Fifteen miles from my home is Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Its primary claim is the setting for the infamous ride of the Headless Horsemen – the author of which ironically was eventually buried there.
Perhaps less well-known is its status as the resting place of perhaps the richest collection of wealthy individuals this country has known. The names are a who’s who of American wealth — Astor, Dodge, Chrysler, Rockefeller, Watson and Carnegie.
Most their graves are lavish mausoleums or memorials. Carnegie’s, however, is a little different. It is adorned with a modest Celtic cross — the graves of he and his wife marked by simple grave plates.
And as a symbol of the paradox of wealth, Carnegie’s plot also includes the graves of three others – all long time servants to he and his wife.
Some may see this gesture as an act of kindness and friendship, while others could view it as a sign of inequality and privilege.
In his lifetime, Carnegie could be ruthless. He pressed his advantages, leveraged his power, to skyrocketing levels of wealth.
He believed that a person’s life was to be divided into two halves; the first involved making money and the second giving it away. To that end, Carnegie gave 90% of his fortune away during his lifetime, and the balance when he died (a total of $4.8 billion in today’s dollars). To his only daughter and wife, he left a small trust. As a result, none of his present day heirs claim his riches, or for that fact his name.
Rockefeller was, if anything, more ruthless in his business practice. His approach to philanthropy was slightly different, as his fortune was both passed down from generation to generation and given away over time. The Rockefeller name and fortune continue – with family assets estimated at $16 billion today.
As a youth, Rockefeller said his goal was to make a $100,000 and live to be a hundred (he made it to 97).
As an adult, when his wealth had already tacked on three more zeros beyond his goal, a reporter asked him, “How much money is enough?” His reply, “Just a little bit more.”
Rockefeller’s sentiment may seem cold but does it , veer far away from the prevailing thoughts of today? Maximize wealth and advantage while you can, and pass it on to your children. Give what you don’t need away to good causes.
But how much do we need? “Just a little more”
Recent news underscores the issue with this approach: growing class tensions, parents using bribes to get their children into college, politicians calling for wealth taxes, populist uprisings on both sides of the political spectrum.
Which brings us back to the answer given by Rockefeller a hundred years ago.
What if instead of answering the question, “How much money is enough?”, those same four words were the response to each of these questions?
– How much could we be taxed?
– How much should we give away?
– How much should we share the wealth with those we work with?
– How much confidence should we have in our children to succeed without our help?
– How much should we question how our wealth is acquired?
– How much should we think of others before ourselves?
Just a little more.
Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.