William Henry Gates was born on October 28, 1955, in Seattle, Washington. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was a bank executive. In 1973 Bill Gates enrolled at Harvard University, where he studied mathematics and computer science. In 1976 he dropped out of school and founded the Microsoft Corporation when he signed a contract to develop a new operating system for Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems. Microsoft subsequently became the software industry’s dominant manufacturer in 1980, when it contracted to develop a BASIC operating system for IBM.
In 2000, Gates and his wife, Melinda, whom he had married in 1992, formed the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fund numerous causes related to issues like education, health care, poverty, and social policy. Gates has stated that “money has no utility to me beyond a certain point,” and that “its utility is entirely in building an organization and getting the resources out to the poorest in the world.”
Gates stepped down from the day-to-day operations of Microsoft in 2000, turning over the job of CEO to Steve Ballmer, who had been with the company for twenty years. Gates remained chairman of the Microsoft board of directors, however, and also became the company’s chief software architect. Over the next few years, Gates devoted an ever-increasing share of his time to his charitable foundation, and by 2006 he had stopped working full-time for Microsoft. In February 2014, Gates announced that he was stepping down as Microsoft chairman in order to move into a new role as technology adviser.
Over the years, Gates has been outspoken on a number of social and political issues. In a February 2010 speech at a TED [Technology, Entertainment, & Design] conference in California, for instance, he lamented the U.S. Government’s “ridiculously low levels of spending” on so-called green-energy research. On the premise that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with human industrial activity are major contributors to potentially catastrophic “climate change,” Gates said: “CO2 is warming the planet, and the equation on CO2 is actually a very straightforward one. If you sum up the CO2 that gets emitted, that leads to a temperature increase, and that temperature increase leads to some very negative effects: the effects on the weather; perhaps worse, the indirect effects, in that the natural ecosystems can’t adjust to these rapid changes, and so you get ecosystem collapses…. [U]ntil we get to zero [CO2 emissions], the temperature will continue to rise…. Now, we put out a lot of carbon dioxide every year … For each American, it’s about 20 tons. For people in poor countries, it’s less than one ton. It’s an average of about five tons for everyone on the planet. And somehow, we have to make changes that will bring that down to zero. It’s been constantly going up. It’s only various economic changes that have even flattened it at all, so we have to go from rapidly rising to falling, and falling all the way to zero.” Toward that end, Gates advocated the implementation of a CO2 tax and a cap-and-trade system.
In a June 2015 interview with the Financial Times, Gates repeatedly emphasized that the public sector, and not the private sector, was uniquely equipped to lead a global shift to a clean-energy economy reliant on wind and solar power sources rather than on fossil fuels. “[I]t should be like the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Project in the sense that the government should put in a serious amount of R&D,” said Gates. In a July 29, 2015 blog post, Gates expanded on that theme: “Why should governments fund basic research? For the same reason that companies tend not to: because it is a public good. The benefits to society are far greater than the amount that the inventor can capture. One of the best examples of this is the creation of the Internet. It has led to innovations that continue to change our lives, but none of the companies who deliver those innovations would ever have built it.”
In a November 2015 Atlantic magazine interview about green-energy development projects, Gates said that while “the government will be somewhat inept” at spearheading such initiatives, “the private sector is in general inept.” “How many companies do venture capitalists invest in that go poorly?” he continued. “By far most of them.” Gates’s lack of faith in the private sector’s ability to effectively address the climate-change problem rests in his belief that “there’s no fortune to be made” in such a venture, and that “even if you have a new energy source that costs the same as today’s and emits no CO2, it will be uncertain compared with what’s tried-and-true and already operating at unbelievable scale and has gotten through all the regulatory problems.” “Without a substantial carbon tax” imposed by government, Gates concludes, “there’s no incentive for innovators or plant buyers to switch.”
Gates has expressed a lack of confidence in capitalism on a number of other occasions as well, such as when he said that “the market does not drive the scientists, the communicators, the thinkers, the government to do the right things.” In a similar vein, in March 2013 Gates told the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Global Grand Challenges Summit that capitalism frequently pursues “priorities [that] are tilted by marketplace imperatives” and thus fail to address the most vital human needs. “The malaria vaccine in humanist terms is the biggest need,” he explained. “But it gets virtually no funding. But if you are working on male baldness or other things you get an order of magnitude more research funding because of the voice in the marketplace than something like malaria.” By Gates’s calculus, governments and philanthropic organizations must intervene to offset this “flaw in the pure capitalistic approach.”
In June 2015, Gates announced that he planned to personally invest $2 billion in renewable technology initiatives over the ensuing five years. Toward that end, in November 2015 he joined the so-called Breakthrough Energy Coalition, which consisted of 28 wealthy investors (from 10 countries) who pledged to invest a combined $1 billion (over a twenty-year period) to help “bend the curve” on climate change. “People like myself,” Gates said, “who can afford to take big risks with start-up companies, should — because of climate change — be willing to put some number of billions into the spin-offs that will come out of … government-funded activity.”
Immigration policy is another issue of great concern to Gates. In early 2014, he charged that “the injustice” of America’s existing immigration system was “incredible.” In a July 2014 op-ed which he co-authored with Sheldon Adelson and Warren Buffett, Gates claimed that U.S. immigration policy “fails badly” on two major counts: being “humane to immigrants living here,” and “contribut[ing] to the well-being of our citizens.” Advocating amnesty for those who have broken U.S. immigration laws, the op-ed said: “Americans are a forgiving and generous people, and who among us is not happy that their forebears — whatever their motivation or means of entry — made it to our soil?” A good model to emulate, said Gates in September 2016, would be the “enlightened immigration policies” of Canada.
In February 2014, Gates joined former Washington Post CEO Don Graham in financing a $25 million college scholarship fund for illegal-alien students living in the U.S. as temporary residents under the terms of former President Barack Obama‘s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an executive action which guaranteed that most DREAM Act-eligible young people would temporarily be granted legal status, work permits, access to certain publicly funded social services, and protection from deportation.
Gates also favors an increase in the admission of foreign refugees to the U.S., including those hailing from war-torn, terrorist hotbeds in the Middle East. In January 2016, for instance, he said that America has “the capacity” to do the same as Germany and Sweden, two nations that should “be congratulated” for accepting massive numbers of migrants from such places. Similarly, in September 2016 Gates praised Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who had played a key role in importing many Middle Eastern refugees to his country, as “a leader [who] wants to remind people about openness and taking in refugees in an appropriate way.”
In a February 2017 interview, Gates suggested that government should try to “slow down the speed” of automation by “rais[ing] the tax level” on companies that use robots to replace human workers. “Certainly there will be taxes that relate to automation,” said Gates. “Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”
On May 3, 2021, Bill and Melinda Gates announced, in a joint statement, that they were getting a divorce after 27 years of marriage. Mr. Gates’ net worth at that time was approximately $130.5 billion.
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Further Reading: “Biography of Bill Gates” (BiographyOnline.net); “Innovating to Zero!” (transcript of Bill Gates’ speech at TED conference, February 2010); “Gates to Double Investment in Renewable Energy Projects” (Financial Times, 6-25-2015); “We Need Clean-Energy Innovation, and Lots of It” (by Bill Gates, 7-29-2015); “‘We Need an Energy Miracle’: Bill Gates Has Committed His Fortune to … Mitigating Climate Change” (The Atlantic, November 2015); “Bill Gates: Capitalism Means Male Baldness Research Gets More Funding Than Malaria” (Wired.co.uk, 3-14-2013); “Gates: U.S. Immigration ‘Incredible’” (Politico.com, 2-10-2014); “Break the Immigration Impasse” (by Bill Gates, Sheldon Adelson, & Warren Buffett, 7-10-2014); “Bill Gates Says Trudeau’s Approach to Immigration, Refugees Good for Business” (CBC News, 9-20-2016); “New Fund for Undocumented Students” (Politico.com, 2-4-2014); “Bill Gates: US ‘Should Take More’ Refugees” (BBC News, 1-22-2016).