Aren't the robber barons looking better all the time? At least they shared their wealth with the rest of us, in civic gifts for the greater common good. We the people appreciate that more in these hard times.
Here in Washington, steel baron Andrew Mellon bequeathed not only a majestic marble building, but many of the art masterpieces inside the National Gallery of Art collection. Thank you for sharing, Andrew. Admission to artistic inspiration is free to drink, as free as water from the gold fountains. Other great halls strung like gems across the East Coast—does Carnegie Hall ring a bell?—are thanks to the good old robber barons.
"Bring back the Gilded Age," I always say when I see the people at the Occupy Washington settlement tents near the White House. J.P. Morgan, Leland Stanford, and Andrew Carnegie, where are you when we need you? At least you remembered us—in your cultural good works and in your wills. Railroad, steel, and oil family fortunes were not all squandered for personal glory, but also for educating and enhancing the public squares of America. Yet you have few 21st-century heirs.
Wall Streeters today with magnificent fortunes are living large and high in their penthouses, thanks to the good graces, full faith, and credit of the U.S. Treasury bailout. But did the American people ever get a thank you note? I don't think so. And "giving back" in the charter school movement does not really cut it in my court. I'm thinking big, like the robber barons did—for everybody.
For college graduates looking for work and pressed over student loans, for seniors working full-time, concerned their pensions won't stretch long enough, and for middle-class families who count every dime when Christmas is coming, there is not a lot of margin for error nor emergency. That may be why the Occupy movement message, as diffuse and vague as it is, is registering on the collective Richter scale as a real populist outcry.
A deep sense of unfairness dwells upon the land. The 99 percent can only laugh or cry when those in the 1 percent, many in Congress, accuse them of "class warfare." The war's been pretty well won, hasn't it? Where do we sign the surrender papers?
Of everything President Obama has done to the economy, his extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy late last year was probably his worst choice. Feeling the pain of losing the House in the 2010 election "shellacking," the president did not sense the rumbling of discontent across the land. Obama has been late for the ground game this year, but now things are as clear as they can be. There's no middle political ground, which he desperately sought to stand on.
To return to the robber barons, Pittsburgh, a pleasing city on hilly topography, is practically a monument to the trio: Carnegie, Mellon, and Henry Clay Frick. These gentlemen made their money in steel, of course. Carnegie became the greatest public library philanthropist of all time, building free systems and branch libraries not only in Pittsburgh but in cities across the country. The city of Baltimore's vintage branches (some now closed) were built with Carnegie bequests roughly a century ago.
Creating libraries open to all comers turned out to be one of the best ways to truly democratize America's vast ethnic enclaves. In fact, one could say this gift helped to "Americanize" the crazy quilt of immigrant families of various cultures, languages and experiences washing up on our shores from Europe, from little villages and cities in Russia, Poland, Germany, Italy, Ireland, and so on.
Morgan and Frick were avid collectors of the most exquisite art and rare manuscripts in the world. Both have museums named after them in New York, formerly their own mansions. Frick was a steel magnate; Morgan, a financier, helped do deals and mergers in every major industry of his time.
Not to forget Leland Stanford, a railroad man in the West, who founded and named a lavish university for a namesake son who died young. He commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted, the great landscape architect of Central Park, to draw some ideas that were not fully developed. Nothing but the best would do. Today, the private Stanford University, coed from its inception, is among the greatest research institutions in the nation, many thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Stanford, who spent their riches in a meaningful personal yet public way.
John D. Rockefeller of Cleveland, the enormously wealthy head of Standard Oil, said Carnegie's philosophy of philanthropy influenced his own. I did not know this stern man established the excellent liberal arts college Spelman College in Atlanta to educate African-American women in the 1880s; did you? With his millions, he later founded a far different place—the private University of Chicago, in 1901.
You know, I will admit Morgan looks freakishly forbidding with his bulbous nose. Ain't sayin' the robber barons would be fun to hang out with, except perhaps Carnegie. After all the love lavished on Steve Jobs after he left us, it's clear he was one cool guy, but hell, no Carnegie as a genius of philanthropy. Jobs could have jump-started the entire U.S. economy with his $8 billion holdings. But as far as we know, he left no large lavish gifts in the public square for us all to open and share freely. It will be a lean Christmas.
Compared to his own contemporaries, the exceptional Melinda and Bill Gates, founders of a global foundation helping to eradicate disease and poverty, Jobs' selfish streak is part of a character Dickens could have created. In fact, perhaps he did: a miser named Scrooge.