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Thursday, October 13, 2011

October 13, 2011: Gospel Musings

The obscenely wealthy magnates whose industries, fortunes, and identities so dominated and defined the Gilded Age in America may have come to be known as robber barons—particularly after the publication of journalist and historian Matthew Josephson’s 1934 The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists—but in their own era, and with a great deal of help from their own narrative- and myth-making efforts, men like Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt were consistently linked to a much more positive phrase: the Gospel of Wealth. Carnegie himself first coined the phrase in his 1889 North American Review article “Wealth” (linked below), and his culminating paragraph there still serves as the concept’s most succinct definition: the opening image of the “millionaire” as “a trustee for the poor, entrusted for a season with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, but administering it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself”; and the closing critique of those wealthy Americans who choose not to use their wealth charitably: “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.”

Certainly we AmericanStudiers have to be very careful about accepting any narrative produced directly by those most implicated by it; but as with so many of the topics about which I’ve written here, the truths of this historical community and period likely lie in some complex combination of these different images. That is, there’s very little question that the fortunes of these Gilded Age magnates were indeed achieved with the help of a variety of shady means for which the term “robbery” does not feel inappropriate—a process that in many ways began with the eight year reign of one of our nation’s most corrupt presidential administrations, that of Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877); was facilitated by one of the most suspect Supreme Court decisions of all time (1886’s Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, in which the majority ruled that corporations were “people” and so protected by the 14th Amendment); and remained almost entirely unchecked until Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive movement’s early 20th century trust-busting efforts. Yet there’s also no question that many of these magnates did indeed use at least a good bit of their extreme wealth for a variety of very worthy causes: founding universities (Carnegie Mellon, Vanderbilt, Stanford), starting libraries (a favorite activity of Carnegie’s in particular), endowing grants and aid programs of all kinds (central to Rockefeller’s legacy), and so on. None of them died poor, nor did they leave their descendents bereft; but, to honor Carnegie’s terms, it’s fair to say that they didn’t necessarily die “thus rich” either.
When it comes to our contemporary, 21st century beneficiaries of what many commentators have described as a new Gilded Age (see link two for an example), the dividing line seems a bit clearer. The Wall Street uber-rich and the CEOs with billion-dollar bonuses and golden parachutes seem often to revel in the robber baron image and to reject the slightest intimation that they should be doing anything with their money other than, well, taking baths in it; the group of Wall Streeters drinking champagne and laughing on a balcony above the Occupy Wall St. marchers earlier this month would exemplify this side to our modern Gilded Age. On the other hand there’s the case of Bill Gates, one of the richest people in human history and yet someone whose philanthropic and charitable efforts and organizations seem almost literally boundless; Oprah Winfrey would be another prominent current example of a strikingly wealthy American who at the same time very publicly embodies a Gospel of Wealth philosophy. And then, in a significantly grayer area that reveals the complexities behind any such black-and-white division, would be the impetus for this post, Steve Jobs: Jobs famously limited his own opportunities for extreme wealth, taking only a $1 salary for his last few years with Apple (although he certainly didn’t have to go begging); yet he also did not, at least in any public or prominent way, use his or his company’s wealth for philanthropic purposes (although as I wrote yesterday the company itself performed significant social roles to be sure).

The point, as ever here, is multiple and ambiguous. Extreme wealth, and especially the resulting and inevitable gaps and inequalities it brings with it, is, to this AmericanStudier’s mind, a very dangerous and destructive force in our society. But since no individual can change such a force, it’s certainly better for the wealthy to practice, as fully and genuinely as possible, something like the Gospel of Wealth, right? Or does the Gospel serve more to mask their own continued enrichment, as an opiate for the masses of sorts? Is the Jobs version—of working to create a company that in some key ways enriches society, and limiting his own paychecks at the same time, but not necessarily doing charitable work per se—preferable? Inquiring, AmericanStudying minds want to know what you think! More tomorrow,

PS. Three links to start with:
1)      The Carnegie “Gospel” essay:

2)      An article by economist Brad DeLong linking the robber baron image to our contemporary wealth inequalities:

3)      OPEN: What do you think?

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