Sunday, August 28, 2005

Rockefeller's Philanthropy

A while ago I finished Titan, about the curious life of John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil. Author Ron Chernow paints a picture of a contradictory and confusing but fascinating man, on the one side a hard-edged businessman who would cross over into illegal and immoral practices in his quest to succeed, but on the other side, a man who was actually quite generous and fair in his business practices and - far more interesting - a man who did amazing things with his money.

To say all I can on Rockefeller's positive side, he thought he was doing good - all the time. He thought cooperation in the oil industry was better than competition, so he tried to create a monopoly (he never quite succeeded). He actually overpaid for oil refineries and people sometimes started refineries just so Standard Oil would buy them - at inflated prices. Rockefeller was scrupulous in paying his debts, he never took on the trappings of nobility, as did some of his rich contemporaries, he always attended a simple Baptist church rather than moving up to some socially more acceptable church, and he tried to provide fuel to the world at cheap prices. And, as I mentioned, he gave generously, and when he did he seldom put his name on things ("Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing"), as did Andrew Carnegie.

On the negative side, if companies refused to deal with him he tried to drive them out of business, and in doing that he bribed public officials, tried (and failed) to block a competitor's pipeline by buying up land in its path, manipulated railroad prices, tactically undersold competitors to drive them out of business, and so forth. When the federal government wanted to regulate the new post-Civil War interstate commerce, Rockefeller had provided them with a handy list of what to legislate against.

How Rockefeller internally reconciled some of his practices to his Christian faith, I have no idea. Chernow certainly doesn't seem to have figured that out either.

Anyway, his philanthropies were amazing! There his Christianity shone.

Hookworm, once a debilitating problem in the Southern US states, is no longer a big problem. Why? Because Dr. Charles Stiles discovered it could be cured with some cheap medicine, and though his discovery was met with ridicule, Rockefeller believed, and basically paid to erradicate the problem. Rockefeller also started a public-private partnership to build thousands of schools across the South. He founded the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, the first medical research lab in the country, whose discoveries have saved thousands if not tens of thousands of lives. He was also the money behind the founding of the University of Chicago. Lots of other stuff, too.

What strikes me about his giving was that it was thoughtful and focused and for the most part the results of his giving could be fairly precisely measured.

It occurs to me that there are problems - such as the ones Rockefeller focused on - that can pretty much be solved once and for all, but there are other kinds of problems ("the poor you will have with you always") that are less amenable to a one-time solution. Necessary as it may be to give to charities addressing the less solvable problems, I suspect that the better an organization can define a problem and measure success in combating it, the easier it will be to persuade people to contribute.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Freddy the Pig

I enjoy reading to my son a bit every night. He especially likes talking-animal books, so we started off with C.S. Lewis's Narnia Chronicles (awesome!), then we read several of Brian Jacques' Redwall series (quite good). We tackled Robin Hood, King Arthur, Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Jeanne Duprau's City of Ember (excellent!) and The People of Sparks (very good), Eragon, Booth Tarkington's Penrod and Penrod and Sam (old and excellent but with some racist - though not intentionally malicious - overtones), Despereaux (okay), Time Stops for No Mouse (good) and The Sands of Time (good), by Michael Hoeye, Ken Oppel's Silverwing (okay), Sunwing (okay), and Firewing (weird), A Cricket in Times Square, and we just finished Lloyd Alexander's series, The Book of Three (first book, fair, others, excellent). But now, what to read? What to read?

Well, for some reason I thought of a series I loved as a child, Walter Brooks Freddy the Pig books. I thought these 26-or-so books were long out of print, but - as I discovered in perusing Amazon - they have been brought back. Happy day! All's right with the world! We picked up Freddy the Cowboy at the library and are reading and enjoying it. I'd have preferred to start with Freddy the Detective, but you start where you can.

Here's a silly snippet. Freddy the pig is asking Quik (a mouse) if Howard (another mouse) can come for a visit:
"I suppose it'll be all right," he [Quik] said. "If he doesn't eat us out of house and home. I never knew a field mouse yet who didn't eat like a pi- I mean, like a pinguin," he said hurriedly.

"What's a pinguin?" Jinx [the cat] asked, and Howard said: "I think he means a penguin. They're very greedy creatures, though seldom seen in this neighborhood."

Quik grinned at him gratefully, but Freddy said: "Penguin nothing! He started to say 'pig' and then couldn't change it to anything that made sense."

My son likes it and so do I, so I think we have reading material to keep us busy for a long time.

Anyway, help revive the Freddy books! There's probably one or two of them left in your public library. Try one, and if your kids (or you) like it, the whole set is available on Amazon.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Gouge Out Your Eye

And if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, and cast it from you: for it is better for you that one of your members should perish, than that your whole body should be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off, and cast it from you: for it is better for you that one of your members should perish, than that your whole body should be cast into hell. - Matthew 5:29-30

When Jesus said, "If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out" he was - I've heard - speaking metaphorically. Well... maybe. But maybe not. Perhaps instead he was giving a literal reply to a bad excuse he'd heard once too often.

I think Jesus was responding to the whine - probably as prevalent then as it is now - that goes like this: "Well, I just can't help it, I've got a wandering eye." Or, in the case of the hand, "I can't help it. I just have sticky fingers."

Okay, Jesus says, sighing a bit, I imagine, if it is really your eye that is dragging you into sin, then you really better gouge it out.

I can hear the whiner responding, "Uhhh, well, um, okay. I didn't literally mean my eye causes me to sin. My eye only does what I tell it to do."


And this, I think, is just what Jesus is trying to communicate. Don't blame your hand or eye. The sin comes from your heart, and you know it, and that is what needs to change.