Nowadays Bill Gates is more famous for his philanthropy than his business skills, so “it was something of a shock”, says Ian Birrell in The Guardian, to see that he’s still the richest man on the planet. Thanks to a big rise in the Microsoft share price, he boosted his fortune by another £9.6bn last year to an astonishing £48bn.
This presents a problem, says Birrell. Gates has become “something of a secular saint as he jets around the world discussing social justice and disease eradication”.
The left loves him for helping with good causes, the right for bringing a good business brain to the profligate aid sector. And he enjoys lecturing nations on how they should give away more of their money “to the arbitrary and anachronistic target of handing over 0.7% of gross national income in foreign aid”.
The trouble is that plenty of experts think aid undermines development and democracy by propping up poorly run regimes. Moreover, Gates risks being seen as a hypocrite. He says he pays his personal taxes, but he’s made his fortune from Microsoft, which, like those other tax-avoiding technology giants, Amazon, Facebook and Google, “uses sophisticated systems to shift paper profits around the planet and evade the designs of governments”. So much so that a Senate investigation found that “offshoring” profits through a tiny Puerto Rico office alone saved Microsoft $4m a day.
A Harvard law professor has pointed out that Microsoft’s divisions in three low-tax nations employed fewer than 2,000 people, while recording about £9.4bn of pre-tax profit in 2011 – more than the divisions employing 88,000 staff in all its other global divisions.
This isn’t illegal, but it is unethical, says Birrell, “especially when the chairman is exhorting countries to hand over taxpayers’ cash to his pet causes”. Gates can spend his money as he wishes and his philanthropy is laudable. But the problem of “capital flight” – which takes a great deal more out of poor countries than they receive in aid – is caused not just by corrupt politicians “stashing stolen cash”, but also by “major companies using tax havens to boost profits at the expense of the poor”.
I agree that Gates should question the example his company is setting. I’m sure it plays by the rules, but accounting wizards always seem able to find tax loopholes: Gates “should put his own house in order”, as Birrell says, before telling governments how to spend taxpayers’ money.
• President Obama has been accused of slow play on the golf course. During his 16-day holiday in Hawaii, says The Sunday Times, he played nine times, sometimes taking six hours to complete a round. The average time in America is a little over four hours – far too long, in my view: it should be three hours – “meaning that Obama, who is the 15th of the past 18 American presidents to play the game, could well be the slowest commander-in-chief ever to hit the links”.
Tabloid money: “How can we believe in men who believe in nothing?”
• “The Conservative Party had three million members in the fifties,” says Tony Parsons in The Sun. “When Cameron became leader in 2005 it was just 253,000. Today it is just 134,000. The Labour Party had one million members in the fifties. Now it is 187,537 and shrinking. Ukip, on the other hand, has 32,500 members, up from 19,500 just a year ago – because everyone knows what they stand for. Once you get past Nigel Farage, Ukip’s gene pool might be a bit shallow – but at least you know what they believe in. You just can’t say the same of Cameron, Miliband and Clegg – empty vessels ready to spout anything that will give them power. This is our national tragedy. How can we believe in men who believe in nothing?”
• “George Osborne’s ‘mockney’ accent grates with some critics,” says Ephraim Hardcastle in the Daily Mail. “‘Can someone please reintroduce Osborne to ‘t’ as a consonant?’ inquires Labour MP Jamie Reed. ‘During his time on the opposition benches, it emerged that the chancellor was paying £100 an hour for coaching from a top Harley Street vocal specialist. Should he make a return visit?’ Estuary English, as it’s known, is fashionable. Princes William and Harry slur their consonants. As does posh Nigella.”
• “Ex-Downing Street pollster Andrew Cooper dismisses Labour’s nine-point lead over the Tories as ‘not even close’ to securing victory in 2015,” says Trevor Kavanagh in The Sun. “At a similar stage before the 1997 election, Tony Blair was 20 points ahead. ‘In modern times, no party has gone on to form a government without once being over 50%,’ he says. ‘No opposition leader has become PM with ratings as bad as Ed Miliband’s.’ Tories worried about Ukip accuse Cooper of ‘dangerous complacency’. But with the economy taking off, tax cuts certain and Labour mute on every major issue, he has a point, hasn’t he?”