Starting with a joke about who would be the word hog between the couple, Stephen Colbert recently interviewed Bill and Melinda Gates. The couple talked about their philanthropy in the context of larger political issues such as growing inequality, and shared some of their “surprises” — the theme of their annual letter this year.
Colbert remarked that Bill Gates used to be the richest man in the world, but has now fallen into the number two spot for the world’s most wealthy person. “Well, we’re trying to give it away faster,” said Bill.
“There’s a lot of talk that billionaires shouldn’t exist,” said Colbert, suggesting that too much money accumulating at the top is a failure of capitalism.
“We might be biased,” said Bill with a chuckle. “I think you can make the tax system take a much higher proportion from people with wealth.”
“70%?” asked Colbert.
Bill Gates talked about how tax rates on the rich should be higher, but, “I think that if you go so far as to say that there is a total upper limit,” that could be problematic for the economy. Colbert then asked what the Gateses have observed as they travel the world and visit other countries with higher tax rates on the wealthy. “How is that going for them?” asked Colbert.
“Not necessarily that well,” said Melinda Gates. “There’ll be many times we’re in France, and you’ll hear, ‘Gosh, we wish we could have a Bill Gates. We wish we could have such a vibrant tech sector,'” but Melinda Gates cautioned that some tax systems dampen growth. In France, Melinda Gates said, “the tax system has been done there in such a way that it doesn’t actually stimulate good growth. So we believe in a tax system that does tax the wealthy more than low income people, for sure,” said Melinda.
“More than presently is being taxed?” asked Colbert.
“Yes,” Melinda said.
“We’ve been lobbying in favor of increasing the estate tax,” Bill broke in, and then went on about how the estate tax used to be higher and could be made higher again to garner more taxes from the rich.
“We do believe that to whom much is given, much is expected,” added Melinda Gates.
Here, Melinda Gates began connecting the narrative to women, and how women’s control of money can be catalytic to global change. Melinda Gates sees philanthropy’s support of women’s empowerment as just the beginning, saying “Philanthropy can never make up for taxes, but it is that catalytic edge,” where experimenting and model-testing can be done before government gets involved to bring health or education initiatives to full scale.
Melinda Gates then talked about one of her big surprises for 2019:
“That cell phone has so much power in the hands of a poor woman. […] When she has a digital bank account — they’re not welcomed at the bank, they don’t have the money to get on the bus to get there, and if they do, they might get robbed — but when she can save one or two dollars a day on her cell phone, she spends it on behalf of her family, on the health and education of her kids, and she also starts to see herself differently, she sees herself as a working woman, and she’ll tell you, her husband sees her differently, if she’s in India, her mother-in-law sees her differently. Her older son sees her differently when she buys him a bike. So it’s not the only tool, but it’s one of the tools that will help empower women.”
There is a lot packed into that short message, but it helps elucidate how Melinda Gates sees the role of women in the global economy, and where she is focusing for hope — on financial empowerment, and on women using technology to come out of isolation and into community, so they are no longer controlled by repressive gender norms.
On the question of whether billionaires like Howard Schultz should run for President, Bill Gates spoke for the couple and said that, “We work with politicians but neither of us will choose to run for office.” Colbert then presented the couple with honorary t-shirts saying: GATES 2020: Not an Option.
All of this mainstream media discussion of women’s empowerment is good news for feminist philanthropy. As more progressive women donors get in front of the cameras, they are feeding a healthy trend of growing awareness about the value of women’s leadership.