Microsoft's Bill Gates -- aka the world's richest man -- has a secret plan to save the world. It's so secret, in fact, that Gates himself isn't yet aware of it, but I'm about to leak it to him and everyone else within a click of a mouse.
A favorite holiday season mantra is "Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men." Or in this politically correct sphere we inhabit, "good will to all." Peace on earth is an impossible task, even for the world's richest man, but Gates's wealth could virtually assure the good will part of that syntactic equation. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)
It's highly presumptuous of me -- OK, arrogant even -- to suggest to Gates how to spend his money, which by the latest Bill Gates Wealth Meter stands somewhere north of $75 billion. But I confess that one of my favorite fantasies is wondering what it must be like to ride atop that much wealth. What would I do with that much money? What would you do with that much money?
Say what you will about Microsoft and its business practices, but Gates and his wife, Melinda, have flat out become the nation's top philanthropists. Gates's charitable giving makes the $3 billion CNN founder Ted Turner pledged to the United Nations look like chump change.
Last year Gates and his wife ponied up an additional $6 billion to fund the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the organization's total net worth now stands at $21billion, the richest in the U.S. and second in the world only to the London-based Wellcome Trust, which has a bank book weighing in at about $30 billion.
That is all well and good, but Gates still has $76 billion he's sitting on. So here's a plan outlining how he can make a running start at saving the world; the peace part will have to work itself out.
The numbers presented here are strictly back of the envelope noodling, drawn largely from figures put out by the United Nations Human Development Report, figured in round numbers, with nine trailing zeros.
Basic Education -- The annual cost of supplying basic education to children that currently don't have it is $8 billion. That's roughly what the world spends on weapons in four days, working toward that "peace on earth" theme, no doubt. Or to put a fine edge on it, less than half of what parents in the U.S. will spend on toys for their kids this year.
"The real issue is not money, or lack of it, but political choice," says Education Now, a report put out by the aid organization Oxfam. "The reason why so many children are out of school, or receiving a sub-standard education, is that governments choose to allow it to happen."
Bill can relate; I think he knows something about stubborn governments.
Water and Sanitation -- Some 4.4 billion people live in lesser-developed countries; three-fifths of those don't have access to basic sanitation facilities. Low-cost water and sanitation facilities could be installed for the entire planet for $9 billion, with some annual maintenance costs thrown in. Compare that with the $11 billion that Europeans spend on ice cream each year.
Reproductive health services for all women -- AIDs and HIV ravage the world; over-population remains a critical risk for most of the world's lesser-developed countries. It would take just $12 billion per year to provide reproductive health services for all women, globally. Of course, that same $12 billion is what Americans and Europeans spend on perfume in a year, go figure.
Basic health care and nutrition -- We're talking access to aspirin, vitamins and preventive medical care here, not a private doctor -- heck, not even an HMO or socialized medicine. As for nutrition standards? Globally these standards are worse than the menus served up in the food kitchens of America's major cities. The cost here: $13 billion. That figure pales compared with the $17 billion Americans and our European counterparts spend to feed Spot, Rover or Fluffy each year.
So, even by my admittedly mathematically challenged factoring, Gates could cover each of these areas—education, sanitation, reproductive, health care and nutrition — for $42 billion. And he'd still have a hefty $34 billion left over for incidentals. And if Wall Street decides to once again anoint Microsoft a darling of the software industry, Gates could very well double his money and fund the process for yet another year.
Sure, the whole notion of Gates "saving the world" is a fantasy, but it isn't far-fetched. Gates already has said he wants to give away 95 percent of his wealth before he enters the spirit world as Gates 2.0.
One might argue that coughing up $40 billion to cover a single year of the world's most pressing problems is a waste. I think not.
The military talks about "collateral damage" when it speaks of bombs dropped; that's the "unintended" bombing damage, things like non-military buildings blown to bits and "non-combatant fatalities" or simply "people" to you and me. I believe that Gates's save the world effort would produce unforeseen collateral benefits. What future world leader, scientist or, horrors, software developer, might be saved in that year alone?
And if Gates could get his arch nemesis Larry Ellison to kick in another $40 billion, together they could, in the words of a United Nations report to the Commission on Human Rights, wipe out "extreme poverty... providing universal access to basic social services and transfers to alleviate income poverty would cost roughly $80 billion." As the report notes, however, "Lack of political commitment, not financial resources, is the real obstacle to poverty eradication."
Yes, my secret plan for Gates to save the world only covers a year, but what a year it would be. And maybe, if for an entire year, not a single person had to worry about being fed, the quality of their water, an unwanted pregnancy or dying from a routine infection, it would go a long way to devoting energy to that other little nagging problem: peace on earth.