Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rags-to-Riches, Political Correctness, and Andrew Carnegie’s Autobiography

I am currently reading THIS free edition of Andrew Carnegie’s autobiography. It offers a thought-provoking window into a particular time and place.* Carnegie was the son of poor but respectable parents (his beloved father was a weaver who, in his son’s words, “failed to anticipate” and adapt to new methods of mechanization, and therefore was slowly driven out of business). In hopes of raising their fortunes, the family emigrated from Scotland to Pittsburgh, and thirteen-year-old Carnegie immediately joined the workforce. His third job, that of a telegram delivery boy, put him into contact with the railroad industry that was to make his fortune. Carnegie worked for the Pennsylvania railroad for some time before becoming a rail manufacturer and businessman on his own. His rise to wealth is of course legendary, as is his delight in “giving back” by funding libraries and cultural institutions across the nation and abroad. I have to laugh at the American insularity that resulted in complaints about his generosity to "foreign places" like his native Scotland.

The events of Carnegie's life are illustrative of the business changes that were then remolding the face of America. The book is not overly self-congratulatory (so far-- I'm not finished yet), and freely acknowledges various mistakes that Carnegie made in his career as well as his debt to many partners and employees along the way. Yet it is the sort that P.G. Wodehouse sometimes makes fun of (see “The Man, the Maid, and the Miasma” in The Man Upstairs and Other Stories, available for free from project Gutenberg). Carnegie’s story is part of the narrative that was so popular in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries—the idea that any truly bright, truly deserving boy, from any class, can (and perhaps will) become a millionaire. He need only guard and develop his moral character, cultivate knowledge by studying in his free time, and always go above and beyond in his job. Eventually, his employers will notice and promote him. Thus his chance will come.

Even though Carnegie acknowledges a certain degree of luck in his own early career (for instance, early on he narrowly avoided losing a large sum of money that had been entrusted to him for transport—had he lost it, the subsequent loss of trust from his employers would have been disastrous), his book also suggests that luck and/or Providence favor the deserving. I cannot help suspecting that to Carnegie, because wealth follows merit, it is also evidence of merit. Carnegie seems to see no distinction between the desire to acquire moral and mental refinement, and the desire to mix with wealthy citizenry. He expresses such thoughts with the freedom of a non-politically-correct era. The contrast between modern culture and Carnegie’s outlook was driven home to me when my husband suggested we watch an episode of the wacky Disney cartoon Phineas and Ferb. During our episode, a villainous character declares that he will drill from Mount Rushmore to China so as to create a highway through the earth and obtain millions of dollars. At once, a heroic character leaps in to stop this plan. Apparently, the capitalistic desire to obtain great wealth through the transportation industry is automatically villainous.

Our own cultural narratives have shifted so much that Carnegie’s story is no longer held up as suitable inspiration for schoolchildren everywhere. Why is this? It isn’t just because we have more sympathy for workers, or that we no longer admire business success. After all, we offer positive cultural narratives about people who found web companies. We do not withhold criticism from Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or Sergey Brin, but it is much more politically correct to offer their stories as inspiration to children than to hold up a "robber baron" like Carnegie.

Why are we willing to admire giants of the web, but not giants of industry?

Perhaps this is because human nature is annoyed by success stories that we have little chance of emulating. Manufacturing is no longer a Wild West of constant opportunity. The industrial economy is no longer exploding. No longer do we perceive it as likely that hard-working boys with little formal education can enter that field and become millionaires. Today, we would rather hear about a small town girl who became a famous actress, or about a high school outcast who started an internet business in his garage. We probably will never be as successful as those people, but we still maintain the perception that we could be. Perhaps that makes all the difference.

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