In Bill Gates’s World (1998)

I am not sure exactly how much money Bill Gates is ‘worth’ as I write this sentence. His net worth is, I think, around $50 billion. In any case the number will have dropped or gone up a few hundred million by the end of this essay. And that surely is the basic fact of Bill Gates’s world: astonishing, unimaginable wealth. Everything else about him is a footnote. Just as poverty changes wholly a person’s life, so surely does opulence. What then is the meaning of such extraordinary riches?

An article on my desk tells me that Bill Gates will have to spend $145 every second of every hour of every day to exhaust his riches in 15 years. Elsewhere I read this: “…a new Lamborghini Diablo, which we think of as costing $250,000, would be 63 cents in Bill Gates dollars.” I won’t reproduce the formula behind this calculation, nor will I quote other such trivia, of which there are many. I wish only to note that these are typical of the many current efforts to explain what the world must look like to Bill Gates. I don’t think they succeed. They are quantitative efforts which understandably focus on the scale of his wealth, but what matters is the qualitative view. Yes, Bill Gates can afford to give every man, woman, and child in the world a $20 bill (or whatever); yes, he can buy 3 Boeing 747s as easily as I buy a soft drink; yes, he could purchase an entire small country. What he can do is however less important than what he is likely to do, and this in turn is less important than his reasons for doing it. Here we’ve entered the qualitative world.

Much is said about Bill Gates’s thirst for power, which is thought by some to be nothing short of absolute. The evidence given on behalf of this position is his alleged attempt to control the essential technologies of the information economy. Now, before we proceed, I ask you to imagine yourself a multi-billionaire. Do you seriously claim the thought of how this wealth enhances your power doesn’t occur? I’ve tried the experiment myself, and I’ve found within seconds it’s there: the thought of wealth as an enhancement of power. It’s true that the thoughts are small and far from the theme of world domination, but I’ve got to start somewhere. World domination is an advanced art. A few seconds into my new fortune I’m thinking about less grand things – travel, starting a business, personal freedom. These are all functions of power. My thoughts are of things I would like to do and be but which I cannot do and be under present circumstances. If this concern with power is demonic, and I do not myself believe it is, it’s nonetheless common.

True, most of us don’t set out to form global empires. Bill Gates is unusual, but only in relation to those of us in the non-global-empire-forming category. Put him next to another CEO and you’ll see he’s unexceptional. He’s employing the same logic, the same principles, and often the same tactics, toward the same ends. Only the quantity of his wealth and the industry he occupies distinguish him, and these are external features, accidents of history and timing. Had he chosen to run, say, a chain of barber shops, he would probably be less of a phenomenon. What if he were the 2nd most wealthy man, then what? He’d be Warren Buffet, of whom a relative speck is read by the general public. That Bill Gates chose to produce computer software made all the difference. If he hadn’t, someone else would be Bill Gates today, and we would be talking about him (it probably wouldn’t be a her, given the state of corporate culture). To understand the world of Bill Gates we have to consider not only the man, but the circumstances of the man. The essence of the capitalist, in other words, is capitalism.

Following the principle I’ve just articulated, one may be tempted to say that Bill Gates is the most successful practitioner of capitalism, and in this lies his essence. I’m not sure that this is so. I agree that he has been successful in business, and that for this success he deserves praise or blame, depending upon one’s point of view. He is not merely a creature of luck, though luck has played a part. So too has strategy; what else would we expect? Global empires don’t just happen, and they certainly don’t happen because of luck alone. They are built through a combination of hard work, planning, chicanery, deceit, ruthlessness, foresight, ambition, and cunning. The idea that capitalists succeed because they work hard to give the people what they want at a fair price is self-serving propaganda, like the view that the English Empire existed for the benefit of backward peoples. Indeed, most economic theories invented to flatter the rich are so much hogwash. This isn’t to say people engaged in business don’t believe them. Nonetheless they are hogwash. Even a cursory glance at history reveals the sine qua non of global-corporate profits, or in plain English, that which is necessary for ever-increasing corporate wealth. I’m speaking of course of economic imperialism, or the domination of the weak by the strong. Capitalism, as proponents like to point out, is for the strong.

Here is what I imagine the world looks like to Bill Gates. He is a multi-billionaire, thanks to the computer. He lives in a high-tech house built into the side of a mountain. He wakes each morning beside his wife amidst the splendour made possible by the success of his empire. Is he optimistic about the future? Does he believe technology will better human lives? The context makes all the difference to the analysis. Around him, he sees what a wonderful thing the information economy is. You may talk if you wish about ‘technological downsizing’ and the supposed workerless, automated future. Bill Gates’s only contact with work (for surely someone else buys his groceries, does his laundry, and cooks his dinners) is in the software industry. Here the prospect is splendid. It simply isn’t true that there are no jobs. As for the unsubstantiated claims that Microsoft is out to control the technology of the future, there is again Bill Gates’s house as proof to the contrary. He wants only to make life easier. In order to do this he needs access to certain resources. It is that simple.

Needless to say I haven’t the personal experience of a billionaire, but I’d be surprised if Bill Gates didn’t see matters in the benevolent manner in which I’ve just presented them. The last thing I’d expect of a billionaire is that he should see himself as a rich, greedy, acquisitive monster. Neither however would I expect him to see things as a ‘non-billionaire,’ otherwise known as Everyone Else. We marvel at the wealth of Bill Gates, and it’s a cliché now when discussing him to say, ‘Imagine if you had $50 billion dollars!’ But here’s the intellectual exercise which truly fascinates me: try to imagine Bill Gates imagining what it’s like to live on $39,000 a year. This, by the way, is no arbitrary figure; it’s the 1998 median average gross wage-earnings of an American family as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office. And unlike Bill Gates’s wealth, it is not subject to wild vicissitudes, though it’s been declining (when adjusted for inflation) since 1979. Could Bill Gates really get inside the American life as it’s lived by millions upon millions? Only with an extraordinary effort which he isn’t likely to make. Welcome to Bill Gates’s world.

But again, I said at the outset that what Bill Gates is likely to do is more important than what he’s likely not to do. Furthermore his reasons for doing so are of the greatest importance. And as I’ve suggested his reasons for what he does have everything to do with capitalism, the system which informs his behaviour and which makes it sensible. Here then is the essence of Bill Gates: he is, from the point of view of the average American, the antithesis of Everyman. He is Noman. From the point of view of the capitalist system however he is thoroughly ordinary, thoroughly representative. He hardly merits comment. He will follow the logic of the system and make the best company he can, best meaning biggest, most competitive, most influential, and most profitable. The function of capitalism, as Karl Marx noted, is to reach into every corner of the globe and transform nature into its own image. This means that Bill Gates will genuinely want us all to live in a world created by Microsoft, which, when you think about it, is how Bill Gates himself already lives. How could it be bad if he’s chosen it for himself?

There is no single, sufficient answer to this question. It is again a matter of personal context. This much however is clear: Bill Gates’s choice is not precisely the same as the choice of others. Although the Constitution does not make this explicit, a billionaire’s freedoms differ from those of the average folk, especially when freedom is conceived in market terms. It is furthermore a qualitative difference. Consider: you’ve probably already forgotten the little exercise I introduced near the beginning, the exercise in which you imagine yourself a billionaire. For Bill Gates this is not a game, but rather an unceasing, even banal, reality. His wealth, in short, places him not in a bigger or even much much bigger version of your world, but in another world altogether. What for you is a wild, unsustainable fantasy is for him no more extraordinary than putting on underpants. You are Bill Gates’s wild fantasy. He will forget you soon, if he thinks of you at all, and will continue with his reality, the ongoing creation of a global corporate empire. And he will do so not as an average American, whatever that is, but as an average billionaire capitalist who lives in a house in the side of a mountain. What does this mean for America? That is a question only time will answer. [-July 1998]

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