Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Tribute to Andrew Carnegie and His Dream of a Growing Nation

AIn a previous post, I talked about Benjamin Franklin, and why he still matters today. And in this post, I'd like to discuss why Andrew Carnegie should still be seen a hero and a role model for us today. Andrew Carnegie was not a perfect person, but nobody is perfect. The question is: can we learn from his successes and learn from his failings to help us become a better person?

First and foremost, I want to point out the following:   Andrew Carnegie created wealth, and lots of it. He did not take it from other people. He actually generated wealth. He figured out how to make iron & steel products really cheap, and that allowed the development of cheaper and stronger rail lines, buildings, bridges, factories, and power plants. He allowed us to grow, and therefore he generated wealth, i.e. the capability to do mechanical  and eventually electrical work. And while Andrew Carnegie was free to spend his wealth on personal luxuries or luxuries for his children & grandchildren. He did not do this. Instead, he donated the money that he generated to build libraries, universities, public schools, the Peace Palace, Musical Conservatories, and even collegiate sports venues. He gave his money away to projects that he thought could help grow society. And he was smart enough to realize that growing society involves growing the mind of future generations so that they can build the factories and power plants of the future. As Edward de Vere probably once said and Carnegie echoed years later, "It is the mind that makes the body rich."
But what's even better is that Andrew Carnegie not only gave away his wealth, he also articulated his philosophy of life in his many books. He articulated the 'why' behind 'why we should become rich' and the 'how' behind 'how we can become rich.' You can read for yourself what he thinks are the The Laws of Success.  Another good book that articulates his philosophy is Think and Grow Rich.

I don't want to focus on the details of his biography because this information can be found on the web or in books. For example, I highly suggest Andrew Carnegie and the Rise of Big Business, even though the author has a slight anti-business agenda, the author does a good job of mostly sticking to the facts, and of telling a good story. There's probably a couple of copies of it in any public library, and should be required reading for middle school or high school students.

The reason that Carnegie should be required or suggested reading is that he had some interesting things to say about how to successfully live one's life.
For example, the following is the "Andrew Carnegie Dictum":
  • To spend the first third of one's life getting all the education one can    (camel)
  • To spend the next third making all the money one can                          (lion)
  • To spend the last third giving it all away for worthwhile causes            (baby)

While this dictum is infinitely better than the "To each, from each" dictum of Karl Marx, Andrew Carnegie's dictum should be tweaked on a person-by-person basis. It shouldn't be some rule set in stone, but I think that this is an important guideline to live one's life. In the first phase of your life, you learn as much as possible. You go to college, or you go to tech school. For some people, this includes graduate school and post-graduate education. Then in the second phase, you generate wealth...either as a doctor, a teacher, a police officer, a judge, an engineer, a professor, or an entrepreneur. In this phase of your life, you start creating a family, and passing your knowledge on to your children. And then, in the last phase of your life, you start giving your wealth away and you donate your time to your community. This might mean giving your money to your grandchildren while teaching them how to save and how to invest wisely. It also might mean donating your time and money at a local public library.  Or it might mean starting a non-profit like Bill Gates, who donates money to projects that help people across the globe. (such as donating laptops to children who can't afford them, or installing water treatment plants in rural villages)

Andrew Carnegie lived the dream, and he articulated the dream. Growth through education at the beginning, hard work/dedication in the middle, and generosity at the end of life.

While he could articulate his ideal life, Carnegie was not an ideal, perfect person. He had his faults, most of which revolved around not taking responsibility for bad situations that he could have prevented. For example, his main failing revolves around the Homestead  Strike of 1892. (There were other failings as well.) The problem in 1892 was that he had previously stated in his books that it's immoral to replace striking workers with new workers. But that's exactly what happened in 1892. Carnegie left Pittsburgh to go back to his hometown in Scotland, and he left Henry Frick in charge of his steel mills. When the workers of the Homestead steel mills went on strike, Henry Frick decided to bring in new workers to the plant. Worse, Henry Frick decided to bring in hired guards to capture the steel mine, in order to prevent the original workers from blocking the entrances for new workers to enter the mills. [On a side note, all that remains of the Homestead steel mills are some smoke stacks in a parking lot next to a movie theater. The times have changed.]

Why did Carnegie trust his business to somebody like Frick who was likely to use force to make sure that the plant continued to operate? Carnegie had successfully negotiated labor disputes in the past by just closing down his mills until he came to an agreement with the labor unions. Giving the reins to Henry Frick was one of the decisions that he regretted most in his life, and he eventually did something about it by firing Frick. (Though it took a few years before he finally did fire him.)

So, what are we left with? Should we see Andrew Carnegie as a hero or should we see him as an evil capitalist?  Sadly, it probably depends on your philosophy of life.  If you think that the goal of life is to be happy, then you probably won't see Carnegie as a hero. I sure wouldn't use the word happy to describe Carnegie's life. Instead, I'd use the words:  delayed gratification. His philosophy was:  You work hard at the beginning and middle of your life, and then you will have earned the pleasure at the end. But the point was never the pleasure, the point was to help grow life. That's a difficult thing to do, particularly because there are so many ways to waste time/money/energy (including blogging...)  Growing life is difficult. (At first you might think that it's easy to grow life...but tell that to all of the extinct species that used to exist on this planet.) Life is difficult because the goal of life is to grow, and growth is difficult.

To end this post, I'll leave you with both the good and the bad of Andrew Carnegie:
1) He founded the Carnegie Institute of Technology
2) Men worked (often to their death) at his steel mills
3) He fought against America's imperialism in the Philippines, and donated to the Peace Palace
4) He paid his workers wages that would be considered well-below minimum wage today
5) He donated the money that started the Pittsburgh library system

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