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June 11, 2008

Summary of My Discontent - Buying a legacy

When Bill Gates retires as Chief Software Architect at Microsoft next month to focus on philanthropy, historians will begin to ponder the legacy of one of America’s preeminent robber barons. Capitalism’s inherent call to thievery and blind competitiveness has rarely manifested its wickedness as richly as it has in the adorkable utensil of Bill Gates. Without his prodigious talents at cheating, stealing and titty twisting — and the American Experiment to incubate it all in — Gates would be just another lonely loser online, man-skeezing at World of Warcraft or Second Life.

Instead, Gates and his rottweiler Steve Ballmer stole DOS from IBM, stole Windows from Apple, and stole Internet Explorer from Netscape (while the Bush Administration looked the other way and didn’t enforce the landmark Microsoft antitrust settlement). For two decades Gates raked in billions, colluding with hardware manufacturers to secure his monopoly and ensure that his Office bloatware had to be “upgraded” every 18 months. Perhaps worst of all, he crammed down our throats that annoying animated paper clip, Clippy. (It’s going to take a lot of anti-malarial vaccine to make up for Clippy alone.) Now Microsoft is trying desperately to hijack Google’s mission to make sure humans have more advertising to look at while they’re looking at ads.

No matter how many billions he gives away, Gates’ real legacy is this simple message: Cheating and intimidation are the best way to get what you want. Like Gordon Gekko on Pixy Stix, he taught that greed in America isn’t just good, it’s what we’re here to do. Now he’ll try to buy back his legacy, putting his cutthroat tactics and ample billions to work fighting disease and illiteracy. Cool. 


When I first met Bill Gates in Seattle in the early ’90s, he played the role of stereotypical nerd: wrinkled yellow shirt, translucent skin, mussed hair and smudged, ill-fitting wire-rim glasses that slid down his nose as soon as he pushed them up. A colleague later speculated that Gates’ carefully maintained image as a dork was one of the world’s most valuable trademarks.

I was the editor of “The Windows Report,” a newsletter that covered Microsoft business and technical news, and I stood in a semi-circle around him with a half-dozen other reporters on the dork beat after a boring hotel-ballroom presentation on some godforsaken programming language’s impending revolutionary ability to lubricate the machinery of American productivity. 

How could we not be in awe of this man? A decade earlier, workers were still dragging their knuckles across typewriters, ledger books and adding machines. A decade later, every home in America had a pornography faucet called the World Wide Web. In between those two epochs stood Bill Gates, a goofy college dropout with the wherewithal to steal the soon-to-be most valuable intellectual property in the world. Half of us expected him to part the C++. (Sorry — nerd jokes, like the economy, were more successful in the ’90s.)

For those who can overlook the robbery part of the barony, Gates is enough to make capitalism seem plausibly moral. His company amassed enormous wealth and created 79,000 jobs at Microsoft alone, not to mention countless other jobs at related businesses, including, for many years, my own. Microsoft’s working capital outnumbers the gross domestic product of most of the world’s countries and is almost double Kentucky’s entire biennial state budget. Gates even shared his wealth with his workers via stock options: There are an astonishing 12,000 millionaire (and four billionaire) employees at Microsoft, which is enough to make the previous century’s robber barons like Rockefeller and Carnegie seem like even bigger dicks than they did already.

And Gates’ philanthropic efforts at the $37 billion Gates Foundation are changing the world in positive ways. The foundation’s beneficiaries read like a laundry list of causes I daydream of supporting when I play “If I Were a Creepy Billionaire Trying to Atone for My Sins”: child health, public schools, green initiatives, micro-finance and higher-ed. Kudos. 

Does the end justify the means? No. And yet, I’m a fan of redemption. Give it hell, Bill. With $37 billion in your pocket, the world’s most hyper-competitive mommy complex in your heart, Bono on speed dial and one billion people living in extreme poverty, maybe you can buy back your legacy. It seems to have worked for Carnegie. 


Contact the writer at 

jimwelp@gmail.com