Back in December 2008, in my column, “George Bailey’s Wasted Life,” I did Grinch duty and scored Frank Capra’s 1946 “iconic” movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, for being a cinematic paean to altruism, self-sacrifice, and living for others. While coated in the patina of Americanism, I pointed out that it was a distinctly un-American movie. I followed that in October 2011 with “Not So Wonderful a Life,” in which I dwelt on other observations I had in the meantime made about the movie and its moral premises.
Some readers complained that while I made valid points about the movie I overlooked the benevolence in it, that it was a movie which made people glow with good will. It made one “feel good.” They, however, neglected my point that emotions, good or bad, are not tools of cognition, and that anyone who “felt good” after seeing IAWL has been conned by an expert. I recommended Capra’s hectic comedy Arsenic and Old Lace as an antidote.
This week, in the spirit of the season, I contemplated adding a third column on the subject to incorporate further observations, but decided that the horse was dead and that there was no longer a reason to beat it. Then I caught an Internet squib about Bill Gates’ Stanford University commencement address in mid-June among a slew of such addresses.
I immediately thought, “George Bailey in the flesh!” Knowing that Gates is a committed altruist who has made a career of expiating his “sins” of success and creating unimaginable private wealth, which he is dedicated to dissolving in the worst instance of “giving back,” I looked up that address. And, lo and behold, there was George Bailey’s moral doppelganger and his soul-mate wife, Melinda, reading from prepared remarks to what I can only assume was an adoring audience. It’s likely he got a pinch of satisfaction for having been bestowed an honorary degree from Stanford, just as he probably did when he got an honorary “Doctor of Laws” degree in 2007 from the school he dropped out of, Harvard.
Of course, Gates can do whatever he wishes with his wealth, for whatever reasons. But because he never questioned the secular version of altruism, and had no real sound moral instruction in why he should never have apologized for having amassed a fabulous fortune and begged forgiveness in such an abysmal, pathetic way, that is his fate. And the deliberate, conscious dissolution of his wealth does constitute an apology of a particularly altruist, selfless species.
However, his attitude towards others’ wealth seems to be: I’ve made my pile; you others can take the hindmost. I’ll respect you if you want to make money, but only if it’s to help the poor, the lame, and the halt of the world.
Lost and forgotten in all the sanctimonious back-and-forth about helping the “poor,” the “disadvantaged,” and the “impoverished” is the American middle class. Gates mentions it not.
Aside from all the off-the-shelf banalities in their Stanford commencement speech about optimism, vision, innovation, asking “what you can do for your county – excuse me, for the world – not what your country (or the world) can do for you,” the future, and the pride one should feel for being a “nerd” (at one point they patronized and amused the audience by putting on pairs of “nerdish” glasses), Bill and Melinda Gates cited some repellant examples of what motivates them: the sores of others they seem to enjoy sticking their fingers into and throwing money at. Were there no sores for them to experience, they’d have no “moral” reason to “do good.”
Bill related his experiences in Soweto, South Africa, Melinda hers in India and Asia. Melinda rubbed elbows with Indian prostitutes. I’m betting she took a long, hot shower every time she communed with disease-ridden “sex workers.”
Bill and Melinda urged the graduates to work hard in their future careers, to expect and be willing to “give back” as they themselves are, and to seek out pockets of misery and poverty. Melinda said, “Let your heart break. It will change what you do with your optimism.”
So here is our appeal to you: As you leave Stanford, take your genius and your optimism and your empathy and go change the world in ways that will make millions of others optimistic as well. You don't have to rush. You have careers to launch, debts to pay, spouses to meet and marry. That's enough for now.
But in the course of your lives, without any plan on your part, you'll come to see suffering that will break your heart.
When it happens, and it will, don't turn away from it; turn toward it.
Work to imbue others with optimism. Live to give others hope. Never mind the taxes and regulations that may make your “optimism” harder to sustain. Let your hearts be broken. Weep, and you will be rewarded.
I’d venture to say this is a scarier sermon than any delivered by Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century pulpit pounder and guarantor of Hell and Damnation no matter how virtuous a life you lived. The whole of the Gates’s commencement address could be re-titled, “The Selfish In the Hands of an Angry Humanitarian.” (E.g., Edwards wrote, “Simply because it is natural to care for oneself or to think that others may care for them, men should not think themselves safe from God's wrath.”)
Before offering her broken heart advice, Melinda Gates displayed her true epistemological and metaphysical colors (say, rather, disabilities?), by repeating Obama’s “you didn’t build that” mantra. Speaking about what contributes to one’s success, she said:
When I talk with the mothers I meet during my travels, I see that there is no difference at all in what we want for our children. The only difference is our ability to give it to them.
What accounts for that difference? Bill and I talk about this with our kids at the dinner table. Bill worked incredibly hard and took risks and made sacrifices for success. But there is another essential ingredient of success, and that ingredient is luck – absolute and total luck.
When were you born? Who were your parents? Where did you grow up? None of us earned these things. They were given to us.
When we strip away our luck and privilege and consider where we'd be without them, it becomes easier to see someone who's poor and sick and say "that could be me." This is empathy; it tears down barriers and opens up new frontiers for optimism. (Italics mine)
Bill didn’t “build Microsoft”? The only conclusion I can draw from this drivel is that Bill Gates’ success was possible because he had “empathy,” combined with “luck.” If one doesn’t have “empathy,” then one is out of luck. You won’t succeed. And if you do, you must have cheated somehow, and you’ll be a pariah because you didn’t have empathy. Go figure. I can picture Melinda Gates twenty or thirty years hence, resembling that wizened, selfless old crone, Mother Teresa, the patron witch of altruism. A perfect soul-mate for Bill. Lucky him.
Bill Gates might a Democrat. He might a Republican. Or an “Independent.” It’s difficult to determine which Party commands his loyalty. As can be seen in the linked CampaignMoney.com’s chart of his political contributions going back to 1999, he has divided his campaign contributions almost equally between Democrats and Republicans and “Independents.” Therefore, neither Party can accuse him of favoritism or of not being bipartisan. This is so typical of American businessmen: Betting on Tweedledee and Tweedledum in a pragmatic exercise of ensuring friendly treatment from whichever party may assume control over the economy, finance, and trade.
In his Stanford speech, Gates noted that advances in technology, especially in computer technology, “would make inequality worse.” His goal from the beginning, he claimed, was to “democratize computing.” (You can take that with a grain of salt.) He didn’t want just “rich kids” and businesses be able to use computers. This is an altruist way of saying he wanted to create a bigger market and make lots of money. At the outset, he wants us to believe, he was a kind of “people’s capitalist” with not a selfish bone in his body.
Gates is obsessed with income “inequality,” and “wealth disparity.” Some economists recommend that capitalism be “reformed” to achieve “social justice.” But this is a non sequitur. As Islam can’t be “reformed” without killing Islam, one can't reform capitalism, because at the end of the reformation, what’s left is no longer “capitalism.” Gates doesn’t want to reform it. He wants to punish it, or rather what we have left of it.
Chris Matthews in his October 15th Fortune article, “Bill Gates’ solution to income inequality,” noted:
It might not come as a surprise to many that Bill Gates, whom Forbes’ magazine ranks as the second wealthiest man in the world, doesn’t agree with the ideas of French economist Thomas Piketty. It’s Piketty, after all, who made a big splash this year with his book Capital in the 21st Century, which argued that it is a fundamental law of capitalism that wealth will grow more concentrated absent destabilizing events like global wars.
Piketty’s solution? A global tax on capital that could help governments better understand how wealth is distributed and stem the tide of inevitably increasing inequality, which Piketty believes is socially destabilizing.
There’s another altruist premise: A global tax will instruct governments on how to devise policies that will preempt the envious and diminish “inequality.” Like most economists today, Piketty isn’t much concerned with how wealth is created, only with how it can be seized and distributed to stave off the envious.
Picketty’s global tax on wealth would be collected by whom? In all the discussions of Picketty’s tax, I haven’t seen one that identifies the agency which would collect such a tax. The European Union? The IMF? The United Nations? What entity would impose and collect such a tax globally? Further, I’ve always been astonished by the nonchalance with which most economists advocate various systems of legalized theft.
Gates dissents, on the other hand, writes Matthews:
…Gates has already pledged to give away half his fortune over the course of his lifetime, a much larger amount than the 1% or 2% wealth tax, proposed by Piketty, would confiscate. His problem isn’t with the idea that the super wealthy should spread their fortunes around, but rather with Piketty’s mechanism and the incentives it would create….
Gates shares Piketty’s goal of spreading wealth [echoes of Obama’s explanation to Joe the Plumber can be heard here], yet he doesn’t want to discourage the uber wealthy (like Gates) who are taking risks, investing in value-creating businesses, and helping the world through philanthropy. Gates’ solution? Shift the American tax code from one that taxes labor to one that taxes consumption.
The super rich, you see, have a moral duty to “help the world” and become fulltime philanthropists. If they don’t meet that obligation, then they’re contemptible philistines only interested in “conspicuous consumption.” Strive to “consume” less conspicuously, and you’ll be counted as having had a broken heart and are a good person because you’ve sacrificed a value.
After a gobbledygook fantasy of an explanation of how Gates’ consumption tax would work for an “average” family and help to reduce the federal deficit (!!!), Matthews neglects to mention in it that no controls would stop a government from continuing to be a conspicuously consuming spendthrift. For example, see Betsy McCaughey’s article on Family Security Matters on Cromnibus, the 1,695 page, $1.1 trillion “budget” Congress hurriedly passed last weekend to fund the federal government through September 2015.
Gates, however, while he endorses less “consumption” and wishes to penalize it with a tax, is much more interested in ensuring that the wealth one leaves one’s heirs is boiled down to rice and old shoes with a confiscatory inheritance or “death tax.” William H. Gates, Sr., co-authored a sophomorically written piece, “’Death Tax’: What’s in a Name?,” in which he advocates replacing the term “death tax” with simply “estate tax” to make it more palatable. It was Gates Senior (and later billionaire Warren Buffet) who, early on, together with Melinda, urged Bill Junior to liquidate his wealth as a moral obligation.
Such a regime could appeal to both the right and left sides of the political spectrum. For those on the left, who are sometimes uncomfortable with the effects of a culture based around consumption, this tax would discourage such behavior. Meanwhile, a regime that encourages savings and investment would appeal to conservatives.
But for a progressive consumption tax to be truly progressive, there would need to be a hefty estate tax to prevent the rich from simply letting their wealth grow over generations through interest income. But Gates argues this is not a problem, because we have the ability to institute estate taxes, a policy which he is a “big believer” in.
The son, however, is an enthusiastic “globalist-socialist” and endorses not only a death tax, but all kinds of other taxes, as reported in Cliff Kincaid’s November 2012 AIM article, “Bill Gates Urges Obama to Embrace Global Tax.”
On Thursday, as part of the G20 summit, Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, delivered a report on “financing for development” that proposes global taxes on America and other “rich” nations to make the Global Poverty Act a reality.
“I am honored to have been given this important opportunity,” said Gates, founder of Microsoft. “My report will address the financing needed to achieve maximum progress on the Millennium Development Goals, and to make faster progress on development over the next decade.” The report, available on the website of the Gates Foundation, proposes a financial transaction tax (FTT) as well as taxes on tobacco, aviation and bunker fuel, and carbon (energy), by G20 countries and other members of the European Union.
What? No FTT on trading in “carbon credits”? Al Gore must be relieved.
George Bailey, a “community organizer” in his own right, has come a long way from Bedford Falls.