For a guy who likes to think about the future, and thinks even as far ahead as 2035, it’s a pity Bill Gates seems completely out of sync with these times in one key area: the inequality challenge, now labelled the “war on inequality”. This war is being fought on many fronts, not unlike the ‘War on Terror’ of his predecessor. One of them is the issue of minimum wages, including in the US.
On this issue, last week Bill Gates told the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” programme that, “while an increase in the minimum wage would not be economically devastating, too high an increase could create an incentive for businesses to automate and would decrease the number of low-skill jobs available.” Not only was he then schooled on the labour market by a Labor expert, the more important questions are these ones: does Gates’ opinion on this issue count for more than the opinion of common citizens, and why is it that Gates refuses to see the writing on the wall when it comes to inequality – at least when it comes to his own country?
Poverty eradication will remain very important, for decades to come, and it’s great Gates plays such a vital role in the fight against poverty, but increasing inequality inside most countries, including his own, is one of the key challenges of this era, together with the urgent need for sustainable consumption and production patterns. When it comes to inequality and the rage many people feel about the double standards applied to top salaries and bonuses (presumably of people with “exceptional competencies and market value”) versus salaries at the bottom of the pyramid, Gates just doesn’t seem ‘to get it’, unlike the pope, Obama, and many others. That’s the only reason I can think of for his stance on the need for being “careful” in raising minimum wages, a stance that, in my opinion, smacks of Davos men thinking and arrogance. For some reason, you never hear Gates and others about the corresponding need to cap top salaries in the market. He basically thinks like a technocrat, entrepreneur and CEO on the issue of inequality and the outrageous and increasing gap between the top and lower income deciles in many countries. And yes, I know what experts will say: we, the common people, are just not “economically sophisticated” enough to understand the need for more “flexible” salaries at the lower end, and the dangers of minimum wages in terms of labour substitution etc. But if that’s true – and as I mentioned, many experts don’t seem to agree with Gates – I would at least expect Gates and others to also say the government has to come up with an additional amount of money to top up these people’s low salaries (to make sure that people who work can live in a decent way, just like anybody else by the way). Or if technological advances will make a lot of jobs redundant, as the Economist said in a recent piece, they should also argue for labour division on a much wider scale. Somehow, they always fail to say things like this.
Inequality is here to say, as a political key debate, and it’s time Gates and Davos men in general understand that. More importantly, even if they do understand this, and many of them do (see the Davos theme of this year), it’s also important they understand that their stance on this issue (for example, on raising minimum salaries) is not more important than the voice of average citizens. They might like to think of themselves as ‘creators of wealth’, but with the dodgy tax record many of them have, they better don’t grandstand on socio-economic issues. But they obviously have the right to say what they think, just like anybody else. However, let’s not “adore” Gates for his stance on this issue, ‘because he’s a former CEO’, does a lot of good in global health and development in general, and is a visionary in many other respects. By the way, if there are any “experts” on this particular issue, I would assume it’s people who have to make a living based on two or three low paying jobs. But even they just count for ‘one person, one vote’, at least if we still believe in our liberal democracies.
It’s in the political arena that these things and policies have to be decided, not in think tanks, newsrooms or fancy settings in Switzerland. And if we invite CEOs to our newsrooms, let’s also invite ordinary people there, as well as their labour representatives (if they have them). Should be pretty good television, by the way.