The Problem Writ Large

In The New Yorker we find a short profile (subscription required) of Melinda Gates in the Talk of the Town section. Ms. Gates was in town to talk about toilets. Or so it would seem. Wile darting hither and yon to give speeches and accept awards she returned repeatedly to the twin themes of the need for improved sanitation and the need to apply business principles to solve social problems.

The whole short thing strikes me as a beautiful example of so many things that are wrong in an age I was taught to refer to as ‘Late Capitalism.’ Here we have the heroic capitalist (who is actually the spouse of the heroic capitalist) setting about to fix the world one loo at a time.

Yes the world needs improved sanitation but is applying the lessons of global business the only way to accomplish that? In a defensive, explanatory moment Ms. Gates says that anyone who has had to answer to a bottom line understands the need to apply best practice to maximize profit? One wonders where she believes the profit lies in a latrine.

The problem, though, is bigger. The Gates’, you see, are enlightened. They want to pay taxes and save the world. They think everybody can be well off and comfortable and have access to a good potty.

I believe Ms. Gates was a marketer so her history may be weak and her economic history weaker. I’d ask her to find us one example of capitalism without poor people.

Most galling perhaps is the probably unintended glimpse we get of the her world view. She tells the story of a village in India in which the local women conspired to get the village commode placed in front of the home of the village’s leading citizen. He would, the ladies explain, keep it clean if it was in front of his house. Ms. Gates notes that the women knew where the power lay in that town.

I hope she meant it lay with the people. But I fear not. Hers is a rarefied world. She has an assistant to, among other things make, sure she  uses the better restroom. She exists in a relation of power to nearly everyone and especially to anyone who will let money be a metric. She isn’t Mother Theresa.

A wise man once said the poor do not exist so you can feel better about what you do they are not God’s little gift to people who need a project. Fixing the poor seems to be the Gates’ project.


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