Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Melinda Gates Achieves Peak Epic Cluelessness

Sigh. Melinda Gates seems like a nice lady who means well, but her recent interview at the New York Times Magazine is a master class in how living in a very wealthy bubble can leave you out of touch with the rest of the world and an understanding of your place in it.

It starts in the very first paragraph.

“There are absolutely different points of view about philanthropy,” says Melinda Gates, who, along with her husband Bill, heads the charitable foundation that bears their name, aimed at increasing global health and reducing poverty. Its endowment, at $50.7 billion, is the largest in the world. “But we’re lucky to live in a democracy, where we can all envision what we want things to look like.”

Well, we can all envision what we want things to look like, and then become in a political process to support and elect leaders who then work within a democratic-ish government to pursue that vision. Only a few of us can use our vast wealth to completely circumvent the entire democratic process to impose our vision on the rest of the world.

This woman.
David Marchese, who I'm betting has read Anand Giridharadas's Winners Take All,  opens the door wide for Gates to consider one of the deeper issues of modern philanthropy by asking, "When you meet with other wealthy philanthropists, do you find that anyone is grappling in a serious way with their own culpability for problems, like growing income inequality, that are at the root of issues they’re trying to solve?" Do you get that it's very possible that you are spending money to amelliorate conditions that you have created?

She whiffs.

There are absolutely people thinking about this. Then there are others who, no, they’re comfortable with how they act. But one of the reasons the Giving Pledge has been so important is that in some countries — in India, in China — we’re starting the discussion about philanthropy. I will say that of the 190 who have joined the Giving Pledge so far, some of them joined because it looks good. But I’m stunned by how many visits we’re hosting at the foundation now with philanthropists — not even billionaires, millionaires — asking us: How did you think about philanthropy? How did you do it?

Nope. The question is not "Should rich folks give back" but "Should rich folks look at changing the system that made them unreasonably rich to begin with."

But Marchese will give her another chance, and makes his real question pretty clear:

When you’re in Giving Pledge meetings, would it ever fly to ask people not just to give more but to take less?

She is not having it:

Look, there are going to be lots of points of view in the room about that topic. But I think you frame it as: What do we want for our democracy? How do we want the country to look and act and be 50 and 100 years from now? I will tell you that many people in that room want better outcomes for low-income people in this country. They want to see things get better

Note the term "low-income people." Not "people who end up with the short end of the short end of the stick because we've rigged the system so that some of us get most of the stick to ourselves." No, the "low-income people" suggests that their poor status is part of their nature. You can't change it by, say, distributing the spoils of industry more equitably to begin with; you just count on wealthy people to make those low-incomers a little more comfortable. You know, so "things" can get "better.'

Also, what I want for my democracy is to not see it circumvented and stage managed by rich people, thanks.

And Marchese, God bless him, is not giving up:

One of the recurring criticisms of large-scale philanthropists is that they aren’t interested in any redress of the economic systems that create inequality. But in order to rectify inequalities, doesn’t a radical rethinking need to happen?

And Gates again completely rejects the question:

Bill and I are both on the record saying that we believe in more progressive taxes.

Nope. That is not a radical rethinking. Gates thinks it is because, she notes, many of the places they hang out tougher taxation is not a popular idea. But redistributing income is not the issue-- distributing it differently in the first place is. But the philanthropic dream here is for low-income people to somehow get a better deal without the rich having to give up their spot at the top of the heap. You really need to read Winners Take All.

Marchese gives up and moves on to ask Gates about her privilege, and she replies with some borderline bizarre observations that--well...

You have to be in the community with people who don’t look like you. When I read about a shooting, maybe in the south side of Seattle, I’m not living the experience. Whereas if I have a friend who’s a person of color, they most likely are living that experience or know somebody who was part of that community.

So... all Black people in Seattle know each other? All Black people in Seattle have experience with shootings?

Also, she wants to people to feel comfortable in her house, even with all the art and hugeness, so she's willing to wait in her yoga pants and unmadeup face while they pet the dog and -- sorry, I can't get over the "person of color" shooting experience thing.

Also, they watch tv. And it bugs her that tech people think that an app can solve anything, which is a useful insight, particular if she were to make the leap from "app" to "technocratically engineered system."

Gates's book included some revelations about her past in an abusive relationship, and here she is insightful enough to understand that there are women in the world going through things that are far worse.

Then it's on to politics. She notes that the current administration is problematic (Bill Gates told Chris Hayes that he had to explain to Donald Trump that HIV and HPV are not the same thing, twice), but luckily Congress still controls a lot of the process "so we are working with Congress more than ever." Imagine the level of privilege involved in being able to talk about Congress as just another organization that you work with.

You remember that line about how being able to disregard politics is a sign of privilege? Gates explains that she doesn't get involved in, say, financing candidates for office who support Roe v. Wade because she doesn't want to be out in a particular political "bucket," which would interfere with her ability to build coalitions and work on stuff. Though she doesn't say so, it seems this is just one more way in which the democratic process is an obstacle to implementing her vision.

Gates also apparently doesn't count the political money they spend to push their education agenda; for instance, the over-a-million spent to push charters in Washington state.

Marchese re-raises Peter Singer's question about the value of a human life versus a $100 million home.

We certainly spend money on ourselves. You see it in the house that we built. We won’t have that house forever, though. I’m actually really looking forward to the day that Bill and I live in a 1,500-square foot house.

But they do think about this stuff. Like, they decided to stop using bottled water and just get it out of the tap.

So we try to live those values as much as we can and do the best we can. But the one thing that I want to be really clear is that a vast majority of the huge funds that we have, these billions of dollars, they are going back to society.

But again-- the question of giving those dollars back is not nearly as interesting as the question of why they should have them in the first place, giving this couple the power of a small country and letting them decide how that power and money will be used. Marchese asks about when that downsizing will happen, and she doesn't know, but probably after the last kid is out of the house. Of course, the foundation will keep them coming back to Seattle part of the year, "But I assure you, if we decide to spend six months somewhere else it will be in a smaller house." Which I guess is rich person downsizing-- your second home is smaller.

Then we get to education, where Marchese suggests that maybe their work there has been inherently antidemocratic and that they've spent money in a way that "maybe seems like it's crowing out people's actual wants." But once again, the view from Gates Mountain is... different.

Bill and I always go back to “What is philanthropy’s role?” It is to be catalytic. It’s to try and put new ideas forward and test them and see if they work. If you can convince government to scale up, that is how you have success. But philanthropic dollars are a tiny slice of the United States education budget. Even if we put a billion dollars in the State of California, that’s not going to do that much. So we experiment with things. If we had been successful, David, you’d see a lot more charter schools. I’d love to see 20 percent charter schools in every state. But we haven’t been successful. I’d love to say we had outsize influence. We don’t.

Plenty to unpack here, starting with a nice clear statement of goals for charter schools-- 20%, or one charter school for every four public schools. Then there's "try and put new ideas forward and test them," which rather glosses over the fact that we are testing these ideas on human children. The entire national education system is suffering through the goop that is Common Core-- an entire generation-- and it's just an experiment. And the idea that Gates doesn't have outsize influence is so counter-reality that one hardly knows where to begin. Name anybody-- anybody at all-- who has had as much influence as a private citizen on public education. There is literally an entire cottage industry, paid for with Gates dollars, that does nothing but promote various Gates-favored reformster ideas.

Marchese presses her on the outsize influence thing, and she has an example that doesn't prove her point;

I went and met with a group of three dozen parents in Memphis. We thought we had a good idea for them. They were having none of it. So we didn’t move forward.

Let's think about this. The parents were able to show influence by influencing Gates. In other words, Gates was still the major actor in this example. That's not what no special influence looks like. No special influence looks like "We went to Memphis and nobody would even meet with us. We try calling officials and they won't even answer the phone. We e-mail top education movers and shakers and they don't even respond." That's what no special influence actually looks like-- you know, like a teacher.

Also, Gates thinks a lot about contraceptives.

Melinda Gates is no dummy, so it's hard to understand how she can have such huge blind spots, but here's modern philanthropy in all its glory. There's no question about the inequity of the situation-- of course we're super-rich and those people aren't and there's no reason to think about why that is or how we're helping to create it. There's no question about our right to operate as a privater, unelected government-- hey, we're just regular folks trying to impose our vision on the world, just like anyone else. We have no special great power and therefor no great responsibility. Also, we'd like experiment on your kids with a few ideas we have.

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