• Bobby Zitzmann

Bill Gates for President

It has been a whole twenty weeks since the last presidential election, and that can only mean one thing: it's time for people to speculate who will run for president in 2020. Indeed, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza waited only 19 days before releasing his first list of potential candidates. (Although I've written in the past about how very wrong Cillizza's other predictions have been.)

Suffice it to say, there is already a wide range of figures with varying likelihoods of running. Ignoring for now the (very real) question of whether Trump will be nominated again, it should be noted that the more than decade-long specter of Hillary Clinton has kept a whole generation of prominent Democrats away from presidential ambition. This pent up talent is likely to rush forward into the most open Democratic presidential field since the 90's. Names bandied range from Sen. Cory Booker to Mark Cuban to (sigh) Hillary, again.

So in the spirit of the perpetual campaign season, I thought I would propose a candidate of my own: Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates.

Now admittedly, this is a bit of a curveball. But if anything, that is what our entire political system has become in the past few years. If Bill Gates ran for president, he could lead a serious campaign and advance important conversations. Perhaps most importantly, the vision he advances is one of rational optimism in a climate of doom and gloom. In this article, I will discuss Gates' position as an unorthodox candidate before moving on to detail what sorts of policies he would run on.

Another Outsider?

First of all, why should Democrats even consider Gates to begin with? After all, our current experience with a businessman without a previous government job has been less than ideal. Well, not so fast. Democratic agents have begun searching for wealthy, non-politician candidates for important gubernatorial races. Elisabeth Pearson, the executive director of the Democratic Governor's Association, has said that the Party is considering "a need to look beyond the type of people who have been elected before, and look at who else might be out there."

This sort of interest has even been targeted at Gates specifically. Leaked emails from the 2016 Clinton campaign show that campaign manager John Podesta considered him among other candidates for Vice President. The consideration of Gates — along with Tim Cook of Apple, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, and Mary Barra of GM — show how serious the Democrats are about increasing their business profile.

But at the same time, it would be disingenuous to equate Trump's business credentials with Gates'. Trump was handed a family business and has done a lackluster job with it. He has even failed to make money with casinos, where the business model is literally taking a certain amount of money from customers in return for a smaller amount of money. Gates, on the other hand, founded his own company and grew it into a nearly $100 billion dollar success, currently the 25th largest company in the US. The success of Microsoft demonstrates that Bill Gates is a superb executive, something we can always use at the head of the executive branch.

Bill Gates would be a positive face of globalization, embracing the benefits of an open economic system and working for the improvement of the human condition.

Adding further contrast between Gates and the CEO currently in the White House is the fact that Gates has extensive knowledge of government and policy. Bill Gates is always a fixture at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, a highly wonkish meeting of the world's academics, policymakers, and business leaders to discuss and organize the global economy. Other members include Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and Henry Kissinger.

Furthermore, his philanthropic work running one of the world's largest NGO's has given him an expertise in many government fields, including international negotiation, economic development, and other aspects of foreign policy. He has already negotiated significant agreements with multiple governments at a time at the highest levels of world politics. Even something as concise as his annual letter shows that Gates has an optimistic and advanced understanding of the world's most important issues. On the home front, the Gates Foundation has taken a leading role in education policy, helping advance many of the Obama administration's initiatives.

If politics in 2016 showed us anything, it's that an "outsider" ethos is a powerful tool. People despise the standard politician's politician, and this is why Bill Gates could do well if he ran. He has universal name recognition, and what polling exists suggests that people would strongly consider voting for him. And while he is no bundle of charisma, he would certainly be boosted from free coverage by a highly intrigued media. Beyond free media, he would never have to take any campaign donations. Self-funding his campaign would be effortless for the world's richest person. All in all, a Bill Gates candidacy is nothing to sneeze at.

A Gates 2020 Platform

I have operated so far under the assumption that Bill Gates would run as a Democrat, and this is reasonable. Aside from the fact that the Republicans will ostensibly have a sitting president running for reelection in 2020, Gates' stated policies and candidate preferences would place him comfortably in the Democratic camp. But part of what makes Gates such an attractive option is that his slight deviations and different priorities would mark a great step forward for the Democratic Party.

Let's first establish where Gates is a standard Democrat. Perhaps most well known is his position on taxes. Gates has repeatedly said that the richest earners should pay more in income taxes, and he has called for capital gains to be taxed in largely the same way as regular income.

On climate change, Gates recognizes the need for government involvement to avoid catastrophe. And at the 2015 UN conference that produced the Paris Accords, he organized a deal between 19 governments and a host of investors to advance clean energy technology. Gates has prioritized next-generation nuclear power, which James Hansen (the world's preeminent climatologist) and I have both said is necessary to a real emissions reduction strategy.

But like I've said, the best parts of Bill Gates are where he is not the tow-the-line Democrat. These positions are in the areas where he has focused his philanthropy, mainly in foreign policy and the economic direction of the country.


On the economy, every politician talks about the need to adapt to the 21st century, but none of them have actually had a hand in creating and shaping the factors that will dominate the economy in the coming years. Bill Gates has. He helped usher in the technology age and came to define modern entrepreneurship. It's this experience in this field that makes his advocacy for economic innovation so much more authoritative. More than anyone else, Gates would be the innovation president.

It is widely recognized that the American economy needs to be more dynamic. Hovering around an unsatisfactory 2%, our economic growth makes many Americans pessimistic about the overall direction of the country. Recognizing our amazing economic performance in the past and seeking a renewed period of excellence, a Gates economic policy would be guided by three strategies to create the economy of the future: improving education, accelerating research, and expanding trade.

In a political era dominated by pessimism, Bill Gates would inject into the debate hope for what lies ahead. It is a hope based not on blind longing, but real facts. It is a hope we desperately need.

First is education. As earlier mentioned, education policy has been Gates' largest domestic focus. This experience has brought him to recognize the paramount importance of improving our education system to modernizing our economy. The education work done by the Gates Foundation emphasizes using technology- and data-driven solutions mainly to improve the interactions between teachers and students. And this approach works. Despite its unpopularity with political activists, the data-driven strategy exemplified by Common Core State Standards (a major Gates project) has shown promising empirical results on multiple instances. And substantial donations by the Gates Foundation demonstrate that Gates greatly values community and technical colleges, which research shows are key to decreasing unemployment and underemployment.

The second facet of the Gates economic plan would continue in building our country's intellectual capital and translating it to fiscal capital. This is his desire to accelerate research. Gates has written: "The best leaders have the ability to do both the urgent things that demand attention today and at the same time lay the groundwork for innovation that will pay dividends for decades ... Our next president will be part of a new group of global leaders who ... can either prioritize alleviating poverty, making everyone healthier, and accelerating economic growth—or they can let progress stall. The key to prioritizing progress is support for innovation."

Echoing Kennedy's challenge to take humans to the moon, Gates has laid out specific goals that the United States should pursue as part of an overall effort to support research. These include creating an energy source that would provide affordable power to all people worldwide without affecting the climate, and developing a vaccine for HIV. Not only do these objectives have obvious humanitarian worth, but the economic dynamism and jobs they would spawn would be nearly as valuable.

See Bill Gates discuss the benefits of government support for science in this short video.

The final prong of his approach to reinvigorate the American economy would probably be the most politically controversial. Where there once was a bipartisan consensus supporting trade, there is now such a consensus against it. Trump ran advancing every bit of protectionist rhetoric he could, and Hillary Clinton bragged during the campaign of voting against the only major trade deal that came before her in the Senate.

This is unfortunate. The popular political rhetoric that our trade deals have hurt American workers and killed our manufacturing is all wrong. Increasingly, the whole world is a marketplace. Being open to free trade means choosing to let American producers have the whole world be customers. Closing ourselves off only hurts us.

Indeed, the way forward for the American economy is one of mobility. We need to move more to doing the things that we are best at, the areas where we have comparative advantage, and letting exports drive American prosperity. Gates supports this growth through strength, explaining that "[The United States is the largest] winner of all time in scale economic business — software, airplanes, pharmaceuticals, movies…[The big winner is] the U.S. We’re the big beneficiary of globalization … It’s the biggest beneficiary by far.” Doing what we do best and expanding trade to the rest of the world is the only option.

Foreign Policy

This same open attitude that we see in trade — making the best of globalization — also colors Gates' positions in foreign policy. From what Gates has said on global affairs, he appears to be a liberal internationalist. As previously stated, he supports free trade. He supports open institutions, as evidenced by his recommendations in favor of the EU over Brexit.

But the largest part of Gates' experience in foreign policy is in international development. Just as with his achievements at Microsoft, this development experience would greatly boost his advocacy on increased developmental effort. More than any other candidate, Gates would make development a top priority of US foreign policy.

Focusing on development in poor countries is a criminally under-prioritized foreign policy tool. Research is conclusive that although there are definitely some ineffective techniques, well designed foreign aid programs reap substantial benefits. Poverty and death rates are falling, and they're falling at a precipitous rate. The efforts of the Gates Foundation deserve major credit for this success, and their plans for the future are even more optimistic. Moreover, Bill Gates' public writings demonstrate that he is not just sitting at the top of a great organization. Rather, he has a deep understanding and involvement with his foundation's programs. As an experienced and successful practitioner of development programs, Gates would bring unique benefits to US foreign policy.

Make no mistake: prioritizing development is not just a case of sending our money off to other countries. Development greatly enhances American interests abroad, and we're not doing it nearly enough. American foreign policy is a lot like American healthcare policy: we don't use enough preventative care. Development is so important because it prevents crises from arising before they spiral out of control. Expanding women's economic rights markedly increases growth, as does eliminating malaria and other diseases. Family planning also boosts economic growth and overall well being.

When we help make sure that developing countries aren't quite so destitute, we prevent the kind of desperation that leads to conflict. Civil wars, terrorist organizations, and other blights are less likely to take hold. If we can make sure that asymmetric threats don't arise in the first place, our foreign policy would be a great deal easier to manage because there wouldn't be fires starting all around the world that we would have to frantically put out.

All in all, Bill Gates would be a positive face of globalization, embracing the benefits of an open economic system and working for the improvement of the human condition.

But what's the point?

I will be the first to admit that this whole article is based on an unlikely proposition. Bill Gates does not want to run for president. He lacks the charismatic energy needed to run a good campaign, and he does good and important work at the Gates Foundation.

But even if he could not win, I think he still ought to run, if only for the sake of improving the debate. He would bring to the table something far too absent from our current politics, something I will call "rational optimism." It is the recognition that while we face serious problems, the systems we currently have in place are generally good, and we are barreling ever faster towards a more prosperous future. Technology, globalization, and development, all the components of Gates' career, work in everyone's favor. We shouldn't blindly follow our impulses and buck the system all together. Rather, we ought titake a staunchly analytical view of what has worked, and take bold, evidence-based action to fix what has not.

In a political era dominated by pessimism, Bill Gates would inject into the debate hope for what lies ahead. It is a hope based not on blind longing, but real facts. It is a hope we desperately need.

The best aspect of Bill Gates' figure is that he looks forward with hope for the future and advances thoughtful solutions to make it even better. He is defined by this forward-looking thoughtfulness. He is, in a word, the candidate of foresight.

Bill Gates: Foresight 2020

Photo credit World Economic Forum, Creative Commons

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