King’s Survey: Charity Case

800px-Andrew_Carnegie,_three-quarter_length_portrait,_seated,_facing_slightly_left,_1913
Andrew Carnegie, Apostle of the Gospel of Wealth

In which we follow a money trail—and ask whose it is

So, gang, what did you make of that Andrew Carnegie reading on the Gospel of Wealth? Let me read the key paragraph again:

This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: To set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and, after doing so, to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community-the man of wealth thus becoming the mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.

 —Sounds like Carnegie sees himself as the ultimate American Dream boy.

Explain what you mean, Ethan.

—I mean he sees himself as someone who starts with nothing, works hard and becomes rich.

—And screws everyone else in the process.

Everyone else, Brianna?

—OK. Maybe not everyone else. But a lot of people. Look at what he did at his factory at Homestead, locking out those workers. That was cold.

Well yes, there was some unpleasantness there. But let’s not dwell on that now, shall we? We don’t want to end up sounding like that horrid little man Eugene Debs, who has such peculiar ideas about the relationship between capital and labor.

—Yeah: that the workers make the capital.

Again: let’s talk about something more pleasant, shall we? Like charity, Carnegie style.

—You keep saying Car-nay-gee. Is that the right way to pronounce it?

Yes, Kylie. Like Henry David Thorr-Row.”

—Weird.

Maybe so. Anyway, as you know, Carnegie becomes the dominant figure in the new American steel business in the closing decades of the 19th century. Which puts him right smack in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. Because steel is absolutely crucial. A man-made material derived from iron—like oil, it has to be refined before it can be a useable fuel, iron must be manipulated at very high temperatures to become steel. Once you do that, though, it has all kinds of uses. It’s indispensable in the railroad business, for example. Steel is to the Industrial Revolution what fiber optic cable is to the Internet. You don’t always see it behind the walls, but you’re nowhere unless it’s there.

—Isn’t it also used in buildings?

Indeed it is, Kylie. The fact that steel is both incredibly strong and relatively light makes it possible to erect really tall buildings in cities like New York and Chicago. Steel is so important, in fact, that it becomes a measure of a nation’s industrial prowessa nation’s place in the global pecking order was often ranked in terms of its steel production. That was true well into the 20th century, when the leader of China, Mao Tse Tung, starved his own people in a mad quest to boost steel production in an initiative known as the Great Leap Forward. But that’s another story. The point is that Carnegie becomes a very rich man making steel, and becomes richer still when he sells his business to banker J.P. Morgan for something like a billion dollars.

—Pocket change.

Maybe so, Emily. But one thing you can do with that kind of money is charity. And Mr. Carnegie is a charitable man. But he’s not content to simply give the money away. He thinks it’s important to help people to help themselves.

—Give a man a fish, blah blah blah.

Just so. So Carnegie makes an offer to communities around the country. He says that education was the key to his success, and that the key to his education was public libraries. That’s why he offers—and in fact he does—build hundreds of libraries and stocks them with books. But he has a condition: the communities that receive these gifts must promise to maintain these libraries and staff them appropriately. My question is: Does this seem like a good deal?

—Well sure. I mean, why not?

—Jonah’s right. After all, it’s his money.

Hmmm. His money. But is it, Chris?

—Well, yeah. He earned it, didn’t he?

Well, I don’t know, Chris. What do you mean by “earn?”

—Right. He didn’t earn it. He stole it.

—Oh, c’mon, Brianna. It was his company. The whole thing was his idea. I mean, yes, he had people do work for him. But without him, the company would have never happened. He was a talented guy. And a guy who created jobs.

—He was talented at taking advantage of people, Adam. And making himself look good.

—It’s like he’s LeBron James.

Interesting analogy, Ethan. Explain.

He’s a star. He makes a lot of money. And he packs the stadium. People come to see him. Carnegie made a product that everybody wants. Yes, there are other people making steel. But it’s like he has this brand that’s incredibly valuable.

—It depends on what you mean by “valuable.” I mean, sure, steel is important. But so are a lot of other things. And people. Like policemen. I admit there are some bad ones. But there are some good ones, too. But none of them make a million dollars.

A good example, Sadie. Here’s another one: daycare providers. They help people who make money. But there are no superstars there. No play-by-play on ESPN: Did you see how she stopped that baby from crying? Holy cow: check out that stroking technique! It’s all in the wrist. Did you know that she averages a foot-pound of torque per ten strokes? That leads the entire eastern regional daycare system. She’s all pro for the seventh year in a row.

—Not bad, Mr. K. But I suggest you keep your day job.

—I gotta agree with Adam on this one. Carnegie was not a nice guy, though he liked to pretend that he was. But you don’t become as successful as he was by being a nice guy. Still, he was doing a good thing with those libraries. I mean, not everybody did this kind of thing, did they?

No, Em, you’re right. Many did not. Carnegie wasn’t unique. John D. Rockefeller, who was to oil what Carnegie was to steel, also did a lot of philanthropic work. We recognize those names today for the hospitals, research centers, and other institutions they founded. Then there were other people, like James J. Hill or Daniel Drew, who were scoundrels. At least I’m not a hypocrite, they’d say.

—Wait. Is Drew University in New Jersey named for him? I have a cousin who goes there.

Yes, Kylie, you’re right. I stand corrected on that.

—Not a very good school, though. She hates it.

—Well, maybe Adam is right. At some point you have to say a good thing is a good thing.

So gang, even Sadie is aboard now. But Yin, your brow looks furrowed. You want to weigh in here?

—I understand what Adam and the others are saying, but there’s something about this that just doesn’t seem right to me. Something about the way Carnegie gets to decide if and when something happens.

Well, I can’t imagine what your problem is, Yin. I mean, it’s not like this is a democracy or anything.

—Yes! That’s it! Libraries are supposed to be democratic. Why does he get to decide?

—Because he has the money. That’s what rich people do. They get to decide. It doesn’t stop a town from building their own library if they want one.

—But Chris, there are some things in a society that the government really needs to do. It’s not like he can’t get rich. Or even give gifts. But when you start making the government an act of charity it really creates problems.

—What are you going to do? Ban people from building libraries?

—How about you tax rich people and then use that money for the libraries?

—You start taxing people that much they’re not going to bother making money.

—Is money the only reason people do something?

—Not the only reason. But the main reason.

—Is that why you go to school? To make money?

—Damn straight!

—Ugh.

—What gives you the right to look down on me for that?

OK, OK. Let’s step back here. Let’s agree that there are any number of reasons why people work hard, and that includes work hard in school. And that making money is one of them, and a legitimate one. Let’s also agree that people who are a lot smarter than we are argue about tax policy.

—No.

No?

—I don’t agree that there are people who are people who are a lot smarter than we are. I’m the LeBron James of high school students. And I get two foot-pounds of torque every time I push a pencil.

Agreed, Em. Kids, you’re all on my varsity squad.

—Oh, and one other thing, Mr. K?

What’s that?

—I’m the president of the class union. We have a few demands….

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