Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Charity Case

The Felix Chronicles, #12

In which we ask: Who paid for those libraries?

“So," I ask the class in attempt to fight off post-lunch torpor, "what did you think of that Andrew Carnegie reading?”

“Well, I guess he’s the classic American Dream story. Immigrant comes over, works hard, gets rich,” Lisa says.

“To be sure.”

“And screws everyone else in the process,” Joey observes.

Everyone else? What do you mean, Joey?”

“OK, maybe not everyone else. But what he did 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? Tomorrow we’ll talk about that horrid little man, Eugene Debs, who had some peculiar ideas about the role of capital and labor that you would apparently find attractive, Joey. But today I want to talk about charity, Carnegie style.”

“You keep saying ‘Car-nay-gee. Is that the right way to say it?” Kim asks.

“Yes. Car-nay-gee. Like Thorr-row.”


“Maybe so. Anyway, as you know, Mr. Carnegie becomes the dominant figure in the American steel business. Which puts him right at the center of the industrial revolution. Because steel is absolutely crucial. A man-made material derived from iron – like crude oil, which has to be refined before it can be a workable fuel, iron must be manipulated at very high temperatures to become steel – it has all kinds of applications. It’s indispensable for the railroad business, for example. Steel was 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 important because it’s light?” Samantha asks. She’s writing her research essay on the skyscraper.

“That’s right. The fact that steel is both incredibly strong and relatively light makes it possible to erect really tall buildings, for example. Steel is so important, in fact, that it becomes a measure of a nation’s industrial prowess – a country’s place in the international pecking order was often ranked in terms of how much steel it produced. That was true well into the twentieth century, when the ruler of China, Mao Tse Tung, essentially starved his own people in a mad quest to boost steel production. But that’s another story. The point is that Carnegie is a very rich man, and he becomes even richer after J.P. Morgan buys him out in 1901 for something like a billion dollars.”

“Pocket change,” Joey interjects.

“Maybe so. 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 simply to give money away. He thinks it’s important to help people help themselves.”

“That ‘give a man a fish versus teach him to fish' thing,” Susan says.


“So Carnegie makes an offer to small towns all around the country. He says that education was the key to his success, and that the key to his education were public libraries. That’s why he says he will – and does – build hundreds of libraries and stocks them with books. But he has a condition: the recipients of these gifts must promise to maintain the libraries and staff them appropriately. My question is this: Does this seem like a good deal to you?”

There’s a pause. A long one. At first I’m glad. Then I start to get a little nervous.

“Well, sure,” Susan finally says. “I mean, why not?”

“I agree,” Nate says.

“Yeah,” says Alec. “After all, it’s his money.”

Aha. My opening. “But is it?”

“Well, yeah,” Alec says. “I mean, he earned it, didn’t he?”

“Well, I dunno, Alec. What do you mean by ‘earn?’”

“What are you talking about, he ‘earned,’ it?” Joey says irritably. “He stole it!”

“Look: it was his company,” Nate says. “The whole thing was his idea. I mean, yes, he had people working for him, but without him the company wouldn’t have happened. He was a talented guy.”

“Yeah, he was talented at ripping people off.”

“It’s like he’s Alex Rodriguez,” Chris says. “Yes, he makes a lot of money. But he packs the stadium. Carnegie here sold a product that a lot of people wanted to buy. Some people are like unbelievably valuable.”

“It depends what you mean by valuable,” Susan replies. “I think I’m changing my mind on this. There’s a lot of people who do incredibly important things who don’t make a lot of money. Like policemen.”

“Or day-care workers, I say. They help make people who make money. But there’s not Hall of Fame for Day-care providers. No play-by-play for the incredible stroking technique – ‘Did you see that? The move she made with her wrist? That gentle turn. Let’s watch it again on the replay.’” Some smiles and laughter, which dies down into a pause.

“I don’t disagree with Joey,” Kim says. “Carnegie wasn’t really a nice guy. You don’t become as successful as he was without stepping on people along the way. Still, he was trying to help people here. I mean, not every rich person of the time did this kind of thing, did they?”

“No,” I answer. “Many did not. Carnegie was not alone. John D. Rockefeller, for example, also did a lot of philanthropic work. We still recognize those names today for the hospitals, research centers, and other institutions they founded. Then there were other people, like James J. Hill, who were scoundrels. And happy to be known as such. ‘At least I’m not a hypocrite,’ they would say.”

“Kim’s right,” Beth avers. At some point you have to be willing to say a good thing is a good thing. No one made Carnegie build those libraries. They surely did some people some good.”

There’s no quick rejoinder for this. But Lisa’s brow is furrowed. “You look like you’re struggling with something,” I observe.

“I am,” she replies. “I understand what Kim and Beth are saying, but it doesn’t quite sit right with me. There’s something about the way this guy gets to decide where and how he’ll do something, the way he can dictate his good deeds.”

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

“Exactly! That’s it. Why does he get to decide?”

“ Because it’s his money,” Chris replies. And yes, he’s rich, but that’s what rich people do – what they want.”

“Well maybe voters should get to choose,” Lisa replies, annoyance in her voice. “Taxpayers, right?”

“Yeah,” says Joey. “We should tax the hell out of people like Carnegie. Who’s looking out for the rest of us?”

Ted, who’s been quiet for the whole class – no doubt because he didn’t do the reading – looks puzzled by Joey’s vehemence, perhaps because he’s begun paying attention in the waning minutes of class. “What about unions?” he asks.

I seize on this. “Unions? What’s a union?”

Now Ted looks even more confused. “You know, unions. For workers.”

“Why Ted, I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about. Fascinating concept, though. An organization that looks out for the interests of workers? Hmmmm. Let me look into that and get back to you. That’s all for today, people. When we meet again on Thursday, maybe we can have a little investigation into this union business.”