Bill Gates, last of the legendary Roman plutocrats?

In the wake of the announcement of Bill and Melinda Gates’s divorce, rumours have been spreading about Bill’s private life which do him no credit.

However, it’s not reports of infidelity which bother me – there, but for the grace of God go I -- it’s this item from a glowing description of his home in Medina, a suburb of Seattle overlooking Lake Washington.

“The lakefront shore contains sand that's delivered in large quantities by a barge from St. Lucia each year.”

Sand from St Lucia? All the way from the Caribbean? Through the Panama Canal? Each year?

That’s just the beginning of the extravagance. Who really needs a US$127 million seven-bedroom house with 24 bathrooms, a 23-car garage, and a 2,100 square foot library with a $31 million book?

Is there a better example of conspicuous consumption? (Possibly... how about Jeff Bezos’s $500 million 417-foot yacht?)

Gates’s personal wealth is estimated to be about $130 billion. His extravagance is exactly the kind of thing that enrages ordinary people – quite justly. As Bernie Sanders wrote recently:

The top 1% now own more wealth than the bottom 92%, and the 50 wealthiest Americans own more wealth than the bottom half of American society – 165 million people …

Growing income and wealth inequality is not just an economic issue. It touches the very foundation of American democracy. If the very rich become much richer while millions of working people see their standard of living continue to decline, faith in government and our democratic institutions will wither and support for authoritarianism will increase.

This is not new. In fact, it’s amazing how alike the plutocrats of the 1st century and the 21st century are. In the days of the late Roman Republic and the Empire, wealthy men used to win social prestige by paying for vast building programs. New temples, theatres, gymnasiums, amphitheatres, baths, and fortifications were symbols of their wealth and munificence -- and kept them in good standing with the Emperor.

That beach of glittering sand in front of Gates’s mansion has zero public utility, apart, perhaps, from providing jobs for the locals as gardeners and landscapers.

So the contemporary counterpart of triumphal arches is well-publicised philanthropy. The $50 billion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is reputed to be the largest in the world. It does much valuable work, like fighting Covid-19, polio and malaria. (It also supports population control measures like contraception and abortion. In 2013 it disbursed $1 million in an open competition to design a better condom.) There are rumours that the couple aspires (or used to aspire) to win a Nobel Peace Prize for their do-goodery.

What the tittle-tattle suggests is that this generosity, while real and valuable, is also a smoke screen for the scandal of immense social inequality. Gates has cleverly deployed conspicuous compassion to divert attention from his conspicuous consumption.

Amazingly, the ruthless businessman who bullied staff and destroyed Netscape has morphed into a cuddly, sweater-clad guru of goodness. His blog, Gates Notes, sells his books, polishes his image, touts his solutions to epidemics, climate change, poverty, disease, and inequality. He has become an expert adviser on holiday reading and the best apples to make apple pie.

With its deep, deep pockets, his foundation is also able to purchase the best publicity money can buy. An investigation by the Columbia Journalism Review last year found that grants totalling more than $250 million had been given to media outlets. The recipients included the BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera, ProPublica, National Journal, The Guardian, Medium, the Financial Times, The Atlantic, the Texas Tribune, Gannett, Washington Monthly, Le Monde, and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

It even funded a 2016 report from the American Press Institute on editorial independence from philanthropic funders, which – surprise, surprise -- found that: “There is little evidence that funders insist on or have any editorial review.”

The author of the investigation, Tim Schwab, concluded that:

Bill Gates has shown how seamlessly the most controversial industry captain can transform his public image from tech villain to benevolent philanthropist. Insofar as journalists are supposed to scrutinize wealth and power, Gates should probably be one of the most investigated people on earth—not the most admired.

Historians are silent about the crimes of Gaius Maecenas, an enforcer for Augustus whose wealth was derived from confiscating the property of the emperor’s enemies. No wonder -- he probably bought them off. He was famed for both his luxurious lifestyle and his philanthropy -- he became proverbial as a patron of the arts -- and he bequeathed his fortune to Augustus. He, too, knew how to manipulate the media.

Divorce, even the divorce of two billionaires, is a tragedy. And all allegations about Bill Gates’s philandering should be taken with a grain of salt. But if the news reminds people to reflect more deeply about the gap between the rich and the poor in today’s America, perhaps it’s a good thing.


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