Is Bill Gates a Closet Liberal?

The money trail of his philanthropy suggests some clues to the political leanings of Microsoft’s founder.

Andrew Leonard
 27 June 2006
 Salon.com

In 1997, Bill Gates contributed $35,000 in support of a Washington state ballot initiative supporting gun control.  In 1993, he ponied up $80,000 to fight a conservative initiative seeking to roll back state taxes.  And ever since 1994, the William H. Gates III Foundation, Bill’s private philanthropic funnel, has been busy channeling millions to groups that specialize in “reproductive health and family planning.”

Gates is far from the first plutocrat to turn his attention to social welfare — the tradition goes back at least as far as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.  But Bill Gates has always enjoyed a singularly apolitical reputation.  Unlike the dynamo tycoons of yesteryear, Gates is a cipher, a platitude-spouting uber-entrepreneur who is indistinguishable, in the public eye, from his alter ego — the formidable, and rapacious, Microsoft corporation.

Indeed, given Gates’ current obsession with prying the Department of Justice off of his corporate back, one might assume that if the man has any political sympathies, they would most likely be of the techno-libertarian bent.  Certainly, his struggle with the federal government has been adopted as a cause célèbre by many Net-based libertarians.

But for once let’s try to separate the man from the Microsoft.  Look at the personal checkbook record: pro taxes, pro birth control, against guns.  The evidence is clear — Bill Gates is a bleeding heart do-gooder liberal.

Of course, you’ll never hear him say so, nor are you likely to find any of the recipients of his largesse eager to utter the dreaded L-word.  His own father, Bill Gates Sr., who administers the approximately $300 million William H. Gates III Foundation, summed up the situation most succinctly: “If you think you’re going to get me to characterize what he does as liberal or conservative, you’re crazy.”  Bill Jr.’s politics are not for public consumption.  (Ignore those Roman numerals after Bill’s name; to avoid confusion we’ll refer here to Gates pere as Sr. and Gates fils as Jr.)

It’s the very opacity of Bill Jr.’s politics that makes them intriguing, and the money trail of his gift-giving sheds the only light available on them.  Gates’ more grandiose gestures — $20 million for a computer center here, $12 million for a biotechnology building there and a whopping $200 million for wiring up rural libraries to the Internet — get the headlines.  But his smaller philanthropic statements give us the few clues we have to what Gates, the man — as opposed to Gates, the software marketing machine — really cares about.  And we ought to pay attention to what the richest man in the world thinks is socially important — especially if he lives up to his own oft-made promise to give away nearly all of his wealth before he dies.

To be sure, judging Bill Gates’ politics by what he gives away is an exercise in tea-leaf reading that teeters on the brink of absurdity.  After all, 35 grand for gun control adds up to about .000001 percent of his total current wealth.  Until just a few years ago, the rap on Gates had always been that of the skinflint supreme, our nation’s leading subscriber to the miser persuasion.  Especially locally.

“There has been a lot of pressure to have him make donations that impact the region that has allowed him to become so wealthy,” said Don Chalmers, a fund-raising consultant and editor of the Northwest Nonprofit newsletter.

Few people in a position to know the details will go on record criticizing the pattern, or lack thereof, of Gatesian charity.  Seattle Foundation president Anne Farrell dismisses local sniping as generated “more out of ignorance than anything else.”  But the facts are hard to ignore.  Sure, Bill Gates has given away close to $600 million.  But more than 90 percent of that sum has been disbursed since 1994, and more than half the total was given away in 1997 alone.

1994, incidentally, was the year Bill Gates’ mother, Mary Gates, died of breast cancer.  A longtime United Way board member, Mary Gates, by all accounts, persistently encouraged her son to do more with his wealth than simply accumulate it.  After years of single-minded, voracious focus on the Microsoft bottom line, Bill Gates appears to finally be heeding his mom’s advice.  Charity does, it seems, begin at home.

Since 1994, the philanthropy tap has been jacked wide open.  Hardly a soul in the wired world can have escaped hearing the much-ballyhooed pledge from Bill and Melinda Gates to spend $200 million over the next five years on library Internet access.  Less well publicized has been Bill’s 1997 gift of $115 million worth of Microsoft stock to the Gates Foundation, which has brought the total endowment of the foundation up to around $300 million.  After a slow start, the foundation gave away some $40 million in 1997, a big jump from 1996’s $6.5 million.

Microsoft spokesman Greg Shaw said that in addition to the library grant and the foundation endowment, Gates has also given away at least another $100 million.  This includes large-scale donations, such as $12 million for a law school library at the University of Washington (to be named after his father), $10 million for student scholarships in the name of his mother (also at Washington) and $1 million to Ursuline Academy in Dallas (where his wife, Melinda French Gates, was high school valedictorian) and smaller scale grants to museums, theaters, playgrounds and even a Seattle area rowing club.

The big-ticket donations do not come without associated waves of skepticism from Gates’ stable of critics.  That $12 million grant for the new biotech building at the University of Washington?  Just the price tag necessary to lure a star biotech professor to the Seattle area, where he can serve as Gates’ informal advisor on biotech investments.  Last year’s $20 million pledge (through the Gates Foundation) to Cambridge University for a new computing center?  A fine way to keep a close eye on one of the world’s most illustrious centers for cryptography research — and an investment sure to pay huge dividends as digital security becomes ever more paramount.  And that oh-so-noble deal to wire up the libraries?  An insidious scheme: Hook the poor kids on the Net, and then make sure that they’re all using Internet Explorer as the browser of choice.  Future generations of Microsoft market domination will be assured.

No businessman as famous for being as ultra-competitive as Bill Gates can ever escape cynical accusations that his every move is motivated by greed.  Nor should he.  But the smaller details of Gates’ giving lead us to a different truth.  It is much more difficult to discern strategic Microsoft advantage in his support for handgun safety.  And his cold-cash concern for family planning could even be construed as asking for trouble.  The groups that the Gates Foundation is giving money to have close ideological and organizational ties with pro-choice bastions like Planned Parenthood.  Religious right zealots are already beginning to pay attention.  Who needs that kind of controversy today?

The first overtly political statement on the Bill Gates balance sheet is his $80,000 contribution to a coalition working against the passage of Washington state ballot initiative 602.  Robert Edie, a lobbyist for the University of Washington who also fought the initiative, recalled that its demand of an immediate, “really large” tax rollback was overwhelmingly supported by Washington business leaders.

But not by educators, who led the fight against 602, worried that passage of the initiative would hurt the quality of public education in Washington — just as Proposition 13 had similarly gutted public schools in California decades earlier.

Bill Gates has frequently emphasized the importance of education — both in speeches and in his book “The Road Ahead.”  Seattle political reporter Mark Gardner argues that even here his motivations were selfish: Microsoft needs quality programmers and expects universities to provide them, and will oppose anything that could hamstring the university system.  Gardner even suggests that all of Gates’ huge donations to universities are aimed at improving relations with potential sources of programming talent.

But the personal reasons explaining Gates’ support of the fight against the 602 tax cut turn out to be somewhat more complex.  Gates has always been protective of the University of Washington: Both of his parents attended, and his mother served as a member of the Board of Regents.  Furthermore, Teresa Moore, a spokeswoman for the Washington Education Association, remembered that Gates had been alerted to 602’s potential negative impact on the University of Washington by a professor named Leroy Hood.

And who is Leroy Hood?  None other than the William H. Gates III chair of the UW biotechnology department — which is housed in the brand new biotech building that stands as Gates’ first multimillion-dollar act of philanthropy.

Was Gates just trying to keep Hood happy?  Or was he really concerned about ensuring state support for public education?  Microsoft spokesman Shaw couldn’t respond to the question and Gates himself was unavailable for comment, so there’s no real way to know.  But the pattern is clear: The direction in which Gates’ money flows satisfies a network of personal connections and concerns; it is as natural as water going downhill.

The anti-602 campaign was victorious.  Gates’ next foray into initiative politics met with less success.  Initiative 676, a handgun safety bill in 1997 that would have increased licensing and training requirements for new handgun purchasers, went down to overwhelming defeat.  In a campaign where the National Rifle Association spent $4 million, $35,000 turned out not to be enough.  Still, Gates had made his stand on a classic hot-button issue — gun control.

Did that classify Gates as a liberal?  Joe Waldron, chairman of WeCARE, a coalition of anti-gun control activists that led the local opposition to 676, refused to speculate.

“I don’t want to put it in those terms,” said Waldron.  “It’s like kicking Superman in the kneecap: You can do it, but you may not like the consequences.”

And $35,000 doesn’t add up to chump change for Bill Gates, anyway, added Waldron.  “I wouldn’t read too much into it.  You must recognize that with the money that Mr. Gates has, that he is going to give to any number of causes, and in this case the amount of money is relatively small.”

Yes, the sum was small.  But no, Gates does not give to “any number of causes.”  Although the past few years have seen him rapidly increase dollar totals devoted to building computing centers, wiring up libraries or funding student scholarships, the instances in which one could say he was contributing to a cause are extremely rare.  And there is absolutely no evidence of Gatesian financial support for measures that could be considered “conservative” in a political sense.

But again the specter of personal motivation rises.  Was this really Bill Gates’ own issue?  After all, his own father contributed $150,000 to support Initiative 676 — more than four times as much he did.

“I suspect it was as much his father asking for it as anything else,” said Waldron.

“That’s dead wrong,” snapped Gates Sr. when asked about Waldron’s speculation — clearly unappreciative of any supposition that Gates Jr. isn’t his own philanthropic man.

But Gates Sr. did acknowledge that he and Mary Gates exerted pressure on their son to do more with all his billions.

“His mother and I always pushed a little,” said Gates Sr.  Like Mary Gates, Gates Sr. has long been involved in philanthropy — ever since “I first gave a nickel to the Salvation Army man,” he joked.

Ultimately, separating out what is attributable to the parents and what to the son may be pointless.  It’s a joint venture.  Nothing better illustrates that fact than the William H. Gates III Foundation.

Gates Jr. created the foundation in 1994, the same year his mother died of breast cancer.  One of the first two grants made by the foundation was to the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, for a “cancer pain management” study.

Bill Gates Sr., with the part-time help of one private secretary, administers the foundation from the comfort of his home.  It is, he said, “the thing that occupies the largest percentage of my time.”

The foundation does not accept unsolicited requests for funding nor does it give out grant-giving guidelines.  But a review of its tax returns, which are public record, reveal some clear points of social concern.

All told, the foundation has disbursed about $55 million, with some $40 million, according to Gates Sr., having been “committed” in 1997, mainly for the establishment of academic computing centers.

The grants fall into three categories.  First, there are the big-ticket donations — the general fund grants, the grants allocated to building improvements and all the money distributed to institutions that the Gates family has personal connections with (like Gates’ own high school, or the Seattle Art Museum, where Gates has sponsored an exhibition of Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks).  Second, there are a large number of penny-ante donations — $10,000 for refugee relief, $6,000 to the Magnolia Adult Day Center in Seattle and so on.  But the third and smallest group, medium-sized donations, stands out: They’re the only ones with political import.

The Gates Foundation has given $750,000 over three years to the Seattle-based PATH (Program for Appropriate Technology in Health) — funding that has in part been used for such work as “a quality assurance survey of contraceptives in 22 countries.”  The Alan Guttmacher Institute received $1 million over three years for “an international examination of issues facing young women around the world.”  And finally, most recently, the Department of Population Dynamics at Johns Hopkins University received $2.3 million for an array of programs aimed at training international specialists in “reproductive health and family planning.”

“Reproductive health and family planning” is a buzz phrase that emerged out of the 1994 United Nations Cairo conference on population issues, said Dr. Gordon Perkin, president of PATH.  In the past, the research topic used to be referred to as “population control” — though, said Dr. Perkin, “the words ‘population control’ are not used any more, except by people who don’t know the field.”

Billionaires have always had a fond spot in their hearts for population control: Ted Turner is a big supporter, as is Warren Buffett, a Gates family friend.

“If you think about what people like Buffett, Turner and Gates all have in common — they are more global in their thinking, more risk-taking, more revolutionary in their business practices,” said Beth Frederick, development director at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, “and as such they look for larger answers to some of the problems that seem so close to home.”

But whatever you call it — “population control” or “family planning” — this isn’t just a billionaire fad for the Gates family.

“Bill Gates Sr. has been deeply involved in this issue for decades,” says Laurie S. Zabin, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.  Zabin, who served with Gates Sr. on the national board of Planned Parenthood, was instrumental in getting the Gates Foundation grant for Johns Hopkins.

But that doesn’t mean Gates Sr. is the only one who cares about overpopulation, said Zabin: Gates Jr. “has supported issues of real social concern and certainly this is one of them.”

Gates Sr.  agreed: “It’s an interest he has had since he was a kid.  And he has friends who are interested in supporting research into world population problems, people whom he admires — it’s just a matter of a fit between his proclivities and mine.”

A “proclivity fit” is one way to put it.  Or one could surmise that Bill Gates is growing up to be the man his parents raised him to be.

“His parents were involved in charitable activity, and I’ve heard him talk about it quite a bit,” said Microsoft spokesman Shaw.  “I think that set a strong tradition and ethic of giving back and I should say that we are only seeing the beginning of that now.”

One can always count on corporate public relations executives for a positive spin, but Shaw’s point is not without merit.  Gates has spoken many times about how he intends to give away 95 percent of his wealth before he dies.  So far, he has loosened the reins on a mere fraction of his massive bank account.  But just this week, on a Silicon Valley tour, he repeated his promise: “I’m just a steward of this wealth and someday I will return it to society.”

The Gates Foundation is likely to be the vehicle for most future Gatesian philanthropy, at least according to Gates Sr.  If it continues to give away money according to the principles by which it was established, the possibilities for social impact are spectacular.

“The potential is enormous,” said Anne Farrell, president of the Seattle Foundation.

We may never definitively pin Gates down as “liberal” — but actions speak louder than words.

“When we start to look at labels we miss the significance of individual action,” says Bryce Gryniewski, executive director of Washington CeaseFire, the leading sponsor of Initiative 676.  “Obviously he is concerned about the society he lives in.  He’s not only a business owner but he’s a father and a family man, and he’s concerned about the kind of world he’s going to raise his daughter in.”