1:3 The Top and The Bottom, “Not-So-Super Villains”

PREVIOUSLY: Hank Rearden is the metallurgical Steve Jobs of the Randverse, but his entire family blows chunks. Now buckle in, the plot is about to thicken:

James Taggart downs a stiff drink in a seedy dive bar. A dive bar on the roof of a Manhattan skyscraper. This is the most exclusive watering hole in the country, where power-brokers and economic elites go to relax among their own kind in the grungiest low-rent atmosphere imaginable. For that authentic, pre-Giuliani New York feel I guess? This is what it’ll be like when hipsters run the country.

So in this presumably smoke-filled room, Taggart is going round for round with his steel-industry friend Orren, and Larkin the Rearden family friend is there to schmooze with the big dogs. There’s also a fourth guy, Wesley Mouch, who keeps real quiet and watches everybody else converse like a real creeper.

The bar is this dark. Ayn is very specific about it.

“So about that steel you ordered,” Orren says to Jim, “You know how it is these days.” He blames his company’s failures on ‘circumstances absolutely beyond human control.’ Specifically, apparent global shortages of the raw materials of industrial production. The world has passed the point of peak oil, it seems (some more prophecy points there, kind of. Rand implies that “Drill Baby Drill” would be an effective solution, which… Ayn, you’re better than that). But it’s not just peak oil, it’s peak iron ore too. Peak you-name-it. That’s why Wyatt’s new oil fields in Colorado are such a big deal to everyone.

But I'm sure everything will be fine.

Jim assures Orren he doesn’t blame him. He blames Dagny, because she stirred up some shit with the board to void Orren’s contract and push her Rearden deal through. Which gets the two of them going about how much they hate Hank Rearden and his stupid Metal, which will obviously be unsafe and a huge disaster.

After all, it was totally irresponsible of Rearden to invest so much of his remaining ore  in R&D for what was at the time a purely hypothetical metal that would be faster and lighter than steel!  The selfish bastard just up and invents an energy-efficient solution to sustaining the modern industrial lifestyle in a world of declining fossil fuels? Suuuch a dick. Doesn’t he know how many companies he’ll run out of business? And he calls himself a job creator!

But back to Orren, who is currently pontificating about how he loves the free market and property rights, and to preserve them in this hostile climate they need to, you know, be socialized. But just a little bit!

Specifically, Orren thinks the government should centralize the ore supply and distribute it among the steel companies to prevent the industry from going under. Which, since Rearden has the largest private stockpile, would effectively mean confiscating the ingredients for the Rearden Metal  and handing them out to poorly managed old-money companies that are heavily invested in outdated technology. But they certainly don’t say that part out loud. They just talk about the need for ‘progressive social policy’ and how everybody has to do their part to make sure the world doesn’t go totally ass up.

Jim is more than happy to agree, and chips in his two cents while he’s at it. He has beef with a competing railroad, the Phoenix Durango, which is brand new but based in Colorado, and thus squeezing Taggart Transcontinental out of vital market share. Jim thinks it’s absurd for both the Phoenix and the Taggart lines to fight over one market when the declining economy has left whole regions without reliable rail service.

Society as a whole would be better off, Jim claims, if the remaining railroads carved out regional monopolies. Which, since he wants Colorado based on a right of ‘historical priority,’ would effectively mean handing all the oil contracts to Taggart while banishing the upstart Phoenix to an uninhabitable dust bowl somewhere. But they certainly don’t say that part out loud. Orren just nods at Jim’s socially conscious wisdom and says he’ll have to bring that up to the National Alliance of Railroads, which sure sounds like a lobbying group to me.

God, this has got to be the driest, most technocratic evil plot ever. Where’s a good doomsday device when you need one? (This book may or may not include a doomsday device).

Take off the fedora Jack, you look like one of the characters.

These guys and their sinister euphemisms now turn to the real problem — gridlock in Washington. They want to see these policies acted on fast, while there’s still time, but a good man is hard to find in D.C.  Jim says he has a few friends he could talk to. Orren steeples his fingers like Mr. Burns and goes, “Yes, yes, friendship. Friendships are excellent. And important. Don’t you agree, Larkin?”

Larkin has gotten increasingly uncomfortable with these sketchballs who do nothing but shit-talk his friend and plot Hank’s destruction. He sort of understands, seemingly subconsciously, that he’s under pressure to join a cabal of pathetic entitled losers who disguise their whining as high-minded rhetoric. But the rhetoric is so high-minded! And agreeable! Oh, how agreeable. So agreeable that Larkin agrees to work with them, because he’s a pussy. Hank would have kicked both these guys in the nuts by now.

With Larkin (un)officially on board this attempt to coordinate their combined corporate powers for the manipulation of government policy, the subtextual conspiracy portion of the evening is over and Jim asks Orren how was his recent trip to Mexico to visit the San Sebastian mines. And Orren is like, “Mexico’s beautiful.  Saw the mines and, uh, I assume things are going well. They seemed really busy. I didn’t see any copper myself, but there were like mine carts and stuff. Helmets. You know the drill.”

"Yep, that sure is a mine all right." -Orren Boyle

This all makes Orren come off like a useless windbag so Jim has to throw him a softball. Does he think there’s any truth to the rumors that Mexico will nationalize the railroads there? Orren blusters, “Oh definitely not, there’s no way that could happen.”

But they’re not confident men, these two, and they may realize their hypocrisy here. Even if they don’t, talking actual business makes them feel insecure. So now that Jim’s accidentally made Orren look the fool, Orren has to get in a dig back at Jim. He mentions ever so innocently that while he was south of the border he noticed Jim’s Mexico line runs just one busted old train once a day. Jim knows exactly jack about all this, so he uses the same excuses as Orren about how everybody’s undersupplied and underfunded, etc. Not his fault! It was just that one day, really! Orren totally understands.

Still, now Jim is embarrassed, and he gets real quiet and distracted and things are getting awkward until Larkin takes the opening to get the fuck out of there and is all, “Weeellp, gotta go!”

Everyone takes the cue and gets up to leave. Taggart turns to Wesley Mouch (remember him?) and tells Mouch he likes him, because Mouch keeps his mouth shut except when he’s agreeing with someone (which he’s been doing occasionally throughout the entire conversation). Wesley Mouch agrees that this is what Wesley Mouch does, but Wesley Mouch certainly does not say that part out loud. He well knows he was the intended audience for all the political insinuations, because Wesley Mouch, it turns out, is a registered lobbyist. And even though Hank Rearden probably doesn’t know it, because he hates dealing with that part of his business, Wesley Mouch is his registered lobbyist.  Oh, what tangled webs…

NEXT: Chapter 3 — The Top and the Bottom cont’d, “In Which Everyone is Sad”

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