an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

America’s Richest Man in Russia – What is Bill Gates’ Wealth and Weltanschauung?

Microsoft CEO Bill Gates stands beside a model of the new Windows ’95 product in 1995. Reuters
Microsoft CEO Bill Gates stands beside a model of the new Windows ’95 product in 1995. Reuters

Watching a lecture by Microsoft president – and currently America’s richest man – Bill Gates, on Russian TV on October 10, was interesting both for what he said, and what he did not say. Born William Henry Gates III, on Oct. 28, 1955, in Seattle, Washington, his appearance is far from startling, or exciting – though he does wear an American smile. Frankly he has many characteristics which in the USA have come in the past two decades or so to be called a “computer nerd”, or simply “nerd”. (A major newspaper headline some years ago regarding him and his successful software company was entitled: “Triumph of the Nerds”.) As he gave his unsurprising lecture – on the Microsoft Corporation, the Internet, future computer software and hardware possibilities and problems, using his small desktop computer much like the President of the USA uses a “TelePrompTer”: to read most of his speech – I was impressed by how little he had to say of novelty or interest. He is – by good fortune – a fabulously wealthy computer businessman; is it fair to expect more? To expect some depth of ideas, breadth of historical vision, or life wisdom? “Computers in every home” – which would help make the world a better place – he, and his company (the world’s first personal-computer software company) conceived in the late 70’s; and though he seemed to imply the entire world in this aspiration, one can only wonder if his image of “every home” was (and is) not a bit too “America-based”! India? Africa? China?

After his speech to the audience, and the questions and answers, which were broadcast on TV, I had to ask . . . is that all? Does the richest man in America have nothing more to say? Has he no greater world-view? Are there in his view of life, man and world any spiritual mysteries; or is it all just science and technology? Does he think and worry about such questions? What is his position on Thoreau’s critique of the pursuit of unnecessary wealth, “cultural illiteracy” amongst his generation in US history, Pushkin’s poetry, Dante’s cosmography, evil in man, injustice in society? Is he, like much of his “baby-boom” generation, upset with the US government’s manipulation and control of many “third-world” countries after World War II for the benefit of American businesses and corporations? That the Internet began in the US military’s defense establishment? What does he think of the tremendous disparity between the rich and the poor in the USA’s “free market economy” (a.k.a. “capitalism”) , and in the world? Is he a Social Darwinian? What does he think are “the abiding values of life”?

Rich Barbarians?

I was reminded of a quote by the man who coined the expression “American Dream”, James Truslow Adams, who, in the late 1920’s, said that businessmen are not the creators of culture or values, and that a society is imperiled when businessmen become the primary leaders of a civilization. In Our Business Man’s Civilization (1929) he wrote:

Civilizations rest fundamentally upon ideas. These ideas to be effective must be those of the dominant classes in the civilization. In making the business men the dominant and sole class in America, that country is making the experiment of resting her civilization on the ideas of the business men. The other classes, dominated by the business man, are rapidly conforming in their philosophy of life to it. The business man, in so far as he is more than a business type, in so far as he is a fully rounded personality, owes that development of himself outside his work to the work of other classes in the past and present. If those classes become merged in his own, whither can even he himself look for his extra-occupational development? If leaders are not humanly rounded personalities, civilized rather than barbarian, what shall be expected of the mass which patterns itself upon them? In a word, can a great civilization be built or maintained upon the philosophy of the counting-house and the sole basic idea of a profit?

Gates appeared, in his presence and presentation, to be a competent computer expert, and businessman, for a corporation which just happened to be ready and at the right place at the right time so as to get very rich. Yet there was no hint of any deep or profound encompassing idea of man, or human history, in his words, voice or eyes. At the beginning of the twentieth century, as technological development affected and changed more and more parts of human society in Europe and the West, it was said – especially in relationship to World War I – that technological progress and development had surpassed human moral development. Gates – apparently blithely unaware of such lessons of the twentieth century (and he is far from unique in this) – seemed to view advancing computer communications and the global Internet system as a sort of grand solution (which was also profitable) to the human condition. But, as reported on the BBC on October 23 1997, the most-searched word on the global Internet is “sex”, and porn[ography] is also in the “top ten” words.

The computer, the Internet, satellite communications, etc., have all shown the amazing abilities of the mind of man, in science, to analyze and create, to develop and invent. Man is truly coming to dominate and govern matter, electricity, etc. – which, it should be recalled, has not been the case for much of human history. But still, “cyberspace” is just a further extension of other such developments and inventions which also promised to make the world a better place – yet which, whether they made it “better” or not, certainly made it more complex and complicated. No more than the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the automobile, the TV, etc., will the computer and the electric world of “cyberspace” create a solution to the spiritual, moral and metaphysical problems and questions – of the “inner space” – of the human soul. This has been a century which has revealed great “inhumanity of man to man”; a “computer in every home” on the earth, is not any real solution to this deeper problem and condition of man.

Bill Gates, still only in his forties, addressed the deeper questions of life, man, human history, our troubled societies in an increasingly complicated civilizational time, not at all in his Moscow lecture – or in very simplistic ways. Even his sense of Russian uniqueness seemed to consist mainly of its large number of well-educated, computer-competent people – and of course it’s illegal piracy of his Microsoft products. (How much richer would he be if Russian pirates were not stealing his intellectual property? But does he really personally care about Russian poetry, literature, history, culture, character, . . . ?) Of course, Bill Gates does have his own (more or less studied and defined) personal ideas of human nature, history, mankind’s progress, purpose and destiny, and Russian history and character; but a rich (even the richest) businessman is – as his lecture made clear – not necessarily wealthy in depth or breadth of soul, or ideas and knowledge of life, man, world, or history. (Gates was typical of many businessmen in this way.) But he came to meet with his company’s elite customers, so perhaps expecting more is unrealistic?

American Mentality

His speech was also in many ways very revealing and characteristic of the ruling American mentality and character (and not only in business circles): earthly-immanential; practical-pragmatic; ahistorical; profits, plus a sort of loosely-conceived, philosophically-simple, semi-reflective assumption of human progress (à la America naturally); money and markets, . . . the Weltanschauung of a (currently!) rather successful computer businessman. Does it lead to a better world for all? He was sort of an honored, visiting American preacher of super high tech means, from little-worried historical human origins, progressing towards unclear and vague, if “humanistic” ends. Little room for mystery or philosophy here. And when he said the globe is becoming “small” – this, in fact, seems more to mean that it will indeed be reduced, when all of its peoples, cultures, ideas, traditions, etc., will need to meet on a computer screen, and the human being, culture, knowledge and communication will only be that which fits into the amazing but limited electronic structure of the computer and completed global Internet. This will be a small world indeed. Flat. Data- and business-like. “American”. Gates, from his own point of view, described it more favorably in an interview with the magazine Inc. (December 1990): Ultimately the PC [personal computer] will be a window to everything people are interested in – and everything we need to know. But will the human spirit, and its searching soul, fit into the computer monitor and Internet?

Thoreau vs. Gates on the Goal of Man in America

Original title page of Henry Thoreau’s book Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854)
Original title page of Henry Thoreau’s book Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854)

From Zoroaster to Plato, through Origen, St. Thomas, Ficino, Raphael, Mozart, Goethe, Thoreau, et al, the higher inner life of the mind of man, was held to be mankind at its best, greatest, most “divine”. Will such characteristics fit into “cyberspace” (which mankind’s centuries-long scientific focus on matter has wrought), and will they be recognized and appreciated? Even with the most sophisticated, “voice-operated” Microsoft software programs? Will the spiritual aspects of human life fit into the world of the computer and Internet? While the answer is largely “no”, the rich young Gates is more popular in America than, for example, Emerson or Thoreau. People rarely ask such questions of businessmen, but James Truslow Adams did, and perhaps so should we!

William Henry Gates III is now having – or already has had – a huge house built for him on a lake in the state of Washington, with space for twenty cars, many boats, room for dining and films for 100 guests, etc. But consider what Henry David Thoreau – living in a small cabin he constructed himself beside Walden Pond (near Concord, Massachusetts) – wrote of wealth, inner and outer, in his Walden:

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward. We know not much about them. It is remarkable that we know so much of them as we do. The same is true of the more modern reformers and benefactors of their race. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty.

Gates and Thoreau represent profoundly contrasting ideas of man in America – two very different world-views as to “wealth”, life, and the meaning and purpose of mankind. It is a clear indication of conditions of society in the USA today that while Gates’ ideal life is more pursued than Thoreau’s, America is widely acknowledged to be in a social and spiritual crisis – including from its “consumerism” and “materialism”.

Addenda: The Mathematics of the Super Rich

The estimated income of Bill Gates (using the calculator on Microsoft Word) this past year was $40,000,000,000 – give or take a couple billion. This equals approximately – and all following figures are approximate – $109,589,041 per day; ca. $4,566,210 per hour; $76,103 per minute; and $1,268 per second. And it is interesting to consider these figures further.

If it took the reader 5-10 minutes to read this piece, in that same time Bill Gates last year, on average, would have earned from $380,515 to $761,030.

At $1,268 per second, Gates earns more than the average monthly salary (at $120), of 10 Russian English teachers, or more than one Russian teacher’s annual salary.

In 5 minutes he earns more that 3,170 Russian school teachers earn in one month, or about 260 teachers earn in a year. (The figures double for 10 minutes of course.)

If Bill Gates’ Moscow speech lasted for one hour, he, during that time (per his last year’s income), earned the monthly salary of about 38,051 Russian school teachers, or the annual salary of ca. 3,170 Russian teachers. In a single day, he earned the equivalent of monthly salaries for 913,242 Russian teachers, or the annual salaries for about 76,103 teachers.

Now comparing such figures, of America to Russia, is somewhat invalid and misleading, since the two societies’ economies are so very different, and in different conditions. If a comparison were made between Gates’ income and that of Mexican or Bangladesh teachers, the figures would be even more astonishing. Still, even in the USA, with an average annual teacher’s salary of $30,000, every minute Bill Gates earned more than two American teachers. Per hour he earns the combined annual salary of 152 American teachers; in one day, the annual salaries of 3,652 American teachers. His entire income last year, of ca. $40,000,000,000, equals the average annual salaries in the USA for one million, three-hundred and thirty-three thousand, three-hundred and thirty-three school teachers.

Isn’t the global so-called “free market system” (formerly called “capitalism”) wonderful and amazing . . . for some!?


First published in the magazine English, #43, November 1997, p. 1-14.