Last week on 60 minutes, Scott Pelley interviewed Melina Gates. As is common knowledge, she is married to the wealthiest man on the planet, Bill Gates. But as Mr. Pelley pointed out she was not adorned with any fancy diamonds or extravagant dress. When she was asked about this, she simply said that fancy clothes and jewels are not a priority for her. Rather, she and Bill are interested in using their money in ways that would minimize human misery such as wiping out malaria in the countries where it existed and reducing infant mortality by importing medical technology to the countries that need it most.
I have little doubt that Melinda really believed in what she was saying. What I found quite ironic, however, was seeing a woman unmoved by the opportunity of having whatever precious stone her heart desired. Though the extrinsic value of such a possession is obviously great, I wondered what exactly is its intrinsic value, that is the value the bearer of such a gem gives to it. To Melinda, the intrinsic value of such an item would not be great.
I can only imagine that wearing a piece of fine jewelry might make a woman feel good about herself. Certainly, as a status symbol it may reflect the position in society this woman has attained. This was the theme of that very famous short story, The Necklace, written by Guy De Maupassant in the 19th century, the ending of which I shall not reveal. But really have things changed much at all now that we are in the 21st century? I doubt it.
Melinda does not have to wear a diamond necklace to be invited to an important social event like the protagonist, who in Maupassant’s story, believed would bring her acceptance. No, Melinda knows she will be accepted and it is perhaps this realization that makes such an adornment almost a superficiality to her. This is not to denigrate Ms. Gates’ intentions for without a doubt there are women that have wealth that I am sure enjoy diamonds. But it points more to the fact that she is able to look beyond something that she can have, at the toss of a hat, in trying to achieve a much more significant goal: Increasing the welfare of the human race.
Are Melinda and Bill Gates’ contributions an anomaly or do they represent a shift in the way people view their wealth? It is too early to tell. But perhaps with the help of that other billionaire, Warren Buffett, the status of materialistic things such as sports cars, jewels or mansions will become less valued in the future. This would be a shift perhaps of greater import than the changes brought on by the information age that have created the huge pockets of wealth in today’s society