Gore Vidal advised keeping both of one's hands firmly clamped over one's wallet anytime one was anywhere near a billionaire. Gore was very, very, very smart, and seemed sincere in his advice and his concern for the little fellas. Also, he met a few billionaires personally and I haven't yet. (I've known a few people who may have become billionaires since the last time I saw them. Or maybe I'm overestimating their success. And no, I can't put in a good word for you with them, it's been a long, long time since I've seen any of these people and I have no reason to think that they're at all well-disposed toward me and just dying for my input on how best to invest their enormous wealth.) When I first heard Gore's advice I was surprised, because from my point of view Gore was pretty close to being a billionaire himself. Ten million dollars, or three hundred million or however much Gore was worth at the time, versus a billion or a hundred billion -- what's the difference? I thought. It was all filthy stinking rich to me. Since then, however, Gore's apparent conception of billionaires as a race apart, as people quite UNlike him, has only served to clearly underscore what I had begun to perceive long before: that almost no-one thinks of him- or herself as rich. Almost everybody seems to stare with gnawing envy at someone who has a still bigger pile of lucre.
And in any case, Gore's advice was not about the size of the pile but about the behavior of the tycoon, and perhaps he was entirely right, perhaps what separated him from a billionaire was that he wouldn't rip you off at the earliest opportunity and the billionaire would. I like what the Gates Foundation is doing, but I haven't forgotten that Gates amassed his billions by eliminating his competition, beating them in price wars and/or buying them out, creating monopolies. There are Carnegie Libraries and Institutions and Foundations doing good things, but I can't hear about any one of them without thinking about how Carnegie treated his many thousands of employees. (Very badly, is how.) I don't think that Mark Zuckerberg amassed his pile of cash by pure genius or pure goodness, either, but the fact is that both Gates and Zuckerberg are now applying massive piles of money, and large portions of their managerial skills, toward attempts to make the world a better place.
So, good. Thing is, Gates just publicly dissed Zuckerberg for, in Gates' view, thinking that bringing Internet access to the world's poor is the solution to their problems. It's more important, Gates says, to combat malaria, and to get food and water to people dying of hunger and thirst.
And of course he's right, it is more important, it is more urgent. Thing is -- when did Zuckerberg say that Internet access was THE solution? Unless I'm mis-informed, Zuckerberg called Internet access AN important part of efforts to help the poor, not THE solution to all their problems.
With massive problems like poverty, disease, pollution, there are no single solutions. Solar power isn't THE solution to humanity's self-inflicted problems brought on by our energy consumption -- solar power is ONE OF the solutions, along with wind power, geothermal power, public transportation, walking and biking more and driving less and many other things. Ironically, if someone here is guilty of oversimplifying things and believing in a magic bullet to help the poor, it's Gates, with his single-issue focus on disease. Yes, it's great, and tremendously important, what he's doing to fight malaria and AIDS and other epidemics, no, he shouldn't stop. But instead of criticizing Zuckerberg for spreading the Internet, why not, oh, say -- work WITH Zuckerberg, use Zuckerberg's new networks to help get doctors and medicine and mosquito nets and so forth to those who need them, to strengthen the chains of relief logistics and information? Remember when "synergy" used to be a big buzzword? Maybe you're too young to remember that time. It was before Microsoft got huge. I just wonder whether Gates' attitude toward Zuckerberg's give-poor-people-the-hook-up efforts doesn't reflect exactly the same inability to play well with others which the world knows all too well from Microsoft's business practices. I'm not trying to interfere with your charity work, Bill. Exactly the opposite: I'm trying to help you do it better.