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61 of 67 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars well-written, but ultimately unsatisfying, June 29, 2006
This review is from: Carnegie (Paperback)
Peter Krass's biography of Andrew Carnegie is very well-written; he recounts the waypoints of Carnegie's life: his humble origins in Scotland, his jobs as a telegraph clerk, railroad executive, and steel magnate in the US, and his ultimate metamorphosis into a noted philanthropist and apostle for peace. When you first read this book, you really feel as if you are reading a good book. It's not until you start thinking about the claims Krass makes, and the lessons you think you have learned, that you realize it has gigantic holes.

My problem with this book is that Krass makes claims which are dubious, and doesn't furnish credible historical sources to substantiate his less flattering allegations. He doesn't do justice to the reality that Carnegie lived in a different time, nor does he seem to understand the dilemnas that Carnegie faced. Some examples: In the 1870s, the railroad industry was growing by leaps and bounds. When Carnegie won contracts to supply his own railroad-employer, he was one of the few people that the railroad's management knew to be capable, loyal as far as keeping trade secrets, and to have something to lose (his job), if problems arose later. Today this would be self-dealing and cronyism; back then, it happened all the time and sometimes was practically the only way to get the job done. By not putting this into the proper historical context, Krass portrays Carnegie in a false light. Similarly in the 1870s-1900s, the money supply and US economy oscillated between boom and bust. In bad times, when the sales of rails dropped by 85%, Carnegie had no choice but to lower wages at his mills, which Krass duly bemoans.

Krass's book is full of hints that Carnegie was an abusive employer. This is possible, but I wished he had provided wage data for Carnegie's employees, as well as for workers in the area and in comparable trades, so as to leave the reader in no doubt. Krass complains that Carnegie had his workers work either 56 hours a week in good times, and 84 in bad times, but doesn't mention most farmers could only dream of working 56 hours a week. How was Carnegie able to find employees for decades if he was a slave-driver? Krass makes much of the accidents that occurred in Carnegie's steel mills, and mentions that "Captain" Jones a plant manager who enjoyed both Carnegie's and the employees' trust and admiration, died in such a mishap. Jones was so close to both that when Carnegie offered Jones an equity stake in the company, he declined, lest the workers felt he had "sold out;" at this Carnegie paid Jones the salary of the President of the United States. I find it impossible to believe that a man of Jones' caliber would have let himself be forced to risk his life amidst unnecessarily unsafe machinery.

A serious historian won't discuss the safety records in those plants without mentioning other harsh facts of life in those days; the average life expectancy was in the order of 37 years, and presumably lower in the countries from which the many immigrants working in his steel plants had come. Jobs in the mills ultimately allowed the workers to provide their families with sanitation and other amenities that substantially reduced infant, child, and adult mortality. I can't say whether families were better off having their breadwinner work in workplaces that would be unacceptable by today's standards so that they could get out of unsanitary conditions that would be unacceptable by today's standards. But I can say that Krass, by ignoring that these trade-offs existed, and simply flinging mud, writes anti-history. One of Krass' "facts" is seriously wrong; no serious historian denies that the "Black Hand" was close to - perhaps even run by - influential circles in the Serbian army, but Krass does. Krass writes that the Habsburgs were intent on plunging Europe into war by insisting on an outside investigation of Prince Ferdinand's assassination, but doesn't explain how the Habsburgs could have afforded to let those who masterminded the murder of their crown prince go unpunished. This prompts me to question the extent of Krass's understanding of Carnegie's campaigns for peace.

None of this is to imply that Carnegie was beyond chicanery and reproach, but rather that Krass's case is utterly unpersuasive. The pity is that by consulting with competent economists, business historians, and management experts, Krass could have written a phenomenal book that would have inspired its readers, and many business students. Carnegie and his steel company was the Google or Microsoft of its day, and yet Krass has written a book that leaves its readers less enlightened at the end of the book than at the beginning.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 17, 2008, 2:44:19 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 17, 2008, 2:46:18 PM PDT
Janet Crane says:
Book on Captain Jones will probably be on market soon; Jones did take risks of a personal nature (he did two tours of duty in the Civil War---when men working in iron and steel were exempt). Carnegie on the other hand did not: he bought his way out of the Civil War and his ET mill--the most productive in the world at the time--was successful largely because of Jones's mechanical and managerial genius..

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 8, 2010, 11:43:17 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 8, 2010, 11:47:22 PM PDT
A. Armar says:
Janet is very correct, and unlike our friend lector, speaks precisely of the nature of Captains Jones's legacy. Mr. Carnegie was more famous for his majority interest in the company than his management of his steel/iron consortium. I wonder, can anyone recall the excuse Carnegie gave for being absent during the homestead strike?

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 3, 2014, 7:55:00 PM PST
He was overseas having a good time.
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