Should Microsoft's millionaires face social obligations?

Should Microsoft's millionaires face social obligations?

Should Microsoft's millionaires face social obligations?

This isn't about how to improve your PC's performance with a new gizmo; it's about how to improve the ethics of the entire computer industry through your actions.

After years of giving our money to Microsoft for almost every personal computer system bought, we've turned many Microsoft executives into multimillionaires. Although business success at this level is to be admired, it raises a serious question: do Microsoft's millionaires have any obligation to use their phenomenal wealth in socially responsible ways?

Many Microsoft alumni have invested in projects that clearly benefit their entire community. For example, early Microsoft millionaire Ida Cole decided that she wasn't going to let Seattle's Paramount Theatre be turned into a parking lot; she and other wealthy Microsoft employees bought it and restored it to its original glory.

One of Cole's compatriots, a former Word for Windows product manager named Tina Podlodowski, won a seat on the Seattle City Council. She now spends her time building support for a bond measure to fund new neighborhood parks and other facilities.

Other Microsoft millionaires, however, have started spending their enormous wealth in darker ways. Co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen are, of course, two of the wealthiest Microsoft millionaires; Gates is now worth $US30 billion and Allen more than $10 billion. But although Gates seems content with making sundry donations to charities and a few political friends here and there, Allen has turned to making deals on a different level.

On a darker note . . .

Allen owns a basketball team, the Portland Trailblazers, and he recently decided to buy a football team, the Seattle Seahawks. But the Seahawks, he said, wouldn't be of interest to him unless he also got a new stadium and other revenue bonuses.

In a stunning display of the corrupting influence of money in politics, Allen spent more than $1 million in only three months lobbying Washington State's small legislature. Narrow majorities in both houses approved a bill that allocates benefits to Allen of $300 million in state subsidies plus $300 million in interest and finance charges for a new stadium - benefits almost totally paid for by imposing higher taxes on the average consumer.

Normally, a statewide people's vote on a regular election date is required to approve a rise in taxes. But Allen's lobbyists inserted specific provisions into the bill that stipulated a shortened election schedule to benefit Allen. This meant that the vote, instead of being held in November, was held at a quickie football-only election on June 17, just 52 days after referral to the people. The modification allowed almost no time for citizens to mount a campaign questioning this gift to America's third-wealthiest man. (For Allen's side, see Microsoft millions are used to turn a state into a banana republic where election laws can be altered to suit one person's interests, we in the computer industry must stand up and say: "This is not the behaviour we expect of our business leaders."

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