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Am I My Brother's Keeper? - 26 July 2002

Some years ago, I had a letter from the editor of an English weekly news magazine simply saying that he listened to these talks and from time to time I had given the idea for a story that his paper should cover.

This letter crossed with one from me to the editor of the same weekly congratulating him on the paper's coverage of the United States, as the best informed and most grown-up, shall we say, of any European publication I knew.

I added that, from time to time, they had printed a piece which had given me the idea for a talk. A very decent and civilised exchange.

The other morning, the first news I came on was some suspected shady relation of my own bank with Enron.

And - having read yet again that this administration will deny its contribution to the United Nations' population control effort so long as any American money goes to countries that approve or advise abortion - it was in a despairing mood that I sifted around for a topic, something to say that would fairly remind people that America is more than what some think of as the bully and, at the moment, a sink of business corruption.

I had just come on an old editorial in a highly respected paper here commenting on Mr Ted Turner's one billion dollar gift to the United Nations, remarking that this was an admirable gesture but it was, after all, an act of private charity and did not excuse American policy on population control - an example of thinking gone askew, if ever I saw one.

Having found no good thing to say, I switched on to watch one of the several Senate and House committee meetings that are investigating the various outbreaks of what Mr Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, has identified as an infectious disease - he didn't say whether it was also contagious - it is named Greed.

Greed has become a favourite journalistic bash word in the past month or two, and the interest in it went, the other morning, into a serious question put to a witness before a Congressional committee.

"In the motion picture Wall Street" (I believe it was) - "in that motion picture, d'you remember a character saying "Greed is good?" The witness did. "Would you, then, agree with that characterisation?"

There was a rustle of laughter and helpful cough or two - allowing the witness to smile and not answer this fatuous question.

At another hearing, being conducted by a chairman with an extraordinary (for a Senator), I should say a unique gift for simple English - he faced the CEO (chief executive officer) of a giant corporation that was about to collapse in great debt and much shame. And this is the way the dialogue went:

"Is it true that when you resigned from the company you took with you a bonus or package of earnings of some 28 million dollars?"

"That is correct."

"28 million dollars is a lot of money, is it not?"

"Yes, I suppose it is."

"Did it ever occur to you to use some of it to compensate the several thousand employees of your company who are now out of work and with their savings gone?"

"No"

"Why not?"

"I'd done my part for the company - I didn't have any further obligation."

End of chilling dialogue.

At that moment, there came to my mind a scene and a sentence spoken by the most famous of Scottish immigrants to the United States.

He was a ragged, poor, small boy born in a stone cottage. Later he was the neat, cherubic little monopolist of the so-called United States Steel Corporation.

And on the first day of the twentieth century he performed two public gestures. He sold the corporation for 250 million dollars (today, that would be about 10 billions) and he relinquished his empire with the flourish of a magazine article that ended: "Farewell, the age of Iron - all hail King Steel!"

Now, it has to be said that the tiny, dapper 65 year-old Andrew Carnegie had acquired his empire by means both ingenious and brutal - with the sweat of many thousands of immigrants, often underpaid, and also with the conniving of other robber barons, most notably the tougher still Henry Frick, king of coke (what comes out of heating coal, not what comes out of the coca leaves).

At sixty-five, Carnegie retired.

If you write that today about most tycoons or businessmen who are sent off with a golden parachute, many of us assume they will retire to a lavish country house and play golf for the rest of their days. It is the exception to the rule.

Little Mr Carnegie was asked what he was going to do now? He was not at a loss for words.

He spent the last few years of his working life working on a philosophy of wealth. He called it "The Gospel of Wealth". He published it and among the eminent men it impressed, foremost was the ageing god of the British liberals, Mr Gladstone.

In an interview Carnegie said "the problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth".

Asked more pointedly what he was going to do with his vast wealth, he said: "Give it away", because, he said firmly: "The kept dollar is a stinking fish... the man who dies rich dies thus disgraced".

These are grand words. And you can imagine, very soon after he spoke them, there was no shortage of people who felt urgently in need of his philanthropy.

The first humble petitioner was a Scottish Presbyterian church. It was desperately in need of a pipe organ. He bought them one and the Scottish newspapers hailed "our wee Andy Carnegie" as a godsend to mankind.

Other papers around the world picked up the story of the curious gift, and until the day he died, he never ceased to get requests for pipe organs.

In all, he provided seven thousand pipe organs for churches and chapels from John O'Groats to Cape Town. It became a sideline to his main effort.

As a small boy, he had been amazed and delighted that he, a poor unlettered immigrant had a right to a card entitling him to borrow books from a free library in Pittsburgh.

He never forgot it, and presented over three thousand public libraries, first in America, then Britain, most of Europe, on into Africa, and the last one in Fiji.

His will disclosed that he was worth 400 million dollars.

Three hundred and fifty millions went to public benefactions. Thirty millions for well remembered tenants, crofters and servants and old friends (Britain's prime minister - another poor boy born in a stone cottage - was surprised and delighted to hear that he would have ten thousand dollars a year for life.

One of the most thoughtful things that Carnegie did was to set up pensions for widows of former Presidents of the United States. Congress had never thought of it - but Carnegie's gesture shamed Congress into catching up by passing a law.

For his wife and daughter, Carnegie left a trust fund which would (and did) keep them in comfort but only through their lifetime. He loathed family trusts as much as Jefferson did, and wrote in his will: "I would as soon leave my son a curse as the Almighty Dollar".

Jefferson put it a simpler way: "In this new republic, every man will make his own way".

I quote the story of Andrew Carnegie because of the picturesque range of his endowments. There were many more in the age of what Teddy Roosevelt called "malefactors of great wealth" - who also did great good with it.

Now I started this talk remember with the coincidence of my picking sometimes the same theme to talk about as that English magazine.

This week this talk was well under way when my subscribed copy of the same paper arrive at my door. And what do you know - the first name I ran into was that of Carnegie and his famous sentence "The man who dies rich dies disgraced".

There followed a piece of great eloquence on just what I had in mind. The author's pen name is Lexington, and he does a regular American commentary in the Economist.

He writes "Relying on philanthropy is a pretty roundabout way of providing social goods". But then he goes on to say in effect that when philanthropy is so widespread, so staggering in its scale, so imaginative in its object, then in this country it manages to match all but the nation-wide efforts of government.

"Think", says the writer, "think of great universities - Stanford and Chicago founded by private wealth; the California Institute of Technology.

Do not forget that in the 1990s, the decade of greed, Bill Gates' endowment amounted to 24 billions. One retired business man, Gordon Moore, is devoting just under six billion dollars to work on national health and the environment.

It is, says Lexington, because of the responsibility many rich men feel to the society that bred them that "America leads the word in medical research."

Incidentally, recent research study reveals an interesting and, I should say, little known social fact that the richest Americans give the highest percentage of their incomes to charity - which, of course, is as it should be.

Down the scale, however, middle-class Republicans give next best - lower middle-class people next - and down at the bottom are leftists and liberals who, of course, believe on principle that the welfare of the needy and the sick and old and disabled is an obligation of Big Daddy in Washington.

On the contrary, a majority of Americans, rich and poor, aim at the actual requirement of the Mormons - to tithe - to set aside every year ten per cent of their income for charity.

In this anxious time, it is heartening to some of us to know that for most Americans the answer to the self-questioning "Am I my brother's keeper?" is - "You bet".

THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

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