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So Bill Gates gave this gigantic interview to Rolling Stone, and…

“Now wait a minute,” I hear you saying. “Why are you writing about Bill Gates again? Are you trying to be the guy’s Number 1 Fan?”

No. But like it or not, Bill Gates strides the philanthropic world like a colossus. The more detail we have about his ideas, the better.

There are several reasons why Gates seems to tower over us, but one you haven’t thought of is the way the culture of celebrity has crowded out all sorts of other topics. The media spends so much time consumed with the doings of television and movie actors and athletes that they have little room for anything else.

For example, as a historian, I find that the press gave reasonably thorough coverage to the Ford Foundation in the 1950s and 1960s, so that you can get a good sense of what, say, McGeorge Bundy or Henry Heald thought about what Ford should be doing. You’ll get no sense at all about what Bundy or Heald’s successor, Darren Walker, thinks about anything, even though Ford remains one of the five largest foundations.

To me, it seems that for far too many professions, the press picks one person as the representative for an entire field. Renee Fleming represents opera, Neil deGrasse Tyson represents science, and Bill Gates represents philanthropy. No other donor will likely ever be the subject of The Rolling Stone Interview.

Here’s another example of how Gates is philanthropy’s representative to the world. Last November, 60 Minutes did a segment on the Giving Pledge, which prominently featured Gates and Warren Buffett, but also seven other billionaires who had taken the pledge. The donor who was only allowed to answer one question on camera was Pete Peterson.

I have very profound disagreements with Peterson’s view of the world. But I respect him for making a great fortune, entering the world of ideas, and having thoughtful things to say. I can’t believe he was as inarticulate as 60 Minutes made him out to be -- unless the show’s producers were predetermined to make Gates and Buffett shine and place everyone else in the shadows.

To return to the Rolling Stone piece, here are some points I found newsworthy.

In political issues, Gates is firmly placing himself in the center. He said “on taxation-type things, you’d think of me as a Democrat.” He likes raising income taxes and estate taxes. But he also says that the welfare state is “high-overhead, capricious, and not very well designed. Its ability to distinguish between somebody who has family that could take care of them versus someone who’s really out on their own is not very good, either. It’s a totally gameable system—not everybody games it, but lots of people do.”

I thought Gates’s best point was this one:

But now you have people who are shrill about the size of government or how we’re not doing enough about climate change. But they don’t have enough of a consensus, and they’re looking at a government system whose default answer is the status quo. Look at people who say, ‘I’m going to shrink the government! Well, show me when they actually did shrink the government. They caused it not to grow as much, but shrink? When?

Gates also, for the first time that I know of, discusses his views on religion. He says, “The moral systems of religion, I think, are superimportant. We’ve raised our kids in a religious way; they’ve gone to the Catholic church that Melinda goes to and I participate in.” He adds that “the mystery and beauty of the world is overwhelmingly amazing, and there’s no scientific explanation of how it came about. To say that it was generated by random numbers, that does seem, you know, sort of an uncharitable view.”

So what are we to make of Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation? Lenore Ealy, in a comment post to my last entry about Gates, asks if we should support the Common Core standards because the Gates Foundation does.

In my view, we can respect the Gates Foundation’s medical research while challenging their educational programs. In medicine, the results are quantifiable: a vaccine either works or it doesn’t. World polio and malaria rates are either rising or falling. I’ll assume until proven otherwise that the Gates Foundation is hiring the best medical experts they can and are making a difference in the world.

Education is another story. Common Core should be vigorously debated. I’m even more skeptical of the Gates Foundation’s other education project: trying to determine if the virtues of great teachers can be cloned. That’s a puzzle that has challenged educators for over a century, and I don’t think the Gates Foundation can change teacher behavior simply because we have YouTube and our grandparents didn’t.

As for Gates—like it or not, he is the closest we have to John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie—and he has started massive giving at a far earlier age. We should get the press to realize there is a large world of giving outside Seattle. But given that Gates is only 59, for the next 20 years we will have to pay careful attention to what he does.

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