Archive for March, 2012

Pardon the Interruption

Sorry, no new posts this week! 2:2 is a huge chapter with the second most important speech in the book (Frankie D, represent!). Since I was already crunched for time and don’t want to half-ass this one, I decided to give myself an extra week to tackle it properly.

Atlas Clubbed will return on April 2nd to examine the relationship between money and morality. Oooh, substantive…

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2:1 The Man Who Belonged on Earth, “Storms a’Brewin”

PREVIOUSLY: Part One, otherwise known as “300 pages summed up in <1000 words.

"I haven't moved from this spot since it was the last screencap in Ch 6." -Stadler

Part Two opens on Dr. Stadler, the sour genius and head of the State Science Institute, as he keeps an eye on the weather outside his window. It is bleak and wintry, which is odd since it’s May. He finds this change in the climate unsettling. For some reason.

Anyway he’s taking a meeting with Dr. Ferris, his senior deputy, who has arrived late from a fundraiser in DC. Their conversation is strained; Stadler is petulant, Ferris condescending. The good doctor bitches about the oil shortage — not only has it disrupted the Institute’s experiments but his office is too damn cold! Ferris explains that his men (their men, technically) have been working to restore the Wyatt oil fields to no avail.

Stadler’s second complaint is that he’s seen mention of a “Project X” in his briefings and feels he’s being left out of the loop. “Project Xylophone,” explains Ferris. “That’s an experimental sound wave technology, don’t let it clog up your brilliant mind, sir. And also don’t mention it to anyone — it’s highly classified. Tell you what, just stay in your office and focus on theoretical physics, okay?”

Stadler lays out his real beef with Ferris. The junior scientist just released a pop-science book called Why Do You Think You Think? in which he cites Stadler’s advances in quantum mechanics to claim that reality is unintelligible, filtered as it is through the senses, and that consciousness and will are just meaningless chemical illusions.

"Oh yes, Project X, vonderful invention." -Ferris

Stadler is furious. All of his hard work, years of meticulous reasoned thought about the underlying orderliness of the universe, has now been sold to the masses as an excuse not to think, to ignore facts instead of learn them, to forfeit all sense of purpose. Such superficial clap-trap is a complete betrayal of his principles!

But Ferris just patronizes him and unilaterally cuts the meeting short. He admits that he doesn’t care about the specious reasoning in his book, because this is what sells and sales will help the Institute’s fundraising. The actual content serves only to comfort those who already want excuses not to think. You know, sheeple. So deal with it. Hey, can you tell how Ferris is a villain from the way he’s obsessed with money and has a low opinion of people? No? You can’t? In fact that might even lead you to mistake him for a hero? Well, he’s a villain anyway. So deal with it.

Stadler is left alone and miserable. He feels increasingly like a pet, or a zoo exhibit, instead of a leader. It’s no wonder, then, that when Dagny Taggart calls requesting his expertise, he leaps at the chance to visit her.

In her office, Dagny guts the Transcon spreadsheets. Every train except the flagship cross-country Comet is running on coal. But the country’s best coal supplier just retired and disappeared, of course, so even that is in short supply. Same goes for the founder of the up-start Colorado car company, Fauxrd. With no new cars and scarce fuel, Taggart trains are more strained than ever. And due to price controls and rationing, Dagny’s ability to adapt is hobbled, badly. The only thing keeping the books in the black is the boatload of subsidies and tax exemptions that Jim pulls out of Washington.

Ergo, when Stadler busts in, over eager for his appointment, Dagny is happy to put aside the task of which lines to close and which jobs to cut. Yet she remembers their previous meeting well, when Stadler’s cynical fatalism really creeped her out, so this time she plays her cards close to the vest.

She starts by handing him a dossier with everything she knows about the mystery motor. Thoughts, comments, criticisms? Stadler scans the brief and his jaw drops, his eyes light up. Applied sciences aren’t his thing, but even on the abstract level this is revolutionary. Whoever invented this motor discovered a new theory of electromagnetism on the way to making it work.

"Bowties are cool." -The Doctor. Stadler. Dr. Stadler.

Dagny wants to know if Stadler, as America’s pre-eminent man of science, has any idea who would be capable of this feat. Stadler does not, and the two of them lament the general terribleness of humanity, as all of the protagonists in this misanthropic book are wont to do.

Stadler asks to see the motor himself and Dagny obliges. They stand before it in its underground storage room like they’re in church for a funeral. I wonder if Ayn Rand masturbated to Popular Mechanics… wait, sorry, where were we? Oh right, Stadler refers Dags to a techie physicist named Daniels who might be able to reverse engineer the thing. She thanks him for his time and he slinks back to his pathetic life as an impotent figurehead, feeling more useless than ever.

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, Hank Rearden’s business is also buckling under the strain of government-mandated quotas. rMetal is now in demand like crazy, but Hank can’t even meet his previous commitments to Dagny and whomever else, because Wesley Mouch has sent an impressionable young lad fresh out of the Ivy League to determine which incoming orders get priority. Surprise surprise, all those who signed up with Jim Taggart & Orren Boyle’s lobbying group are winning the bids. Hank’s mills have effectively been nationalized, and he’s being pinned down as a figurehead just like Stadler.

But when a massive order crosses his desk stamped confidential and making vague references to a “Project X,” he draws the line. “Hell no! You can fuck right off,” is his answer to the Ivy League naif. So one of Ferris’ G-Men from State Science visits and very unctuously encourages Hank to cooperate. Hank refuses. You can come back with guns and steal as much as you want, he tells them, but he won’t play along as if he’s a willing participant in this deal. The G-Man seems pretty panicked that Hank would dare call a spade a spade and slinks back to his pathetic life as a spineless bureaucrat.

It’s clearly been an exhausting few months since Part One ended. Luckily for our two intrepid protagonists, they’ve still got booty calls at Dagny’s place for stress relief.

Hank in particular is really coming into his own now that he’s getting properly laid. For the first time since he got rich he’s living a little, indulging in the occasional luxury. He finds he likes luxury. Especially when ‘luxury’ means buying jewelry, and then making Dagny wear the jewelry, and nothing but the jewelry, while he ravishes her repeatedly all over the apartment. Yes that is quite luxurious indeed.

"God we are SO much better than everyone else. Let's get naked."

Quick sidenote to Ayn: Ayn, you clearly missed your calling as a writer of pulp erotica. You’re not nearly as good at this pulp philosophy bullshit. It’s stilted, and it’s ruining the mood. Stick to the smut.

Apparently Hank and Dagny don’t agree with me because upon his arrival for the booty call they unwind by comparing notes about Stadler and the other State Science lackey. The dialogue is didactic and extremely awkward. Like a sophomore term paper as foreplay.

But they quickly come to a mutual understanding. These men’s neediness comes from desperation to have Hank and Dagny validate their bullshit. When those with integrity don’t play along with the hollow men, the cowards are forced to face the truth about themselves and it terrifies them. And sadly, it seems even the once-great Stadler has succumbed to this weak-willed insecurity.

Hank ‘n Dags agree to never again feel guilty for being skilled and talented and responsible. Their excellence is its own reward and certainly shouldn’t be a burden. Dagny spreads her body along the couch like, “Speaking of which…” and as Hank feels the blood start to flow (to his penis), he finally has the epiphany that Dagny’s been pushing for since their affair started: sensuality can be a celebration of virtue and not just a shameful vice. Yay liberal sexual mores!

And then they fuck.

NEXT: 2:2 The Aristocracy of Pull, “Sham Marriages”

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“Part One: Non-Contradiction” Recap

Last “season” on ATLAS CLUBBED:

Our Heroine: Dagny "Dags" Taggart

America faces a dark and vaguely science-fictional time. Nations all over the world have turned to socialism because nobody can deny any longer that the planet is running out of fossil fuels and important mineral resources, and somebody has to ration the remaining supplies. …right?

Luckily, in the U.S. the libertarian state of Colorado has kept the American tradition of innovation alive. Gas prices have been kept in check because a self-made man named Ellis Wyatt has developed frakking techniques to tap fresh oil near the Rockies. A small car company has sprung up in the mountain west to fill the void after GM went under without a government bailout ten years ago. Colorado is, in short, the country’s — and perhaps the world’s — last hope for saving post-industrial civilization from collapse.

Hank Rearden: Steve Jobs of the Randverse

Into this dire picture, enter Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden. Rearden has just invented a new alloy, rMetal, that is stronger and lighter than steel and will last three times as long. It’s a revolution in sustainable development, and Dagny, VP of Operations at the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, wants to refit her Colorado line with Rearden’s game-changing product. Because the energy crisis has hobbled the auto industry and commercial flight, the railroads of the previous century are still America’s main mode of transportation, and updating them with high-speed tracks and trains could be a huge boost to the economy.

Jim Taggart, Uncertainly Principled

Unfortunately, the president of Taggart Transcon is Dagny’s brother Jim, a cowardly man with a vicious entitlement streak and no creative vision. Terrified of the future, he and a small group of CEOs from the country’s other major corporations decide to flood Washington with well-funded lobbyists and strings-attached campaign donations, in order to buy laws that favor their interests. These laws effectively give the largest corporations government-sponsored monopolies, and confiscate resources from the creative Rearden to hobble him in the “free” market and prevent him from toppling their older businesses.

Despite this corporate/government conspiracy to cling desperately to the unsustainable status quo, Dagny and Rearden manage to build one railroad made of rMetal to ship Ellis Wyatt’s oil out of Colorado to the rest of the country, buying everybody more time to solve the industrial crisis.

Cyberpunk tech in a steampunk world.

On the day their track opens, Dagny and Rearden finally give in to their mutual attraction and begin an affair that wracks the unhappily married Rearden with guilt. But in the wake of their commercial success the freshly-minted lovers go on a secret road trip through the midwest to celebrate, and there, in the barren ghost towns around GM, they discover the junked prototype of a brilliant invention: a motor that could literally run on air — the static electricity in the air — solving all the world’s energy, environmental, and economic problems in one fell swoop… if it hadn’t been gutted and left for dead.

While Rearden returns home to make sure his marriage is still falling apart, our all-business Dags stays on the case of the miracle engine.

Unfortunately for Dagny's investigation, the Randverse does not have GPS.

The trail leads her to a philosophy professor slumming it as a short order cook out west. He is just one of many elites from around the country who have abruptly disappeared from the public eye in the past ten years or so — about the same time the motor was invented and GM collapsed. It is only now that the energy crisis has become severe that a hidden pattern has begun to emerge out of their mysterious absences.

Francisco "Definitely not Batman" D'Anconia

If nothing else, Dagny knows that there is some kind of shadow game being played among the country’s leaders. And perhaps the biggest wild card on the table is her former lover, Francisco D’Anconia. He was once as driven and ambitious as she was, but he’s spent the last decade doing nothing but blowing his family’s centuries-old fortune on gaudy luxury and partying.

Now he has re-entered Dagny’s life, and he’s acting very strangely, even laughing his ass off while his own business collapses. Dagny suspects he has sabotaged his own company and the global economy on purpose, by joining with corrupt Jim and his cronies on major investments that he knew would fail.

Before Dagny can pursue her leads any further, Congress grants absolute power to the former lobbyist Wesley Mouch to take over the Colorado economy. In retaliation the oil man Ellis Wyatt sets fire to his own fields and joins the ranks of the disappeared.

Why is Francisco inflating and popping market bubbles for no explicable reason? What unspoken philosophical schism could be driving America’s elites into covert camps that wage war over an irreconcilable divide?

"It's you and me against the world, babe. Literally."

And most urgently of all, can Hank & Dagny still save the country now that the oil supply has been torched by the supplier himself?

What does it all mean, man??

All these questions and more will be answered over the next 10 weeks, as we dive further into the alternate-but-uncomfortably-familiar universe of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

NEXT — 2:1, “Storms A’brewin”

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Applied Randology #3: Taxation and Misrepresentation

So before we leave Part One behind, let’s add tax reform to the issues of health care, renewable energy, and the impact of lobbyists on our laws that we’ve touched on during this section of the book.

After all, Dagny spends Chapter Ten unraveling the mystery of how GM (or 20th Century Motors, as its known in the Randverse) went bankrupt, and what she discovers is that new management introduced a socialist pay scheme that basically acts as a morality play about income taxes. And here’s how:

If the Motor Company were a government, then what it did was allow tax rates to be set by simple majority rules democracy. If the hardest workers logged overtime or asked for a raise, the extra money was taxed at over 100% — for every dollar they earned, they had to pay more than a dollar back to management. Their paychecks shrunk the more they worked. The company then took the tax money they collected and gave it to the poorest workers as bonuses, so that the poorest effectively paid negative taxes.

See! What's so hard to understand about this?

The biggest difference between this and the U.S. tax system is not the over-the-top extremity of the rates. It’s that the Randian nightmare scenario is easier to understand than the real tax code.

The real tax code is a giant convoluted mess with an endless list of credits, deductions, and subsidies, some permanent and some scheduled to be for a limited time only. Most people are probably aware of marginal rates — your first $15,000 is taxed at 10%, the next $10,000 is taxed at 15%, etc. But those numbers don’t end up being the actual percentage of your income you pay.

In fact, that percentage can vary a lot within and between those tax brackets. Instead of your effective tax rate starting at zero if you’re poor and moving up in an arc the richer you get, the system ends up working more like a game of chutes and ladders. Thanks to all the intricacies of the tax code, if you move two spaces forward at the pre-tax level, you might find yourself moving three spaces backwards at the after-tax level. Like if you got a raise worth $500 but that put you above the limit for a $1000 tax credit, your taxes rise by more dollars than you get from the raise. The money from the raise was effectively taxed at >100%, just like it was for Rand’s hardest workers.

On the other hand, you might find that after deductions and whatnot your effective tax rate goes down and you’ve moved an extra space forward at the after-tax level. For example, if you move from the 25% bracket to the 35% bracket, every dollar you deduct saves you 35 cents in taxes, whereas the same deduction before only saved you 25 cents on the dollar. With enough deductions, your rate actually goes down when you cross into a new bracket. But the richer you get within your bracket, the more your taxes rise back up.

And if you are extremely poor, your tax credits could easily exceed your taxes owed, such that your effective tax rate is negative, and just like Rand’s poorest workers, for every dollar you make, you get money from the government. According to the Tax Policy Center, in 2010 the government effectively gave the poorest 2% of Americans an average of nearly 40 cents per dollar on their earned income.

Bartlett is one of those moderate Republicans from the '80s who is far too reasonable for today's GOP.

Obviously, these examples are a major oversimplification, and if you want more specific details I recommend reading Bruce Bartlett’s book The Benefit and the Burden. But the key point here is that unlike Rand’s nightmare scenario, in our real-life tax board game the chutes aren’t all at the top, and the ladders aren’t all at the bottom. They’re scattered unpredictably all over the place.

It’s also worth noting that this dynamic is what conservatives are talking about when they say welfare makes people not want to work. For a lot of people at the low end of the board, moving from a negative rate to a positive rate means their newly improved pre-tax income ends up being lower after-tax because of the credits they lose when they stop being so poor. They essentially get a small ladder at the start of the game, but it puts them on a space where they’d need to roll a five or a six to avoid landing on a chute and sliding backwards — any raise would have to be unrealistically large to bring the effective tax on any new money below 100%.

The error in the conservative argument is that it only calls this dynamic economically oppressive when it applies to people in the middle class or higher. According to conservative rhetoric, the poor person facing four chute spaces in a row is just a lazy moocher for taking that first tiny ladder.

If we want to reform our tax system, we could either get rid of the chutes and ladders altogether (the flat-tax conservative solution), or we could arrange them in a more recognizable pattern (the progressive-rate liberal solution). The fiscally responsible compromise would be to get rid of the ladders (close tax loopholes) and keep a few of the chutes (maintain multiple tax brackets instead of moving to a completely flat rate). But getting rid of the ladder loopholes basically means a tax hike for everybody, so no politician in their right mind would ever vote for it outside of an acute crisis.

A completely flat tax would cut rates for the rich and raise rates for the poor.

The only actual tax changes that can make it through the normal political process are the opposite of the fiscally responsible compromise. Getting rid of the chutes is okay, because that’s cutting taxes. Adding ladders is okay, and you can even call that cutting taxes if you design the ladder as a tax credit or a deduction instead of straight spending. But just like what I described above when you try to get rid of all the ladders, even getting rid of one ladder de facto raises taxes on some class of people or other. And the more money would be freed up to reduce the deficit by removing the ladder, the more people are facing that de facto tax hike. So it’s a political no go.

If this dynamic sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It’s another step on that slippery slope towards fiscal crisis that we discussed in Hayek Anxiety and which conservatives always warn about.

But also like in Hayek Anxiety, even though politicians from both parties face these perverse incentives, today’s Republican party takes the perversity to a whole new level by campaigning on the problem (those aforementioned warnings) and governing in a way that makes it worse.

We are through the looking glass here, people.

In fact in the case of tax reform, there is one specific lobbyist who wields dictatorial power over any reform proposal that crosses his desk, which is eerily similar to the villainous Wesley Mouch of the Randverse, the lobbyist-cum-bureaucrat to whom Congress grants dictatorial power over the economy.

This real-life Wesley Mouch is Grover Norquist (that’s him in the picture). He’s the leader of the Americans for Tax Reform interest group. Norquist has successfully taken over the conservative party on this issue by getting nearly all GOP congresspersons to sign a pledge to never raise taxes. The goal is to keep tax revenue low so that if congress wants to balance the budget it has to do it by cutting spending.

But that goal is different from simplifying the code, a.k.a. removing  chutes and ladders from the board. And history has proved that in practice it doesn’t work — even as tax revenues drop, spending just keeps going up. Not only that, new spending is often misleadingly designed as a new tax deduction or credit, a new loophole, that can technically be called a tax cut.

Norquist is fine with adding more of these loopholes because it lowers tax revenue. But these loopholes increase inefficiency in the economy and make the deficit worse — the exact same effects that Wesley Mouch’s socialist policies cause in Atlas Shrugged and which real-life conservatives blame liberal policies for creating. For all Norquist’s success in monopolizing power over tax reform, he has completely failed to reform taxes in an economically responsible way.

If this trend is not reversed, it will eventually cause an economic crisis worse than 2008 and similar to the one that was hinted at when the GOP threatened to limit the debt ceiling last summer. But politically speaking, it is in nobody’s individual interest to address the problem until the crisis happens, because whenever somebody does the right thing on this issue they lose their next election.

BOTTOM LINE: If the line goes higher than the top of the chart, America is truly fucked, like Greece. And literally the only way to bring the line down enough is to raise taxes and/or close loopholes.

So where does that leave us heading into Part Two? Rand’s vision of dystopian socialism does have analogues in the real America, vis a vis bizarre tax rates and potential economic collapse. But the injustice doesn’t fall so neatly along class lines, and the collapse is being brought on by today’s conservatives as much as by liberals, since the conservatives should be the libertarian, fiscally responsible party, but they have abandoned the policies and kept the rhetoric in ways that make the problems far worse.

As referenced earlier this week, Part Two is titled Either/Or, but the options Rand offers are a false choice. You can see this problem of illogic in our politics as well. The object of Applied Randology during the Either/Or chapters will be to reintroduce middle ground where Rand works hard to exclude it. If we succeed, we should be able to tie together all of the issues we’ve talked about so far into a crude vision of a progressive libertarianism that is not, in fact, a contradiction.

See you next week…

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Food for Thought #7: Breaking the Laws of Thought

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large; I contain multitudes.)” -Walt Whitman

We’re at the end of Atlas Shrugged Part One, so before we dive into Parts Two and Three I think it’s time I cut to the chase and just directly explain the fatal flaw in Ayn Rand’s logical process that causes all the bizarre outcomes in her thinking. Frankly, it’s pretty easy to do, and it can be done using just the three parts’ titles.

In order, they are “Non-Contradiction,” “Either/Or,” and “A Is A.” These are references to the three laws of thought first articulated by Aristotle in the 4th century BC. But Aristotle’s laws come in a different order than the order Rand uses.

The first law is the Law of Identity: A is A. B is B. You are you. Existence exists. It is what it is, and what it is is the most fundamental law. And Ayn saves it for the climax of the book — “A is A” is the title of Part Three.

The second law is the Law of Non-Contradiction. A is A, but is A also B? That depends. Is A definitely not B? Let’s say A is not B, like if A was sandwiches and B was Mahatma Gandhi. In that case “A is B” makes no sense; it contradicts the truth. But if A is B, like if A was Grover Cleveland and B was 19th Century U.S. Presidents, then “A is not B” contradicts the truth.

What if A is “There is nothing living in the oceans beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa,” and B is “There is an advanced civilization of exotic space dolphins living under the surface of Europa”? We can’t say with certainty that either one is true, but we do know that A is not B and they can’t both be true. A could be true and B could be false, or B could be true and A could be false, or they could both be false if there’s life on Europa but no sentient marine mammals. Any of those truth values resolves the contradiction, yet all we know for sure is that A and B are mutually exclusive.

So “Non-Contradiction” is the title of Ayn’s Part One, which concerns Dagny trying to figure out how all the people she admires can be simultaneously (A) the most responsible people in the world, and (B) abandoning their responsibilities. She must alter her understanding of at least one of these two premises for her situation to make sense, as Francisco & Akston both advise her.

The third law is the Law of the Excluded Middle. What if A was “There is life on Europa” and B was “There is no life on Europa”? In this case one must be true and the other must be false. There is no middle ground, there is only Either/Or. And “Either/Or” is the name of Atlas Shrugged Part Two.

There is one more logical concept it’s important to mention here. The Fallacy of the Excluded Middle — that’s a false dilemma where you take a statement A and a statement B and treat them like the Law of the Excluded Middle applies when it really doesn’t. The “Dead Planet v. Space Dolphins” proposition has to obey the law of non-contradiction, but it is not strictly an “either/or” proposition, it’s a “this, that, or the other” proposition.

And pretty much all of the things that ruin Atlas Shrugged can be traced back to this distinction. Ayn Rand chronically commits the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle when she thinks she’s applying the Law of the Excluded Middle. The sorry bastards who live in the Randverse are doomed by their cruel authorial God to live in a universe of strictly either/or choices, forever blind to the vast multiverse of “this, that, or the other” options that exists outside the “laws” of Ayn Rand’s thinking.

So way back in the About the Book post, I mentioned that Rand defines art as “a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgements.” And at first glance, “a selective recreation” seems to mean that there is more to reality than an artist can possibly know, so the artist makes some imperfect decisions about what she believes is true, and then based on those decisions creates an incomplete model of reality that will (hopefully) convey some truth nonetheless.

But at least when she applied it to herself, I don’t think Rand actually meant it like that. Reading Atlas Shrugged you get the impression that she earnestly believed she had applied the classical laws of thought to reality with such rigor that she had abolished all false value judgments from her mind, so that her re-creation of reality would not be selective in the sense of choosing from many things that could be true, but would be selective in the sense of choosing only the things that are true, such that through her selectivity her re-creation of reality would be, in effect, Pure Truth.

This interpretation makes the fact that Rand puts the three laws in the wrong order seem awfully pernicious. In the proper order, the first law is the most universal while the second and third laws are increasingly conditional. But in Rand’s order, the first law is placed misleadingly at the end of this general-to-specific trajectory.

In Part One under the Law of Non-Contradiction, the metaphysical truth of the Randverse could exist in an unspecified statement A, or some statement B that contradicts A, or some other third statement that renders A and B a false choice. That’s where we’ve gotten so far.

But in Part Two, under the Law of the Excluded Middle, the metaphysical truth of the Randverse must be either statement A or statement B. And to eliminate the possibility that “A or B” is a false choice, Rand must prove that everything except “A or B” is a false choice. That’s why, for Rand’s purposes, all the characters have to be caricatures and all the politics have to be parodies. She is deliberately trying to exclude the middle by using the logical tactic of the reductio ad absurdum to invalidate everything outside her argument as being disproved by contradiction.

And this way, in Part Three, when Ayn says “A is A,” the trajectory of her logical axioms and her aesthetic choices suggests that what she really means is that in the choice of metaphysical truth values “A or B,” the answer is A. A is the truth. The truth is A.

Therefore the ultimate goal of Atlas Shrugged is to make the terms of her statements A and B specific and clear. And metaphysical spoiler alert — A is Objectivism and B is nihilism and by the fallacy of false choices everything that is not A is just a slippery slope towards B.

So if Rand believed that her conclusions were the inevitable result of rigorously applying the three laws of thought to reality, that would explain:

*Why she stopped writing fiction after Atlas Shrugged.

*Why the climax of Atlas Shrugged is literally a philosophical dissertation.

*Why she used the word “objective” as the root of her philosophy’s name.

And yet we can see that Rand’s conclusions are premised on false choices between her particular positions and a grab bag of absurdly reductive positions that she vehemently opposes. By posing choices this way, Rand can successfully construct a system of thought that is sufficiently strong enough to be consistent, but per Godel’s incompleteness theorem (or just by comparing the book to what real life is actually like), we know that such a system of thought is incomplete.

As the philosophy professor Douglas Rasmussen puts it in this essay from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literary Companion:

Reality is intelligible, and Rand understands this perhaps better than any other philosopher. Yet, she does not fully appreciate the difference between logic and reality and as a result becomes entangled in some serious conceptual knots. It is in avoiding these confusions that the wisdom of Aristotelian tradition’s account of logic remains vitally significant.

True that, Doug. True. That. Ayn doesn’t use logic to break through historical limits on human knowledge in Atlas Shrugged. She trips over logic and stumbles ass-backwards into metaphysical solipsism in Atlas Shrugged, ultimately mistaking her re-creation of reality for reality itself. Which, dear readers, is why she thought she was the most original thinker alive, even as she was violating the original laws of thought.

Contradiction resolved, bitch.

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1:10 Wyatt’s Torch cont’d, “Desperate Measures”

PREVIOUSLY: Dagny launched a one-woman investigation into the history of the mysterious clean-energy motor. Hank had a fight with his wife that may have broken the camel’s back. The Bureau of Economic Planning drafted several bills that would effectively stifle the booming Colorado economy.

Yeah, I’m gonna have to go ahead and ask you a few questions.

Dags commences her investigation by meeting with Lawson, the former banker who now works for the Econ Bureau. She wants info on the condemned GM plant where she found the motor; he keeps throwing out irrelevant defenses of his piss-poor record as a banker. He did not know any of the R&D engineers at the plant but the company that ran it when he held the mortgage, the last company to run it before it went bankrupt, was Bain Capital Associated Services. The head of A.S. was named Hunsacker.

The Hunsacker Proxy

Dagny tracks Hunsacker down in Illinois, where he’s now living as a lowly boarder and drafting an autobiography about which no one will care. He’s even more of a lousy whiner than Lawson. He recalls that when he first tried to raise the funds to purchase GM he applied for a loan from Midas Mulligan, the world’s richest man and one notorious for his impeccable investment record. One can only assume he paid less in taxes than his secretary.

Anyway, Mulligan turned him away for having no collateral or prior achievements and he sued Mulligan by exploiting an anti-discrimination law that was intended to protect day laborers. One Judge Narragansett ruled against him, but a higher court reversed the decision. Shortly thereafter Mulligan disappeared mysteriously forever. A few months later Judge Narragansett did the same. But Hunsacker got his loan from Lawson in the end, which worked out real well until they both went bankrupt.

Yeah yeah whatever, did Hunsacker spend much time at the R&D lab? No, not really. The founder, Jed Starnes, who was a self-made man (obviously), he was quite the innovator. But when his heirs took over some kind of wackness went down at the plant and the research staff abandoned ship. Hunsacker didn’t feel the need to reinvest in that department. The Starnes heirs? Oh, they live low-profile in Lousiana now. That’s all the info Hunsacker’s got. Dagny bolts.

Home of the Creole Miss Havisham

Deep in the bayou our heroine uncovers the next lead. One of the Starnes heirs is a bitter drunk; another killed himself several years back; the third, Ivy, lives in a decrepit old manse studying Hinduism and, I’m just going out on a limb here, smoking a metric ton of weed. Ivy Starnes explains that she and her brothers also neglected the research & development team. Their innovation as managers was to implement a Marxist payroll structure where checks were written “from each each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Basically everybody at the factory voted monthly as to who needed money the most and who worked the hardest. The hardest workers were expected to log overtime hours without pay to cover the neediest employees’ generous salaries. If the industrious didn’t meet the output expectations of the payroll votes, they were fined to make up the difference. Dagny is apalled. Probably because this makes absolutely no sense. Everyone knows that communist countries didn’t abide by democratic votes! Allegory fail.

But I guess that’s kind of besides the point, which Dagny gets because she’s trying to drag the conversation back towards the R&D staff. The only name Ivy’s ganja-addled brain can remember is William Hastings, chief engineer. She remembers him because he quit pretty much immediately after the commie pay scheme was enacted.

Travel by map!

Wyoming now, and Dags knocks on the door of Mrs. Hastings, who is the first dignified person she’s yet encountered in this little adventure. Unfortunately, Mr. Hastings passed away five years ago of a heart condition. But the widow Hastings remembers the last few years of his life quite well, and is happy to regale Dagny with the tale.

William ran R&D at GM for nearly two decades. Towards the end of his tenure he had a young assistant whom he constantly called a genius. The assistant had an idea for a revolutionary new motor, and Hastings helped him complete a prototype. But Jed Starnes died less than a month later and his hippie heirs with their naive ideals showed up to implement  socialist theories of compensation, and so Hastings quit and refused to take another job.

He didn’t quite disappear mysteriously forever, though. Disappeared, sure. Mysteriously, yes. But temporarily, always. See, he and the missus continued their life together as usual except for a month every summer when he’d go on a vacation from which he returned in the fall sans explanation.

She does remember picking him up once and catching a rare glimpse of his enigmatic associates. One was the assistant engineer in question, the other a dignified older gent. Though she never learned their names, by pure coincidence she happened to run into the older guy again not too long ago. She remembers it clearly, because she was shocked to see such a dignified character working as the short-order cook in a roadside diner in Bumblefuck, Wyoming…

Bumblefuck, Wyoming. Dusty road, nothing for miles, just this one crummy diner. Dagny pulls up, steps inside, and orders a hamburger. She has butterflies in her stomach. This is it, she can feel it. The case is about to crack wide open.

Nice place you got here.

There are two truckers at the counter and she waits for them to leave before she strikes up a conversation with the cook. “This is the best hamburger I’ve ever eaten,” she says. “Thanks,” he replies.

She sizes him up. “Come work for me. I’ll pay you $10,000 a year.”  That $75,000 adjusted for inflation, by the way, but he turns her down flat. She doesn’t understand why. ‘I hate to see ability being wasted!’ she cries, and he says ‘So do I.’

She can tell by his tone that they’re simpatico and is suddenly overwhelmed with how much bullshit she’s had to put up with lately. She spills to him how impossible it is to find anybody worth dealing with anymore and how she’s trying so hard to make something good happen but everybody along the way is a total fucktard.

He takes all this in rather serenely and then asks what exactly it is she came here looking for. “Did you know the last man to serve as the assistant R&D engineer at GM?” He cautiously admits that he did.  What’s it to you, lady? “He invented a motor. It’s vitally important I find him.”

The cook asks who she is and she tells him she’s Dagny Taggart. This whole scene makes a lot more sense to him now but he tells her ‘Give it up, Miss Taggart.’ He will not give her the name, or even tell her if the man is alive or dead. This is the end of the road.

“Who are you, anyway?” she asks him. “The name’s Akston. Hugh Akston,” comes the nonchalant reply.

Dagny’s mind is blown. “Hugh Akston the philosopher? Hugh Akston, Francisco’s former mentor? Hugh Akston who disappeared mysteriously forever years ago? What the hell are you doing frying eggs in the middle of the desert?! None of this makes any sense!”

In reality this is a picture of the first prime minister of India smoking up a British diplomat, and it has no business fitting this scene so well.

Hugh Akston leans back against the counter and takes out a pack of cigarettes. He offers her one and then lights them both up. “I told you you hit a dead end. But I’ll give you one clue. There is no such thing as a contradiction. Only faulty logic. If your conclusions make no sense, go back and check your premises.”

A bell rings in Dagny’s head. Francisco told her the same thing when trying to explain his behavior the last time she saw him. She thanks Akston for the burger and the butt and leaves. As she steps into her car she stops to examine the cigarette in her hand. It belongs to no brand she can recognize. The only insignia is a tiny golden dollar sign stamped above the filter.

The time has come to give up and go home. Dagny arrives at the Wyatt Junction station to wait for the Galt Line to take her back east. But there is hubbub on the platform and she overhears somebody saying they don’t think Rearden will be able to follow all the new regulations at the same time. Some other guy is like “Hey fuck him, he’s rich. He can figure it out.”

Dagny’s blood freezes and she grabs the nearest newspaper. The Congress has given Wesley Mouch blanket authority to issue economic directives. He has placed production caps and price controls on nearly everything and levied extra taxes on Colorado businesses to subsidize the rest of the country’s failing infrastructure.

The memory of when she first met Ellis Wyatt leaps into her brain, the time he stormed into her office and threatened to fuck her up if she fucked around with his business. Another sudden recollection: the time he furiously smashed his glass after they toasted the opening of the Galt Line.

In a panic Dagny races for a pay phone, unsure what she’s trying to prevent but determined to do something. She dials Wyatt and starts screaming ‘Ellis, don’t! Don’t!’ but reaches only a dial tone.

Drop the mic and walk away.

Behind her, just past the station, the rolling hill with Wyatt’s estate and the vast expanses of his oil fields suddenly explode into a teeming wall of flames. All of the silhouetted derricks go up like torches. Dagny drops the phone in despair. He’s not there, she knows that much. He’s disappeared mysteriously forever. This is just his parting gift. One last “fuck you” for The Man. No more oil for you! Try running a techno-industrial economy now, sorry motherfuckers! Peace out.

REFLECTIONS ON PART ONE: The Logical Downfall of Ayn Rand

PART TWO, CHAPTER 1: “Storm’s Abrewin'”

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1:10 Wyatt’s Torch, “Desperate Times”

PREVIOUSLY: Creepy-ass Jim met a starstruck young cashier named Cheryl at a Duane Reade in Harlem. Dagny & Hank acted out all of their most aggressive sex fantasies and took a discreet road trip through the Midwest, during which they discovered a revolutionary protoype for a clean-energy motor… but it’s been junked and raided for parts.

Dagny and Rearden are questioning the local archivist in Hooverville, WI about what happened to The 20th Century Motor Company, a.k.a. GM. “The 20th Century was sold out,” says the clerk. Cute.

Always follow the money.

The last owner was “The People’s Mortgage Company,” headed by a man named Yonts. The PMC heavily advertised its cheap credit. When Yonts acquired the GM factory he took out a loan against it, split up and sold off all the capital goods, then resold the mortgage without deleveraging the balance sheet and skipped town. The tangle of let’s call them “collateralized debt obligations” he left behind have bound the legal ownership of the property in enough red tape that it will be unspooling for years to come.

And did Yonts actually operate the factory before extracting all its value? No, says the archivist. ‘He wasn’t the kind that ever operates anything.’ I think they call those kinds of people “operators” actually. Or “confidence men.”

Speaking of confident men, Hank cuts to the chase. Where are all the records on this? The archivist shrugs. They’ve all been scavenged by the destitute locals for kindling. For kindling. Look I know the economy crumbled here but why in God’s name would people need to burn public records for fire in America’s breadbasket? Has the earth been salted and scorched? Did all the flora die? Has the climate… changed or something? Anyway the only lead our heroes can get from the archive-less archivist is that the guy who sold the factory to Yonts is a mayor in another nearby ghost town.

"You guys got any money?"

Mr. Mayor is like one of Nucky’s lackeys from Boardwalk Empire, sporting a gaudy pinky ring and shamelessly recounting how he acquired the property through graft and could not care less what Yonts did with it. In fact he always liked Yonts. He was a charmer. As far as leads go, Mr. Mayor bought the mortgage from a banker named Lawson who also gave out an irresponsible amount of cheap credit, but he was just a putz who was too nice for his own good, not a scam artist. He went out of business. Oh, and he works for the Bureau of Economic Planning in DC now.

Still without clues to who invented the motor, Dagny and Hank leave. They have the motor with them, under a tarp in the back of the car. Dags calls Eddie to arrange its shipment to New York, but doesn’t even get a word out before Eddie starts throwing a fit. The aforementioned Bureau is drafting all sorts of new bills to take control of Colorado.

Smash cut to Manhattan. Dagny’s hidden the motor in a defunct emergency generator room deep in the bowels of Taggart Transcon. Up in the executive offices, word is some labor unions want caps placed on the use of the Galt Line so that more commerce is forced to flow to other providers. Orren Boyle’s industrial conglomerate wants caps placed on the production of rMetal so that more commerce is forced to flow to steel. There are other legislative suggestions from other interest groups as well, the cumulative effect of which would be a ruinous clusterfuck for the Colorado economy — which at this point is basically the national economy.

"I am the one who blocks!... your... ideas. ...Shut up."

Dagny actually turns to Jim for help. “Hey fuckface, this lobby stuff is your wheelhouse, are you making sure we don’t get bent over or what?” But Jim has his usual obstinate knee-jerk reaction to anything Dagny-related. ‘You can’t expect to run the national economy to suit your own convenience,’ Jim sneers at her. The gall of that sentence coming from James Taggart leaves her speechless, so she decides to keep investigating the motor instead.

Meanwhile, Hank is at home in PA and mired in similar bullshit. Since he now has to buy what used to be his iron ore from the spineless Larkin, he’s not getting his shipments on time. Larkin has fully succumbed to being Jim and Boyle’s crony, basically, and the resulting gaps in the rMetal supply chain have forced Rearden to make his own bribe-riddled deals to keep the mills running. He does not like that at all.

So in the evening he retires to his room to just get away from everything, and naturally this is the night his wife shows up in new lingerie desperately seeking affection like a neglected pet.

"Try and ignore me now, ya dick."

Poor Lillian tries to be flirty but he’s curt. She says she just wants to hang out and catch up but he bluntly admits he doesn’t give a shit about her high-society gossip. Starting to get upset, she wishes he would just lie to make her feel better, which he finds even more unattractive.

They get into a tiff and similar to Hank’s mother in Chapter 7 Lily claims that loving someone for their vices and shortcomings, and not for their virtues, is what makes love valuable, because in so doing one forfeits one’s own virtue and consience for the sake of their beloved. Hank is repulsed, but it also causes a rush of guilt in him for fucking Dagny on the side. He is suddenly struck that Lillian’s furtive cruelty is ‘not a method of torture, but a twisted form of despair.’ She loves him. And she knows he doesn’t love her back. And that, ultimately, is what has turned her into the harpy he sees before him. Fuckin’ light dawns on marble head, Hank. Jesus.

The scene only grows more pathetic when Hank asks her flat-out what it is she wants, what would make her happy. Because that always helps when arguing with a woman. She points out that the fact he has to ask such questions is the very problem. And yes, she’s noticed that despite the nightmare going on in his business life he seems less tense lately, which I take to mean she suspects the affair.

But she’s here trying to bridge that gap, allowing him to see her vulnerability, despite all the wounded pride and bruised dignity. She slides in for an embrace, runs her hands down his arms. He reflexively shoves her away. Ouch. Cold, Hank.

He immediately knows that was too much. He apologizes and asks her genuinely what she considers her purpose in life. What is it that she really wants? Seriously. He will try his best to give it to her.

‘You.’

Aaand he literally does not understand what she means. Fuck you Ayn.  asks her to explain and that’s the last straw for Lillian. She storms out.

"My life sucked, now I do too. Ask me how."

Goddamn, this is so much like the Draper marriage you might as well just watch a Mad Men greatest hits compilation. Right down to the part where you feel terrible for the wife until you eventually have to admit that victim of emotional abuse or not, her once-innocent love has curdled into miserable bitchery and it’s too late for her. But, at least in my version, this was her one last chance, her truly sad and tragic moment.

Hank seems to have reached the same conclusion actually, except he believes so much in the sanctity of contracts that he once again punishes himself with guilt instead of considering a divorce. Nonetheless, his thoughts drift to Dagny and how much seeing her would make him feel better. If only she hadn’t left for DC to question that Lawson character…

NEXT: 1:10 cont’d, “Desperate Measures”

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Applied Randology #2: Contra-perceptions

(OR, How Conservative Arguments About Birth Control Really Mean They Wanted More Radical Obamacare)

So contraception’s been in the news lately, and I could tell right away that the debate about it was relevant here, since the blog is about where progressives and libertarians meet and the debate is about that exactly. But I haven’t had the time to address it here until now, so let’s do this thing:

The issue has been framed two ways — one as a matter of women’s rights, and the other as a matter of religious freedom. For those who’ve been following this blog, these two views represent the two different types of liberty (which I discussed here).

Basically, when you consider the issue as one of reproductive rights, it’s a matter of positive liberty because you’re saying a woman has a right TO something. Considered as a matter of religious conscience it’s about negative liberty because you’re saying an employer has a right to be free FROM something.

So if the government guarantees women access to birth control, it is protecting their right to choose at the expense of their employers’ right to choose, but if the government leaves the employers free to choose, it will take choices out of women’s hands.

Rather than get bogged down in arguments about whose rights take priority, however, we could just acknowledge that this entire debate would not exist if individuals didn’t rely on their employers for health insurance.

Again, if individuals had any kind of negotiating power in the health care market, there would be no conflict of interest here. If we had, oh I don’t know, some kind of clear relationship between health care services and every single payer, differences in the moral beliefs of employers and employees that have no bearing on their business relationship would have no bearing on their business relationship. Women’s rights wouldn’t conflict with religious liberty at all.

So conservatives worried this is an attack on religious freedom are actually making a good argument that Obamacare wasn’t liberal enough.

Let’s, er, apply Ayn Rand as an example. The official Ayn Rand Lexicon entry on birth control  proves that Rand would have been on the progressive side of this argument — as if her hatred of religion and love of kinky sex hadn’t made that abundantly clear already. Yet in this case, protecting a woman’s right “to her own life and happiness” (Rand’s phrasing) would mean government interference in the economy, which she hated. So we know already that the current conversation is a tangled mess.

Let’s clean it up, shall we?

To start with we have individuals and doctors. Currently between them are employers, insurance companies, and government, all negotiating amongst themselves what the individuals and doctors can do. Despite all the controversy over Obamacare, that basic framework was true before it passed and it’s still true now.

The most radical liberal option during the health care debate would have been to break the backs of the insurance companies and replace them with a single-payer system that would remove employers from the equation too, leaving only one arbiter between people and their doctors, and the same arbiter for everyone, thus radically simplifying people’s interactions with health care providers and making it clear who to petition for changes in the system in the future. Counter-intuitively, even though this would be the ‘big government’ solution, it would in many ways increase individual liberty — positive liberty.

But that course of action wasn’t on the table. A ‘public option’ would have essentially been a single-payer system competing against the insurance companies in the free market, which is a more American approach to reform anyway. But that would’ve meant the insurance companies would have to actually, you know, compete. So powerful corporate interests that they are, they mobilized an army of lobbyists (like Rand’s Wesley Mouch) to water down the law as much as possible and stop it from being too innovative or efficient. The individual mandate, which is obviously a huge infringement on negative liberty, was originally a Republican idea in the ’90s and basically hands the insurance companies lots of new business.

Which means, if we review the chain of events really quickly, well-established corporations with well-funded lobbies and a status quo bias (the villains in Atlas Shrugged) were facing upstarts who wanted to boost efficiency (just like in Atlas Shrugged), and they sabotaged this effort by helping to rewrite the law in their own interests (just like in Atlas Shrugged), the results of which have led to unnecessary conflicts and limits on freedom (just like in Atlas Shrugged), conflicts now blamed on those who were attempting reform in the first place (just like in Atlas Shrugged), reformers who in this case were progressive elected officials (the exact opposite of Atlas Shrugged).

So. As I have pointed out on multiple occasions, people who claim that real life since 2008 is just like in Atlas Shrugged are actually on to something in terms of the plot, because that comparison is revisiting the book in reality’s terms, retrospectively. But taking Rand’s political prejudices in Atlas Shrugged and prejudging real people by them in terms of character, the comparison is reframing reality in the book’s terms, which is just failing to face reality on its own terms.

And in that ideological mismatch, Rand fans end up supporting policies and politicians that only worsen the economic problems that scared them in the first place… which is just like in Atlas Shrugged.

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