Carnegie & Contemporary Excuses

Andrew Carnegie’sWealth” (aka the Gospel of Wealth) is this week’s assignment in my discussion sections. I remember reading it when I was an undergrad – which is when I was a libertarian. I don’t recall if it was in an Ayn Rand type anthology or a Foundation for Economic Education piece. Rand would have said Carnegie was too altruistic and soft-hearted. The FEE people would have seen it as pretty mainstream.

Carnegie (1835-1919) was a self-made industrialist, possibly the original “rags to riches” story. He was also worth $298 billion (in 2007 dollars) at his death. “The man who dies…rich, dies disgraced,” he said at the end of “Wealth.”

The essay was written for the June 1889
North American Review (Boston, est. 1815 to “foster a genuine American culture”). On July 1 1889, the Amalgamated Association of Iron & Steel Workers struck at the Homestead steel mill July 1, 1889 after manager (Frick) cut wages, arguing that better technology (paid for by company) allowed them to produce 2x the steel as before. Some of Carnegie’s arguments are annoyingly paternalistic, but also funny. Higher wages, he suggests, would be squandered by workers. Better to retain them as corporate profits, so the industrialist can use them to endow a park, and art museum, or a library. Wait a minute! What happened to property rights? Isn’t this socialism directed by the oligarchy? Don’t we have a word for that? Oh, yeah. Fascism.

Of course, he
does have a point. A bump in wages would probably put more beer in the bellies of industrial workers. So there’s a question behind all this, about public and private spending, and who decides what constitutes the “public good.” But is it credible that a guy like Carnegie, living when he did, knowing who he knew, could say the rich are more virtuous than the poor, or better qualified to decide on, then manage programs for the public good? “If thou dost not sow, thou shalt not reap,” Carnegie warns all the ne’er-do-wells who’d like a piece of that public pie. He forgets to mention, “oh, by the way: I fenced in all the fields.”

It’ll be interesting to see what the undergrads do with this piece. It couldn’t be much more contemporary – all the language, assumptions, and arguments are in play every night on the news. “Imperfect as they may appear to the idealist, [capitalist ideals] are…the best and most valuable of all that humanity has yet accomplished.” Leads directly to “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good…” Thanks anyway, Mr. Obama. I’m not buying your false choices.


So, I’m one week into the PhD grad program in History. Is it different from the Masters? Well, I’m teaching, so that’s a new twist. As far as the classes go, I’ve been to all but one (which wasn’t held last week due to Labor Day), and they seem about the same. Mix of MA and PhD students, and people from other disciplines may add to that. So far, caliber of the faculty seems universally high.

I volunteered to read an extra book in my Environmental History seminar, because I’d already read the assigned book. This additional book is a challenge – in the sense that I have a lot of critical things I want to say about it, and it’s a challenge, finding constructive (or at least not flagrantly nasty) ways of saying them. The author is alive and teaching in a major Env. History program, so I’m not going to put the notes I’ve taken so far onto my “reading” blog unedited. But I’m not going to say nothing…

Having my first planning meeting with the Prof. on the class I’m TAing. Will be interesting to see how much he wants to direct the process, and how much rope he gives us to run the sections. I wonder what I’d want to do, if I was the Prof.?

This afternoon’s “boot camp” seminar is going to be discussing two texts I read (and blogged) weeks ago. I’ll revisit them in a couple of hours, and see if there’s anything I want to add. Or subtract. I’ve talked to a couple of people about these readings – I’m curious what type of range of responses we’ll get in this group. The class is made up of all the incoming grad students, so it’s going to be big and diverse, relative to most grad seminars.

So far, I haven’t felt like I’m not going to be able to stay ahead of the reading or do the level of surrounding work I like to do. But I’m not doing a research project this semester, either.