I have just finished an interesting new book: Nasaw, David. 2007. Andrew Carnegie (New York: Penguin), which caused me a bit of embarrassment.
In Railroading Economics, I emphasized Andrew Carnegie’s role in paying careful attention to the production process of steel in contrast to they banker-like perspective of the Morgan crew, which took over Carnegie Steel. This Nasaw’s story is not entirely different, but the emphasis certainly is. Nasaw totally explains that Carnegie ignored any concern with the minutia of the production process, but merely demanded reductions in cost.
The most important cost for Carnegie was labor. He plowed back about 75% of the company’s earnings into reinvestment, often in labor saving technologies. But even more important was the crushing of labor, especially the Homestead strike, which allowed him to increase the working day to 12 hours. This victory probably also greased the skids for the acceptance of new technology.
The book is a magnificent production. Nasaw had access to material that nobody else did.
Nasaw shows how important influence was in accumulating for Carnegie fortune. Carnegie reminds me of Balzac, who wrote:
“At the bottom of every great fortune… , there’s always some crime — a crime overlooked because it’s been carried out respectably.”
In the case of Carnegie, no great crime seems to have been responsible. Instead, Carnegie left a trail of innumerable crimes. Homestead was the most notable, but it had a number of less bloody precedents in his own company. In his earlier career as a bond salesman, Carnegie engaged in an almost habitual dishonesty along with continual shady dealings, such as kickbacks.
Carnegie was a master of accumulating political influence in the US and in Britain.
The most fascinating part of the book was Carnegie’s philosophy. An early age, he anticipated the basic idea of Herbert Spencer, who later became his idol. He decided he would accumulate great wealth, then rather than hoarding it, he would distribute it for noble causes.
Smashing the workers at Homestead was a moral act for him. The workers would not know what to do with any extra money they earned. He wrote:
“… there are higher uses for surplus wealth than adding petty sums to the earnings of the masses. Trifling sums given to each every week or month — and the sums would be trifling indeed — would be frittered away, nine times out of 10, in things which pertain to the body and not to the spirit; upon richer food and drink, better clothing, more extravagant living, which are beneficial neither too rich or poor.”
Libraries, museums, and concert halls would contribute more to human welfare, especially for people working 12 hours a day.