Archive for category Applied Randology

Applied Randology #17: In the Name of the Best Within Us

I gave Democrats a piece of advice yesterday — “Do not insist upon that which can go without saying” — and today I’m going to follow it.  My only thoughts about last night’s results will be forward-looking.

For example, and in line with my earlier advice: even though today’s reality check speaks for itself, Democrats should not expect it to speak for the future. When negotiations over deficit reduction begin soon, cloaked in the ominous meme of “the fiscal cliff,” the Democrats can’t just say, “We won the election! You give up now!” They must hold Republican narratives up against the cold hard reality of numbers and history again; in fact they should simply act like the election hasn’t ended. 

In stark contrast to the “close your eyes and ears and shout LALALA” strategy of the 2008-2012 Republican Party, a little forced introspection will be good for both conservatism and America’s civic health as a whole. So the GOP still needs to be pressed up against that brick wall of facts until they sink in. Conservative youth, women, social libertarians, and gay and non-white Republicans have to wrest control away from bitter old white men within the party, the same way that youth, women, social liberals, gay, and non-white voters did for the nation. And sustained Democratic pressure can help them do this.

Consider the role major second-term legislation can play. Former Bush staffer Michael Gerson described Republican attitudes towards illegal immigration as ‘political suicide’ on NPR this morning, in light of the election results, so President Obama and the Democratic Senate should put a popular, centrist immigration bill to Congress and dare the Republicans to obstruct it. Just keep forcing those reality checks. Who will face reality and accept it like a Randian hero? Who will recoil like Jim Taggart and go politically mad or commit political suicide?

This strategy hits three birds with one stone for Dems — it’s good politics for them, it’s good policy for the country, and it’s good therapy for the GOP.

For I really do root hard for those hard-nosed clear-eyed conservatives out there who see reason and can bring the Republican Party back towards it, back towards genuine value and merit. Your Ross Douthats, your Reihan Salams, your David Frums. There are several young conservative women I’ve seen making the pundit rounds who will lead in this effort too, I have no doubt. S.E. Cupp has a growing brand; Megan McCain has something of a profile. A blonde whose name I can’t recall was on last night’s CNN panel and a recent “Real Time with Bill Maher,” and she’s a conservative gay rights activist. Marco Rubio and Chris Christie have roles to play. The future of the Republican Party is strong, and much stronger now for having been thoroughly defeated in its current form.

Yes, last night was a victory for the Democrats and the left. But I don’t feel any desire to rub that in anyone’s face. I see stunned conservatives and confused, deflated independents, and I want to cheer them up! I want them to know they don’t have to be so worried and sad! This wasn’t just a win for Barack Obama and his most liberal supporters, this was a win for the moderates in the center, and the intelligent right too. This was a win for America, and for reality.

So if you woke up today feeling upset, I don’t think that condemns you as stupid or immoral or any of that other Randian rhetoric I’ve been throwing around. After all, empathy is one of those *minor* topics on which she’s hilariously, grotesquely wrong. Rather I offer you hope and the opportunity for change. As Dagny and Galt laughed about together near the end of the book, “We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?” You still don’t.

“It’s okay, we’re in real America now,” my transcendental Francisco would tell you. “The people are nice here. Newcomers are welcome. And if you’re stuck in the depths of a great depression, well… as one of this world’s great leaders once put it, you have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

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Applied Randology #16: Left and Righteousness

Democrats and Republicans alike have butterflies in their cynical cynical tummies today as America gets its vote on, and I want to take this opportunity before the verdict comes in to offer a little advice to both parties regardless of who wins, delivered as always half-facetiously and in the style of one Ayn “Alyssa Rosenbaum” Rand.

Dear Republicans,

My suggestions must be obvious by now. They go a little something like this: REPENT! OPEN YOUR EYES! SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!

I kid, I kid.

To Republican voters, those who have eminently respectable beliefs about the value of small government and fiscal responsibility and the spiritual merits of family and wholesome culture, I applaud your value system. There is but one value you must incorporate if you want to own the complete set, one that I’m sure many of you already hold. It is the courage and fortitude to face facts with clear eyes and a full heart. This value is necessary for all of your other values to manifest as virtues instead of vices.

Which is to say that if you’re the kind of voter who admits you don’t know enough about this country’s affairs but will vote for the Republican candidate just because you feel “we need a change?” If you don’t know the details of the candidates’ plans but you “like” the way the Republican candidate “sounds?” You are putting yourself in grave moral danger. You have forfeited your right to knowledge, and now all of your genuinely positive values are free to be manipulated into vices by looters of the mind and spirit. Yes, this message is bipartisan in principle, but in practice, in reality, you — yes, you — are of the party being most looted and mooched. Do not let your most fundamental right as a citizen of a democracy be corrupted by your own apathy, your own exhausted embrace of anti-mind and anti-reason! Remember the lessons of Atlas Shrugged!

And to Republican officials I say, “Cast off the lessons of Atlas Shrugged!” For it contains both great truths and terrible falsehoods, and you have been taken in by a confused philosopher who preached righteously of her sacred allegiance to reality, yet failed miserably at putting her money where her mouth was.

It was money, in fact, which confused her worst. The lynchpin of her moral scheme, the tenet that allowed her to disregard the tragic humanitarian consequences of her political beliefs, was the idea that your net worth equaled your moral worth. This is as evil a mysticism as any that she did proudly herself decry.

It is not the idea of a positive relationship between money and morality that is evil, just as it is not the idea of a spiritual currency called karma that is evil. Indeed, both ideas have merit — relative merit. It is the over-simplified, closed-off version of these ideas which is evil. The absolute version, the version that allows you to stop thinking, to disregard the consequences of your thoughts, because you believe absolutely — that is what’s evil.

When a mystic of mind says karma just means you get what you deserve, is this not an insult to the man who has been decent all his life, and worked hard for ever, who is stricken with a terrible cancer? And when a mystic of money says your class simply reflects your moral value, is this not an insult to the poor woman who works herself to the bone to feed and educate her family, to improve her children’s lives and her own against all odds and history?

So to Republicans I say don’t repent; reform. Don’t open your eyes; open your mind. And Soylent Green isn’t people, people are people. Do not think of them as anything else, soylent or otherwise.

Dear Democrats,

I say you must embrace the lessons of Ayn Rand! Are you noticing a theme yet?

Democrats, do you feel sad and frustrated, victimized by politics because it just isn’t fair? Do you wish it was just easier to make people see the insane anti-logic of your current political opposition? Do you grow cynical and resent the world because it hasn’t swayed the minds of your fellow men for you, proved your beautiful and humanitarian values are superior for you? DON’T. Do not succumb to the spiritual entropy of Jim Taggart. Remember the immortal words of Sean Connery in The Rock:

Losers whine about ‘fair.’ Winners go home and fuck the prom queen.

Go home and fuck the prom queen, Democrats. Don’t get any sleep, leave the dress in tatters on the floor, and if all goes as planned you’ll wake up in bed next to her tomorrow and realize the next four years of your life after graduation are totally gonna RULE, man.

But my message isn’t about today’s big dance. It’s about your shitty attitude in general. Even if you do get laid tonight, you’ve got some serious challenges coming your way. The media battle over the “fiscal cliff,” the sequel to the debt ceiling negotations in the spring… the midterm elections, eventually. You can’t just win this round, you have to step your game up.

Now look, I get it, you feel caught in a bind. It’s the asbolutism, the surety and assertiveness of your opponents that makes them so superficially appealing to the unengaged and uninformed, even though it’s their asbolutism that makes their defeat morally necessary. They are the D-student jocks who are too dumb not to be confident and get to hook up with all the pretty girls. And you’re the wounded little apple-polisher who thinks that even though those girls are dumb as bricks, they’re so pretty(!), and since you’re a better person than their brick-minded boyfriends, you should get to touch their boobies.

Well grow the fuck up! Because that’s how you get to touch more boobies, and also how you get to be okay with the times when you aren’t touching boobies. You grow the fuck up. Never resent your opponent. Study your opponent. Learn from their strengths and learn how to exploit their weaknesses.

So Democrats, in the case of your political opponents today, what this means is you need to find something to be absolutist about, and you need to expose Republicans’ absolutism as their Achilles’ heel. Steal their power and make it your own. Free yourself from your binding and use it to lasso your quarry. My advice:

Reason is on your side, so don’t be so concerned about seeming reasonable. Seem dominant. Seem confident. Let reason speak for itself, through you. Do not insist upon that which can go without saying. The charisma of indisputable knowledge erodes the glamour of defensive propaganda just as surely as water erodes rock: quietly, softly, but always and forever.

Likewise, because you know that moral libertarianism is superior to moral absolutism, do not be afraid of being absolutist in that stance. If you are accused of being a moral relativist, the only moral relationship you need to explain in that moment is the obvious superiority of yours over the narrow-minded morality of the absolutist who is accusing you. A moral absolutist, as an absolutist, will not be converted by the example of a compromiser, a coddler, or a simple compare and contrast exercise. You must assertively demonstrate how your nimble, flexible moral rationalism defeats their sturdy-yet-limited dogmatism, like a ninja taking down a 300-pound slab of muscle in one deft shift of balance.

Are you worried you will sound like a real dick, Democrats? Do you wince at the idea of being called an asshole if you take this attitude, a condescending prick perhaps? Do not feel constrained in this way either! Because remember, you are not actually an absolutist! You are free to admit your excesses upon further reflection, free to evolve intellectually and emotionally in response to the facts and the feelings of the people around you. One must always be vigilant about going too far, but this adaptability is exactly what makes your method of moral thinking superior. And this is what empowers you to be aggressive about it!

You should not just internalize your principles, you should externalize them. After all, which world do you want to live in, the one where you feel your values are validated because you fucked the prom queen, or the one where she goes home with your moral inferior and you are left lamenting that the world would be a better place if it had effortlessly reflected your values for you? Don’t rationalize failure, Democrats. Realize success.

Sincerely, some random asshole with a blog.

Well, that’s it kids. That’s my awkward, motivational parent-before-the-dance pep talk. Go have fun now. Don’t stay up too late, don’t drink too much, and considering what we talked about, remember that when you do vote for prom queen… cast your ballot for the candidate with birth control.

See you in the morning, scamps!

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Applied Randology #15: Party Lines

Welcome one and all to the Grand Finale, the very last week of “Atlas ‘Clubbed” — which I will admit in retrospect should’ve been called “Atlas Blogged,” or even more accurately, “Atlas Trolled.”

But it’s too late for that now, and more importantly — tomorrow’s the election! So here’s how this blog’s waning days are going to break down:

*Today, a thorough review of everything Atlas Shrugged has taught us about American politics in 2012.

*Tomorrow, what lessons should Democrats and Republicans each learn from Ayn Rand going forward?

*Wednesday will obviously be dedicated to the election results, to whatever degree they’re definitive by morning.

*Thursday, some final reflections. How reading Atlas Shrugged (twice!) has affected my beliefs and attitudes personally. “Dessert for Thought” if you will.

*Friday I’ll cast this sucker in amber and announce my future blogging plans.

So, without further ado…

PARTY LINES

For most of American history, our two political parties were ideologically diverse, with lots of different conflicting interest groups existing within each. And while there are still factions within them, the parties have become far more ideologically cohesive over the last half-century.

The Republican Party in particular has become extremely doctrinaire: conservatives today speak of their “Cause” and their “Movement,” and their candidates face a number of “purity tests” and “pledges” on their way to office.

These are characteristics of a “closed” ideology, a belief system that is less interested in adapting to reality than forcing reality to fit its ideas. And such belief systems can be extremely effective at doing that. But the approach has its limits. Push reality too hard and reality pushes back.

In contrast, Democrats are the more diverse party, and this is why congressional Republicans can vote in almost perfect lockstep and unanimity but congressional Democrats often have trouble maintaining the party line.  To the lay voter who pays scant attention to politics, all this makes Republicans look strong and righteous, and Democrats look weak and confused. On a public relations level, the “closed” ideology has an advantage.

So even though this blog was initially intended to be as non-partisan as possible, as the election drew nearer I felt it necessary to declare that independent voters should definitely, absolutely pick the Democratic Party — not always, but for now. Because ideologies that are open to evolution and change are good, and ideologies closed to new evidence are bad. And while history tells us that polarized ideological parties aren’t good for America in general, as long as we have them we should vote for the one that is “open” and not the one that is “closed.”

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn presents two ideological factions, one that swears by proper science and factual evidence and moral justice, and one that ignores the reality in front of their eyes by hiding behind a broken philosophy. In today’s world, partisans can more or less agree on this dynamic but put each other in the opposite roles. Ayn, for her part, says the faction of objective truth is the anarcho-capitalist faction, and the faction of false belief is the faction of social democrats.

Of course I started this blog because I think Ayn’s fictional world has great relevance to our own, but obviously I believe that as far as her world relates to America in 2012, Ayn got the morality of the political factions backwards — but NOT because of the politics themselves.

See, I don’t think libertarianism and conservatism are “false beliefs,” nor do I think liberalism is fundamentally objective and right. I think defining moral right and wrong along political lines is one of Ayn’s biggest mistakes. The moral dividing line isn’t libertarianism v. social democracy, it’s how you think about your beliefs that matters. It’s not left or right, but open or closed to evolving.

Looking at it that way, it just so happens that the Democratic Party is morally right and the Republican Party is morally wrong, not because of liberalism and conservatism, not even because of what each party claims its moral values are, but because the Democratic Party as a whole is open to new ideas and evidence in a way that the Republican Party as a whole is not.

Ayn dedicates her whole book to the idea that one way of thinking is morally right and one way of thinking is morally wrong — she just doesn’t live up to her own definition of the right way. And neither do her followers.

So let’s examine how well our real-world parties fare against this Randian standard. Three axes: economics, social policy, and political strategy.

1. ECONOMICS

When Ayn was doing all that world-building in Atlas, I made clear that I found the broad strokes of her vision effective because I think fiscal discipline and small government make an enormous amount of sense. I think Democrats fail to fully appreciate the burden of excess regulation and regulatory uncertainty, and I think liberals tend to vilify capitalism and business as an abstract generality even though they are the world’s great drivers of prosperity. On top of all that I find the idea of a lean, mean, stream-lined state that leaves as much as possible to the liberty of the people to be a beautiful and elegant theory of government.

However, we must abide by logic and reason and the evidence of the applied sciences in our universe, just as Rand would have us do in her own customized version of the universe. And that means we must recognize the serious threat that climate change poses to economic prosperity and human quality of life more generally. We must recognize that as a matter of history, radical income inequality and political plutocracy lead to a collapse of the economic buffer between rich and poor otherwise known as the middle class (or the bourgeoisie, if you prefer).

On these matters, the places where ideal theory must either bend to meet cold hard reality or break upon impact, the value of some government regulation and a socially intelligent tax system should be obvious. Yet in the face of not only repeated freak hurricanes, but also financial disasters and the fiscal recklessness of its own recent leaders, the Republican Party refuses to amend its ideal theory to improve its relationship with reality. And considering the great potential of that theory, the fact that it is the Democrats who have the healthier relationship to math, facts, history, and responsibility is a huge self-inflicted wound and a deep mark of shame on the GOP.

Again and again, the 21st century Republican Party has had the opportunity to live up to the virtuous ideas of its historical forebears, and again and again it has failed. Today’s Republicans talk a good game, but when you educate yourself on how they actually behave in office, you see that they are Rand fans fetishizing Francisco’s speech about money as karma, one of the most logically sloppy sections of the book.

2. SOCIAL ISSUES

This one could not be simpler. Liberalism today means being pro-abortion, pro-sex, pro-gay… social liberalism has a decidedly more libertarian reputation in nearly every category. Ayn tested, real world approved!

Which isn’t to say social conservatism doesn’t have merits. Its attention to questions of social stability and positive environments for raising children are important concerns to have. The surprisingly fast acceptance of gay marriage is, I think, largely due to the fact that the fundamental right gays are fighting for is access to a conservative, traditional institution of family and stability.

And please notice that for both sides, they win on social issues when they are “pro” something. When liberals violate the libertarian virtues of their popular positions and start going all “nanny state” about cigarette packaging or soft drink sizes or whatever, it rubs people the wrong way. That’s a “con” of social liberalism.

But the “cons” of social conservatism are far worse, at least politically, because social conservatism today is defined largely as anti-sex, which must be the most losing political argument in the Western world. Ayn would be utterly apalled.

Now, there is actually a Randian argument in favor of conservative attitudes towards sex, founded in the fact that Ayn believes sex is unavoidably an exchange of spiritual value. The rights to accessible birth control and abortions, while enormously important for the economic and social freedom of at least half the population of America and the earth, do create a culture in which the relationships between sexuality and pregnancy, sexuality and sheer personal intimacy, are loosened. That raises some valid questions about spiritual health, moral values, and the cultural environment in which our children develop.

But that certainly doesn’t justify the wholesale rejection of modernity, including women’s rights, science, and higher education. And sadly, just such a rejection is the headline characteristic of a number of religious conservative movements today.

And so, just as it was with economics, I believe the right champions important moral questions that the left would do well to consider, yet goes so overboard with religious/ideological fervor that it disqualifies itself from wielding power.

3. POLITICAL STYLE

This is where I find myself viscerally upset by today’s Republican Party. Particularly if you buy into the moral value of being rational and objective about facts, the political strategy of the 21st century GOP is truly vile.

I think it’s simplest to put it this way:

The only serious tactic in the Republican governing arsenal since 2008 has been to hold the economy hostage. On the stimulus bill, on health care reform, on the debt ceiling, on the jobs act… the GOP consistently sabotages the nation’s short-term or long-term economic health, and then blames Obama. Does anybody recognize that tactic, can you think of anyone else who uses it? I can. It’s John Galt.

You see, the thing that makes Ayn Rand fandom so disturbing is that Ayn Rand doesn’t believe in democracy. She believes the wealthy deserve complete freedom from taxes and social responsibility as a matter of moral justice, and so the only just laws are those designed to protect the wealthy from the population at large. To Ayn Rand, the purpose of government is to protect plutocracy from the dangers of democracy.

And this is what the Republican Party of 2012 is really doing, except instead of abstaining from government like the fictional Galt, they work to take over government from the inside, which Galt specifically rejects.

I don’t think this is an intentional conspiratorial cabal situation. It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be as simple as this: the billionaire Rand fans fund The Party. The social conservatives and the small government fiscal hawks vote for The Party. And The Party, which believes in money but doesn’t believe in government, makes sure to do what the funders want, and really doesn’t give a shit about the governing part that the social conservatives and the fiscal hawks have a genuine stake in. In the end, the public is left in ruins and the richest took the money and ran, and by their moral logic this is not only okay, it proves they were right all along.

And that’s why you have to vote Democrat by default. That party believes in democracy. It’s a party of many creeds and colors, a party of economic opportunity and legal equality. It is within the historical tradition of great American government. It is not the most aggressive or impressive to a superficial observer, but it is the better option.

In the sections above, I listed a number of reasons why I can sympathize with Republican voters and right-leaning independents. I pointed out where I respect their philosophy and values at every opportunity. But once you come down to the basic, craven politics of it, I cannot escape this conclusion, based in fact and historical evidence, that to whatever degree you support the Republican Party of today, you are ignorant of, or in denial about, its true nature and its moral reality.

A democratic vote for an anti-democracy party is a reward for moral perversity and social injustice, anti-logic, anti-life, ignorance, denial, cynicism, contradiction, and self-destruction. Make your choice, America, but make it in full awareness of what it is you’re choosing.

That’s what Ayn would’ve wanted.

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Applied Randology #14: The Irrefutable Evidence

So obviously we’ve got to talk about Sandy. First things first, a way to support disaster relief:

http://www.redcross.org/charitable-donations

Okay, now back to the business of this blog. To put it in as obnoxiously Randian a way as possible:

If you still plan to vote for the FEMA-cutting climate science denier, you are an anti-reality moral coward.

See? Told you it would be obnoxious.

But it’s really very simple. In the most recent Applied Randology I tried to wear my ‘intellectual humility’ hat because I felt I had gone too far in making the statement that “objective reality wins again” in proving the perversity of the modern Republican agenda. Well, I take that humility back. Objective reality has clearly proved the perversity of the modern Republican agenda.

Sandy speaks to basically everything I’ve been talking about all year. A couple of examples:

1) Randian Republicanism denies climate science; now that the east coast has a monsoon season, objective reality demands we admit climate science is accurate. Fuck, it demands it for economic reasons alone, nevermind, you know, human decency.

2) Randian Republicanism would slash funding for, or even shutter completely, the Federal Emergency Management Agency; now that FEMA has proved its efficacy (well, under Democratic presidents anyway), objective reality demands we admit the most economically efficient budget cuts aren’t going to come out of domestic discretionary spending.

3) In the very last recapof Atlas Shrugged, in the ultimate cathartic moment of the book, Rand’s Objectivist heroes bask in the glory of a New York City reduced to mass evacuations and black-outs. And I quote:

“[W]hen we would see the lights of New York go out, we would know that our job was done.” … When she looked at the darkness ahead … she knew that now, at this hour, their plane was carrying all that was left of New York City.

This is what Rand wants! She wants New York to be swept away in a purge of moral righteousness, just like the Christian fundamentalist preachers who declare storms like Sandy to be God’s punishment for New York’s sins.

Of course that is insane. But remember this whole blog is premised on arguing against Rand’s insanity using her own logic. So let’s do that, shall we?

Real, sound logic dictates that if A is B, and B is C, then A is C. And by Randian logic, people who believe in ideologies that deny reality are all secretly nihilists whose only true desire is self-destruction.

So Rand’s logic dictates that if A) Rand wants to self-destruct our society — which she explicitly does — and B) Republican philosophy is now implicitly the same as Rand’s philosophy… then by the simplest, clearest rules of actual logic, C) Republicans secretly, implicitly want to self-destruct our society too!

Now sure, you can go ahead and deny that conclusion. It certainly isn’t fair to innocent Republican voters who don’t even know who Ayn Rand is or what the party’s policy details really are.  But to deny the conclusion, to defend Republicanism against this charge of nihilism, you have to reject Rand’s logic and ideology — you have to reject Republicanism.

This blog’s favorite political journalist, Jon Chait, wrote a post at NYMag this morning arguing Democrats should take advantage of Sandy as an election-related event. Money quote:

Conservatives are already complaining about [the politicization of Sandy], but the attempt to wall disaster response off from politics in the aftermath of a disaster is an attempt to insulate Republicans from the consequences of their policies.

Exactly. Republicans politicize hard science and raw numbers all the time, claim they’re “skewed” liberal. It’s practically their M.O. — Paul Krugman discusses it this weekend in a blog post titled, appropriately enough, “The War on Objectivity“. And yet when hard science and raw numbers turn into a visceral human experience like this, something that could really hit home with voting citizens, suddenly acknowledging the political side of the issue is insensitive to people’s feelings, it’s against humanitarian values. Not to beat a dead horse, but it’s Jim Taggart all over again! It’s a perverse use of human emotion as a shield against perfectly valid rationality!

And so I hope Democrats DO push this issue, HARD. Not even as a last minute election tactic, but AFTER the election too. Because it proves that they are on the side of objective reality, and that the Republicans are lost in an ideological bubble, out of touch with reality and the true values of the human spirit.

The Dems, in short, have to stop being so timid. They have to move public opinion, pro-actively, because they have the facts on their side and that should fill them with confidence like it fills Randian heroes with confidence. It’s like Ayn argues in the book, and like I said before the first debate: objective reality wins.

 

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Applied Randology #13: The Counterfactual

At the end of my commentary on John Galt’s speech, only twelve hours before Mitt Romney’s debate performance rebooted the race from a potential Obama landslide into a genuine toss-up, I concluded that

If [Randians who have no respect for truth] are evil by [their] own definition and, per Rand, those who face their own evilness must either go mad or commit suicide? Well, the evidence is right in front of our eyes: the Republican Party as an institution has gone mad, and is in the midst of a grand political suicide. Objective reality wins again.

Oops.

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that by the end of The Speech I had gone pretty far overboard mimicking Ayn’s bluster and absolutism in my polemic against her. But my point about the nature of the modern Republican Party is sound; what’s changed is that the Party’s truth-free and reality-averse political strategy is working a lot better now. I still think Obama is going to pull out a victory, but the GOP’s “political suicide” turns out to have been a lot less real than it seemed on the morning of October 3rd. So to moderate the hyperbole of my Galt’s Speech conclusions, I’m going to imagine the potential Romniverse — in decidedly less hysterical terms than conservative pundits use when they imagine (and I do mean imagine) the Obamaverse.

First things first: when it comes down to it, I don’t consider a Romney presidency to be the real danger in this election; I consider a win for the Romney campaign to be the greater danger, because it would mean objective reality lost to post-modern relativism and willful ignorance. Even his supporters seem to defend him primarily on the grounds that you can’t believe half the things he says, which is the worst sort of moral complacency (and the sort condemned so rightly by Ayn in Atlas Shrugged).

This moral issue is the true crux of the election. As far as governing goes, I made it clear very early on this blog that there are elements of Rand’s “Objectiverse” and parts of conservative ideology that I can appreciate.  Even though I prefer Democratic policies to Republican ones on the whole, it’s really the politics and the rhetoric of the Republican Party that I object to with the moral certainty I played up in the Speech commentary.

What elements of a Romney presidency would I be okay with? The most promising is that if Romney wins, we will get another stimulus bill to help goose short-term economic growth. Even though the Republican House has been the faction blocking more stimulus under Obama, it is more or less a given that Paul Ryan would convince them to reverse their position if they also held the White House. Jon Chait outlines that case here. Despite the infuriating fact that this is a perfect example of the “politics over policy”/”party over country” nature of modern Republican leaders, releasing the hostage economy would be good for the country, so I could take some solace in that.

But when it comes to the other accomplishments of a hypothetical Romney administration that I could potentially get behind, the other elements of conservative ideology I support, well… the situation is more troubling. I am extremely skeptical that they would actually happen. Specifically, I would be in favor of tax reform, a balanced budget, and deficit reduction, which are really all the same issue. But if the history of Republicanism over the last thirty years is any indication, expecting follow-thru on these goals would just make me (and Republican voters) Charlie Brown to the GOP’s Lucy.

Fiscal responsibility is the football, see?

After all, both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush made sure to cut lots of taxes, but never got around to the cutting spending part. They didn’t put government on a diet, they just let it go malnourished. To be fair to Ronald Reagan, even as he racked up debt, he did pass responsible, bipartisan tax reform, and increased taxes several times to compensate for his initial tax-cut binge in 1981. So really it’s just George W. Bush who single-handedly starved America: he moved the country away from a year-to-year budget surplus that would have erased the debt by now, to annual deficits that added $4 trillion dollars to the national debt over 8 years. 

Now even though conservatives are constantly pointing out that President Obama has added even more than that in under 4 years, the cause of this massive annual deficit is the spending commitments made by Bush (two wars, a huge expansion in the Medicare entitlement), paired with tax rate cuts established by Bush, exacerbated by a huge drop in actual tax dollars collected due to the economic collapse (which also happened on Bush’s watch). So Republican campaign messaging that blaming Bush is old news, boring, or irrelevant… that’s willful amnesia and defiance of reality.

If we set our expectations based on how Republicans have behaved and not on what they say, then they are far more likely to slash taxes but preserve spending, therefore ballooning the deficit even more. If nothing else, Republican fealty to Grover Norquist blocks any meaningful tax reform.

But what about Paul Ryan? Would his role in this hypothetical Republican government lead to a change in GOP seriousness about budgets? He certainly seems to think President Obama should have prioritized fixing Bush’s deficit problem — even though he helped create it and has actually tanked bipartisan efforts to fix it.

Well, okay, despite that last, incredibly relevant fact, let’s pretend assume that he’s only been biding his time as a team player on his way to the real levers of power where he can get serious about slashing spending. I still have two concerns about this.

One is that fiscal austerity hurts the recovery. Europe proves this. In fact, the “fiscal cliff” coming at the end of the year represents just this problem: it cuts the deficit too much. And although Republicans want to get rid of the cliff, “cliff” is actually the wrong metaphor because the cuts would take effect over enough time, in future budgets, that they can be adjusted, turning the “cliff” into a controlled landing that actually resolves the budget/debt/tax issue responsibly.

The key word there is “responsibly.” Since the Republican record is so irresponsible, having a Democratic veto pen handy makes responsibility far more likely. A more powerful GOP would happily erase the politically painful (deficit-reducing) parts of the “cliff.” This is, once again, outlined in Jon Chait’s afore-mentioned article.

Chait is really the indispensible writer on Rand and modern Republicanism. In his 2008 book The Big Con, Chait points out that the only part of the Republican agenda that the party never compromises on is tax cuts for the rich. When the Republican Party is in power, Christian conservatives are constantly disappointed by inaction; budget hawks are constantly disappointed by profligate spending; the wealthy are never disappointed.

Which brings us to my second concern about Paul Ryan’s approach to balanced budgets. This one is not about a short-term shock to the economy, it’s about the long-term structure of the economy. As the facts of the last three decades make clear, economic growth under Republican policies accumulates at the top. Tax-slashers today say that the 1% pays a larger share of the income tax than ever before, so it would be immoral to tax them more. But this is another example of willful ignorance: not only does the 1% store a lot of its wealth in investments that are taxed at the lower capital gains rate, but their income tax rates have been cut over and over. So how could their share of the income tax grow when the rates are getting lower? Because they make so much more of the nation’s income! Tax cuts and economic collapse have moved lots of people out of the income tax brackets entirely. The people who don’t pay income taxes still pay payroll taxes, state and local taxes, sales taxes, &c, all of which are taxes that disproportionally affect the poor. Yet the rich, who have gotten richer and richer, complain!

The Romney and Ryan plans explicitly encourage this trend, and history confirms that this is the campaign promise they are most likely to keep. Add to that the gutting of domestic discretionary spending, and we would soon find ourselves in a country with a class of super-wealthy plutocrats paying fewer and fewer taxes while the poor face taxes that eat up a significant share of their income, undermining social mobility, living standards, and both literal and fiscal health. On top of that, cuts in clean energy investment and a draconian immigration policy would undermine the foundation of America’s strength in the middle and late 21st century.

So, hey, you might’ve noticed that my intention to look on the bright side of a Republican victory has hit a pretty solid wall, a wall whose bricks I like to call “evidence,” “facts,” “reality,” and “truth.” Frankly, call it whatever you want. The important thing to realize is that this course which would be a disaster for everyone except the super-rich plutocracy is the Ayn Rand dream scenario. It is literally the plot of Atlas Shrugged, except in real life it is Rand’s version of utopia that is being achieved by corrupt plutocrats and lobbyists taking over the federal government. Rand’s utopia just happens to be the rest of reality’s dystopia.

I think any Republican voters who come across this site probably disregard it, take offense when I say all these negative things about their party. But I’m not talking about them! I’m talking about the people in power, not the masses. The masses see corruption among the powerful and think, “Better vote for the guys who want to shrink government,” but those guys are the ones pulling the most corrupt con of all! And if this indisputable fact is depressing to Republican voters because it proves them to be ignorant dupes, well, the proper reaction is not to hide from reality, but to face it and reform themselves to be more virtuous. Don’t take it from me, take it from Ayn Rand! Her advice for individuals is actually extremely valuable, for the most part, because she loves individuals — it’s her advice for society that is disastrous, because she actively wants to see it fail! She’s very explicit about it!

In accordance with that distinction, please note that the explicit purpose of this post has been to figure out a way to respond to a hypothetical Romney victory with equanimity, to prepare to swallow and digest frustration and disappointment and channel it into something productive and creative. In short, to react like Hank Rearden or Francisco D’Anconia, Randian heroes.

Likewise, I will abide by another Randian ideal, one that she herself failed to live by: facing reality and the evidence clearly. In the context of this hypothetical Romney victory, that means I would have to remain open to evidence that his policies work better than I can reasonably expect of them bsaed on history and logic. But in the far less theoretical, uh, “actual reality,” I must acknowledge that Randian economics, and Randian attitudes toward society and community, in short all those things that Romney and Ryan represent politically — these have been proved by the historical record to be a civic travesty.

More than the economic policy, the social policy, the long-term vision of the role of government, I consider the defining feature of the partisan divide in this country to be modes of thinking. Do we validate a solipsistic philosophy that is closed to evidence, that so willfully defies reality that the weak-minded are dominated and impressed? Or do we reward a philosophy that is open to evidence and evolves, that allows itself to be vulnerable precisely because it is willing to adapt and compromise? As I discussed in my commentary on Galt’s Speech, I consider this issue to be the fundamental measure of moral virtue, and therefore the fundamental reason I’m obligated to call modern Republicanism immoral. Though I cannot speak to the intellectual character of every individual in either party, I can speak to the aggregate character of the two institutions.

So this election is not ultimately a verdict on the candidates. It is a verdict on the nation, the people. It is a verdict on America’s relationship to objective reality. Will we choose to see the truth of our time and place in history and renew our commitment to democratic tradition, or will we choose to ignore the facts of the last several decades and allow ourselves to slip down the road to serfdom under a corrupt plutocracy that has bought the government?

Democracies get the governments they deserve. Let’s deserve our democracy.

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Applied Randology #12: Life of a Salesman

Last night was the first presidential debate and I will say without qualification that Mitt Romney cleaned President Obama’s clock. There are two angles on that performance that I want to consider here briefly.

The first is what Romney did well.  He took control of the agenda of the debate from very early on, and made a very effective sales pitch for the conservative idea that reducing taxes and regulatory hoops leads to greater growth and is thus a more efficient solution to the jobs crisis as well as the deficit and debt problem. He also spoke to the Randian vision in alluding to bureaucratic panels making decisions and the idea of “trickle-down government,” all of which suggest the constantly expanding and increasingly inefficient central government infringing on the ingenuity of the private sector that Atlas Shrugged presents for criticism.

The Atlas comparisons inevitably cut both ways, though. Romney moderated almost all of his declared positions to appeal to the centrist voter, seeking to distance himself from the extremity of the Republican agenda as much as possible. He also offered a lot of details that don’t square mathematically with his established policy positions, which do reflect that GOP agenda. This is smart politics, for sure, but it plays into the “etch-a-sketch” meme, which makes for a classic Mouch/Thompson politician.  Nevertheless, in terms of a sales pitch, it was gangbusters.

By contrast, President Obama repeatedly got lost in the policy weeds, eating up time while scoring fewer rhetorical points. While his facts may have been less misleading, the overall effect was to play into the Republican narrative of government as a knot of technical jargon obstructing (business)people from doing what they want to do.

All of that is largely about horse-race coverage and spinning media narratives. Romney won that handily. The second issue I want to look at is the objective validity (or invalidity) of those claims Romney made to win the narrative. Here’s the three examples of misleading decontextualization that jumped out at me as I watched:

1) Early on Mitt referred to American tax policy moving “small businesses” away from America, but this dynamic can obviously only affect multi-national corporations. This conflation of small business and the larger corporate playing field is misleading. It isn’t that the corporate scale isn’t vital to the economy — it is — but discussing policies that benefit corporate institutions as if they were primarily aimed at local community businesses is intellectually dishonest. Romney did later make some sounder points about actual small businesses, though as with his statistics on green energy investments, he radically exaggerated the numbers. Either way the elision of the difference between Exxon-Mobil and your local plumber is deeply misleading and, I think, highly characteristic of Romney’s exploitation of voter ignorance.

2) President Obama pointed out, accurately, that Mitt Romney’s proposed tax cuts add up to $5 trillion dollars. Romney pointed out that he will close loopholes so that this number would not be accurate. He still refuses to specify those loopholes, even though basically all of the options on the table have to be adopted to make the math work. Yet he claims that he will not be raising taxes on the middle class or reducing taxes on the wealthy, all while his reforms remain revenue neutral. This is not only mathematically impossible but politically disingenuous. His line of defense essentially boils down to “Because I say so, so trust me,” and since his claims as they stand do not square with the hard data, there is no reason to trust him on this unless he provides more details. This example is extremely  similar to the politicians in Atlas Shrugged.

3) During a discussion on health care, Mitt said he would keep Obamacare but leave its implementation up to the states, which makes no sense on its face if you actually know anything about how the policy works. But besides that, this plan would be a disaster for — ironically — the states that reliably vote Republican. Many of these (the most notable exception being Texas) are the welfare queens of state government; they receive far more federal funds than they contribute in taxes. Without these federal subsidies, most of the south and the mountain west would be unable to provide adequate health care services. This would make residency in these states less attractive, it would increase poverty among the elderly and economic drag on the families now supporting them out of pocket, and over time it would worsen these regions’ already low scores on health care  outcomes, increasing health care costs and creating a vicious cycle.

This last example brings us back to the broader ideological point, which is this: sometimes competition does not produce a race to the top; sometimes it produces a race to the bottom. Arms races lead to nuclear proliferation and thus a more dangerous world. The race to provide the cheapest oil leads to overproduction and overconsumption and environmental catastrophes that damage the stability of the economy in which people are trying to prosper. Health care costs are another key example of this.

I noted up top that Romney’s arguments about lowering regulation to increase economic efficiency are factually valid. The reason they don’t persuade me away from Democratic proposals is that he radically exaggerates the size of these efficiency effects. Dynamic scoring of proposed tax policy changes usually produces something like a savings of 30% of the cost of the cuts — for every dollar you cut, the boost this provides to growth only gets you thirty cents back, not the whole dollar. The Republican pitch on taxes constantly suggests that you would be getting far more of a return than what the historical record suggests. 

Just as importantly, the growth of the economy in this situation is not evenly distributed among the population. “Trickle-down” or supply-side economics benefit the wealthy first, and the middle class later if at all. And if we look at the historical record since supply-side was first institutionalized under Ronald Reagan, the money amasses mostly among the wealthy and the middle class stagnates, creating a larger lower class of menial service laborers and welfare dependents. This is a serious shortcoming of Republican proposals, to say the least.

Combine these factors and what do you get? Poor priorities. Good constructive criticism; bad proposals for addressing the most longview, structural issues. The post-Reagan Republican narrative has always been so effective because it is a wonderfully elegant theory of how things should work. But when it turns out that reality doesn’t work that way, that narrative becomes the problem and not the solution. And we reached that tipping point long ago.

As always, Romney’s means are the perfect example of why he shouldn’t  achieve his ends, especially by a Randian measure. He is clearly an excellent salesman, but by winning through the obfuscation of the truth, he exploits the difference between the merits of his sales pitch and the merits of the product he is pitching. That difference in and of itself accounts for why market outcomes and business acumen are not equivalent to moral integrity, and how they can easily incentivize an appeal to the lowest common denominator instead of a call to raise standards.  

Mr. Romney won definitively when it comes to subjective reality: our collective reactions and opinions. But when it comes to objective facts about what’s driving American decline and who is responsible for our inability to address those issues legislatively? Not so much.

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Applied Randology #11: Rand/Romney 2012

The old and poor can’t pay taxes on income they don’t make.

Well, it looks like Paul Ryan isn’t the only guy on the Republican ticket who’s a John Galt wannabe. As the Rand-obsessed writer Jonathan Chait of New York magazine will be happy to point out to you, Romney’s declaration of class warfare against the poor pegs him quite firmly inside the Ayn Rand Ideological Bubble.

Now, many grassroots conservatives view this ‘gaffe’ as an opportunity to make a winning ideological argument about an ownership society v. a dependency society. I think on those terms their argument is relatively persuasive. But that’s ultimately moot because the, uh, “facts” they want to use as a launching pad for that conversation are decidedly not real, and thus not legitimate evidence for validating their worldview.

As the chart above demonstrates, of the 47% of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax, 17% pay through payroll taxes (giving them an effective tax rate of 15%, almost as low as Mitt Romney). Another 17% are retirees whose primary income is social security (MOOCHERS!). The remaining 13% don’t have enough income to tax. And as the chart below demonstrates, the ten states with the largest share of the impoverished 13% are all died-in-the-wool Republican states (except Florida, where a lot of the mooching comes from the afore-mentioned retirees).

The confederacy is a welfare queen. LOOTERS!

In fact, according to Ezra Klein, even most of that 13% pays payroll taxes (he says 61% of the 47% does). And on top of all of that, these demographics suggest that a majority of the ‘mooching and looting class’ votes Republican.

So Romney’s claim is misleading twice over. First he denies the reality of who pays taxes. Then he says the class of worthless bums he just invented all vote Democrat. And whadya know, if you take those false premises as true, then in imaginary Romney world America IS on the verge of becoming a permanent one-party socialist state, because once the moocher & looter class gets above 50%, the pro-government Democrats will win every election by promising people free stuff. A monopoly on democracy. And they’re getting SO CLOSE!!!

Except that’s not real. Not only does the moocher class not exist, but the purging of low-income households from the income tax rolls was accomplished by massive tax cuts. Tax cuts signed into law by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Chart from Ezra:

“And then, in 10 to 25 years, we’ll blame this on the Democrats!”

Obviously, this objective reality does not validate Republican ideology. It validates my argument against Republican ideology. Conservatives who want to use Romney’s comments to promote that ideology are denying reality so they can argue purely theoretically, starting from flawed logical premises.  This is, of course, exactly what we are seeing this month in John Galt’s Speech.

But I’ve made that point before, many times. What’s new about this particular story, and (a la Chait) actually kind of shocking, is that the Republican presidential candidate who everyone assumed was a moderate wonk in conservative clothing turns out to be a True Believer in False Reality.

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Applied Randology #10: How the Other Half Lives

Today we’re going to play “Pretend Republican,” a game in which I consider negative takes on the wildly successful Democratic convention from the perspectives of a birther, a moderate conservative, and a libertarian.

PROLOGUE: CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE

Before I play contrarian I want to offer one plaudit to the Dems that will give you a sense of where I stand ideologically. The praise goes to Julian Castro’s analogy about the American Dream being a relay from generation to generation and not a sprint or a marathon among individuals.

The ‘relay’ metaphor exposes the blind spot in the Rand/Republican belief that capitalist outcomes are inherently meritocratic.  Paul Ryan has said that the GOP believes in ‘equality of opportunity but not equality of outcomes.’ Fair enough. Let’s say we have perfect equality of opportunity; the outcomes for Generation 1 are meritocratic. But those unequal outcomes distort the distribution of opportunities available to  Generation 2, warping the relationship between outcome and merit starting with Generation 2 and forever onward.

Castro’s invocation of future generations also contrasts sharply with the influential Ayn Rand’s extreme discomfort with the role of children and family in a person’s life. Remember, in Atlas Shrugged there are no major characters with children and all familial relationships are exploitive or even predatory. Not exactly traditional values.

Of course, Democrats don’t have a monopoly on thinking of the children. But with that frame of mind in mind, let’s explore the merits and nuances of a few Republican frames of mind. I’m going to start on the fringe and work my way back to the mainstream.

1. BIRTHERISM

So obviously, a pure birther sees the entire DNC as a puppet show orchestrated by a conspiracy of Marxists, and there’s nothing insightful about that. But if you take out the part that breaks down as soon as you use basic critical thinking skills (namely the forged birth certificate part), the argument for a socialist conspiracy is at least comprehensible, if still built entirely on paranoid conjecture.

The argument goes like this: 

Barack Obama wrote a book called Dreams from my Father — not “Dreams of My Father,” as Dinesh D’Souza, producer of the documentary Obama’s America, was quick to point out in a recent interview on Bill Maher’s “Real Time.” 

In Dreams from my Father, Obama describes his adolescent struggle to establish a sense of identity (a universal coming-of-age process that must be particularly acute for a mixed-race child who grew up in several states and countries). On “Real Time” D’Souza quoted Obama from the book describing his frustrated and angry teenage years and his attempt to find an identity by learning what he could about his absentee father and adopting his father’s character as his own. According to D’Souza — and I haven’t looked beyond Wikipedia to try and verify this — Barack Sr held a number of socialist and anti-colonial views, becuse he was from Kenya.

So obviously Obama is a very angry man who forever internalized a radical value system that may or may not exist, and was definitely not just a rebellious teenager going through a phase. And obviously he left hints and clues about this covert ideology in his post-graduate memoir. But what is his secret legislative agenda?

Well, I recently found myself in correspondence with a commmitted Republican who told me he believed Obama is pursuing the Cloward-Piven Strategy. This strategy, outlined by two political scientists in The Nation magazine in 1966, is to overload the U.S. welfare system with so many people that it provokes a crisis, which the left can take as an opportunity to reform entitlements into a system of guaranteed minimum income for everyone.

The flowchart connecting Obama to the Cloward-Piven strategy looks like this:

It’s so OBVIOUS!

Convincing! But the real irony of this conspiracy theory is that the goal of the Cloward-Piven strategy has been endorsed by the two most famous conservative economists of the 20th century, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman (who advised Ronald Reagan!) And if you think about it, a straight-forward “minimum income” or “negative income tax” is a pretty libertarian-friendly approach to entitlements, because it is simple to understand and the benefit is distributed equally to every voting-age citizen (with maybe an extra per-child credit for families? Either way, let’s not get bogged down in wonky details). Point is, there would be far less opportunity for fraud or cronyism in the implementation of such a system.

But endorsement by libertarian heroes aside, the whole idea is just too hard for the right to swallow because it’s an explicit redistribution of wealth. And besides that, the Cloward-Piven strategy is an incredibly stupid way of reaching the goal, even if you think like I do that the goal could actually be a good idea. Luckily for us, nobody is pursuing that strategy!

2. MAINSTREAM CONSERVATIVISM

The truly incisive conservative argument against our government is your basic Hayekian aversion to bureaucracy, something that conservatives feel keenly and liberals tend to ignore. Through this lens, the Democratic convention was full of obnoxiously naive talk about preserving unsustainable entitlement programs, offering tax credits and subsidies to alternative energy, and generally avoiding any of the reforms that would seriously streamline government and balance the budget.

How serious a concern is this? Well, on a fundamental level the criticism is legitimate: government money + hundreds of legislators + dozens of executive bureaucracies = a million opportunities for cronyism and bribery. Part of this problem is actually uilt into the constitution — since the founders split up power among a lot of different people to avoid its concentration in a dictator, our system of government has a lot of built-in “veto points,” where one person or a small group of people can block the legislative process to extract favors. In political science terms, this kind of exploitation of your position is called “rent-seeking.”  

The problem when it comes to partisan politics is that each side sees cronyism in the other side’s behavior, when this is really one of the ways in which both parties are similarly corrupt.  No matter your noble intentions as a conservative or liberal, once you are an insider, all your honest attempts to bring your allies inside with you, or to make sure government money is going to the ‘right’ people on the outside, appear to be self-evident corrupt cronyism to your political opponents.

Since this form of corruption is essentially universal and you can only distinguish between it and honest brokerage by your personal ideological value judgments, Democrats are naive for not considering its costs and Republicans are naive for thinking there side is much better.

The real difference between the parties on this score is where the money goes. The D’s are comfortable with all sorts of programs that the R’s see as completely without merit. The Ryan budget would slash the funding of all sorts of regulatory agencies whose budgetary footprint is negligible when compared to the big three: Social Security, Medicare, and Defense.

Which is why Democrats should be more sensitive to Republican criticisms in general, even though Republican proposals to cut discretionary spending are wildly insufficient and, I would argue, counter-productive.

3. LIBERTARIANISM

So the moderate’s critique of the Democrats is insightful, but it’s not really that partisan because Republicans aren’t much better, and the examples of discretionary spending that are held up as support for the critique are nowhere near the heart of the problem.

That’s only natural, because the heart of the problem is deeply bipartisan. The biggest beneficiaries of government hand-outs are the interests that can afford to swamp both parties with campaign funds and lobbying money. It is here where you see the very real trends supporting Hayek/Rand’s road to serfdom argument. Check out this Yahoo! Finance article from July analyzing the growth of the lobbying industry and the measurable return on investment that companies see from their lobbying expenses. Money quote:

“I think it speaks to the fact that government is a much bigger part of the economy,” Trennert points out, adding that many companies now actually view their lobbying expenditures along the same lines as R&D (research and development) or equipment spending. ” Companies are understanding better the idea that it is important…that it is a fiduciary duty to spend money and make sure your voice is heard,” he says.

The traditional Big Three sectors for lobbying are finance, pharmaceuticals, and defense. Let’s take defense as our representative example, because it’s the sector in which you see the biggest break between libertarians like Ron Paul and mainstream conservative hawks.

The first thing to note about defense spending is that it is back-door Keynesianism. Even as Ronald Reagan worked to cut all sorts of discretionary spending, he engaged in huge amounts of deficit spending for defense contractors. Now conservatives tend not to mind this because securing borders and trade routes is an undisputed responsibility of even a libertarian state. But this does nothing to change the fact that the sheer amount of money being earmarked invites all of the same concerns about corruption that Republicans see clearly when the money is being spent on poor people instead of bombs and massive warrantless surveillance operations.

It seems obvious to me that defense spending is exactly the area of government expenditure that should alarm libertarians the MOST, because not only does it contribute to the mountain of corrupting subsidies, but the results of that funding are generally the sorts of things the government could use to enclose the citizenry in a panoptical police state.

Unfortunately, both parties only get suitably terrified by this when the other is in power. When President Bush radically expanded the government’s ability to spy and torture and kill without oversight, liberals freaked out while conservatives trusted the decider. Now that a Democratic president is the one signing off on extra-legal targeted killings by remote-controlled drones, the Democrats spent a significant chunk of the convention celebrating our insanely powerful national security apparatus, while conservatives are obviously in a panic about the possibility the president will take all our freedoms away.

CONCLUSION: THE GRAND COMPROMISE

Now I’m not trying to be an alarmist in pointing out that the truly scary growth of government is in the sector(s) that no politician in their right mind would dare cut. I am not advocating we collapse society to avoid further progress along our current course. Anybody who isn’t dropping off the grid and moving to a remote log cabin needs to shut up about Randian apocalyptic ideals like that and accept that incremental reforms to the existing sytem are the least worst option.

Now I’m no wonk, but it seems to me we could radically simplify welfare and social security by replacing them with a (Hayek & Friedman approved!) Guaranteed Minimum Income, and we could make our defense spending far more frugal and efficient if we reasserted stronger judicial and congressional oversight of national security programs and reduced our budgets over a decade or two so that we eventually accounted for, say, 20% of the world’s defense spending instead of 40%, or approximately 2x China’s defense budget instead of 4x. Still gargantuan, just not so bloated and wasteful.

If we did all that we could theoretically shrink government A LOT (if we did all that we basically already would have), and from there it would be relatively easy to balance the budget and reform taxes by closing loopholes and flattening rates. Everybody gets something they want! We could even afford plenty of discretionary spending for infrastructure and R&D credits and other investments in human capital that have positive multiplier effects on the private economy.

Getting to a place like that is impossible means acknowledging that liberal concerns about undue corporate power and conservative concerns about undue government power are concerns about the same thing: the concentration of power and wealth among an unmeritocratic elite.

Putting aside the tremendous logistical obstacles, that’s the real reason we as a country can’t coalesce around a platform for comprehensive reform, even theoretically: the anarcho-capitalist right and the state-socialist left would both have to accept that the other side is… kinda right.

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Applied Randology #9: The Opposite of Everything

In the wake of the Republican National Convention last week, I think it’s worth elaborating on something I first described back in January in Hayek Anxiety, the very first post in this Applied Randology series. Quoth myself:

 [T]he Republican party has gone disturbingly meta. Conservative rhetoric uses Rand/Hayek arguments in ways that would produce the Rand/Hayek nightmare scenario. It’s not just self-defeating, it’s self-contradicting.

To put it another way, the Republican Party inverts logic and truth in the same way Rand’s fictional progressives do.  And GOP CON 2012 proved to be an excellent demonstration of this phenomenon.

Let’s take Paul Ryan, because, obviously. The lies and deceptions in his speech have been well documented (even by Fox News!), but what pushes his lying into “self-contradiction” territory is the fact that all of his major criticisms of Obama focused on problems that Ryan himself is actually responsible for. I don’t want to beat a dead horse by fact-checking the whole thing, but I will flog it lightly.

Most obviously, Ryan himself tanked the fiscal compromises that he blames Obama for not supporting in both the case of the Simpson-Bowles debt commission and the credit rating downgrade — in the case of the debt commission, before the president ever saw the report in question; in the case of the credit downgrade, the House Republicans first held the country’s credit hostage, and then Ryan himself shot down the Grand Bargain on deficit reduction that the president offered to resolve the crisis.

However, even though it’s a less important issue, I want to focus on the GM plant in his district. Ryan infamously blamed Obama for the plant closing, and called the stimulus “cronyism at its worst,” despite the fact that Ryan was one of those cronies, requesting stimulus funds be earmarked for that plant because it would create jobs.

And nevermind that Ryan is undeniably relying on the gullibility and ignorance of voters to keep his case against the president afloat, the real irony in the GM example is how Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney’s behavior tracks with the story of certain Atlas Shrugged villains. To wit:

At the end of Part One, Dagny unravels the history of “the 20th Century Motor Company,” the Objectiverse’s version of GM. She learns that GM’s last owner before bankruptcy was a Bain Capital-esque investment company that petitioned the government for money to keep GM’s factory open. The government turned Bain down, and GM was kept temporarily afloat by an untenable loan from the private sector upon which Bain eventually defaulted — which is essentially the sequence of events Mitt Romney argued for in his notoriously ill-conceived “Let GM fail” op-ed. Frankly, the thoroughness of the parallel here is bizarre.

Speaking of Romney, I’ve already pointed out that the profile of Ayn Rand’s venal head of state character “Mr. Thompson” is an eerily appropriate description of Mitt, both physically and in political style. But the more relevant critique is on the policy level. Specifically he has promised to reduce the deficit all while raising defense spending, lowering taxes, refusing to cut Medicare, and while considering war with Iran and trade war with China. This is obviously impossible, giving Romney’s platform the same internal coherence as the progressive platform in Atlas Shrugged that argues Soviet-style programs will revive the free enterprise system.

Yet the most apalling example of Republican hypocrisy regards the fiscal cliff coming up after the election. Since no compromise was able to solve the credit crisis that Ryan helped to provoke, the parties agreed to a series of deep spending cuts to be enacted at the end of the year, cuts that will effectively ruin the recovery if no compromise is reached. If the sequestration cuts go through, or even if negotations hit a wall, we could see another series of unnecessary economic shocks.

With that history in mind, it was surreal to me to read an op-ed in Business Insider three weeks ago that argued the best way to avoid any problems with the fiscal cliff was to elect Romney and Ryan. The basic argument presented was that with Romney/Ryan in the White House, congressional Republicans will happily raise the debt ceiling and pass more stimulus bills on top of it — exactly the same obviously sound policies they have decried as radical and un-American when pursued by President Obama.

Furthermore, op-ed author Joe Weisenthal argued, Paul Ryan’s reputation as a fiscal hawk and budget wonk is exactly what gives him the credibility to get his fellow Republicans to… betray those very principles. Like The Wire‘s Tommy Carcetti, the price Ryan must pay for the Vice Presidency is the discarding of all the policies that he wants to be Vice President to promote.

So to sum that up, Weisenthal’s argument is that the hostage-taker should be in charge of driving the hostage back to her house, and can be trusted to do so because he has no integrity vis a vis his reasons for taking hostages in the first place.

Wow.

Peruse that argument again — this is where the insane parody of logic and ethics illustrated in Atlas Shrugged finds its full expression in the real life GOP.  The values of truth and good-faith negotation have been completely abandoned, and that is offered up as a reason to support those who abandoned them. The economic crisis depicted in Atlas Shrugged has come to life, they claim, so elect those who believe in the message of Atlas Shrugged, they say, even though that message is that we should welcome economic armageddon so that the rich don’t feel responsible for the middle class anymore. These rationales are perverse in how perfectly they contradict themselves.

Last week Mitt Romney spoke of wanting the president to succeed even as the historical record shows the Republican Party explicitly declaring their goal to be obstructing Obama for his entire first term to prevent his getting a second. Like Ayn Rand before them, the Republicans have created an unreal alternate “reality” in which their liberal political opponents are insane radical nihilists. Like Rand, they claim that everything is horrible because of this. Therefore they oppose everything and promise “real” America they will do the opposite of everything.

But as Ayn herself points out in delineating between Objectivism and nihilism, the opposite of everything is nothing. And if nothingness is at the heart of your ethics and your agenda, you aren’t the Objectivist party. You’re the nihilist party.

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Applied Randology #7: Ayn the Christian Fundamentalist

In a post from last week Gwynn Guilford of The Dish starts out exploring Paul Ryan’s monetary beliefs and ends up curating arguments about Ayn Rand.  Not that surprising, right? On the relationship between them, Gwynn points out (and isn’t the first) that Ryan’s “rejection of Rand’s philosophy has mainly emphasized his disagreement with her atheism,” and that his economic ideas are textbook Objectivist — something I also highlighted in my “Paul Ryan, Republican Microcosm” post from May.

How can Ryan back Rand’s second-order political beliefs when her first-order metaphysical beliefs directly contradict his own? Easy: Rand’s metaphysical position is not actually atheistic, and her claim that it is is self-deception. As David Foster Wallace once put it (again, hat tip to The Dish),

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

Rand chooses to worship money; her nominal atheism is superfluous. So the incisive quote I want to focus on today is Ryan’s from 2009, claiming that Ayn “does the best job of anybody to build the moral case for capitalism.” This doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about Paul Ryan’s beliefs about the free market. But it does tell us something important about Paul Ryan’s beliefs about morality.

First things first: there is a far better moral case for capitalism than anything Ayn comes up with. The simplest argument is the consequentialist one. Of all the economic systems in recorded history, capitalism has clearly produced the most wealth in the fastest amount of time, and done the most to raise living standards and promote widespread opportunities. In this way it is self-evidently superior to, say, mercantilism or feudalism or communism (let’s table the issue of democratic government’s role in capitalism’s success, for now).

Despite that bit of common sense, Ryan and Rand are libertarians, and as Ron Paul has said (and as I discussed during the GOP debates), libertarianism is indifferent to outcomes. The historical record is immaterial; moral justice comes from a set of first principles that are objectively right, such that when these principles are put into practice, whatever the results are, they’re fundamentally just too. From this position of moral absolutism, consequentialist arguments are moot exactly  because they are consequentialist.

And under this moral accounting, consequentialist arguments aren’t just impotent, but are in themselves a symptom of moral degradation.  Rand constantly pegs her villains as moral relativists who declare their actions immune to moral judgment because morality is a social construct or simply unknowable.  Any departure from an absolute morality is a heresy intimately tied to society’s overall moral bankruptcy.

This philosophical posture extends to Ryan too; you can see the moral absolutism in his “no rape exemption” stance towards abortion (another issue getting press lately). You also see it in the quote I emphasized above: Ryan prefers Rand’s convoluted faith-based justification for capitalism over the basic consequential argument that it makes peoples’ lives better.

Yes, Rand’s love of capitalism is faith-based, and for proof I refer you to Francisco’s speech about the value of money, as I recapped here (Dave Weigel also examines this passage in his Ryan-Rand coverage, excerpted in the Dish post I linked to above). In that recap, I explicate how Frisco isn’t just saying “greed is good,” he’s saying that there is an objective moral law at work in the universe bringing inevitable justice to human affairs. For the atheist materialist Rand, this sounds dangerously metaphysical, so Francisco adds a logically independent premise, that money is an empirically measurable mechanism by which this karmic market operates. Rand thus uses money as a literal token of objectivity, a fig leaf disguising the fact that her premises can’t be reached by logical deduction or induction: they are purely subjective value judgments.

But the strongest psychological glue between Rand and fundamentalist Christianity isn’t the prosperity gospel, it’s the false equivalence they posit between moral relativism and modernism in general.

In a great post at Boingboing, Maggie Koerth-Baker explores why Christian fundamentalists vilify set theory in their math textbooks, honing in on an important point about the fundamentalist worldview:

Modernism, to the publishers of A Beka math books, is sick and wrong. The idea is that if you reject their specific idea of God and their specific idea of The Rules, then you must be living in a crazy, dangerous world. You could kill people, and you would think it was okay, because you’re a modernist and you know there’s really no such thing as right and wrong. Basically, they’ve bumped into a need to separate themselves from the almost inhuman Other on a massive scale, and latched on to modernism as a shorthand for how to do that. It doesn’t matter what you or I actually believe, or even what we actually do. They know what we MUST believe and what we MUST be like because of the tenets of modernism.

More importantly, they know that we are subtle, and use sneaky means to indoctrinate children and lure adults into accepting modernist values. So the art, the literature, the jazz … are all just traps. They’re ways of getting us to reject to One True Path a little bit at a time.

And that paranoid dynamic is found all over Atlas Shrugged. It’s baked right into Rand’s thinking. Just look at the last chapter I recapped, in which the innocent Cheryl comes to understand the nihilism of her relativist husband.  Driven mad by his cruelty, she stumbles through Manhattan, seeing only that same nihilistic philosophy implicit in the eyes of everybody she encounters. Rand very explicitly claims the world is overrun with a perverse value system that lures the innocent masses to moral depravity. She explicitly cites art and culture as contagious symptoms of this rot. She denounces the false consciousness of religious thinking, but her train of thought runs on a perfectly parallel track.

This psychological sameness is what keeps intellectual contradictions from tearing today’s Republican party apart along religious v. economic lines. Both sides are united against the world — or more accurately, a shared dehumanizing misconception of the world.

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