Jonathan Begley

January 5, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: ANDREW CARNEGIE by David Nasaw

Filed under: Reading — jonathanbegley @ 5:36 pm

David Nasaw was successful in painting a true picture of the life of the steel titan Andrew Carnegie. I was thoroughly entertained with his description not only of the man, but of the time. Many know Andrew Carnegie as the Bill Gates of the early 20th century. Others know of his exploits in philanthropy. I now see him as a man who overcame great obstacles, who made the most of the opportunities before him, and whose ego affected the lives of millions of people around the world.

Carnegie was well aware that his success was in large part the result of being in the right place at the right time. Obviously, he had business and personal skills to help carry him, but Carnegie was introduced to the right industry (telegraph), where he met the right businessmen, who then introduced him to investing and the steel industry. And this just wasn’t the steel industry that we see today. It was the steel industry in the times of America’s expansion west. Hundreds of thousands of railroad miles, a majority made from Carnegie steel.

Compare this story with that of Bill Gates. Obvious intellect and talent, but if Gates was born ten years sooner or later, where would he be now? Where is the right place to be now, renewable energy? How about social media? The coming decade should be interesting to say the least.

Back to Carnegie. He early in his fortune planned to make money to then give it away. In his mind he was convinced that his purpose on earth was to make as much money as possible, in whatever means necessary, to then give this money back to society in whatever manner he felt most appropriate.

This sounds great on first glance. I am sure most of us would agree that this behavior from the executives of Enron, Bear Stearns, or AIG would be a breath of fresh air. When you look deeper, however, you see the ruthless businessman he was; content to let his beloved Pittsburgh starve and freeze in the dead of winter to save on labor costs. His rational behind this was that the more money he made, the more he would give back. And who knew better what this world needs than himself? The man had an insatiable ego. He constantly talked of himself, rarely worked, and took advantage of his business partners. He had intimate relationships with several presidents, world leaders, businessmen, and even Samuel Clemens (not because they really loved his company). Carnegie did give back in the end, almost all of it. He made education more available for thousands of people in the U.S. and Europe, but at what cost?

Was the end worth the means?

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