It's a word that politicians use to drum up fear of their opponents in this country but the word "tax" is on everybody's lips — and it's getting sexier.

When a little known Dutch historian Rutger Bregman lambasted billionaire tax avoiders on stage at the World Economic Forum last month, the clip hit home with many people and quickly went viral.

"What we have there are billionaires with totally corrupt business models. They're not paying their workers a living wage, they're avoiding their taxes, they're polluting the environment," Bregman told Australia's ABC 7.30 programme last week during a media tour sparked by his new-found fame.

Bill and Melinda Gates' foundation has the largest endowment in the world. Photo / AP
Bill and Melinda Gates' foundation has the largest endowment in the world. Photo / AP

"And then to distract from all that, they say, 'Oh, I've got a nice plan for some education for girls in Uganda', or whatever."

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In the United States, the Democrat's new firebrand poster girl Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has thrown her support behind the idea of a 70 per cent tax rate for earnings over $10 million, causing huge debate in the country.

But one man, who for a long time held the distinction of being the richest person on the planet, thinks it's a bad idea.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates says the woman affectionately known as AOC, doesn't see the whole picture and called the idea "extreme".

Speaking on a podcast produced by tech website The Verge, Mr Gates said it would be better to focus on collection methods and how the money is spent.

"Certainly, the idea of government being more effective in terms of how it runs education or social programs, there's a lot of opportunity for improvement there. In terms of revenue collection, you wouldn't want to just focus on the ordinary income rate," he said.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been outspoken about taxing the super rich. Photo / Getty Images
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been outspoken about taxing the super rich. Photo / Getty Images

"(The rich) have income that just is the value of their stock, which if they don't sell it, it doesn't show up as income at all, or if it shows up, it shows up over in the capital gains side. So the ability of hedge fund people, various people — they aren't paying that ordinary income rate."

Mr Gates pointed out that the super rich typically employ tricky accounting tricks (something hugely widespread in Australia among corporations and wealthy individuals) to dramatically reduce the rate of income tax they pay.

"So it's a misfocus. If you focus on that, you're missing the picture," he said.

NEW WAVE OF CRITICISM

Bill and Melinda Gates are pushing back against a new wave of criticism about whether billionaire philanthropy is a force for good.

The conversation has been played out in the media in recent weeks after Mr Bregman berated "all these stupid philanthropy schemes" during his famous speech and suggested such billionaire-funded giving amounted to tax avoidance that exacerbates the problems it seeks to tackle.

The couple, whose foundation has the largest endowment in the world, say they are not fazed by recent blowback against wealthy giving.

Bill and Melinda Gates' foundation has the largest endowment in the world. Photo / AP
Bill and Melinda Gates' foundation has the largest endowment in the world. Photo / AP

Some critics have long challenged the couple's non-profit work, which relies on the tax-exempt fortune they hand to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and involves directing how grant money is spent on issues ranging from global health and development to US education and poverty issues.

Though the foundation's worldwide contributions to combating diseases like polio and malaria are indisputable, some see the couple's influence as unchecked and resulting in mixed success.

The latest criticisms are more existential, challenging whether their level of wealth is good for society and whether it's functional to rely on the generosity of the very rich to fix its problems.

Bill Gates and his wife Melinda released their annual letter reviewing their work and the vision for their charity foundation overnight.

Ms Gates said the couple see a responsibility to support other philanthropists who want to do good with their riches.

"We take the converse side of that, which is we say: 'What can we do personally with our wealth? What can we role model for others, and how do we get other people of great wealth to give their money away?"' she said.