Giving away a fortune

Andrew Carnegie circa 1878

KAI RYSSDAL: Do a quick search of the wire services today and you'll find the following: Carnegie Mellon University beat the University of Chicago 27-0 Saturday. Analysts at the Moscow Carnegie Center think there's a way to get Russia to go along with economic sanctions against Iran. And Bartok's on the program tonight at Carnegie Hall in New York.

All three of those institutions are a long way removed from the man whose money they now enjoy. From the controversy over how robber baron Andrew Carnegie got it, too. Historian David Nasaw's written a new biography of the man behind Carnegie Mellon University, Carnegie Hall, and the Carnegie Corporation. David Nasaw, good to have you with us.

DAVOD NASAW: Thank you.

RYSSDAL: I'm going to do something a little bit unconventional here. I'm going to ask you to think about what you knew of Andrew Carnegie before you started researching this book. What did you think of him?

NASAW: I was puzzled. I was worried about his reputation as a vicious, violent robber baron. And I was also intrigued by the fact that he spent half his life making millions and millions and millions of dollars, and the second half of it trying to give it away. And proclaimed that it was much harder to give it away wisely than it was to make that money.

RYSSDAL: How did he make that money? Born in Scotland, moves to the United States as a child, and winds up in Pittsburgh, turns it into THE Steel Town, doesn't he?.

NASAW: Yeah, he proclaimed that it was very much a case of being in the right place at the right time. Because he landed at a place that was the crossroads of East and West, the perfect location for making iron and then steel, and then figured out that the market for steel rails was saturated but the steel could be used to build skyscrapers. To make steel-plated armor for battleships.

RYSSDAL: You can't really talk about Andrew Carnegie without talking about his impact on the labor movement in this country. And I'm referring now, specifically, to the Homestead mine strike.

NASAW: Carnegie early in his career said, and acted on this, that he believed in unions. Then he looked into the future and he saw not only the promise of steel but he saw the danger to Pittsburgh of Chicago steel manufacturers. So he made it clear that in order to continue to make a profit he had to cut their wages. And he had to increase their workday from eight hours to 12 hours. Carnegie's decision to become a philanthropist made him much more ruthless. And he legitimizes it and says so quite frankly that if the money goes back to his workers in higher wages, they're going to eat more meat, drink more alcohol, spend more on clothes. It is better for him to take those few dollars a week out of their salaries and build a library or a concert hall for them.

RYSSDAL: Do you think he would recognize large-scale philanthropy today?

NASAW: No. He'd be very distressed and he'd sit down and lecture Warren Buffet. He'd say it's not enought to give away 85 percent of your Berkshire Hathaway stock. You've got to dedicate yourself to making sure that money is well spent. Carnegie was very much a beliver in Herbert Spencer's social Darwinism. And the fact that he had all this money was proof that he was smarter, and therefore he was in a better position than anybody else to spend it wisely. His greatest disappointment in life was that he couldn't give away all his money. He was defeated by the inexorable piling up of compound interest. In the end he realized he had no choice but to set up the Carnegie Corporation.

RYSSDAL: Was he just opposed to the accumulation of wealth as a social ill, or did he just not trust anybody to spend his money?

NASAW: He was in favor of 100 percent inheritence taxes. He thought that the building up of dynastic wealth was what had destroyed the old world. And he thought it was bad for the society. bad for democracy, bad for capitalism, and bad for the children of rich people to be left fortunes.

RYSSDAL: David Nasaw is a professor of history at the City University of New York. His latest work is a biography of Andrew Carnegie called, appropriately enough, "Andrew Carnegie." Professor Nasaw, thanks a lot for your time.

NASAW: Thank you.

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