Posts Tagged economy
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…
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.
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.
As they work to convince themselves the common man is too stupid to buy Galt’s call for a peaceful revolution, and to figure out how to spin this in their favor, Dagny steps forward. “Your only option is to resign. You’ve been exposed as frauds. Give up your political power and maybe the real elites return.”
The cronies grumble but President Thompson didn’t win his office by being a bad politician — he calms everybody down. One should hear out all arguments and viewpoints, no harm in it. Thank you Dagny, I appreciate your opinion. Please don’t consider us your enemy.
Dagny, having said her piece, tugs on Eddie Willers’ leash and they head back to the car. As soon as they’re out, Doc Stadler turns to Thompson. “You aren’t actually thinking of working with them, are you?” Thompson is. Galt is an asset. He wants to cut a deal with him. Stadler scoffs. Galt would never go for it. They need to find him and kill his ass to death.
Even these creeps find Stadler’s sudden certainty disturbing, but either way the next move is to find Galt. Stadler is the only one who knows how: tail Dagny.
At that moment, Dagny and Eddie are returning to the Transcon offices. Eddie, still in shock, confesses to Dagny that he knows John Galt. How’s that? Galt was the grimy Prole whose ear Eddie was always bending in the mess hall! You remember that character? Neither did I! Literally when I first read this I was like, “Huh? Oh right, that guy.” I mean, he basically never spoke and Eddie’s monologuing was boring as shit every time. Nevertheless, if you consider either this noun or verb to apply, then the ‘twist’ is ‘revealed.’
Dagny makes Eddie promise never to mention this to anyone, nor go looking for Galt, for his safety and their own. Eddie consents, and asks Dagny if she’s going to quit now too. She will not; she need only bide her time for the cronies to abandon their posts.
How does that work out? Well, over the next few months social order breaks down (to whatever small extent it hasn’t already). A bunch of people disappear of course. Others get into physical fights over philosophical differences, like a lady who has her jaw broken by some random dude for telling her child to give one of his toys to a neighbor kid. Ayn sides with the assailant, clearly*. Also, apparently the politicians were right to say that the masses were too dumb to revolt peacefully.
[According to one of the sources I’ve read, though I can’t remember which one, Ayn’s mother once asked 7-year old Ayn to give up some of her toys for a year. Ayn, being Ayn (or at that point, Alyssa), gave up all of her favorites in anticipation of how rewarding it would feel to get them back after this exercise in patience and will power. A year passed and Ayn asked Mom for her toys back. Mom was like, “What? Oh, right. Sorry kiddo, I donated that shit to charity.” So there’s that, for whatever it’s worth.]
President Thompson gives regular addresses preaching tolerance and moderation, peace and the rule of law. This is a biting satire of… reasonableness, I guess? He promises that the state is working with John Galt to address the economic crisis, while at the same time sending out secret signals and investigators to find Galt and — per his plan from the night of the speech — ask for Galt’s help for real.
Eventually Thompson calls in Dagny to ask her face to face if she can find Galt for him. He’s willing to hand all power over to Galt. Dagny says she doesn’t know where to find him (this is a lie, she has his address based on the Transcon payroll records).
Thompson says he won’t abandon his office until Galt shows up to take over — considering the violence and anarchy, he can’t in good conscience just dissolve the government in its entirety. Dagny tells him to start rolling back taxes and regulations, then. He refuses. He wants to confer with Galt and won’t take any action until he gets a meeting.
Dagny takes this as her cue to leave and Thompson oh so casually says he sure hopes his allies-cum-rivals like Stadler and Ferris don’t find Galt and kill him before Thompson’s more peaceful faction can strike a deal. The militant wing of the government wants to crack down, institute the death penalty for civil infractions to squelch dissent, etc. Basically go the full fascist. Oh well! Too bad I have no way of knowing if Galt’s safe! he says. Dagny’s blood is chilled, but she betrays nothing.
Cut to: a terrified and ultra-focused Dagny at four in the morning a week later, sneaking through the slums of Alphabet City to John Galt’s apartment. Thompson’s insinuations got to her. She’s been looking for Galt in direct contradiction of her orders to Eddie, but Galt has abandoned his job as a menial proletarian. This visit is her last hope.
Moody atmospheric wandering, blah blah blah. Alphabet City is completely abandoned, reminding her of the ghost towns of the midwest she visited waaay back in Part One. To think Galt’s been living here!
[A] city that had left him in these slums for twelve years was damned and doomed to the future of Starnesville.
But the city didn’t “leave him” there! He chose to live there of his own free will! GAH.
Dagny finds Galt’s tenement, makes her way up to his apartment and prepares to knock on the door, but her head is spinning with too much adrenaline and the next thing she knows he’s opened the door, pulled her inside, and kisses her.
She’s thrilled that he’s alive but he sits her down and tells her there’s no time. He’s sure she was followed, and that the feds will be busting down the door shortly. Probably already set up a perimeter — though to be fair to Dagny, in fiction a secure perimeter has never once managed to be effective, ever. Don’t be a slacker, John.
Galt tells Dagny that he’s glad she came, but there’s only one thing left to do now. When the authorities arrive, she has to claim that she doesn’t know him, was investigating this “John Galt” listed on her payroll for the first time. She has to hand him over and pretend to have finally committed to the fascists’ side.
Why?! she wants to know. Galt tells her that they need him too much to hurt him, but if they know about their relationship they’ll torture her and he’ll break. She realizes he’s right and consents.
While they still have a few minutes together, John shows Dagny his super-secret mad scientist laboratory that he keeps hidden behind a closet door. No rotating bookcase? John, what did I just say about slacking.
The lab is standard mad scientist stuff. Boards full of blinking lights, chalkboard full of equations, presumably some glowing beakers bubbling over Bunsen burners. But Dagny’s attention is focused most on two things: first, a working version of Galt’s clean and perpetual motor. Second, a newspaper clipping of her standing triumphant on the day the John Galt line opened.
Galt tells her the look on her face embodied his values, and they make out some more. Then they hear boots coming up the stairs of the tenement and leave the secret lab. Well that was productive.
Once back in the rundown apartment proper, Galt opens the door. Three soldiers and a g-man in a trenchcoat enter and ask if he is John Galt, THE John Galt. He’s all, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” and then Dagny acts out her previously assigned role.
“He is John Galt! Take him away, officers.” And the g-man is like, “No no no don’t worry, Mr. Galt, we’re huge fans. We want to help you achieve your goals.”
Galt gets in on the roleplaying. “Whatever, man. Just tell me who the hell is this woman?” And the g-man tells him not to worry again, Ms. Taggart is just a patriot doing her duty. Anyway, Mr. Galt, please come with us!
Galt asks if he’s being arrested. G-man says of course not, even as the soldiers begin ransacking the apartment searching for evidence. They eventually come to the lab door but it won’t budge. G-man asks John to open the door, but he refuses. G-man says he doesn’t want to have to use force, but Galt is like, “Force is the subtext of what you’re doing here, dude, deal with it.”
The soldiers bust down the door but as they snap the lock there’s a rush of wind from inside, and when they go in to investigate the lab turns out to be a completely barren room with a thick layer of dust and ash on the floor. Galt had the place booby-trapped to disintegrate upon forced entry. This waste of his work would be totally unnecessary if John had just built that secret swiveling bookcase, but so it goes.
Confused and unsettled, the state agent and his muscle back out of the lab. Galt tells them he’s ready to go, and they escort him and Dagny out.
ATLAS SHRUGGED: EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW BUT DIDN’T WANT TO READ
The “Objectiverse” is a fictional dystopia in which fossil fuel scarcity and economic depression have led all governments to adopt the sort of centralized economic control you might see in China or the Soviet Union.
Dagny Taggart is the heroine of the story, and she literally keeps the trains running on time, as the COO of America’s largest railroad company. With all the natural resources getting exhausted, cars and planes are now a rare luxury and railroads are once again the lynchpin of U.S. transportation infrastructure.
Meanwhile, Hank Rearden, the Objectiverse answer to Steve Jobs, invents a lightweight metal stronger and longer-lasting than steel, let’s call it rMetal. It’s applications are endless. It could revolutionize every major industry and radically improve the country’s environmental sustainability and economic efficiency.
So Dagny and Hank become business partners — and lovers, even though Hank is married. But their success is short-lived. The media attention paid to their high-speed rail venture upsets the status quo balance of power, and soon lobbyists for a cabal of special interests descend on DC to buy laws that will obstruct our heroes’ cleaner, leaner, meaner business models.
One of these corrupt businessmen is Dagny’s brother Jim, the Taggart CEO. He is a mediocre man who always resented Dagny for her excellence and ambition. Since his only contribution to the company’s functioning is to pull tax subsidies and policy favors from Washington, he easily gets caught up in the fervor for government centralization even as it undermines his family’s business and his self-interest.
As the global economic collapse becomes a self-perpetuating death spiral, America’s corrupt industrialists and political puppets fully embrace a totalitarian state, declaring that all economic decisions must be approved by an all-powerful tribunal, The Unification Board.
In response, nearly all of the hardest-working entrepreneurs in America abandon their companies and drop off the grid entirely. The founder of the last remaining US oil company torches his oil fields on his way out for spite.
Only Dagny and Hank remain, determined to overcome the Board and save society from the dangerous vested interests and the self-destructive government they’ve purchased.
Weaving in and out of all this business is Dagny’s former lover Francisco D’Anconia, scion of the world’s oldest fortune, who is brilliant and gifted but squanders his talents as a decadent playboy. Turns out, he’s actually Batman and that was his decade-long Bruce Wayne act. In that time he has meticulously and “accidentally” torpedoed his own multinational conglomerate with the express intent of plunging industrial society into an irreversible tailspin.
Francisco reveals himself to Dagny as a double agent for the faction of off-the-grid elites. He asks her to join them, but when she learns a humanitarian disaster occurred on one of her rail lines, costing 300 lives through the willful negligence of employees appointed by the Board, she refuses to abandon the world to either the incompetents who are ascendant or the shadowy conspirators who seem hell-bent on bringing it down.
Then, during their own off-the-grid lover’s retreat, Hank and Dagny randomly discover the defunct prototype of an ion drive of sorts — a motor that could literally run on air (the static electricity in the air). If fixed, it could solve the world’s energy and environmental problems in one fell swoop forever.
Obsessed with finding out who invented it and if it can be repaired, Dagny sends it to a physicist and engineer in the Rockies for study, basically Q from James Bond.
So naturally, when Dagny gets word that Q has decided to join the off-the-grid shadow faction on their seemingly nihilistic mission, she races to reach him in time to preserve her one last hope of saving society from a new Dark Ages.
Landing her commandeered plane just in time to see Q take off on a mysterious unmarked jet, Dagny gives chase and is soon shocked to see the mystery jet disappear in a shimmering haze in the middle of the Rockies. Yet she pursues it with an almost suicidal fervor, and discovers herself breaching some kind of futuristic cloaking device that short circuits her plane and sends her plummeting to the earth, where she crashes and, I can only assume, dies in an enormous fireball.
What secrets of the shadow faction lie behind the cloak? How will the people of America and the world be freed from their totalitarian overlords? What is the classified military-industrial technology the government is developing under the name Project Xylophone?
All these questions and more will be answered in the coming weeks, in the climactic third act of Ayn Rand’s obnoxiously fascinating Atlas Shrugged.
Last “season” on ATLAS CLUBBED:
America faces a dark and vaguely science-fictional time. Nations all over the world have turned to socialism because nobody can deny any longer that the planet is running out of fossil fuels and important mineral resources, and somebody has to ration the remaining supplies. …right?
Luckily, in the U.S. the libertarian state of Colorado has kept the American tradition of innovation alive. Gas prices have been kept in check because a self-made man named Ellis Wyatt has developed frakking techniques to tap fresh oil near the Rockies. A small car company has sprung up in the mountain west to fill the void after GM went under without a government bailout ten years ago. Colorado is, in short, the country’s — and perhaps the world’s — last hope for saving post-industrial civilization from collapse.
Into this dire picture, enter Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden. Rearden has just invented a new alloy, rMetal, that is stronger and lighter than steel and will last three times as long. It’s a revolution in sustainable development, and Dagny, VP of Operations at the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, wants to refit her Colorado line with Rearden’s game-changing product. Because the energy crisis has hobbled the auto industry and commercial flight, the railroads of the previous century are still America’s main mode of transportation, and updating them with high-speed tracks and trains could be a huge boost to the economy.
Unfortunately, the president of Taggart Transcon is Dagny’s brother Jim, a cowardly man with a vicious entitlement streak and no creative vision. Terrified of the future, he and a small group of CEOs from the country’s other major corporations decide to flood Washington with well-funded lobbyists and strings-attached campaign donations, in order to buy laws that favor their interests. These laws effectively give the largest corporations government-sponsored monopolies, and confiscate resources from the creative Rearden to hobble him in the “free” market and prevent him from toppling their older businesses.
Despite this corporate/government conspiracy to cling desperately to the unsustainable status quo, Dagny and Rearden manage to build one railroad made of rMetal to ship Ellis Wyatt’s oil out of Colorado to the rest of the country, buying everybody more time to solve the industrial crisis.
On the day their track opens, Dagny and Rearden finally give in to their mutual attraction and begin an affair that wracks the unhappily married Rearden with guilt. But in the wake of their commercial success the freshly-minted lovers go on a secret road trip through the midwest to celebrate, and there, in the barren ghost towns around GM, they discover the junked prototype of a brilliant invention: a motor that could literally run on air — the static electricity in the air — solving all the world’s energy, environmental, and economic problems in one fell swoop… if it hadn’t been gutted and left for dead.
While Rearden returns home to make sure his marriage is still falling apart, our all-business Dags stays on the case of the miracle engine.
The trail leads her to a philosophy professor slumming it as a short order cook out west. He is just one of many elites from around the country who have abruptly disappeared from the public eye in the past ten years or so — about the same time the motor was invented and GM collapsed. It is only now that the energy crisis has become severe that a hidden pattern has begun to emerge out of their mysterious absences.
If nothing else, Dagny knows that there is some kind of shadow game being played among the country’s leaders. And perhaps the biggest wild card on the table is her former lover, Francisco D’Anconia. He was once as driven and ambitious as she was, but he’s spent the last decade doing nothing but blowing his family’s centuries-old fortune on gaudy luxury and partying.
Now he has re-entered Dagny’s life, and he’s acting very strangely, even laughing his ass off while his own business collapses. Dagny suspects he has sabotaged his own company and the global economy on purpose, by joining with corrupt Jim and his cronies on major investments that he knew would fail.
Before Dagny can pursue her leads any further, Congress grants absolute power to the former lobbyist Wesley Mouch to take over the Colorado economy. In retaliation the oil man Ellis Wyatt sets fire to his own fields and joins the ranks of the disappeared.
Why is Francisco inflating and popping market bubbles for no explicable reason? What unspoken philosophical schism could be driving America’s elites into covert camps that wage war over an irreconcilable divide?
And most urgently of all, can Hank & Dagny still save the country now that the oil supply has been torched by the supplier himself?
What does it all mean, man??
All these questions and more will be answered over the next 10 weeks, as we dive further into the alternate-but-uncomfortably-familiar universe of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
NEXT — 2:1, “Storms A’brewin”
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.
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.
Our story begins with Eddie Willers, who will be playing the part of The Average Man, as he hustles across Manhattan in twilight. His destination is the Grand Central-like headquarters of the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad Company, where he must inform company president James Taggart that there has been a crash on their Colorado-bound line.
Eddie passes a bum on the street who blankly mutters ‘Who is John Galt?’ at him. Eddie should get used to this question by the way, because Galt is basically Jacob from Lost in this book: he makes lists of his favorite people and everyone will be cryptically overhyping him for like 800 pages. Anyway the question freaks Eddie out. He feels ’causeless uneasiness,’ ‘dread without reason,’ and ‘immense, diffused apprehension.’ He just can’t seem to shake the feeling that the world is going down the tubes (what with the bums and all), and now he’s got the unsettling impression that this particular bum can read his mind and tease him, knowingly, with cryptic non-explanations.
This sends him on a reverie about an oak tree on a hill from his childhood, which he saw as a symbol of strength until it got hit by lightning and exposed as hollow and rotted inside. That bummed L’il Eddie out, existentially speaking. Plus it’s a metaphor for society. But Eddie brushes all that off as he gets to the Taggart Transcontinental offices, where the art deco majesty…
…and row upon row of Peggy Olson typists…
…give him a raging hard-on for his job again.
Stirred to purpose once more, Eddie strides into James Taggart’s corner suite. Taggart is not exactly a born leader of men cut straight from granite. He’s almost 40 but he looks over 50. He’s a schlub and, as we will see shortly, a weasel. Eddie tells him about the crash. Taggart — the company president, remember — could give a shit. Accidents happen all the time! Cost of doing business! Cartoon villainy, etc. Eddie tries to point out that they need to reinvest in that track to compete for the freight business coming from some newly opened oil fields.
Taggart scoffs, “Who cares? The guy who runs those fields is an asshole! I’ve got friends I’m used to working with, we’re just gonna stay the course.” But Eddie knows which market players are thriving and which are withering and he cannot comprehend what Jim could be thinking. He and Taggart have known each other since childhood, when Eddie was the patrician Taggart family’s token bourgeois friend, but now it’s like they’re always talking past each other!
As if to prove the point, Jim keeps obfuscating the issue of good corporate policy with defensive rants about how just because Ellis Wyatt (the oil man) churns out a lot of commerce doesn’t make him good for society. Think of all the jobs lost as he saps business from established companies! That economic dislocation hurts people! Taggart has apparently never heard of creative destruction, while pure simple Eddie just wants to know if they’re going to fund repairs in Colorado or not. He is, after all, personal aide to the VP of Operations.
Taggart: ‘It’s touching–your devotion to Taggart Transcontinental. If you don’t look out, you’ll turn into one of those real feudal serfs.’
Eddie: ‘That’s what I am, Jim.’
Damn, that’s a harsh self-evaluation, Eddie. If that’s supposed to be your ‘everyman’ character being humble, Ayn, that is some seriously rough humility. But Eddie can take it because he’s loyal and obedient. And really into industrial aesthetics. And blonde-haired and blue-eyed… wait wait wait, is Rand suggesting that The Average Man would make a good Nazi? Ayn, you are one subversive bitch, and I respect it.
Taggart officially informs Eddie that he wants to keep their resources focused on a track into Mexico he’s had built to reach the San Sebastian copper mines. Eddie has this whole vision of the continental map as a living organism with railroads as arteries and fossil fuels as blood, and James’ plan seems like some piss-poor anatomy to him, but Eddie doesn’t have the wherewithal to talk back to his superiors any more than he already has. He knows his place. And so he leaves.
On his way out he passes a Wise Old Clerk, who’s tinkering away on his busted antique typewriter and lamenting how everything nowadays is cheap crap and he’s never buying a typewriter again because they don’t make ’em like they used’t, grumble grumble fart. I think e-mail would piss this guy off just conceptually, but Eddie sizes him up as having the same ‘cynical indifference’ in his eyes as the bum, and then Wise Old Clerk even asks ‘Who is John Galt?’ again, in a sort of “Oh well what’r’ya gonna do” way, then out of nowhere there’s a violin sting and ominous opening credits.