In Bobos in Paradise, David Brooks described a society in which the boundaries that once separated establishment from counter culture have disappeared. “The members of the new information age elite are bourgeois bohemians,” Brooks observed—“Bobos.”
The term might not have a congratulatory ring to it, but Brooks applauded Bobos as “the ones who can turn ideas and emotions into products.” You already know that Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is the richest person in the world (Bourgeois Bill). And you probably know that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the king of the nonprofit hill (Bohemian Bill). Meet Bill Gates, Bobo in Chief.
The Gates Foundation plans to apply its multibillion-dollar war chest to solve the global economy’s greatest inequities. And according to Gates, the greatest injustice of all—the one that will ultimately determine whether the others get solved or not—is our economic system.
In his Davos speech, Gates pointed out the shortcomings of a system that provides greater incentives to cure baldness than to eradicate malaria, which kills over a million people a year. He plans to devote his energy and money to solving the problems faced by the two billion people on our planet that have yet to benefit from the modern world’s scientific and technical progress.
As Gates sees it, human nature is driven by two fundamental forces: self-interest and caring for others. By harnessing these apparently competing drives, Gates’ socially conscious capitalism would continue to benefit those that have always benefited from capitalism while lifting up some of those that have fallen through the canyon-sized cracks in the global economy as we know it.
How do you motivate businesses to produce goods and services for people that can’t pay for them? Gates believes the solution is to create incentives that act in lieu of the profit motive in those markets where businesses are unlikely to make money. “The challenge is to design a system where market incentives, including profits and recognition, drive the change.”
Gates envisions a system in which global goodwill makes it profitable for businesses to team up with governments and nonprofits in a planetary crusade against poverty. He calls it creative capitalism: “If we can spend the early decades of the 21st century finding approaches that meet the needs of the poor in ways that generate profits and recognition for business, we will have found a sustainable way to reduce poverty in the world.”
Gates isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before. Almost a decade ago, David Brooks pointed out that “practically every company now portrays itself as a social movement.” It’s only fitting that the catchphrase for the new century should come from the man that epitomizes what Brooks called “Bobo capitalism.”
“If you give people a chance to associate themselves with a cause they care about,” Gates explains, “they will pay more, and that premium can make an impact.”
If the zeitgeist fits, wear it. “Shopping, like everything else, has become a means of self-exploration and self-expression,” David Brooks concluded. If Bill Gates finds a way to bundle RED products with AIDS vaccine the way he once bundled Internet Explorer with Windows, there might be no limit to what consumers in advanced economies are willing to pay for T-shirts made with 100 percent African cotton.
To be sure, Bill and Melinda Gates will leave a legacy. Children will be saved and communities will be given a new lease on life. What’s wrong with that?
In theory, nothing’s wrong. But in practice, will applying the good old profit motive to the world’s poorest markets, albeit in the name of a politically correct social movement, only serve to widen the gulf that separates rich and poor?
The Gates Foundation is rich enough—and Bill Gates is talented and influential enough—to make an impact in sub-Saharan Africa, if not the entire world. But if the gulf grows wider in spite of creative capitalism’s best intentions, will all of its beneficiaries still feel like beneficiaries at the end of the day?