Philanthropy comes in two flavors. One is where you make a lot of money doing whatever it is that you do, and then spend a large part of it in directly helping other people. Bill Gates is a philanthropist of this kind. The second kind is where you collect money from a large number of people and put it to good use. Organizational charities do philanthropy of this kind. So do spiritual leaders, like the god men of India.
One of my friends found my post on Bill Gates and his philanthropic efforts less than persuasive. He said Bill just couldn’t be a good guy. It may be true, I just have no way of knowing it. I am in a benevolent and optimistic mood in the last few years, so I tend to see the rosy side of things. My friend’s objection was that Gates would squeeze blood out of a stone, if he could, while what he probably meant was that Microsoft was as ruthless a corporation as they came. Therein lies the crux of the problem with our modern era of greed and excess. We see the figureheads standing in front of the soulless corporate entities and attribute the evils of the latter to them. True, the figureheads may not all be innocent of greed and excesses, but the true evil lies in the social structure that came with the mega corporates, which is what I wanted to talk about in this note. What is this “system”?
It is a complex and uneasy topic. And this little analysis of mine is likely to draw flak because it is going to point right back at us. Because we are all part of the system. So let me spell it out right away. It is our greed (yes, yours and mine) that fuels the paychecks of those fat cats at the helm of large companies because they can and do exploit our unreasonable dreams of riches and creature comforts. It is our little unkindnesses and indifferences that snowball into the unstoppable soullessness of giant corporations. We all had our little roles to play, and nobody is innocent. There, I have said it.
Before I accuse you and me of being part of the system (a possibly evil one), I have to clarify what I mean by “the system.” Let’s start with an example. We buy a coffee from Starbucks, for, say five bucks. We know that only a couple of cents of the money we pay will actually go to the farmer in Africa who produced the most important ingredient — the coffee. Now, Starbucks would tell you that it is not just the coffee that they are selling, it is the experience, the location, and of course, high-quality coffee. All true. But where does the rest of the money go? A large part of it will end up in the top executives’ compensation. And why do we find it normal and tolerate it? Of the many reasons, the primary one is simple — we do it because we can afford to. And because we want to feel and show that we can pay five bucks for a cup of coffee. A bit of vanity, a bit of extravagance — some of the vices we don’t like to see in ourselves, but the soulless giants cynically manipulate.
The trouble with the system, as with most things in life, is that it is not all white or black. Look at Starbucks again. Its top brass is likely to be enjoying obscene levels of rewards from our foibles and the remote coffee farmers’ helplessness. But they also employ local kids, pay rent to local landlords, and generally contribute to the local economy. Local benefits at the expense of remote pains and personal failings that we’d rather not see. But the remote pains that we distance ourselves from are real, and we unwittingly add to them.
The system that brings about such inequities is much more pervasive that you can imagine. If you are a banking professional, you might see that at least part of the blame for the coffee farmers’ unhappiness lies with the commodities trading system. But it is not something that stands on its own, with no relation to anything else. When you get your salary through a bank, the money in the account may be used for proprietary trading, resulting in huge profits and price volatilities (in food prices in the third world, for instance). But you prefer to leave it in the bank because of the conveniences of credit/debit cards, automatic bill payments etc., and perhaps for the half a percent interest you get. You certainly don’t want to harm the poor farmers. But does the purity of your intentions absolve you of the hardships caused on your behalf?
The thing is, even you see this involvement of yours, decide to pull all your money out of the bank, and keep it under your mattress, it doesn’t make a goddamn difference. The system is so big that your participation or lack thereof makes no difference at all, which is why it is called a system. I feel that the only way you can make a difference is to use the system to your advantage, and then share the benefits later on. This is why I appreciated Bill Gates’s efforts. Nobody took more advantage of the system than he did, but nobody has more to share either.
The other day, I was watching Bill Gates on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart — my favorite TV show. Gates touched upon his plans to spend billions of his own dollars on vaccines, education and other humanitarian projects through his foundation. Clearly passionate about his philanthropic efforts, Gates showed a milder side that wasn’t visible ten years ago during the corporate battles of the Microsoft kind.
Perhaps Gates is a naturally passionate guy, whether he is writing tiny operating systems that would fit in floppies or behemoth ones that would fit nowhere, whether in technical innovation or marketing wizardry, whether greedily amassing billions or, as now, spending it kindly. But attributing his philanthropy to his natural passion for everything he does is unfair, and diminishes its value. After all, he could have been spending (or at least, trying to spend) his money on himself just as passionately. That’s why I think of him as a modern-day Robin Hood, despite my geeky dislike for anything Microsoft-related, which is perhaps only a geek covenant now, rather than a practical ideology.
Robin Hood’s romantic idea of stealing from the rich and giving it to the poor had a critical flaw. He was an outlaw. The trouble with being an outlaw is that the full might of the legal system can be brought to bear on you quite independently of the morality of your activity. In Gate’s case, it would be like embezzling billions from Microsoft coffers and distributing it to the homeless, for instance. What he did, instead, was to make money in the stock market (which, of course, is embezzlement of a legal kind) and then give it to the poor. In other words, he stayed within the system and found a way to turn it around to his humanitarian purpose. If that is what he wanted to all along, kudos to him!
But what is this “system” that we have to work from within? That’s an involved topic for another day. Stay tuned!