Thursday, February 8, 2007

Zero Point Seven: Appointing the Leaders in Transforming the World Economy

"We are not anywhere in the world on a path to environmental sustainability." —Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, September, 2006

If you've been reading our Geek Wednesday section (or if you've any experience with Windows), then you know that Microsoft and its mass-marketing kingpin, Mr. William Gates, come in for a fair degree of criticism, here and elsewhere.

The common response to my complaints about Gates's business practices and product failures is, "oh, but he does such good in the world—look at the Gates Foundation, it's putting billions into saving Africa and educating children."

Well, Allison Fine of Alternet doesn't seem to think so; nor does the L.A. Times. They think that the Gates Foundation may well be financing the environmental destruction of the very lands and peoples it is claiming to save—and they have some evidence of that. And when journalists like Fine ask the leaders of the Foundation to talk about their books and their investments, suddenly they clam up and go into Bush-speak mode.

Charity among the mega-wealthy of corporate America has become the modern equivalent of the medieval practice of selling indulgences. These people get more than mere ego-gratification and the mollification of conscience, however: they get free advertising for their businesses, investment opportunities through their Foundations, massive tax breaks for themselves, and of course, fame and publicity.

I don't really chafe at most of that: if the mega-wealthy think fame is nourishment rather than poison to the true self, then that's simply a place where we can respectfully disagree. And I don't really mind having to recurrently fix the Windows registry if it truly means that the income Gates receives from my purchase of his defect-ridden product goes toward ending global poverty. The trouble comes from the effort to force profit on a charitable foundation, turning it into an investment vehicle that merely compounds the very problems that it is putatively set up to confront.

It also complicates the work that foundations support. Click the graphic below and you'll see and hear one of the real leaders in the work of ending global poverty, whose organization has been the recipient of Gates Foundation largesse. That man is Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, an economist from Columbia University here in New York. I'm betting most of the readers that come here have heard of him, and many of you probably support his work in one way or another (even if it's buying U2 cd's). This is a guy who should be on the evening news and on the front pages of the paper several times a week. But we know what the mass media are really interested in—if you're not selling something, you just don't rate with them.

I did a quick comparative search over at the New York Times' site: I limited my search to the last 30 days and used quotes to delimit the results to the two men in question. Here are the results:

  • Bill Gates: 21 results

  • Jeffrey Sachs: 1 result

  • Yet here are the facts: Dr. Sachs runs an institute that is devoted to using professional, human, and economic resources to the goal of ending poverty in the world. Dr. Sachs has written extensively on the topic, including his bestselling The End of Poverty. Sachs has traveled the world and learned the truth of what is happening, in Africa and elsewhere, with respect to poverty and international economics. Dr. Sachs has formulated a clear plan for bringing the world closer to becoming free of poverty, and it is very compelling once you listen to or read it all.

    Bill Gates, no matter how excellent his intentions, is a professional businessman: an expert on building mediocre software and making gazillions of dollars on it. He is a fellow whose entire adult life has been devoted to profit, and he needs to remind himself of that so as to avoid some critical errors in his philanthropic work. Here's one suggestion, Bill: why not leave the management of the Foundation's economy to an economist who understands the realities of the work that must be done with all that money—someone like Dr. Sachs, for example? This, after all, is not a parlor game anymore: it's the most serious undertaking that can be imagined. The lives of millions and the future of the planet itself hang in the balance. No matter how celestial our motives, we still have to stay grounded, and get the details right.

    Now the blame over media coverage cannot, of course, be ascribed to Gates. That's your mass media at work, which are also too often distracted (obsessed is more like it) by profit, at the expense of truth. We have to tell them who we think should be in the news and at the forefront of the public debate on how best to marshal the free world's vast resources toward the goal of ending starvation and removing the division between first, second, and third worlds; getting children around the world the healthcare and nutrition they deserve as a basic human right. You can do that here.

    Bono, bless him, knows the correct approach to such issues. In his remarkably lucid Foreword to Sachs' book, Bono compares his own appearance following Sachs at speaking engagements as the equivalent of "the Monkees going on after the Beatles."

    Bono, like Gates, has his own public stage; but he doesn't get his public persona confused with his charitable one. He knows that when it comes to a problem as seemingly intractable as global poverty, the light needs to shine on the professionals who can really make a difference—guys like Jeffrey Sachs. Bono is also aware that you don't mix profit and philanthropy, because if you do, you wind up like Mr. Gates, or the coyote in the old native American story, told by Joseph Campbell:

    One day the trickster, in the form of a coyote, killed a buffalo and while his right arm was skinning it with a knife his left suddenly grabbed the animal. "Give that back to me," the right arm shouted. "This is mine!" The left arm grabbed again, and the right drove it off with the knife. The left grabbed again and the quarrel became a vicious fight. And when the left arm was all cut up and bleeding, Trickster cried, "Oh, why did I do this? Why did I let this happen? How I suffer!" (from Joseph Campbell's Primitive Mythology, p. 269)

    Here's another video of Sachs speaking on how to end global poverty, where he explains the meaning of the title of our post today.

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