Steel construction maintains a huge market share in the US. Structural engineers design steel buildings every day, and most never think twice about the man whose name was once synonymous with the material: Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie did not invent steel. However, he was the first one that both realized how it would transform the world and with enough capital to do something about it. Steel, even the old-fashioned alloys that most engineers thumb their noses at today, was still such an amazing material that Carnegie became the 2nd wealthiest human ever based on his investment in steel.
Andrew Carnegie had a great business sense and knew a good deal when he saw one. But Carnegie realized that money was not all that important. He already knew that giving money to people not prepared to receive it was a bad idea. Instead of leaving a large inheritance or giving it away in a lottery, he wanted to do “real and permanent good” for people.
In fact, responsible management of charitable giving is hard work. For Carnegie, giving money away was more difficult than making it. It took a long time to give away so much money. In the end he set up many institutions to continue the process after his death. He laid out his philanthropic principles in his “Gospel of Wealth” publication.
His institutions sponsor all sorts of work even today, and his educational initiatives are legendary. The thousands of Carnegie libraries and the Carnegie Mellon University (my alma mater) are testament to the enduring power of educational efforts sponsored by his fortune.
Let’s imagine that Andrew Carnegie was alive today, with the same intense philanthropic desire to help people. What changes would a modern day Carnegie seek to effect in today’s society? What progressive programs could a person with $300 Billion kick-start, how could they usher in a new period of social growth in American Society?
I think Carnegie’s most successful charities were ones that engaged the efforts of others and resulted in secondary effects. His libraries brought great literature and books to cities throughout the US. The people who took advantage of these opportunities created the conditions that helped the US prosper in the 20th century.
But his libraries also helped create communities. The physical presence of the library cemented the status of city on many towns. The simple, institutional architecture was a visible reminder that people could build the US into a great nation.
However, the most important effect of his libraries was unseen. It was the fact that cities had to set up a permanent taxing structure to ensure support for the libraries. Without the ability to regulate taxes and set budgets, no library would be awarded. Thus, the populace willingly taxed themselves to help the common good.
So we revisit the question: What would Andrew Carnegie do today?
If we view his legacy in light of civic reform, I have some good ideas. Sponsor or subsidize the creation of some public amenity, institution, or capital improvement project and put some strict requirements on it. Maybe ask cities to bid for different projects, and instead of bidding money they bid in terms of civic reform.
Want a new university or voc-tech school? Then put in place a new zoning code that allows high-density development and mixed use space.
Of course, when the cities are very thirsty for capital projects, the bidding could get even more intense. How about a health insurance exchange program for the state, or a Robin Hood educational system, or even reform of the inane and discriminatory US drug policies? I digress, but my point should be clear by now.
Carnegie’s charitable givings were great for their intended purposes, but the unintended consequence of responsible civic government were probably even greater. A few cities here in the US could use a carrot to lead them to better governance. Maybe the Carnegie Library phase of this nation is over, but it’s still a fun fantasy for any urban planner.