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TED: Some Seattle Billionaires Have 'Ideas Worth Spreading'; Some Don't

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, May 17 2012

A year ago, Microsoft mega-billionaire Bill Gates gave a talk at TED about state budgets and education funding, entitled "How state budgets are breaking US schools." It was an attack on state budgeting practices. All but one of the fifty states are supposed to balance their budget, but Gates argued that most states used gimmicks "that would make Enron blush" such as borrowing money, selling off state assets, deferring payments to schools, tapping tobacco settlement payouts early, and abusing workers' withholding taxes to cover cash flow needs. He also pointed out that states faced a growing generational divide, with increasing pension obligations and health care costs destined to shift spending towards the old and away from the young.

At one point, Gates said, "If you don't change that revenue picture...you'll be deinvesting in the young." And he goes on to argue that, "Education spending should not be cut." But his solution? He argues that there isn't enough scrutiny of state budgets to root out waste and accounting gimmicks. The word taxes is never mentioned.

TED curator Chris Anderson rushed the video of the talk directly onto the web the same day of Gates' talk. I remember thinking how unusual it was to get a TED video in my inbox the same day as the actual talk, watched it, flinched at Gates' failure to talk about the tax issue, forgot about it.

Now compare Anderson's treatment of Bill Gates, a well-intentioned billionaire who has an ideological preference for balanced budgets and austerity politics (and whose company has long avoided paying its fair share of taxes, costing its home state of Washington billions, which has led to deep education funding cuts), to his treatment of Nick Hanauer, a well-intentioned billionaire who has a different ideological preference, one that favors progressive taxes. He gave a TED talk recently too, that focused on inequality in America. As National Journal reported yesterday, he said:

We’ve had it backward for the last 30 years. Rich businesspeople like me don’t create jobs. Rather they are a consequence of an ecosystemic feedback loop animated by middle-class consumers, and when they thrive, businesses grow and hire, and owners profit. That’s why taxing the rich to pay for investments that benefit all is a great deal for both the middle class and the rich.

But as National Journal noted:

You can’t find that speech online. TED officials told Hanauer initially they were eager to distribute it. “I want to put this talk out into the world!” one of them wrote him in an e-mail in late April. But early this month they changed course, telling Hanauer that his remarks were too “political” and too controversial for posting.

Go figure. One billionaire with a political agenda has his talk rushed online, evidently because Anderson thinks it is worth spreading. The other one, not so much.