Will Billionaires Fight Inequality?


By Ralph Nader

Third World Network
July 27, 1998

Mr William H Gates,
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer,
Microsoft Corporation, 1 Microsoft Way,
Redmond, WA 98052.

27 July 1998

Dear Mr Gates:

An astonishing calculation comes from Professor Edward Wolff of New York University and presents an important opportunity for you. Professor Wolff, a wealth economics specialist, estimated that your net wealth is greater than the combined net worth of the poorest 40% of Americans (106 million people). That includes their home equity, pensions and mutual funds, but excludes their personal cars.

When Professor Wolff made his analysis, your net worth was only $40 billion. Now, according to the latest Forbes listing of billionaires, your assets exceed $51 billion and that may be outdated, given the most recent surge in Microsoft stock. So it is fair to assume that the mostly secondhand cars of these 106 million Americans can now be included and then some.

All this wealth makes you the world's number one working rich person. Apart from the more than medieval size gap between your wealth and theirs, it is more than a little worrisome that tens of millions of Americans have so little net property worth, some after a lifetime of labour. As Jeff Gates, author of the new book, The Ownership Solution, says: 'Capitalism is very good at creating capital but terrible at creating capitalists.'

The United States now has the sharpest wealth disparity of any Western nation. The wealth of the top 1% is greater than that of the bottom 90% of Americans. As author Gates observes: 'The implications attending inaction are staggering fiscally, socially, politically and even environmentally.' If you knew the range of Gates' experience in Washington and the business community, you would conclude that his normative conclusion was not 'a random thought'.

As might be expected, on a worldwide plane, wealth disparities are staggering. According to the United Nations Development Programme, the assets of the world's 358 billionaires were greater than the combined incomes of countries with 45% of the world's people (about three billion human beings)!

All these chasms are widening against a background of modern and accelerating technology, declining trade barriers, mobility of capital, medical advances and presumably a greater awareness of what history's most tragic mistakes, avarice, monopolies and cruelties can produce.

As one illustration, last year, more people in the world died (nearly six million) from tuberculosis and malaria than in any previous year. The growth in gross global GNP and capability did not stop these diseases of poverty from their mass destruction. Concentration of power and wealth and the gross insensitivity of economic and political leadership had a good deal to do with these preventable casualties.

There is obviously a problem of distributive justice that has not been given the attention it deserves by the leaders of global capitalism. I saw a T-shirt being distributed at a conference recently with the message: 'A Rising Tide Lifts All Yachts.' A telling phrase for our times.

Warren Buffett, possibly the world's number two working rich person with assets exceeding $33 billion, is your dear friend and fellow card player. Let me suggest that you team up with him to sponsor, plan and lead a conference of billionaires and multi-billionaires on the subject of National and Global Wealth Disparities and What do Do About It.

The quantity, quality and distributional dimensions of economic output will drive participants to come to grips with the fundamental purposes of economic systems and their economic indicators.

With the dual sweep of the Gates-Buffett hands, the serious and consequential plight of humanity would become a matter of high alert for those business colleagues and acquaintances of yours who aspire to move from success to significance.

During our brief meeting earlier this year at the Time-Warner 75th anniversary dinner in New York, you replied that you were open to communication (by E-Mail, you smilingly suggested). I look forward to your response.


Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader can be contacted at P O Box 19312, Washington, DC 20036.

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