Thursday, September 13, 2007

Man of Steel

This is the second of my posts on topics from the recent World Magazine “Effective Compassion” issue. One the many towns I grew up in had a “Carnegie Library”. When I first moved to that town, I thought that this designated a type of library, kind of like a “convertible Mustang.” I later learned that this meant that it was one of the approximately 2500 public libraries built by money donated by Andrew Carnegie. According to one of the articles in World (“the Carnegie Way” by Marvin Olasky), it is estimated that Carnegie gave away at least a majority of his fortune... gifts estimated at about $5 billion in today’s dollars. In addition to the libraries, modern institutions which can trace their beginnings back to the Carnegie gifts include Carnegie Hall and Carnegie-Mellon University. What the article doesn’t include is that Carnegie funds or foundations also were driving forces behind the Carnegie Institution of Washington (the scientific research parent of, among other things, the Carnegie Observatories) and the founding of TIAA-CREF (a non-profit retirement fund for teachers and college professors that is one of the largest financial institutions and forces for financial security in the U.S. today).

Yet, as Prof. Olasky’s article describes, Carnegie’s lifestyle was not and is not immune to criticism: Carnegie’s Manhattan home

“had 64 rooms. Its sub-basement had rail tracks for cars filled with coal to feed a row of furnaces. Carnegie burned up a ton of coal on winter days to keep his house warm. His wine cellar had over 1,500 expensive bottles, and he ordered 50-gallon casks of Dewars when he threw a party.”

How, and who are we, to judge the sum of such a life. It’s kind of easy to say that this is one of those “planks in your own eye” moments. But does that mean it would be OK for a Christian to criticize Carnegie's lifestyle if he had given away “only” $200,000? Or would he be immune from criticism if he had given away $8 billion and his home was “only” 16 rooms? By the way, much of what I see on the web suggests that Carnegie, despite his Presbyterian upbringing, was an agnostic ( see for example this web entry). I think that this brings us full circle back to Doug’s post on Fluid Paradigms (August 30th, below). Also, keep in mind what Doug has been saying about proposals for a "consumption" tax.

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