Bryan Caplan  

The Bill Gates Mystery

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Not long after I started at GMU, Tyler approximately remarked that, "Bill Gates is just crazy - he works like a dog despite his billions."  I don't remember how I responded at the time.  But when I'm trying to understand the behavior of people whose circumstances are drastically different from my own, I find that a little empathy goes a long way.  How does life look through the eyes of Bill Gates?

My old conversation with Tyler came back to me a couple of days ago when I was reading Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955).  Here's a dialogue that almost seems like it's ripped straight from a GMU lunch.  Tom, the lead character, is talking with his friend, Bill, about Tom's new boss, Hopkins:
Bill sipped his drink thoughtfully.  "What do you already know about Hopkins?" he asked.

"Not much," Tom said.  "I've hardly heard of him.  Somebody told me he started with nothing and he's making two hundred thousand a year now.  That's about all I know - I don't think I've ever even seen a picture of him."

"Precisely," Bill said professionally.  "Precisely."

"What the hell do you mean by that?"

"I mean it looks like the public-relations boys have cooked up a big deal to put Hopkins on the map, and you've stumbled into it."

"I don't get it," Tom said.

"Figure it out for yourself.  Here's Hopkins, about fifty years old, and the president of the United Broadcasting Corporation... Inside the company, he's the biggest deal in the world... But outside the company he's nothing.  Taxi drivers don't call him 'Sir.'  Waiters more than five blocks from Radio Center don't give him a special table... Don't you see how tough it must be?"

"I'm weeping," Tom said.

"All right.  Here's a guy who works fifteen or twenty hours a day - inside the company he's famous for it... And people like him - he knows how to drive people and still make them like him.  But what's he get out of life?"


"Of course!  But if he made only a quarter as much money, he'd still be able to buy everything he wants.  Hopkins is a guy of simple tastes... So what's he keep working fifteen or twenty hours a day for?"

"Must be nuts," Tom said.

"Nuts nothing!  The poor son of a bitch wants fame!  And he's in a position to buy it.  So he calls Ogden and Walker and says, 'Boys, make me famous.  One year from today I want to be famous, or you're fired!'"

"Oh come on," Tom said, laughing.  "You know damn well that's nonsense."

"Perhaps he wouldn't word it that way exactly... He'd say, 'Gentlemen, I believe that for the sake of the company, the major executives must direct more attention to their personal public relations...'"

"I doubt like hell that a man in his position would say that either."

"Okay - be a stickler for detail.  What would really happen is that somebody would suggest that Hopkins head a committee on mental health - these guys are asked to do that sort of thing all the time.  Usually they refuse.  But this time Hopkins figures he's got a chance for the national spotlight.  You're right about one thing - he'd never have to say anything about it.  He wouldn't have to..."
The whole book is filled with gems like this.  If you're short on time, try the movie - it's a great adaptation, and the dialogue is right out of the book.

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
chipotle writes:

I don't see how this dialogue vindicates Gates's point of view. Time is a limited commodity and Gates is just wasting it.

Preferences differ, of course. But there's no sense in which Gates, as an individual, continues to add value to the world that couldn't just as easily come from someone else at the top of the Microsoft chain.

For Apple, the situation might be different. See here:

Jesse writes:

I think it was JP Morgan (the man),Rockefeller or Carnegie who, when asked "how much money is enough" he replied "just 1 dollar more."

Why is that? I sense it in myself - it seems no matter what I have, contentment is very, very hard to attain. Some sort of ambition for something is always present. And in many ways, that is very good as it drives innovation and productivity. But I think it makes the Bill Gates situation a little less mysterious to me, a least.

fundamentalist writes:

You're on thin ice when you try to determine the motives of others. I learned that from an old professor of fiction. He taught that any motivation for any action by a character can be made plausible if you're creative enough. The problem with most of us is that we're lazy. We settle for the most obvious motives, the ones that pop into our minds immediately. Usually, those obvious motives are the ones that motivate us. So most efforts at assaying the motives of others do nothing but reveal our own.

BT writes:

Maybe he likes what he is doing.

scott clark writes:

But you started at GMU over a decade ago, right? Since then Bill Gates has come around to Tyler's way of thinking, and reduced his involvement and his duties at Microsoft. So then its more of a question of how long does it take to learn to let go, to get used to the idea that some really big decisions are going to get made and they might not come to you to ask your opinion about it.

Ian Dunois writes:

In a similar note, Brett Favre's actions to keep playing.
He is already considered to be one of the greatest quarterbacks and although he isn't producing at the same numbers he doesn't seem to want to retire fully just yet.
The reporters when reporting this event brought up a memory they had when questioning Michael Jordan in his latest unretirement. Jordan left Chicago as a champion above the rest yet he unretires to play in Washington with the Wizards. The reporter when speaking to Jordan questioned him on his decision since as she put it, he already had the money, the fame, the championship rings.
His response was simply that he felt like he wasn't done that he wanted to play.
It was not for the money, nor the fame. He simply unretired so that he could play the game.
Favre is now considering a similar decision as he has the fame, has the money, has NFL legendary status; it seems all that is left is the love for the game.

Cliff Styles writes:

If Tyler says Gates is crazy for working even though he's rich, then it's not Gates who's crazy, it's Tyler's theory that's crazy: it does not include the possibility that someone can love his work. As some wag said, 'money is insufficiently selfish'. When it comes to values, economists often seem autistic to me.

PS. I read every word on Tyler's blog, but maybe I've missed something.

Jason Malloy writes:

I think the personality traits that generally lead to making money are different than, if not entirely opposite to, the traits that lead to spending money.

Warren Buffett is an even more interesting case. The second richest man in the world and he lives in the same small $30,000 house he bought in 1960, and eats at Dairy Queen everyday, IIRC.

Yancey Ward writes:

That Bill Gates guy is too dumb to know what he really wants to spend his time on.

Justin writes:

Gosh, libertarian pessimism strikes again. It's not possible Bill Gates works so hard because he loves what he does? He is passionate about it? Or how about, especially since he quit Microsoft and now works full-time for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, because he believes in it? Is it just inconceivable to the economist libertarian framework that there might be more to work than money and fame?

Bill Gates has had both money and fame for a long time. Try again, Caplan.

Alex Harris writes:

So, the paradox is that Gates's actions seem to violate the backward-bending supply curve of labor:

And the commentators offer two possible resolutions:
1. For Gates and those like him, work IS leisure. He'd be working even if it cost him money to do it.
2. Gates's L2 and W2 (on the graph on the Wikipedia page) are just way farther out than we for some reason we expect.

But, if I read you right, you're offering a third:
3. The backward-bending supply curve of labor only applies to hourly wages. You work more, you make more money, but you can spend that money on leisure, making your non-working hours more pleasurable. But perhaps money can't buy fame, or at least the kind of fame Gates wants; only work can.

Of course, as one commentator points out, Gates has in fact moved to the top part of the curve. He's now using his money to buy a different kind of fame he wants - philanthropy.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

If it makes him happy and if it's what he wants to do, then I see no reason why the man shouldn't work until the day he dies. The more intelligent a person is, the greater the need for intellectual stimulation; and as we grow older, the fulfillment of that need can make the difference between being able to maintain one's independence or ending up warehoused in some health-related facility.

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