Posts Tagged democrats

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 #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 #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 #5: How the Objectiverse… Isn’t

Or,  HOW AYN RAND MISINTERPRETED HER OWN GREATEST WORK.
In 1957, Ayn Rand meticulously constructed a fictional world with the express intent of proving her vision of radical conservatism to be THE objectively correct life philosophy. She called this philosophy Objectivism.In 2012, many of her world-building elements have proved prophetic, and her philosophy enormously influential. But the elements that have turned out to be the most eerily insightful are those to which Rand paid little or no attention. While her fans focus on the threat of government expansion — a theme explored in a parody so blunt and overwrought as to verge on camp — the discerning and open-minded reader might notice that Atlas Shrugged implicitly references:

*The necessity of new infrastructure, sustainable development, and clean energy, as championed by the protagonists.

*The dangers of fossil fuel exhaustion and natural resource depletion, as exemplified by the circumstances of the plot.
*The tragic co-opting of the state by powerful business interests who ignore the afore-mentioned dangers and oppose the afore-mentioned reforms, as embodied by the antagonists.You’ll also notice, discerning reader, that this set of implicit issues is a pretty accurate rundown of modern liberal priorities. And Rand’s explicit issues with the proper role of government and the nature of the economy outright define the modern Republican agenda.

So at least in this one way, 2012 America really is Ayn Rand’s world and we just live in it. But insofar as the heroes of the Objectiverse pursue progressive goals and the villains erect conservative barriers, the parallels are actually perpendiculars. And there are at least two features of Objectiverse politics that explain why.

First of all, the heroes of the Objectiverse are, by definition, uninvolved with and opposed to democratic political processes. They are anarcho-capitalists. So when a real-life politician like Paul Ryan says reading Ayn Rand is what made him decide to go into government, this directly contradicts and violates the morals of Rand’s story — unless of course the politician in question is actually on a covert mission to undermine democratic governance from the inside. Then such a statement would make sense. It would also make that politician Emperor Palpatine, but never mind.

Secondly, the Objectiverse has no discernible political parties. Elections play no significant role and the state is portrayed entirely as a Soviet-style monolithic politburo. Because, after all, if democracy as a form of government is illegitimate, then how much could the differences between political parties actually matter?

Answer, as provided by the real world: A whole lot.Because even though “The Party” in Atlas Shrugged preaches socialist economic intervention — even though that makes the liberal party in the real world seem like the obvious analogue — remember that the incident which incites America’s dystopian transformation is a corrupt conspiracy among some of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, not its elected officials. Remember that their plan is executed by intentionally creating quid-pro-quo revolving-door career opportunities between the public sector and the lobbying industry, which happened in the real world thanks to Republicans.

And remember that the head of state in this dystopian regime is one Mr. Thompson, a generic political chameleon void of principle who looks so much like the stereotype of an upper-middle class businessman that voters can barely remember his face.

It looks like this.

And the ironies don’t end there, they just begin. Note that the heroes sink tons of money into R&D for new technologies that are cleaner and more sustainable, in defiance of the conventional wisdom that their investments make no economic sense. Note that the industrial behemoths of yesteryear only maintain their market superiority by lobbying successfully for enormous tax breaks and government subsidies.
Can you see how Atlas Shrugged is actually, if accidentally, a critique of modern Republicanism? Where Rand’s intended satire of liberalism is so over-the-top it quickly jumps the shark, the satire of modern conservatism that she could not have intended from her vantage point in the 1950s is subtle and insidious; a rewarding discovery that you have to make yourself.
Simply put, substantive critiques of modern liberalism are actually beyond the book’s reach because Rand only presents liberal arguments in straw-man form. She never touches them. Within the Objectiverse, modern liberalism isn’t wrong, it’s simply not an option.
The only ideology that Atlas Shrugged can truly expose as either meritorious or meritricious is its own, because that is the only ideology actually present in the book. And oh man is it presented, in rigorous detail, for hundreds of pages, just begging to be explored. And because this ideology has become central to modern conservatism, a dissection of it can be used to legitimately critique modern conservatism as well.
SO:
What does it mean that the world Rand created and the behavior of her characters  both good and bad all validate the concerns of 21st century progressives more than they do the concerns of Rand herself, and by extension the concerns expressed by the Republicans who swear by her work today?There is a storytelling device known as ‘the unreliable narrator‘ — think Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, or Humbert Humbert in Lolita. In a story told by an unreliable narrator, the audience cannot trust that the story as its being relayed to them is actually the story as it should be truthfully understood. Atlas Shrugged, formally speaking, employs a third-person omniscient narrator. And in Ayn Rand’s case you can bet she believed the ‘omniscient’ part to be literally true. So, formally, she didn’t write a book with an unreliable narrator. She just sure as hell produced one.

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Food for Thought #3: The Traffic Circle to Serfdom

Previously on Food for Thought, I took Atlas Shrugged out of its original context and put it in 21st century terms. Specifically, I described the book’s world in terms of modern pop culture by way of our greatest television dramas. Then I examined how the plot of Atlas isn’t just a powerful libertarian vision for conservatives; it’s a progressive tragedy for liberals too. This week I’m adding to the mix the economic debate over The Great Recession. It’s the reason I read this book in the first place in 2008, and it’s the reason our political battle lines in 2012 look so eerily like the Randverse.

Badass Motherfuckers (courtesy of netrightdaily.com)

The story of today’s economic debate doesn’t really start with mortgage-backed securities. It starts a hundred years ago with two economists whose views now symbolize the American left and right: J.M. Keynes (D-England) and F.A. Hayek (R-Austria). Most of this post will be sourced from this excellent book on them, but if you’re already familiar with these guys skip ahead to Hayek Anxiety

John Maynard Keynes was an economics prodigy during World War I who wrote a book calling bullshit on the Treaty of Versailles. He predicted that the brutal debts forced onto Germany would lead to socioeconomic collapse, radical politics, and some kind of nightmarish second World War. Aside from being 100% right, the book was a smash, making Keynes an intellectual celebrity for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, Friedrich Hayek was a young scholar who saw Keynes’ predictions coming true first-hand and was in awe of his intellect. When the two met as adults, they had great respect for each other, even as their philosophies grew more and more opposed.

What was the root of that opposition? The Great Depression.

Keynes saw millions unemployed and all the shuttered factories and shops and thought it was ridiculous that these problems couldn’t simply solve each other. He figured if the government ran a deficit to fund projects like fixing and building roads, it would put idle people to work, which would give them money to spend, which would give businesses customers, which would allow businesses to start hiring again, which would get more people back to work earning more money to spend on more businesses. Unemployment drops, growth returns, the economic engine runs smoothly again — even better in fact, because it’s now running on shiny new roads that expand and integrate markets. And with things going strong, the government can pay back the deficit it incurred during the slump by using the bigger tax revenues created by the boom. Voila!

This is the reasoning behind the economic stimulus. Each step seems logical and the end result seems like a natural consequence of the steps. But try to pitch it in a sentence. Everybody’s short on cash? We can spend our way out of it! It sounds like a magic trick.

Too much like one, according to Hayek. Hayek was schooled in classical economics to consider things from the ground up. Keynes’ top-down view of the economy as one big machine seemed totally alien. In the classical view, prices mark a point of natural equilibrium that emerges from the chaos of every individual decision in the economy. Any attempt to manipulate the economy from the top down only disturbs that equilibrium. No matter how long you push it off, the day will come when everything (like, say, housing prices) inevitably crashes back to its natural state. In this view, the only appropriate response to a crash is to let the market shake itself free of the bad influence or you just set up the next crash.

Every time Keynes wrote a piece arguing for his crazy new ideas, Hayek was the guy who would write a response saying “Well I just did a ton of math about this and I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Keynes eventually got tired of that and spent a decade writing a book known as The General Theory in which he single-handedly invented the entire field of macroeconomics (which is now half of all economics) just to prove he was right. Needless to say Hayek didn’t get around to responding to that one directly. And besides, the American government under FDR was field-testing Keynes’ ideas in reality and liking the results. Case closed?

For the next forty years, Keynes’ model dominated policy in the Western world. But Hayek never gave up on his warnings. During the Keynes-predicted World War II, Hayek wrote a book called The Road to Serfdom that made a prediction of its own. “Hey, I’ve seen a government promise to save a radically depressed economy from the top-down before,” Hayek said. “It’s called Nazi Germany. Wake up people!”

Except the real point was that you don’t have to be evil Nazis to turn totalitarian (just as you don’t need corrupt congressmen to produce a corrupt congress). Once you start manipulating the economy at all, even for good reasons, you disturb the natural equilibrium, which causes new problems, which encourages you to meddle even more, causing more ripple effects, leading to more government intervention and on and on until one day you’ve saved the economy so many times you’ve turned into Soviet Russia by accident. The Road to Serfdom, it turns out, is paved with good intentions.

Unless you’re Ayn Rand, of course, who basically adopted Hayek’s thesis as the plot of Atlas Shrugged, but refused to grant good intentions to anyone except her protagonists, who hate good intentions and consider anyone who speaks in the language of good intentions to be an incomprehensible moral pervert. This is the part of Rand’s writing that is truly, utterly bizarre and let’s face it, morally perverse. Even libertarian bloggers acknowledge that there is literally no way to be more cynical than Rand is here. Already, long before we’ve reached the heavy, technical parts of her philosophy, we can tell something isn’t right, and here’s why:

In Food for Thought #1, I quoted Scott Tobias’ line that Atlas‘ ideas are hindered by its aesthetics. But it’s more accurate to say that Ayn Rand’s aesthetics hinder many of the ideas in Atlas (such as Hayek’s), and it is Rand’s ideas that hinder the aesthetics themselves. In About the Book I noted that Rand’s definition of art is ‘a selective re-creation of reality according to the artist’s metaphysical value judgments.’ She also says that the artist doesn’t have to make those judgments consciously; the art will still reflect them. So basically the qualities of one’s art are a natural outgrowth of one’s inner philosophy. And the qualities of Rand’s art are ugly. Ipso facto, her philosophy is ugly.

But does that mean it’s untrue? Or is it just pretty to think so?

Let’s refer back to the real world. In the 70s the economy sank into something called stagflation that didn’t fit Keynes’ model, and so conservative economists came back to power under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who had both read Hayek’s Road to Serfdom political philosophy. After forty years of Keynes’ fans running the show, Hayek’s got their forty-year turn, and they too oversaw economic growth.

It wasn’t until 80 years after the Great Depression that had sparked the debate in the first place that the global economy suffered another epic collapse. And we should know, because we were there. Now conservatives claim the Keynesians set off a ticking time bomb between the 30s and the 60s. Liberals claim the Hayekians ruined a good thing through willful negligence from the 80s to the 00s. How can we know who’s right?

We’ll tackle that question head-on tomorrow when I take the Rand/Hayek worldview and apply it to the 2012 election, in the first post of a new series called “Applied Randology.” Bookmark the Club now and join in.

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