire to help the poor. Bill Gates’s widely circulated 2019 missive demanding higher taxes touches on a similar theme: “Melinda and I believe that driving progress is wealth’s highest purpose,” it reads. “Even before we were married, we decided that we would use the resources from Microsoft to make people’s lives better. Our wealth comes with an obligation to give back to society.”
The idea of “driving progress” and “giving back” seem as if they can co-exist, but when the progress comes on the terms of the wealthiest men in history, like Gates, we have to assume that progress benefits the wealthy more than anyone else. Celebrating the benevolence and wisdom of these “great” men, who coincidentally are all the same color and come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, only serves to prop up the systems that allowed them to horde this wealth and contribute to the greatest income inequality the world has ever seen in the first place. America has to stop looking for heroes in its Bill Gates figures and start assuming they’re all Jeffery Epsteins.