Episode 45: The Not-So-Benevolent Billionaire (Part I) — Bill Gates and Western Media
Citations Needed | July 25, 2018 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: You can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook, Citations Needed, support the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support is so helpful. Helps us keep going and growing. And we’ve been doing it for now over a year. So your support really has brought us here and hopefully will continue. So thanks everyone for listening.
Adam: Yeah, if you’ve thought about it but haven’t yet, please try to donate to Patreon. It does actually help. So Russia, as we all know, has sinister oligarchs whereas the United States we are told has philanthropists or job creators or industry titans who unlike the oligarchs, they got their wealth through moxie, hard work and dedication and pure merit. Whereas billionaires in other countries, whether it’s China or Russia or kind of batty countries, they got theirs through some form of crony capitalism or manipulation and aside from a few cartoonishly evil billionaires like say the Walton family or Peter Thiel, or increasingly Elon Musk and his and his Twitter meltdowns, or the Koch brothers, the average American, I think, I think it’s fair to say, Nima, has a pretty warm and fuzzy feeling about the super wealthy.
Nima: The most notable of these benevolent billionaires, the less cartoonishly evil ones, the kind of warm and fuzzy ones is Bill Gates, who’s philanthropic works through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation operate the largest overseas nonprofit regime on the planet. It is worth over $40 billion which is almost twice as much as the next biggest foundation. The Gates Foundation receives almost uniformly softball coverage from the media, most of whom from Vox to BBC to The Guardian to Al Jazeera to MTV to BET to NBC, all received funding from Gates in some way through various investment and donor arrangements, partnerships, collaborations, both from his personal coffers and the Gates Foundation itself. The foundation that bears his name and disperses part of his fortune.
Adam: So in this two part episode we’re going to ask how much Gates’ network of patronage effects his coverage in US media, which is broadly overwhelmingly positive and uncritical of Bill Gates. We want to figure out how you can be critical without sort of being too paranoid or too cynical and what the true nature of the capitalist ideology that animates Bill Gates, how it manifests, and how oftentimes it ends up harming the very people it ostensibly aims to help.
Nima: We will be joined this week by Dr. Linsey J. McGoey, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex and author of the book No Such Thing As A Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy.
Linsey J. McGoey: Having Mr. Gates, who’s, who’s seen as so intelligent and knowledgeable and I don’t doubt that he is in many areas, but in other areas his ignorance has been glaring but never called out by a media that seems to be either just bamboozled by his charisma and his authority or recognizes that there are some concerns with this one individual wielding so much influence over policy making, but they’re fearful of voicing their concerns because a taboo surrounding criticizing philanthropy is so profound in Western nations.
Nima: Next week we will be joined by Miriam Mayet, Executive Director of the African Center for Biodiversity.
Mariam Mayet: We’re kind of feeling like new technologies are being tested in Africa as if we’re treating Africans as guinea pigs for technologies that even the US military is interested in, which is the gene drive technologies, the US military’s funding this Target Malaria project to the tune of $100 million.
Adam: Bill Gates, I think it’s fair to say, has probably some of the best public relations on earth. Polls show that he’s broadly liked. Most of the coverage, the vast, vast majority coverage is completely fluffy. What we’re going to sort of try to show on the show is that that is not solely based on the objective merits of his work, but as part of a broader media influence regime, which is pretty tremendous when you stop and take a look at it. So let’s begin by kind of establishing the stakes. The reach of Gates’ influences is not just on how much money he gives, but it’s the prospect inspector of getting the money in the future. The Gates Foundation in the past few years has given, this is solely to media outlets, has given $4 million to the BBC, $5.7 million to The Guardian. He funds the entire global development vertical at The Guardian. And by the way this is annual gifts. And he’s given $100,000 to Le Monde, to $1 million to Al Jazeera, $2.7 million to NPR and PRI, about a million dollars to the Canadian media giant Post Media Network, $800,000 to Univision, $300,000 to MTV, VH1 and BET, $1.3 million to Universal Media LLC and $2 million to the Participant Media Foundation, which is a shell foundation that was used to finance the film Waiting for Superman, which heavily featured Gates singing the praises of charter schools without of course noting he funded the film, so that’s just kind of a cursory review of the amount of money he gives media, which is not a ton of money, but when you look at how cash strapped a lot of media outlets are-
Nima: Right. It’s not a ton of money for Bill Gates or for the Gates Foundation —
Adam: But it’s a lot of money for press outlets.
Nima: Media funding, actually which is increasing in the world because as we’re going to be talking about the nexus between philanthropy and media is being shored up and as media struggles to continue to make money with advancements on the internet with paywalls going up, etcetera, etcetera, but also so much information out there. These big media giants actually need to figure out certain revenue models. And so subscriptions and memberships, etcetera, are one way. But partnerships with big foundations is certainly another way. And I say this from experience as having worked in that world a bit, that these partnerships between media organizations and philanthropy is like a two way street, so you know, media is happy to get the money. Obviously they can hire more people, they can have more resources, more capacity. It helps their bottom line and for the foundations who have certain agendas, certain ideologies, certain issues that they want to push from a certain perspective, they can then in some way influence those media outlets to do that work. Not that they necessarily always write the scripts, not that they necessarily always direct editorial lines, that is not always the case. That is often not the case, but simply by virtue of funding media outlets, there is a perspective that is being brought. There is not a top down kind of demand, but with verticals being wholly funded by whether it’s Gates or Soros or the Ford Foundation or or others, there is a clear point of view. So often you can actually see on media websites, like if you’re reading an article, at the bottom of that article it will say such and such article as part of such and such a project funded by the Gates Foundation.
Adam: Yeah, and a broad ideology begins to set in, right? This is the single biggest question in the show that we try to negotiate is how you show kind of the causal relationships between different power dynamics.
Nima: Right, yeah. How influence works.
Adam: Yeah, without overreaching, but also not checking your brain at the door and understanding that billionaires don’t always give, god forbid, I’m going to go out on a limb here, they don’t always give money out of the goodness of their heart —
Adam: That they may have some sinister ulterior motives, some of which we’re gonna we’re gonna tap into here in this episode, but one of the things we want to do is to sort of back up 30,000 feet and talk a little bit about the history of philanthropy. Nima I know this is something that you’re kind of interested in, the sort of origins of how we view philanthropy. Again, a king of very positive connotation to a word right? That people just get so much obscene wealth again through all their hard work and moxie and then they just want to give it away. They want to just give it all away and no strings attached. They just care.
Nima: Do good. It’s about doing good works.
Adam: One of the paradoxes at the heart of this is that Bill Gates has essentially been giving away his wealth for almost 25 years, but yet has more wealth than he’s ever had. And Warren Buffet’s the same way. Warren Buffet’s been giving away the same $10 billion for 10 years. There’s a question that arises from that, which is how is it possible that these people are giving away their wealth but keep getting richer? And not just adjusted for inflation. I mean, he is meaningfully richer than he was even five years ago. Bill Gates’ net worth, right right now is estimated around $93.3 billion and one of the reasons of course is that what we mean when we say “give away money” is not really giving away money. Especially since a lot of these trusts, they get money through trust and annuities in through shitloads of investments.
Adam: Many of which are quite opaque. Um, so let’s, let’s back up here and let’s get to the origins of what we mean when we talk about philanthropy.
Nima: So very few people who we would identify as as philanthropists actually wind up giving all their money away or even a substantial portion of it. And as you said, you know, even if you endow a foundation, that endowment is then invested and then makes money on its money. That’s the point of an endowment. So a huge endowment from a foundation you can still spend, the minimal requirement in the United States is a five percent of your endowment every year if you’re a foundation, you have to spend at least five percent. But there are ways to get around that. Uh, that includes a lot of expenses that the foundation itself incurs, not just grant making. It’s not five percent of your endowment in grants that go out the door to other organizations. That is not necessarily the case. Um, so in, in the United States, there are over a 100,000 private foundations and altogether these foundations have about $800 to $900 billion all told in American philanthropy that money is not going out the door every year, mind you, of course, as I said, at a minimum five percent, very few organizations do more than that because they want to stick around. You’re dealing with organizations that are trying to stay in business in perpetuity, meaning basically forever, right?
Nima: And limiting the amount that they are then granting. What we’ve seen very recently, and I think it has a lot to do, um, with the rise of Donald Trump as now a billionaire president, is this idea that billionaires can be bad, but they can also be really good. You’ve seen Dan Pfeiffer, for example, resistance podcast hero, former Obama administration official at one point tweeted out this, “If I was a liberal billionaire concerned about the state of democracy, I would be buying local news outlets and running them like Bezos is doing with the Post (ie not what Sinclair [Media] is doing).” So this idea that what we need, it’s kind of like the kind of NRA slogan, right? The only thing that can beat a bad billionaire, is a good billionaire.
Nima: And that we’ve seen, ‘Oh, why doesn’t Oprah run for president? What about Mike Bloomberg?’ Like as if the only way to slay this Trump dragon is with some other fucking billionaire.
Adam: Which is basically just like a way of saying I give up.
Adam: The whole benevolent billionaire thing is sort of saying we’ve reached the end of history, there’s not really any more struggle, let’s just go with the best of bad options.
Nima: But this idea of the billionaire philanthropist, and this is I think why you saw so much scrutiny in at least some media like the Farenthold reporting and The Washington Post about Trump’s foundation. Right? And that it was a scam and that he wasn’t really giving back.
Adam: Well, that was a total scam. That wasn’t even a sophisticated scam. It was just, he’s just a lazy shithead and it wasn’t even well done.
Nima: It was absolutely a scam. But what I’m saying is that the idea is that’s a bad billionaire. That’s what makes a bad billionaire because you’re not even doing the kind of cursory quote unquote “giving back” that good billionaires like Bill Gates do. So the kind of billionaire philanthropist and remember folks, philanthropy is a word that means for the love of man. It’s about doing good works for the benefit of humanity. That’s kind of the etymology of the word, and of the notion of philanthropy in general. This is often seen, especially in our media as like the ultimate manifestation of achieving the American dream. You achieve so much quote unquote “success,” financial success, wealth, you can’t possibly spend it all and then you give it back to the people and that makes you not only the most successful at America, but it also makes you like a good person in the world.
Adam: Yeah. And of course, the fact that it’s not their wealth to begin with is not really, yeah, it’s not really entertained.
Nima: It’s never really discussed. Soon after the creation of the United States of America in the late 18th century, soon thereafter, there was already the widespread acknowledgment that the ultra rich, the much more affluent classes of society as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “have no influence in political affairs and that they constitute a private society in the state which has its own tastes and pleasures. The rich,” Tocqueville continued, “have a hardy dislike of the democratic institutions of their country.” End quote. And so you can see that that is both accurate even now and at the same time, the idea that the rich have no influence in politics is obviously completely wrong. It was wrong then and is certainly wrong now, but something that was written even in the 1830s, is that the quote “chief weapons,” end quote, used by the wealthy to get their views across were newspapers and certain associations which they used quote, “to oppose the whole moral authority of the minority to the physical power that domineer over it.” End quote. So you can see how, how this is nothing new. Rich people are shitty always. In terms of big philanthropy, the type that we see today, um, was really born out of the late 19th century and early 20th century in the US when these kind of robber barons who had made so much wealth, amassed so much wealth, basically then turned to public works and so called good works where they channeled all this money that they couldn’t possibly spend into these foundations, whether it was Carnegie or Russell Sage or Rockefeller, um, and that they operated differently then traditional charity. So this was no longer charity work. It was based on this very businessy model of ‘We know what’s best for society. We can pump in certain monies to do certain things because we know how to best spend it and the government does not. And certainly the people do not. The people down there, the proletariat, the unwashed masses do not know how to spend this money.’ There was even push back when these early foundations were being incorporated in the nineteen teens even when the Rockefeller Foundation was trying to get a charter, former President Teddy Roosevelt, who has plenty of problems himself, still managed to note something that is very, very accurate. And Teddy Roosevelt said, “No amount of charity and spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.”
Adam: Yeah, what you have to really put in context when this whole thing started is just how amazingly rich the Carnegies and Rockefellers were.
Adam: Even if you adjust for inflation, Carnegie’s wealth was about $372 billion in 2015 dollars and John Rockefeller was worth about $340 billion dollars.
Adam: That’s about two to three times richer than Jeff Bezos. We are very, very unequal now, they were at the time of the turn of the century, even more unequal. And John Rockefeller and all them, they knew they had a massive public relations problem on their hands in the long term because the one thing billionaires are very good at is not being myopic. Um, something we’ve talked about on the show a lot. Our mantra is that ideology is simply pragmatism over a longer time table. And they are very ideological because they understand that that’s how you build wealth in this country by thinking in terms of decades, not years. And they understood that for their children and their great grandchildren to remain wealthy and to build up that capital and to be powerful, they had to manage this public relations problem. And John Rockefeller was of course famous for throwing dimes out of his carriage.
Nima: Right. You couldn’t be hated, you, you couldn’t be a scrooge and maintain your wealth.
Adam: Right. And so the, the, the, the extent to which they quote “give money away” has always, always been about finding where that tipping point is for unrest or meaningful populist anger and going one notch just below it.
Nima: (Chuckles.) Right.
Adam: Where you sort of give away just enough to kind of keep the barbarians at the gate as a public relations mechanism. And this is something that I think fundamentally hasn’t really changed. And so now we have a kind of more sophisticated, um, I think more clever version of this, which is the idea of the kind of billionaire savior is most quintessentially summed up in Bill Gates. So we discussed earlier, Bill Gates has tremendous influence in the media through a sort of network of investments and financing. One thing that kind of gets overlooked, I think, is also Bill Gates and Microsoft in 1997 invested a billion dollars both through Microsoft the corporation, which Gates still has about $14 billion in equity in and through himself personally, invested a billion dollars into Comcast to kind of build their infrastructure. The Gates Foundation also in addition to Gates personally, Microsoft has invested heavily in Comcast. Now Comcast is a primary investor of BuzzFeed and Vox. It’s actually, I think more or less the sole investor in Vox. I think it’s probably fair to say that Vox is a subsidiary of Comcast, Comcast Ventures seeded Vox Media, and then reinvested another, another $200 million in it a few years later. And so Vox has sort of been really, and Ezra Klein specifically has been a massive, massive Bill Gates suck up over over the years.
Nima: Comcast is also the parent company of MSNBC and NBC News.
Adam: Right. Which have given tons of different fluff coverage for Bill Gates and then NBC of course hosted the Education Week in 2009 and 2010. Uh, that was basically just a full-time infomercial for charter schools. They had on Bill Gates to talk about charter schools. They promoted Waiting for Superman.
Adam: And they had on education experts from Exxon and the University of Phoenix online for their Education Week. That was all sort of a big knob job to Gates, but I want to take a second to focus on Vix Media because I think they’re kind of uniquely bad at this. They are virtually never, never critical of Bill Gates and they run these sort of really bizarre puffy pieces. If, again, if other countries talked about their richest, most powerful people this way we would call it, you know, Stalinist.
Nima: Yeah. It’s always very fawning and they’re constant and they’re all from like the Vox Media family. There was one in 2014, “The Gates Foundation pushes to make more academic research free and open to the public.” 2015 we saw, “Bill Gates interview: How the world will change by 2030.” Also: “Bill Gates explains why Breaking Bad proves the world is getting smarter.” Also: “The most predictable disaster in the history of the human race with a photo and interview with Bill Gates.” “Melinda Gates has the perfect response to the anti-vaccine movement.” “Bill Gates: the energy breakthrough that will ‘save our planet’ is less than 15 years away,” that was from 2016. Also 2016 was: “These were Bill Gates’ five favorite books of the year — It’s like Oprah’s book list, but for nerds.”
Adam: And so now we’re now we’re moving into may of 2017, by the way, these are in sequential order, “5 books Bill Gates says you should read this summer.” Then a week later, “Bill Gates tweeted some good advice for new grads. You should probably follow the advice of the richest man in the world.”
Nima: You better.
Adam: Yeah. Then literally the next day, “Bill Gates says his ‘one big regret’ was not focusing on the world’s inequity sooner.” He just loves his country too much.
Nima: (Laughing) That’s a good one.
Adam: This is from October 2017, “Bill Gates is the richest man in the world. This is how he gives away his billions. Happy Birthday, Bill Gates!” “Bill Gates takes his campaign against ‘America First’ directly to Donald Trump today.” So now he’s the, he sort of the anti-Trump force.
Nima: Yeah. And then we get back to book recommendations.
Adam: Yeah. Then we get one from May of this year, “Melinda Gates recommends 3 books that changed the way she thinks about the world.” Uh, that was a write up of the Ezra Klein Show. So Ezra Klein sort of, he’s interviewed Gates several times, he’s the biggest Gates suck up. And the fact that, you know, the fact that Bill Gates is a sizable investor to the tune of tens of millions, hundreds of millions if you include Microsoft in the parent company that he works for, it’s never disclosed. I think Vox would say that it’s sort of separate enough to not need to, but it kind of seems like a conflict of interest to me when someone literally owns hundreds of millions of dollars of shares in a corporation, that is your biggest funder. In fact, I think it’s virtually, it’s only funder, but that’s never really disclosed. And then in January of 2015, Bill Gates was the quote was the guest editor on Vox’s tech website, The Verge, um, and it was announced with this sort of flattering headline, “Bill Gates is guest-editing The Verge in February Technology will build a better, safer, healthier world.” So it’s all this sort of optimism porn that Bill Gates trades on and it’s very, very uncritical. Now. There was one time that they vaguely aired criticisms of Gates and it was when our guest Dr. Linsey McGoey’s book came out in 2015, they ran this kind of limited hangout out that at first sight appears to be critical. It says the headline, “The media loves the Gates Foundation. These experts are more skeptical.” And then it aired sort of some of their critiques vaguely, but then ultimately ended at the end that says, quote, “All these criticisms raised a bigger question, however: would the world be a better place without the Gates Foundation? The answer is: probably not.”
Nima: (Laughing) Womp. Womp.
Adam: Yeah. There’s this like mild around the margins criticism. And then ultimately, you know, you can, you can go on the rollercoaster of criticism, but you got to end up back where you started, which is Gates is fundamentally good, uh, all hail dear leader. Don’t question Gates.
Nima: Beyond that actually, the way that that article ends is so telling because would the world be a better place without the Gates Foundation? That’s actually not the right question. It’s that why does the Gates Foundation exist and how can it exist? And it’s because of so much wealth being extracted by one individual.
Adam: Yeah. The idea that we wouldn’t have someone who has more wealth than a third of the whole world would not be. That’s not the question you’re allowed to ask about.
Nima: Exactly. That’s never the question. It just actually harkens back to one of the initial ways of thinking about philanthropy was published in 1889 by Andrew Carnegie himself in an essay entitled, Wealth. And in it, I’ll just paraphrase, but in it he actually talks about how communism is such a bad ideology because it has never been successful and therefore we won’t even really talk about that at all. We’re going to start with where we are, which is that some people are rich and some people are poor and that’s basically the way it is and that the rich should not be punished for not being poor and that they should simply just be benefactors of the public good instead and so it’s never questioned. Obviously this is coming from a multimillionaire at the time and as you said, Adam, the equivalent of a hundreds billionaire now saying, let’s not think about, let’s not even give one second of thought to how we got to this place and if that could change ever and what that means. It’s rather now that we’re here, well, isn’t it better with the Gates Foundation? Eh fucking probably right?
Adam: Cass Sunstein in a totally different context and a totally different meaning has a term I like, he calls it “crippling epistemology,” which I think is sort of a, that 99.9 percent of all media, the sort of people get funneled into journalism schools that go to work for Vox or The Verge, you’re never allowed to ask fundamental questions. You have to embrace the epistemology of capitalism and that sort of, you’re not allowed to go beyond that straight jacket, and once you accept that premise, that premise that inequality is like the tides or gravity, it’s a law of nature then the question becomes how do we best manage capitalism? And this kind of end of history ideology, this kind of capitalism’s won the day, there’s no other alternative is so ingrained into people’s brains, into our education systems, our economics departments, to our journalism schools that to ask the question of why Gates has the money or should he or ought he have the money even god forbid we make normative statements, is to sort of not work for these places. You’re just not going to work there. And so the question becomes, isn’t he woke bae? Isn’t he good? Doesn’t he care about people? Instead of asking the broader questions (a) should he have the money in the first place and (b) you know, you have no idea and we’re, we’re going to try on the show, but we have no fricking idea, I’m using PG-13 swearing now, we have no idea at all actually what he spends his money on, what its broader strategy is, it’s completely opaque and you have no way of knowing. He’s got the budget of several, you know, the equivalent budget of several different countries and we don’t always know what the long term game plan is and I think that the Voxes of the world just aren’t really going to undermine that or question that even a little bit and to the extent to which they even try it’s sort of like, ‘Oh actually never mind, all this stuff we said is bullshit.’ The answer is probably not.
Nima: Adam and I also wanted to point out that Gates’ influence over the media really kind of manifests in many different ways. It’s not always just funding a vertical, though sometimes it is, but in 2009, The New York Times published kind of one of the rare insights into how the Gates Foundation funds and underwrites television dramas and actually news programming in order to quote “weave it’s message into their shows” up to and kind of literally including helping to write scripts for TV shows. Like actually being involved in the writing process.
Adam: we actually touched on this briefly in Episode 1 when we talked about charter schools, but I really want to expand on it because I think it’s actually super interesting and kind of sinister. The Gates Foundation is not the only foundation that does this. I think the Kaiser Family Foundation did this as well with HIV awareness.
Nima: With health, yeah.
Adam: They actually helped write scripts for TV dramas to push messages into the show with an understanding that it’s a far more effective way of pushing one’s sort of message or their ideology, whatever you wanna call it.
Nima: Because it’s not in academic literature, it’s not even a news programming. It’s in cultural production. It’s in the narratives woven into our entertainment, which is so effective to move people and have people understand the world in a certain way.
Adam: Sometimes it’s pretty benign. I think oftentimes if not most times it can be benign. Um, like for example, they partnered with MTV and BET to message television for people to stay in school. Right?
Adam: We can sort of all broadly think, ‘Okay, that’s good. People should stay in school.’ But around 2009, 2010 when there was, when there’s a real push by Gates and the Waltons and others to go after teachers unions, The New York Times reported that education themed shows, one of which was was Law and Order and Law and Order SVU. Now at this exact same time, there’s an episode of Law and Order, it’s actually the last episode of Law and Order, it aired in May of 2010. This was about three months before Gates’ other property Waiting for Superman hit theaters. It had premiered at Sundance that previous January and February and this is an episode called “Rubber Rooms.” I don’t know if you guys remember this, but the rubber rooms was this kind of moral panic around that time after a 2008 episode of This American Life aired this thing about teachers who can’t get fired, so they stay in these rubber rooms and then Law and Order contrived this episode that was built around it. I’m going to read you the show description from TV Guide, “After Van Buren discovers a blog site featuring a video of an alarming amount of explosives, Detectives Lupo and Bernard race against time to find the anonymous blogger before he can make good on his threat to blow up a school. The Department of Education’s refusal to take the threat seriously and resistance from teachers’ union further complicates the investigation.” And this episode has woven into it some pretty amazing anti teachers’ union propaganda. This is at the same time that NBCUniversal is getting millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation to weave messages into shows. Let’s play that clip.
[Law and Order “dun, dun”]
Fontova: Sorry, I can’t help you. The teacher in question was the subject of a proceeding, but it was resolved before it got to arbitration.
Detective #1: Resolved how? You fired the teacher?
Fontova: I really can’t discuss it. The unions would be all over us.
Detective #2: Well maybe we didn’t make ourselves clear Mr. Fontova, but there is a credible bomb threat against one of your schools.
Fontova: Bomb threats are a serious matter, but union lawyers are more serious.
Prelutsky: The file was sealed. I wouldn’t be doing my job protecting members of this union if I violated that seal.
Detective #2: Mr. Prelutsky, I assure you this unnamed teacher is not a target in our investigation, but he might have important information-
Prelutsky: I have a collective bargaining agreement to enforce.
Adam: Okay, so here we have the major plot thrust is that there’s a bomb about to go off and the teachers’ union is preventing them-
Nima: Is blocking the investigation.
Adam: Right. And the Department of Education on the state level is also blocking the investigation because those are obviously a target for these kinds of reform movements.
Nima: You know what’s better than blowing up an entire school full of children? Organized labor!
Adam: No, really, it’s quite shocking actually. It’s, it’s there’s a bomb about to go off in a school and their investigation is being impeded by union lawyers and the evil union reps. But what the episode does somewhat interestingly well is the narrative was always, the whole Waiting for Superman narrative was that teachers were good and that they were pro-teacher, but unions were somehow holding them back, which of course is absurd, but that was the argument they take. So there’s actually parts in the episode when like the good teacher steps in or does the right thing.
Adam: So here is when the guy explains the rubber room, it’s of course it’s an African American male who explains why these teachers are getting paid to not work. And of course it’s also the evil unions.
Detective #1: According the Department of Education, most of these teachers are in Queens. At something called a temporary reassignment center.
Detective #2: What is that?
Man: Welcome to the rubber room! This is where teachers accused of incompetence or misconduct or reassigned pending an arbitration hearing.
Detective #2: They’re not teaching?
Man: We don’t want them near the classroom, but we can’t fire them pending the arbitration. So they report here seven hours a day, five days a week.
Detective #1: And do what?
Man: Crossword puzzles, sort recipes. I have teachers here who have been waiting for their hearing for two years. That’s why they call it the rubber room. Two years.
Detective #1: What happens if they don’t show up?
Man: They don’t show up. They don’t get paid their full salary. Union rules right?
Adam: Right. And so of course it isn’t union rules. It’s part of the contract the unions made with the city, but whatever. All right, so then there’s the very end. The teacher is (laughing) the teacher wants to tell the police who the person they’re looking for is, he’s a teacher who’s going to blow up the school and shoot everybody, which he ends up actually kind of doing. But guess what? She’s represented by a union lawyer who doesn’t want her to speak to the cops because he’s, I guess evil.
Nima: That’s what unions do, right? That’s, that’s the entire message of what unions exist to do. Protecting bad teachers.
Adam: Right. No, its brilliant. So here he is, they’re being interrogated by a district attorney and the police, and this is what he says:
Lawyer: Maura, hold on. Who gets reassigned to a TRC is not a matter of public record. She doesn’t have to answer you.
DA: This god, this teacher, whoever he may be, presents an imminent danger, not just to himself but to hundreds-
Lawyer: Unless you have a subpoena, you can’t compel her to talk. Do you have a subpoena? I didn’t think so. Maura, let’s go.
Adam: Yeah, there was a bomb, she’s like, there’s a bomb going to go off and he’s like, you don’t have a subpoena. Let’s go. And then he walks out and then the teacher ends up like crying and giving it away in spite of her lawyer. So the episode ends actually with the disgruntled teacher shooting three students and almost blowing it up and then they catch him at the eleventh hour.
Nima: Right. Made possible by nefarious teachers’ unions.
Adam: Now I want to clarify, I don’t know for 100 percent certainty that that was assisted by the partnership with the Gates Foundation. It was around that time and it’s a very sort of on the nose anti-union message, but I’m going to go and say that the millions of dollars the Gates Foundation gave NBC may have influenced their very weird anti-union stance. Call me crazy.
Adam: Another sort of interesting thing they astroturfed was, was Waiting for Superman, which again, we touched on in Episode 1, but I want to reiterate how kind of brilliant it was and how, how much of the liberal media sort of fell for it. So in 2009, that Gates Foundation entered into a five year multimillion dollar partnership with Viacom, and then in February of 2010 or January and February of 2010, uh, Waiting for Superman premiered at Sundance and was quote “picked up” by Paramount Vantage. Paramount Vantage is the artisanal branch of Paramount. It’s actually just Paramount it isn’t even a subsidiary. It’s the same company. And Paramount of course is owned by Viacom. They needed it to look like it was some organic like film festival, you know, it’d had buzz, but of course the whole thing was already mapped out. Gates entered into an education partnership with Viacom.
Nima: They were obviously going to release the film anyway.
Adam: Yeah they were going to release the, Paramount was going to release the film the whole time, but it needed to have sort of liberal street cred. So they, they totally just astroturfed this silly Sundance purchase.
Adam: And what was not known at the time, which we didn’t reveal later, which begin we also briefly discussed was that um, $2 million was given to the film by four major billionaires, two of whom were the Walton family and, uh, Eli Broad, who is the founder of GAP, and a huge charter school supporter. They gave money to something called Participant Media Foundation, which was used to fund the film, but in a nonpublic way and it wasn’t until years later where, you know, you go through their 990s and find it out. So again, there’s a lot of astroturfing going on because you have to look at it this way, right? Gates for fair or not legitimately thinks that teachers’ unions are a huge impediment to education. So his union message is no different. His anti-union message is no different than his stay in school message or his, you know, get tested for HIV message or his mosquito nets, right? It’s all part of the same worldview, which is that unions and those who get in the way of capitalism, technology entrepreneurship are a major problem.
Nima: Yep. They’re the problem.
Adam: Right so when it’s like benign, when it’s like ‘stay in school,’ we say, okay, you’re weaving messages into shows like Private Practice or ER or Law and Order SVU. Then it sort of seems fine, but when it’s things like teachers’ unions don’t care about kids being blown up in a school, then it’s a little bit more sinister.
[Law and Order ‘dun, dun’]
Nima: This idea of the multi multimillionaire having their own ideology, their own idea of what is good, of what problems exist and who is best suited to fix those problems, these are the major issues of big philanthropy and certainly of the Bill Gates phenomenon, what we see in the media and just our general kind of American culture of revering figures like Gates. So we thought that there would be nobody better to talk to about this then Dr. Linsey J. McGoey, a social theorist and economic sociologist who wrote the book on Bill Gates. It is called No Such Thing As A Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy. She is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex and she will join us in just a minute. Please stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Linsey McGoey, social theorist and economic sociologist. Linsey, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Linsey McGoey: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Adam: So let’s start by setting the table a bit to put the Gates Foundation in broader context. The show is set up talking about the way in which the media sort of gives Bill Gates a free pass and some of the cultural and financial reasons why that is. Can you put the power of the Gates Foundation in context relative to both other trusts or charities both historically and in the context of the present day?
Linsey McGoey: Sure well I mean it’s the largest operating sort of philanthropy in the world today and it’s got an endowment of about $30 to $40 billion, you know, so it fluctuates according to how the endowment’s stocks and portfolio are doing on the stock market, but essentially with an endowment of about $30 to $40 billion, it’s on a magnitude of five or ten times larger than a lot of the other big operating foundations. So it’s bigger than Rockefeller or Ford and it disperses about $2 to $3 billion annually towards its various causes including global health, US education and global agriculture. But also, you know, there are some foundations like the Wellcome Trust in the UK, which has an endowment of about £15 billion. So it’s also quite large. And it also disperses almost a billion annually to various medical causes. So there’s a lot of big players as well as the Gates Foundation. And sometimes the Gates Foundation seems to be treated as a little bit more exceptional than it really deserves to be treated because of its perceived size. Comparatively to, if you look at what Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie gave away of their fortunes at the turn of the 20th century, proportionately they’re giving what amounted to a higher percentage of the overall GDP, the US GDP at the time. So really historically the Gates Foundation in many ways can be seen as smaller comparatively.
Adam: So yeah. Let’s talk a bit about what we mean by “giving away” because I think this is something that is is confusing to a lot of people.
Linsey McGoey: Yeah.
Adam: And I know that there’s an old adage in philanthropy saying that like, I forget the exact phrase, but something to the effect of it’s incredibly difficult to actually give away money when you have a certain amount of it because of the tax considerations, the trust, the annuities, that different ways in which the government effectively pays you to give money away. Can we talk about what it means to actually give away money and why people like for example, Warren Buffett appear to be giving away the same $10 billion every ten years?
Linsey McGoey: Sure. Yeah. I mean, it’s a good question. It’s hard to sometimes make this reality as clear as it needs to be, but scholars like Ray Madoff, who’s a law professor in Boston have pointed out that really, you know, with the tax concessions involved you can earn up to anywhere in the region of about 35 percent to 40 percent tax relief on your income taxes when you’re giving to philanthropic nonprofit causes. Increasingly, the Gates Foundation is also giving some of its grants away to for profit entities. So I suggest that at times, uh, there’s less clarity than there needs to be surrounding how much of their gift giving is actually reaching needy individuals, but they would receive some tax relief on their donations. But I also think it’s true that it’s possible that Mr. and Mrs. Gates haven’t availed themselves of all the tax opportunities that might be due to them because I think they genuinely are really trying to spend down and it’s just not as easy as it might seem at times.
Nima: I actually worked in the philanthropic sector for a number of years for a very large international foundation that was dedicated actually to going out of business, to spending all of its money on purpose so that it could close. So I think we kind of run into this question of how much is from the wonderfulness of billionaires hearts and how much it is, you know, well you have so much money you couldn’t possibly spend it all. What do you now do with it?
Linsey McGoey: In many cases, some individuals seem genuinely quite committed to trying to make their money improve the world around them. And I think there’s a lot of well intentioned giving that goes on from people like Mr. Buffet and Mr. Gates who I think to a large degree, their hearts are in the right place and they are genuinely trying to help. But I think sometimes as my book tried to point out, they’re giving can cause negative effects that aren’t recognized by the benefactors as well as by the larger public. I think because of the media, some of the media problems that you pointed to, but also in other cases I think there’s less well meaning initiatives that are rolled into these giving pledges that just received less scrutiny than they deserve because there’s no sort of task force that’s scrutinizing the expenditures of an initiative like the Giving Pledge, which was Mr. Gates’s big idea to get other high net worth billionaires. I think they’ve got a clause an explicit clause there that says they’re not just looking for high-net-worth multimillionaires. One has to sort of be a billionaire to get into the Giving Pledge club and then. But no one’s tracking whether this money is actually being spent. So they get a lot of fanfare and receive a lot of media praise for something that might not be actually happening. So there’s very much a lacuna of attention to whether these gifts, that are attached to the Giving Pledge are actually being delivered.
Nima: Yeah. The Giving Pledge, yeah, actually states that those signing onto it must effectively give away or spend or, or grant out or even put toward a foundation, at least 50 percent of their net worth, either by the time they die or soon thereafter. I think the Gates Foundation has some clause where 50 years after either Bill or Melinda, whoever’s the second to go, 50 years after that, the foundation is expected to shut down because it’s gonna have spent everything. But I think that’s exactly right, that no one is actually keeping track of this. You get to sign onto the Giving Pledge, you get to have a lot of accolades, you get a lot of praise from other philanthropists, from other high net worth individuals, from the media, of course, from even government that then doesn’t have to spend on the things that those foundations are spending on. And yet no one is actually policing this.
Linsey McGoey: Yeah. You know, it would be laughable if it wasn’t quite outrageous.
Adam: Um, I want to talk about the lavish media praise, but first I want to establish something. A lot of this boils down to, and I think, uh, a lot of listeners may listen to this and say, ‘oh, y’all just being sort of cynical,’ and I’m, I’m sure you get that a lot. There’s this idea of good intentions, which is I think politically a very uninteresting question. What matters is material effect, and I think in many ways the good intentions is baked into the ideology of what we’ll sort of broadly call capitalist ideology. Take, for example, Gates, you know, his affinity for charter schools, even if he, if he accepts the premises, which I would argue is a free radical right-wing premise that unions are fundamentally bad for children. So he therefore wants to help bust unions or undermine unions as do the Waltons, then his intentions are sort of irrelevant because the capitalist model, the libertarian model, the model that billionaires know what’s best, is baked into the cake of his worldview. And so the good intention question is sort of less relevant than what is the ideology at play here. That’s where I think that most people who think, ‘okay, I don’t think that he’s evil.’ It sort of doesn’t matter, you know what I mean?
Linsey McGoey: I agree completely and I think to a large degree we’re not actually cynical enough about some of these ideological influences and also how well Mr. Gates who’s not a historian, who’s not a social scientist, who had I would argue a fairly naive understanding of the complexity of social and geopolitical realities and sometimes I think whether it’s naivete or purposeful blindness to the actual writing of some of the ideological heroes who he points to, he has managed to perpetuate a really problematic aspect of capitalist ideology, which is this idea that economic dynamism and economic growth inevitably leads to social prosperity for other people beyond those who are able to corner the profits from that growth. So just to simplify, for example, he points to Adam Smith a lot, the author of the Wealth of Nations, the late 18th century, Scottish political economist who’s seen as sort of the father of capitalism and Gates in his early speeches around his notion of creative capitalism said, we can look to the legacy of Mr. Smith, who’s the father of capitalism who said that business is inevitably a force for good. Well, Mr. Smith never said that. He never wrote that in Wealth of Nations. If you actually read the text, Mrs. Smith talks about a lot of times where government intervention is necessary to ensure that crony business cabals are kept in check. And also that business practices, particularly Mr. Smith talked about the construction industry and the need to regulate party walls for example so fires aren’t spread through buildings in a risky way. And Mr. Smith also talks about the need for regulations on usury, on the lending of loans in a way that actually is not recognized today by those on the far libertarian right, who think that any regulation on lending practices would be sort of anathema to capitalism. Well actually, the founders of capitalism saw a strong need for regulation and Mr. Gates never recognizes that.
Nima: Yeah you also point out in your work about Andrew Carnegie and how influential the essay Wealth is for many, many philanthropists these days for better and also worse and that you know the idea kind of spearheaded by Carnegie suggesting that private philanthropy really is the solution to the problem of rich and poor. That basically the rich as the stewards of wealth can better determine where money goes and can better serve the community than anyone else. This was not accepted carte blanche by the wider community. Can you just talk about some of the pushback that that’s received and how the idea of billionaire knows best can really present a lot of problems?
Linsey McGoey: Yeah. I think at the turn of the 20th century, the end of the 19th century, maybe because so much of the strife that workers were experiencing and the bloodshed that was occurring through things like the Homestead Massacre essentially and later on, the Ludlow Massacre. One was attributed to Rockefeller calling on the state militia to try to suppress some union organizing and the other, the Homestead crisis was attributed to Carnegie’s ability to rely on both paramilitary and sort of state support when it came to union busting efforts. Well those activities lead to a lot of public backlash in the States because people didn’t really want to see industrialists basically using their power to have workers gunned down and that therefore lead to people recognizing that there can be a conflict between management’s pursuit of profits and a workers pursuit of fair pay and worker protections. So, but I think fast forward 100 years, a lot of that blood shed has been sort of outsourced to regions that are not visible to your everyday sort of American or British or Canadian worker. So we don’t necessarily recognize that the conflict is still quite intractable. It’s still there, it’s just not quite as visible. And I think that contributes to the really glaringly problematic free pass that Mr. Gates gets in the media almost every day.
Adam: So let’s talk about that free pass. Now, the Gates Foundation, I think very subtly, it’s not reported on the lot and this is a media criticism podcast. So we, we, this is kind of the focus in many ways of, of what’s going on, these media partnerships he has with Paramount, Viacom’s, BBC, Al Jazeera, pretty much almost every major media outlet around the globe. Gates has donated some degree of money to through his Gates Foundation. Typically through what he calls these sort of a media partnerships. They deal with education oftentimes with public health. You wrote in 2010, the Gates Foundation offered $1.5 million to ABC and $1.1 million to NBC to quote, “support a national education summit” and anyone remembers during the sort of peak, uh, Waiting for Superman years, which we, which we talked about on our very first episode over a year ago, is that, which by the way was funded by Bill Gates to the tune of $2 million as I’m sure you know, and the Waltons and some others, that this is sort of presented as news. But it’s almost, you know, it’s the whole, like, you kill one man, you’re a murderer, you kill, you kill a million, you’re a leader. He in a way like had he paid them directly, it would have been, had to have been disclosed. Well because he does it through these education partnerships it’s sort of so much money that it’s presented as news. He sort of effectively bought a vertical of these publications as he also did it with The Guardian. Can you talk about the nature of the way that Gates’ influence effectively buys media coverage and to what extent do you think that that broad regime of media patronage, for lack of a better term, is one of the reasons why he almost never gets scrutinized in any meaningful way?
Linsey McGoey: I think it must be part of it. It must be because I think their partnerships are so extensive and I mean there’s that word again, “partnership,” which is just a good way for conflict to be euphemized, right? I mean, so conflict of interest almost disappears semantically through this language of sharing, caring, partnership. Everyone can get along without like any, uh, any negative effects at all. So it’s almost like we need to introduce more zero sum language into the debates in a way that’s been a whitewash problematically because some people do lose out when, for example, Gates’ money, is used to provide revenue for for profit media providers. So in ways I think the problem has multiple layers to it, but particularly two fold for me is the fact that ABC and NBC are profit making, so they’re paying their anchors seven figure salaries often while taking Gates Foundation money that’s then tax privileged. So I think that’s just a diversion of resources, which is really unfair to the general public at a time of escalating poverty in the United States and growing inequalities to see for profit media outlets qualify as seemingly deserving charity claimants is I think a really unfortunate perversion and possibly even illegal breach of charity laws which were intended to prevent tax privileged money from serving private interest. I guess how Mr. Gates would spin this and the foundation spins this is that they say, well, we’re asking these media outlets to report on undercovered issues regardless of whether they’re for profit or nonprofit serving a charitable goal because it’s raising awareness of things that the Gates Foundation would see as as less reported.
Linsey McGoey: But how that fits with their charitable purpose I think is up for debate. Because does that mean that, for example, Breitbart then deserves, you know, $4 million to propagate lies about different groups. I mean where does the policing come in? The regulation of media misinformation when so many of these entities are able just to sort of plead to large foundations to bail them out all the time.
Nima: I’d love for you to talk about, this is so important and you’ve touched on it in your own work, the idea of money flowing only to organizations that are already vetted, that are already established and there’s so much talk again about elevating under heard voices, underrepresented communities, and then there’s this real disconnect between who is allowed to get money, especially when so many foundations don’t even accept unsolicited applications. How does this work to further entrench the status quo and further sideline those who just don’t have access anyway?
Linsey McGoey: That’s a great point. I mean, I, I draw on the work of others in my book who have really crunched the numbers in great detail and done a really great job of showing exactly how many foundations are going to what is explicitly call it a sort of closed door policy versus an open door policy when it comes to the acceptance of unsolicited proposals from members of the, uh, well not really members of the public, but grassroots organizations for example who are strongly dependent on foundation support. And the numbers are clear that most foundations, most major foundations in the United States have increasingly moved towards closed door policies rather than open door policies. And this is all done under the banner of supposed evidence based thinking, evidence based planning where if you’ve got a trusted partner who’s delivered something in the past or you know, a grantee is capable of achieving the results you want to see, why wouldn’t you go back to that grantee? But then it leads to issues surrounding non democratic practices, clientelism, the possibility of corruption. And this is something that I think a lot of New York, US legal authorities, including the New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was a bit worried about a few years ago when he sort of went after the Pearson Foundation for, um, I don’t think Gates Foundation was named in the legal suit, but the New York Attorney General basically thought that the Pearson Foundation was positioning itself as a trusted partner of the Gates Foundation in a way that enabled the Pearson Foundation to secure revenue for its parent corporation, which is for profit. And therefore that’s deemed to be illegal. But at the same time, while Schneiderman was going after the Pearson Foundation, the Gates Foundation has been directly giving money to corporations in a way that many people thought was illegal and actually has received no, almost no media attention in the United States. And certainly, that I’ve seen, no legal scrutiny by places like the IRS or places like, uh, the Attorney General’s Office who have quite a lot of discretion.
Linsey McGoey: Recently for example, the current New York Attorney General, who’s replaced Mr. Schneiderman, is heading up this investigation into the Trump Foundation that’s been announced this month and is a welcome and important investigation into some problematic dealings there, but it might just entrench the sense of the public’s frustration with what they perceive as partisan favoritism if a body like the Gates Foundation isn’t subjected to the same level of scrutiny by legal authorities.
Nima: Yeah, it kind of gets into this whole good billionaire/bad billionaire idea and that the media does so much to entrench who is good and who is bad. Obviously Oprah is always going to be good. Gates is largely seen as good if not exclusively, and then kind of you have the other side of it where, you know, at times right-wing billionaires are seen as bad.
Adam: There seems like there’s a major epistemological issue with what we don’t know, which is the sort of opacity of all these systems. Um, we don’t know what Bill Gates’ sort of long term plan is. We also don’t really know to what extent the massive network of charitable giving dovetails with his private fortune. You know, he still owns, I think the last numbers I read were $13 to $14 billion in stake in Microsoft, which, you know, heavily invest in education technology. So that obviously dovetails with this charter school support. Um, to what extent can one to put on the most cynical lens and look at a lot of charitable giving as effectively a kind of a broad complement to one’s broader investment portfolio in some sense if not exclusively? And I know there’s also issues with IP and some of the stuff they work on in Africa.
Linsey McGoey: On the issue of whether or not people are just giving money in ways that complement their investment portfolios I think it’s an important point, but it doesn’t necessarily, in my view, apply to the Gates Foundation as much. And this is where I think a slight distinction has to be made between Gates’ contributions to other companies and how that helps their own revenues and for profit wealth maximization and his interest in magnifying his own fortune. I genuinely believe he’s so rich he probably isn’t necessarily worried about safeguarding or augmenting his own fortune directly. I think probably he’s wealthy enough that that’s not his primary consideration, but I might be wrong, but where I think Mr. Gates’ actions have been really deeply problematic and very pernicious, even if, if not maliciously motivated, is the way that he has been completely sanguine and corporation friendly when it comes to insisting on the value of incentivizing companies to get involved with global development goals and with domestic efforts to improve sort of social safety nets to reduce inequalities. Because by really seeing a strong role for private industry in things like poverty alleviation or global development initiatives, what he’s done has been to really sanitize corporations in the public mind as sort of cheerleading happy conflict-free entities which are here to solve problems rather than necessarily magnify them. And that’s really problematic because companies often legally need to answer the fiduciary duty to shareholders to maximize profits in a way that often creates a lot of negative externalities better than typically cleaned up by the state or not cleaned up by a state. If you have a weak government. So in essence, he has, I think, pioneered really a new tendency to see corporations as something that they are not. And that is because I think he doesn’t understand the conflict that can ensue between a corporation’s interest and the general public’s interests. He simply doesn’t perceive it, I think. And that’s his own naivete.
Adam: I think that also speaks to, it speaks back to the conflation of good intentions versus ideology. Like on the issue of whether not Gates is concerned with sustaining his, his wealth I think to the extent to which he believes he’s the most qualified person to manage these issues of global health than I would think he would ideologically have a stake in maintaining that wealth for as long as he lives.
Linsey McGoey: Yeah.
Adam: Because I mean this gets to the issue of accountability. Right? And this is really, I think, the fundamental issue, which is that billionaire donors are not really accountable to anyone and why is Gates not giving all of his money over to some guy off the street. Right? He by definition thinks he’s the best person to do all this. And I think that the question of accountability to say nothing of democratic representation is, I think the key point here, um, he basically reshapes entire global health policy and education policy and is accountable to no one.
Linsey McGoey: I think that’s such a good point and a really important point. It might sound quite extreme in a sense but some colleagues and I have published one or two articles recently in these sort of sociology journals that no one reads right? Because they’re quite boring and they’ve often got a pay wall. But in a sense I think it’s a shame because we’re really trying to expand on some of these epistemological issues that you raised earlier as well as some of these accountability issues and really try to understand what is with the new found, um, sanctification of billionaires like Mr. Gates and this new sense that they alone can somehow be entrusted with the responsibility to improve global welfare. Well, we see it as a new heightened form of what we would consider neo-feudalism in a sense.
Nima: So I think what we keep talking about is the idea that a fundamental issue problem with philanthropy, which is that it is born of the very problem that often it seeks to alleviate. That capitalism, like alcohol, is always the a problem and the solution to everything, right? It’s like the cause and the fix. It’s that the accumulation of this kind of wealth, in order to be a billionaire philanthropist relies fundamentally on discrimination and oppression and exploitation and extraction. Do you see the Gates Foundation being singular in its shaping how corporations are seen through the philanthropic lens as being partners? Or is this really a problem across the board?
Linsey McGoey: It’s hard to say. I mean, what we need to try to understand more and I think we’re still just at the start of really developing sociological theories which can really account for this new, very aggressive form of philanthrocapitalism that’s being venerated really across the political spectrum in worrying ways. And I think one of the things that differentiates Mr. Gates from other donors that we saw in the mid century is just the sense of, um, assumed duty that Mr. Gates likes to espouse and propagate and it’s his sense that well we have to do something because the world is getting worse in essence, so he, at times he suggests it’s getting worse, but at other times he and other so-called rational optimists insistent that the world is much better than it ever has been in the past.
Nima: Like the Steven Pinker’s model, yeah.
Adam: Well, that’s why they’re best friends and they hang out all the time.
Linsey McGoey: Yeah, I think clearly the sort of Pinker/Gates bromance or whatever it is, is really interesting for the way it’s managing to develop a clear alliance surrounding this optimism ideology, this optimism narrative and I think this narrative is really at the heart of some of the political problems that we’re witnessing recently because people don’t buy it. People in their lives don’t buy it and then they’re made to feel somehow callus because they don’t appreciate the great global strides that have been made and things like disease reduction or increased life expectancy or reduced childhood deaths. Well, those are good things, but they’re also really all of them what I would call a low hanging metric, meaning a metric that’s really easy to pick off the tree and trumpet and propagate as this great sign of ones munificence because actually life expectancy has been steadily getting better for, you know, two hundred years. Right? These are easy metrics. Of course, some level of economic growth can be associated with some levels of increased livelihoods, but where that growth comes from, often it’s government led initiatives. It’s not necessarily private enterprise that’s been the engine of change, not by any stretch of the imagination. If you look at U.S. history, you had people like the famous Broadway star today, Hamilton. Hamilton was an early supporter of extreme federal investment in infrastructure building. Right? That wasn’t a laissez faire policy. It was an interventionist policy. So US wealth has accrued from government being strongly involved in steering private enterprise in ways that helps advance it’s polities interests, often to the detriment of other countries globally. But that’s a whole other story for why this, you know, optimism narrative is so frustrating for people who you know or at the sharper edge of U.S. policies. But having Mr. Gates who’s seen as so intelligent and knowledgeable and I don’t doubt that he is in many areas, but in other areas his ignorance has been glaring but never called out by a media that seems to be either just bamboozled by his charisma and his authority or recognizes that there are some concerns with this one individual wielding so much influence over policy making, but they’re fearful of voicing their concerns because a taboo surrounding criticizing philanthropy is so profound in western nations.
Nima: I think you really hit on something important there. Something we’ve talked about on the show a bunch is the words said to The New York Times editorial staff by James Bennett, the head of the Op-Ed page, where in response to a question he actually said, speaking about the paper itself, about The New York Times, one of the most influential media outlets on the planet, “I think we are pro-capitalism,” he said, and he goes on, “The New York Times is in favor of capitalism because it has been the greatest anti-poverty program and engine of progress that we’ve seen.” End quote. And so you see how this works so perfectly through media and through business and then into philanthropy, which is why, you know, foundation heads and these kind of mega donors are seen as being so benevolent. It’s because this is the actual end game of progress. This is how it works rather than any other system ever been considered.
Linsey McGoey: Yes, exactly. And that’s deeply problematic. And thirty years ago there wouldn’t have been that possibility most likely because I guess the counter check hegemony vibrant socialist economies kept that narrative in check. But unfortunately I think in both cases we need to talk about which types of socialism, which types of capitalism. Capitalism in a pure so called pure form has never existed. I mean these are mixed hybrid economies and those that have a higher degree of regulation of private industry and assuming more, uh, that, that place more responsibility on businesses to sort of clean up some of the externalities that they create, those countries are often more prosperous overall when it comes to equality levels and levels of wellbeing, so the sort of freewheeling libertarian capitalism that’s propagated by people like Mr. Thiel or I think to a large degree Mr. Zuckerberg, I think Mr. Gates is more of an adherent to sort of a sort of type of state capitalism, but none of them seem to necessarily fully understand what capitalism itself actually is and if they did, maybe they wouldn’t be trying to assume so much of company’s risks because an underlying tenet of entrepreneurial capitalism is that taking risks it is what should be rewarded with monetary profits, but in the case of the Gates Foundation trying to offset a lot of for profit companies risks, like it’s donations to NBC or Mastercard or ABC means that they’re just interested in essence of sort of socializing the risk. Well, the profits are privatized. That’s problematic.
Adam: I could talk about this for hours this is a super fascinating topic.
Nima: Yeah. Thank you. Linsey McGoey, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. Thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Linsey McGoey: Thank you.
Adam: That was great. Definitely check out her book and check out her other writings at Jacobin and elsewhere. Lots of interesting stuff. It’s such a complex topic that we’re just, you know, we’re not going to do it justice in these two episodes, so we really urge you to sort of try to read about it. It’s such an elaborate web of power dynamics that I think it takes, it does actually take a little bit of getting into the weeds to sort of really fully appreciate how the system kind of works.
Nima: And on next week’s episode, part two, we will be speaking with Miriam Mayet, Executive Director of the African Center for Biodiversity.
Adam: Yeah, and so next week we’re going to focus specifically on Gates and his relationship with sub-Saharan Africa and the media’s treatment of his kind of benevolent billionaire philanthropist image.
Nima: So join us next week. Do not forget to tune in and of course do not forget to follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook, Citations Needed, help us out through Patreon/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And an extra special shout out goes to our critic level supporters who help us so, so, so much. We can never truly thank you enough. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citation Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks so much for listening. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, July 25, 2018.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.