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Old 04-12-2009, 03:30 PM   #1
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US/Europe Cultural Divide -- Musings

Some of the earlier threads here got me thinking about the "cultural divide" that seems apparent between (some of) our US and (some of) our European members. This divide shows up in many areas -- for example the degree to which we expect the government to do something vs. individual action.

With the idea of this divide marinating in the back of my mind, I ran across reference to a book that is an underrated classic: Andrew Carnegie's Gospel of Wealth. And it suddenly struck me: Carnegie's approach to charity is a perfect exemplar of the difference in attitudes! I'm speaking here of what he says one should do, but not necessarily of his explanation of why you should do it.

For those who don't already know, Andrew Carnegie set the standard for private charitable giving in the US. After a classic rags-to-riches story (from penniless immigrant to richest man in the world in under 50 years), he then gave away more than 95% of his fortune! But that's not all -- he deliberately structured his giving to lead to a number of interesting goals:
("quotations" in the following are really my paraphrases, NOT direct quotes from the man himself!)
  • Most donations from Carnegie were matching funds. "You raise money for your library/church-organ/whatever, and I'll match what you raise." He felt that people valued what they worked for, so he almost never gave outright gifts that would fully fund something.
  • He deliberately chose charities that would be "in your face" challenges to the other business-people, tycoons, and rich socialites of his day. "My concert hall in Pittsburgh is bigger, plusher, and has better acoustics than anything you have in New York! And it has subsidized tickets for the less-than-wealthy, too." Or, "Nice museum you have here. Too bad you don't have a great collection of <dinosaur-bones/Egyptian artifacts/whatever>" Not because he was showing off (or at least mostly not), but rather to induce other wealthy people to pony up money for similar institutions in their cities. For example, the American Museum of Natural History in New York already existed, but Carnegie's example with his museum in Pittsburgh got the wealthy NY-ers to support the AMNH to a much greater degree than before ("We can't have the most important city in the nation out-done by a dirty, industrial, provincial city like Pittsburgh..."). In fact, that "we can't be outdone by Pittsburgh" thing actually worked wonders. Here in "da 'Burgh" we got museums, libraries, a world-class symphony, and all sorts of other cultural institutions. And dozens of other US cities got the same... because their wealthy industrialists couldn't stand the idea of "being outdone by Pittsburgh!" Carnegie was a sharp guy.
  • He heavily emphasized education and opportunity for all. There are thousands of Carnegie libraries around the world (not all with his name on them). After the tycoons of New York declined to pay for a free public library system, Carnegie shamed them by donating the then-unheard-of sum of $60 million to found the New York Public Library system. His donation paid for all the land and all the buildings. Then he rubbed their noses in it until they paid for the books.
  • More education and opportunity for all: Carnegie felt that the universities of his time were overly focussed on liberal arts educations for the upper crust (think "Ivy-league" here). So he started a school of his own, aimed partly at teaching the children of the workers so they could do better than their parents, and partly at research in science and technology that would provide useful economic impact. Carnegie-Mellon University is now at the very top of the rankings in Computer Science: a three-and-a-half-way tie with MIT and Stanford -- the and-a-half is Berkeley (sometimes). It's a top-tier science, technology, and engineering school as well. (Don't ask how we wound up with a top-rated Drama school, and darned good architecture and design schools -- it's a mystery to me!)
  • Carnegie deliberately set out to extend the impact of his example by writing The Gospel of Wealth. He sent copies to all the "captains of industry" of his day, and spent quite a bit of time exhorting them to follow his lead. Most didn't go as far as he did, but a short list of the results includes: A.W.Mellon giving his art collection as the core of the National Gallery; the Ford Foundation; the Mellon Foundation(s); the Field Museum in Chicago... A huge fraction of the large charitable foundations in the US were started because Carnegie jawboned his peers into charitable activity. The founders or early major funders of all the listed institutions specifically cite Carnegie as their inspiration. The list here is just off the top of my head (no research).
It's also interesting to note what Carnegie didn't do -- he didn't use his clout in Washington to get the government involved in these charities.

In the modern day, Warren Buffet (an investor you may have heard of) convinced this guy called Bill Gates to read The Gospel of Wealth -- sent him a copy and insisted on meeting to discuss it personally. Gates credits it with the idea to form the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, quit Microsoft, and go into the charity business for the rest of his life. And Buffet just donated several billion dollars of his fortune to said foundation.

But the Gospel of Wealth isn't just aimed at the ultra-wealthy. It's really aimed at all of us. Carnegie's charitable example became the epitome of what we all should do -- even when he's not cited by name. Of course you donate to a wide variety of charities. Of course you volunteer time to help with disaster relief/literacy/soup kitchens/international aid/whatever-floats-your-boat. It's not just neighborly, it's what Americans are supposed to do.


I suggest that a read through the book may help to illuminate some of the American side of this particular cultural gap.

Xenophon (who has blathered on, far far too much on this topic).

P.S. I'm not sure I'm intending to endorse Carnegie's reasoning behind the actions he recommends in his book. And I'm pretty sure I'm not endorsing his business practices (more on that in another post). But the actions he wants you to take really describe an American ideal to a T (in the area of charity).
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Old 04-12-2009, 03:48 PM   #2
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I failed to note: I'm particularly interested in other's perspectives both on Carnegie's advice w.r.t. charity and also on the topic of private charity vs. government action. All you Europeans out there need to enlighten me as to why your way is best! (or at least try to politely explain why you see things differently).

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Old 04-12-2009, 03:58 PM   #3
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Why do you always need a "best" way? German charity is a mixture based on three parts: government, churches (all religions), private funding. But let me play the advocatus diaboli:
I personally believe governmental charity to be fine because the government cannot differentiate. A governmental charity organisation cannot restrict itself to certain religious believes (like e.g. renting charity flats only to catholics), social groups or heritages - it has to be neutral and open for every one.
Churches and private fundings tend to be less neutral. Additionally governmental money is guaranteed - but private fundings can simply run away (Hey, you are not as loyal to me as I hoped, so I will stop funding your organization. Bad luck!)

Quote:
He deliberately chose charities that would be "in your face" challenges to the other business-people, tycoons, and rich socialites of his day.
And thats exactly why private funding is not always the best solution - charity is no (and should never become) a race. It should be based on reasoning and need, not "but I can do better" (because then some parts will be overrepresented and others will fall over the edge...)

Apart from all of this: One reason why nations / governments exist is simply because they should look after their people - all their people. It's not about "same for all" (before anybody raises the old communism stick), it's about "enough for all"
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Old 04-13-2009, 12:29 AM   #4
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@tirsales: "Why do you always need a "best" way?"

That was supposed to be a light-hearted invitation to explain how things look from over there. Not a "there's one best way" statement.

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Old 04-13-2009, 03:58 AM   #5
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Andrew Carnegie was responsible for the building of many libraries in the UK - a great man!

Here's the Carnegie Library in Kendal, Cumbria - a 100 years old this year.

Last edited by Sparrow; 04-13-2009 at 04:01 AM.
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Old 04-13-2009, 04:04 AM   #6
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Hardly surprising, since he was Scottish, after all. It's difficult to walk a dozen paces in Edinburgh (he was born in Dunfermline, a few miles outside Edinburgh) without finding something either "endowed" by him or named after him.
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Old 04-13-2009, 04:06 AM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Xenophon View Post
@tirsales: "Why do you always need a "best" way?"

That was supposed to be a light-hearted invitation to explain how things look from over there. Not a "there's one best way" statement.
Don't take statements like that too serious
I just wanted to state that I seriously dont think that there is a "golden" or "best" way - societies are different, laws are different, heck even nature is different. And as my post was meant as "purely pro governmental charity" (to give a contrapoint) I just wanted to clarify this beforehand
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Old 04-13-2009, 04:46 AM   #8
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Hi Xenophon,

I think the attitude in the UK, certainly, is that we should not have to rely on philanthropists for things like healthcare, education, libraries, concert halls, etc. They are a part of the "infrastructure" of society that it's the government's role to provide. Indeed, if that is not what the government's role is - to keep people healthy, well-educated, and with access to culture - one might well ask what it is that we have a government for at all!
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Old 04-13-2009, 05:00 AM   #9
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Quote:
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Hi Xenophon,

I think the attitude in the UK, certainly, is that we should not have to rely on philanthropists for things like healthcare, education, libraries, concert halls, etc. They are a part of the "infrastructure" of society that it's the government's role to provide. Indeed, if that is not what the government's role is - to keep people healthy, well-educated, and with access to culture - one might well ask what it is that we have a government for at all!
And yet, there is a commonly held view in the UK that we should 'tax the rich' to solve our problems - a sort of enforced philanthropism. ('Rich' being defined as 'someone wealthier than me'.)

Imho, there is some truth in the view that a few people outside the US blame the U.S.A. for everything - but this is a minority opinion, even if it is expressed loudly.
There also seems to be a minority view in the U.S.A. that the rest of the world aspires to be like them.
I think both views are only held by a small proportion of the respective populations - but it is annoying when one hears them aired, since neither is true.

Last edited by Sparrow; 04-13-2009 at 05:02 AM.
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Old 04-13-2009, 05:11 AM   #10
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And yet, there is a commonly held view in the UK that we should 'tax the rich' to solve our problems - a sort of enforced philanthropism. ('Rich' being defined as 'someone wealthier than me'.)
We should of course "tax the rich", and I'm not against high-earners paying a somewhat higher percentage of tax, because tax-free allowances inevitably form a much smaller percentage of the income of someone earning £100,000 a year than they do for someone earning £10,000 a year. I am certainly not in favour, however, of imposing "crippling" taxes on wealthy people.

Quote:
Imho, there is some truth in the view that a few people outside the US blame the U.S.A. for everything - but this is a minority opinion, even if it is expressed loudly.
There also seems to be a minority view in the U.S.A. that the rest of the world aspires to be like them.
I think both views are only held by a small proportion of the respective populations - but it is annoying when one hears them aired, since neither is true.
Yes, I agree with you.
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Old 04-13-2009, 08:33 AM   #11
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Hi Xenophon,

I think the attitude in the UK, certainly, is that we should not have to rely on philanthropists for things like healthcare, education, libraries, concert halls, etc. They are a part of the "infrastructure" of society that it's the government's role to provide. Indeed, if that is not what the government's role is - to keep people healthy, well-educated, and with access to culture - one might well ask what it is that we have a government for at all!
The purpose of government is to be a government, not a nanny.
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Old 04-13-2009, 08:36 AM   #12
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And therein lies the difference, Nate. You consider a government-run healthcare system to be a "nanny"; we perceive it as a basic duty of government to provide such a service, and free access to healthcare to be a fundamental human right.
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Old 04-13-2009, 08:41 AM   #13
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And therein lies the difference, Nate. You consider a government-run healthcare system to be a "nanny"; we perceive it as a basic duty of government to provide such a service, and free access to healthcare to be a fundamental human right.
Exactly what I was about to type
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Old 04-13-2009, 08:55 AM   #14
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And therein lies the difference, Nate. You consider a government-run healthcare system to be a "nanny"; we perceive it as a basic duty of government to provide such a service, and free access to healthcare to be a fundamental human right.
My emphasis - Who is 'we'?
There are dissenting voices on that point (that healthcare should be government-run) in Europe.
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Old 04-13-2009, 08:58 AM   #15
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We = the overwhelming majority of people in the UK. I think you'd struggle to find anyone in this country who is opposed to the basic idea of the NHS, don't you?

Certainly it's done differently in different countries, but I can't, off-hand, think of any Western European country that doesn't have some kind of state-run healthcare system. Do you know of one?
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