MONEY & MORALS
August 12, 1998
David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, engages writer Patricia O'Toole, author of Money and Morals in America.
Patricia O'toole discusses American attitudes toward wealth.
DAVID GERGEN: Patty, some nine years ago you walked out of a hotel here in Washington and went out and saw in the midst of a lot of opulence homeless people on the streets. And that set you on an investigation of the character of America, and you went way back in history. What did you find?
PATRICIA OíTOOLE, Author, "Money & Morals in America:" I went back to the Puritans. Actually, I started with Columbus, but I ended up not writing about it. Columbus came to this country, and to my mind on a business trip, more or less, and the Puritans came to found a new and better, more idealistic society, and the tension between those two things, the opportunity for individual wealth and the aspiration to create a better, more open, more democratic, equal society has been with us ever since.
DAVID GERGEN: The notion of Columbus coming for an Eldorado and John Winthrop coming to find a city upon a hill.
PATRICIA O'TOOLE: Thatís right.
DAVID GERGEN: And that tension played itself out in Puritan days all up and down the East Coast.
PATRICIA O'TOOLE: Thatís right. They had this extravagantly idealistic notion of they would found a society on Christís imperative to love one another. And it worked for about a week and a half. All the shortages that there are in a wilderness of labor and materials--everybody had an opportunity to charge more for what they could contribute in the way of labor, or ask more for goods they had for sale, and that set off a round of price and wage controls that were sort of on and off for many years until--actually what solved the problem was more immigrants coming, so there were more customers for things that--produce, for example, that people raised and also more labor.
DAVID GERGEN: So you had posed almost against each other one very strong sense of individualism, getting ahead, making your own way in the world, and against that idealism, creating a community, having something that was special, a chosen people.
PATRICIA O'TOOLE: Right. Taking care of the poor, as long as they were the deserving poor, however, you know. If we didnít like what kind of poor they were, we packed them off to the next town.
DAVID GERGEN: And you see those same strains going through American history?
PATRICIA O'TOOLE: I think so. The Puritans made us nervous about being greedy. I think thatís their most important legacy to us. You know, we have all this conversation now about the great wealth thatís been created and what should we do with it, and I mean, even to be having that kind of conversation suggests that something isnít right if itís just in the hands of a few people. And on the other end of things to try to find more ways to build communities, seeing a great outburst of philanthropic activity and volunteer activity in the 90ís.
DAVID GERGEN: Did Andrew Carnegie really epitomize that dual strain more than almost any other individual in American history?
PATRICIA O'TOOLE: More than any other one that I know about. He set himself the wonderful task of giving away his entire fortune. At the time he was the richest man in the world. He had $350 million. And he started doing it just writing a check for this and a check for that. But by the time he got to be about 75, he still had half of his $350 million left, so he had toóhe shoveled and shoveled, and he couldnít get rid of it all, so he had to create some foundations and put great big sums of money in them. We remember him mostly for libraries and educational institutions. Many of the organizations he founded still go on. And he also systematized philanthropy, made it large scale and national in the same way that he systematized the production of steel. And thatís a model of philanthropy that we still pretty much have.
DAVID GERGEN: And so today if you look at it in the context of American history, where are we on the scale of moneys versus morals, as you call it, or as I guess Henry Demarest Lloyd put it, wealth versus common wealth, where do we stand today, in your judgment?
PATRICIA O'TOOLE: I think weíre on the cusp of something that could be wonderful. I mean, people are all of a sudden interested in having conversations about this. We see some great big philanthropic activities going on with George Soros and Ted Turner and others. And itís something that people do want to talk about. Americans are the most generous people in the world. They give more to charity than anybody else. And they volunteer more than anybody else. And I think that this philanthropy is a wonderful thing. I also think we need to figure out as a group, whether thatís through government or some other way, how to find collective solutions to some of these problems that seem intractableóchildhood poverty, for example. Despite the fact that weíve had this great economic boom for the last six and a half years, we still have about 20 percent of children living in families at or below the poverty line. So something isnít working there.
DAVID GERGEN: But you do see today in the context of American history an enormous accumulation of wealth at the top, much more rapid than anything weíve seen since say perhaps the late 19th century, and then almost like Carnegie turning to--so how do w e make more productive use of this?
PATRICIA O'TOOLE: Yes, I think thatís going on. I think one thing that we could do is pay people at the bottom more. That would be a wonderful way to solve a lot of the problems that there are at the bottom. I donít know how that would play over at the Federal Reserve, butó
DAVID GERGEN: But Andrew Carnegie believed in profit sharing.
PATRICIA O'TOOLE: Late in his life he believed in profit sharing, after Henry Ford announced the $5 day in 1914, which effectively doubled the average factory wage, Andrew Carnegie had come around to the idea that that was a wonderful thing to do. But earlier in his life when he was the head of the Carnegie Steel Corporation, he didnít feel that way.
DAVID GERGEN: Let me put to youóbecause you talk about money and morals as if theyíre two different ideas that often are in tension. Iím not sure I understand what morality means in your context.
PATRICIA O'TOOLE: I think this would be a great time now that weíve created all this new wealth to be thinking about what we want to do with it. What kind of society do we want to have? What do we mean by the phrase "common good?" Itís a phrase that we all know and use all the time. But I think if you stop to think of what your idea of common good was and ask someone else, other people for their ideas, we really donít have a consensus about that anymore. So if we could figure that out and then make sure that itís common to all, it sort of doesnít matter to me anyway what the distribution is.
DAVID GERGEN: And that would be in keeping with the American character?
PATRICIA O'TOOLE: I think so. You know, weíve had this aspiration from the very beginning to create a better society and a society with opportunity for everybody. And when you have opportunity for everybody, it doesnít mean that everybody ends up running the same number of miles in the same amount of time and accumulating the same amount of goods, but for people to be left farther and farther behind when theyíre working harder than they ever did just doesnít seem to be what we had in mind in the beginning.
DAVID GERGEN: Patricia OíToole, thank you very much.
PATRICIA O'TOOLE: My pleasure.