Despite Hillary Clinton's slam of Rauner, let's not tar all robber barons

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton made a quick campaign stop here last week, quick enough to accuse Illinois' Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, of pushing an agenda she said would turn this state over to "the robber barons of the 19th century."

Such partisan rhetoric, and alas, so unfair.

We're supposed to compare, say, Ken Griffin to John D. Rockefeller Sr., Andrew Carnegie and Leland Stanford?

It's a little soon to know, but Illinois should be so lucky.

Not all robber barons are equal. Their legacies are complicated. Not all rich people today are the same.

It should be a goal of 21st-century captains of industry to match the impact of their 19th-century brethren. There's a reason we know names such as Duke, Astor and Frick. They were transformative figures and left something important behind.

Robber barons, as a class, are typically reviled for cutthroat business practices, which enabled them to amass wealth and outsized political muscle.

But the best of the bunch built industries, infrastructure and public institutions that shaped this nation, fueled its economic rise and from which we still benefit.

They not only gave us railroads, affordable steel and fuel, they funded — and sometimes still fund — educational, cultural and scientific efforts that improve almost everyone's quality of life.

If Illinois could be assured of that, Rauner might face a lot less resistance in his push — in the robber baron spirit — to crush organized labor and protect the upper class from additional tax burdens.

It's not that some 21st-century captains of industry don't make contributions to society by employing many people and making generous charitable contributions. Many do.

But where today's rich give vast sums and great art to major museums, the robber barons launched the museums in the first place.

Donating money to a world-class institution, such as the University of Chicago, is laudable. It's not the same, however, as paying for the University of Chicago's original transition into a world-class institution, as Rockefeller did.

Rockefeller parlayed unsavory business practices in the oil business into an astounding fortune, then set about giving money back in equally unprecedented ways.

So much wealth today is predicated on moving money around or strip-mining businesses by cutting costs, benefits and ultimately workers to benefit those at the top of the food chain but chewing up those below. Some not that far down, actually.

Not to pick on Griffin, whose estimated worth of $7 billion makes him the wealthiest person in Illinois, according to the most recent list from Forbes, but he was in the news twice last week.

The Wall Street Journal reported his $26 billion hedge fund firm, Citadel, cut loose more than a dozen investment staffers because of early 2016 losses.

The other Griffin news was he reportedly recently bought two pieces of art — a Jackson Pollock and a Willem de Kooning — from David Geffen's foundation for $500 million, and is lending them to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Maybe someday there will be a Griffin Museum to match the Frick Collection, or a Griffin University, or his money will be used to acquire land for a national park. He's still in his 40s, still growing his fortune, still growing his power base.

Four years ago, when his estimated net worth was just $3 billion, Griffin — who has been a backer of both Gov. Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel — told the Tribune that he believed the ultrawealthy "actually have an insufficient influence" on the political process.

"Those who have enjoyed the benefits of our system more than ever now owe a duty to protect the system that has created the greatest nation on this planet," he said.

The duty, the best robber barons of the 19th century teach us, is far greater than that.

philrosenthal@tribpub.com

Twitter @phil_rosenthal

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