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Nader challenges Gates on wealth

The consumer activist sends a letter to Microsoft's CEO challenging him to join financier Warren Buffett in addressing wealth disparities.

Consumer rights activist Ralph Nader today sent a letter to Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates, challenging the CEO to join financier Warren Buffett in leading a conference of billionaires in addressing wealth disparities and how to resolve them.

The letter noted that Gates

Ralph Nader
Ralph Nader. AP
is the world's richest man, with estimated stock holdings of more than $50 billion. "All this wealth makes you the world's No. 1 working rich person," the letter said. "Apart from the more than medieval size gap between your wealth and [that of other working people], it is more than a little worrisome that tens of millions of Americans have so little net property worth, some after a lifetime of labor.

"Warren Buffett, possibly the world's No. 2 rich person, is your dear friend and fellow card player," the letter continued. "Let me suggest that you team up with him to sponsor, plan, and lead a conference [with] billionaires and multibillionaires on the subject of national and global wealth disparities and what to do about it."

A Microsoft spokesman had no immediate comment on the letter, because he hadn't yet read it. But he observed: "Bill has said repeatedly he plans to give away 95 percent of his wealth. He's given at least $800 million to charitable causes during the past five years, focusing primarily on libraries, educational institutions, access to technology, and health issues."

"The focus of the two foundations--the William H. Gates Foundation and Gates Library Foundation--are access to education and access to health care," said Rose Berg, a philanthropy spokesperson for the Gates family. "People worldwide are concerned about the widening gap between the 'haves and have nots', and Bill and Melinda are interested in closing that gap."

Gates' wealth largely is on paper. The CEO routinely sells off small parts of his holdings, but he has yet to cash in the vast majority of his shares. Not only Gates, but all Microsoft stockholders have benefited from the run-up in the software giant's stock.

Nader has been a regular critic of Microsoft, largely expressing concern about the company's alleged monopolistic power. Microsoft denies any wrongdoing.

The consumer advocate said today that he briefly met Gates earlier this year at Time Warner's 75th anniversary dinner in New York. "He was talking with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts)," Nader said. "We exchanged pleasantries."

Gates had indicated at that time that he was open to communications with Nader--by email "he smilingly suggested," according to the consumer activist. (Nader had offered a snail-mail address with a post office box.)

"[Global wealth distribution] is a serious problem, and the No. 1 and No. 2 megabillionaires give this issue instant importance and visibility," Nader said in an interview. "This isn't about his giving away [money]; it's about the conference to look at the consequences" of wealth disparity.

The letter also cited a calculation from New York University professor Edward Wolf, which estimated that "[Gates's] net wealth is greater than the combined net worth of the poorest 40 percent of Americans. That includes their home equity, pensions, mutual funds, and 401(k) plans but excludes their personal cars."