Bill Gates is a technocrat. A very, very rich technocrat. His charity work will probably save millions of lives. But, as a new interview with him reveals, he's really not much of a progressive at all.
Jeff Goodel's lengthy new Rolling Stone interview with Gates delves deep into Gates' greatest accomplishment: his $36 billion foundation, and its meaningful, data-driven contributions to public health and anti-poverty initiatives. But it also does a good job proving that—although many people reflexively assume that someone so concerned about helping the poor must be a progressive liberal—Gates is anything but. The most prominent example:
RS: Thanks to Edward Snowden, who has leaked tens of thousands of NSA documents, we are. Do you consider him a hero or a traitor?
Gates: I think he broke the law, so I certainly wouldn't characterize him as a hero. If he wanted to raise the issues and stay in the country and engage in civil disobedience or something of that kind, or if he had been careful in terms of what he had released, then it would fit more of the model of "OK, I'm really trying to improve things." You won't find much admiration from me.
Gates objects to the very idea of leaking classified information about government surveillance, because "the specific techniques they use become unavailable if they're discussed in detail," a position that could be comfortably espoused by the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Well, now you're getting into sort of complicated issues. In general, on taxation-type things, you'd think of me as a Democrat. That is, when tax rates are below, say, 50 percent, I believe there often is room for additional taxation. And I've been very upfront on the need to increase estate taxes. Particularly given the medical obligations that the state is taking on and the costs that those have over time. You can't have a rigid view that all new taxes are evil. Yes, they have negative effects, but I'm like Krugman in that if you expect the state to do these things, they are going to cost money.
Should the state be playing a greater role in helping people at the lowest end of the income scale? Poverty today looks very different than poverty in the past. The real thing you want to look at is consumption and use that as a metric and say, "Have you been worried about having enough to eat? Do you have enough warmth, shelter? Do you think of yourself as having a place to go?" The poor are better off than they were before, even though they're still in the bottom group in terms of income.
He goes on to criticize the lack of efficiency in government programs for the poor. Moderately liberal? Yes. But he is no George Soros. He's not even as far left as Warren Buffett, when you get right down to it. A $36 billion foundation and a call for a 50% tax rate is admirable, in isolation. The same things are somewhat less admirable in the context of a $76 billion fortune.
Gates' gods are not political, but technical. He worships efficiency and measurability, not ideals. And he evinces the sunny optimism (about technology's ability to fix climate change without serious political changes, and about the inevitability of collective human progress in general) of a man free of personal worries. To Gates, the government is just another stakeholder instrumental to his plans, not an overarching force in life that must be held in check by an empowered citizenry.
A kindhearted technocrat with more means than ideals is not, of course, the worst thing the world's richest man could be. It's also not the best.