Posts Tagged energy
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.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in American lives. In the case of Ayn Rand, there is a second act, she just sucks at writing it.
But now we’re near the end of the literary death march known as “Part Two: Either/Or” and things are finally starting to pick up again. The nation is firmly and totally under the control of corrupt executives and bureaucrats. Francisco has confirmed the existence of a conspiracy among the off-the-grid elites. And Rand’s morally abhorrent moral philosophy is beginning to come into sharper focus.
If we take a step back though, what becomes clear is that Rand’s morals are exactly what keeps Atlas from being more impressive. She has after all created a world of exhausted energy resources and excessive consumerism, where the heroes pursue technological advances that will create a more sustainable and renewable civilization, and the villains are vested big-money interests and the willfully ignorant politicians who enable them. Yet for some reason this book is about how the poor as a class should be treated as subhuman. What?
It’s also important to note that Ayn didn’t realize the depletion of natural resources was an actual looming danger, or that unchecked consumption poisons the earth as well as society. According to Ayn, the problems in the Randverse could have been solved long ago if Hank Rearden and Ellis Wyatt were left free to “Drill baby drill,” if only those yellow-bellied liberal pussies wouldn’t hold them back.
The irony, of course, is that the sustainability dangers are real in an objective way, verifiable by applied science and deductive reasoning. “Drill baby drill” might be a necessary stalling tactic to keep society running while renewable energy gains traction, but it is at best a stopgap measure. Rand’s Objectivist version has none of this foresight. Arthur C. Clarke she ain’t.
So in Objectivism (if not objective reality), threats of fossil fuel consumption and environmental corrosion are just false fronts for the liberals to enact an evil agenda that they won’t admit to anyone, least of all themselves. You can really see here just how influential the Rand worldview is on Republican ideology today.
This is why, now that we’re getting back to the thematically meaty part of the book, I’ve started replacing the protagonists’ talk of moochers and looters with vulture capitalists, moral vampires, and consumer zombies. The two sets of terms are vaguely synonymous but differ vitally in the details. Specifically, my descriptors cut across class and political boundaries whereas Rand’s place blame for society’s ills squarely on one side of the income and political spectra.
By making this change, I like to think I make the Randverse more widely relatable, not to mention recognizable as a relevant commentary on our world today. The American right circa 2012 thinks Ayn’s O.G. interpretation of Atlas is a relevant commentary on politics today, but their worldview simply doesn’t line up with the facts, the objective reality, in which we actually exist.
With this slight shift in the focus of moral blame I think the story actually gains potency as Ayn’s critiques get more extreme, rather than the original version in which the author’s awkward and bizarre proselytizing ruins the dramatic tension. Now, though the crisis is still rooted in moral degradation as Rand claims, the failings are not attributable to just one class or political party.
Part Two, as I mentioned above, is titled “Either/Or.” Either Objectivism, or nihilism. And, well… I choose Neither. Insofar as it encourages a perilous, willful denialism, a false consciousness about the objective state of the world that endangers that world, Objectivism can itself be nihilistic. It is not always and necessarily so, but neither is altruism or progressivism. There is no mutual exclusivity between the two sides of Ayn’s “either/or” proposition; no contradiction. And once you surgically remove Ayn’s insistence that there is, Atlas Shrugged gets waaaay way better.
PREVIOUSLY: The American government has finally, fully converted to centralized economic control. Dagny resigned in protest and retired to a remote cabin in the woods. In her absence, willful negligence at the railroad company caused a terrible humanitarian disaster.
Our heroine is living off the land, practicing strict self-discipline, trying not to think about the dying world. She’s almost gone hippie on us, contemplating how nature operates in circles while mankind operates in lines. It sounds like stoned dorm room talk.
As she chops wood or whatever, Dagny’s mind wanders to her longing for Hank, and the payment she owes to Q (the physicist reverse-engineering the ion drive for her). Oh yeah, the ion drive! What the hell is she going to do with it now? But nevermind, because all of a sudden Francisco shows up.
She watches his car approach her hill, and watches as he climbs the hill, and all the while he’s whistling Halley’s 5th Concerto (callback!). It’s like something out of a dream. How did he find her? When he reaches her, they stop pussy-footing around and totally make out. Sweeet.
Frankie is super-psyched that Dagny has finally quit and gone off-the-grid, and he came as soon as he knew where she was — though he won’t say how he found out. Dagny laments the hurt and withdrawal she feels for abandoning her former life (read as, “her job”) and yet acknowledges that she couldn’t continue working there with incompetent moral vampires as her bosses. Francisco is like “Damn straight.”
He reminds her of the last night they spent together as lovers, twelve years ago, when she cradled him in her arms while he had a nervous breakdown. Turns out, that was the night he committed to his secret plan to take down industrial civilization from the inside.
You see, Francisco explains, D’Anconia Copper is so old, so wealthy, that if he were to quit, all the no-good “vulture capitalists” could still live off his company’s largesse for generations. So, slowly, over the past decade, he has carefully sabotaged himself, hobbling the world economy as a last desperate measure to halt the planet’s mindless overconsumption.
Dagny understands, realizes why Frankie could never have told her while she still demonstrated any loyalty to society and “the system” in general. Still, she admits, it’s a shockingly ballsy move.
Francisco knows. When he made the choice to sacrifice his true love and his personal passion to
become Batman fight the power, it was before the climate and energy crisis was obvious, before communism had taken over most of the globe… she would have thought him a crazy person. It was the hardest decision of his life.
Dagny still feels shitty about leaving the world to the vampires and the consumer zombies, though. Francisco reassures her that there’s nothing she can do to stem the tide. At least, not by herself…
But before Francisco can explain his conspiracy further, a news bulletin comes twittering from the radio in Francisco’s car, announcing the Taggart Transcon tunnel disaster. Hundreds dead, the national rail system in complete disarray. In a fit of gross incompetence, an Army munitions train was sent into the tunnel after the poisoned flagship one, and they collided, destroying the tunnel completely.
And before Frankie can stop her, Dagny sprints down the hill and towards her car, compelled to return to society and save her life’s work.
Cut to NYC, Taggart Terminal. That rat bastard Jim is sealed up in his office, an unsigned resignation letter on his desk like a loaded gun. He is trying very hard not to think about the situation around him, block out the reality of this failure and his inevitable public shaming. He hates everything. Literally.
But most specifically he hates Dagny, and suddenly races to the VP office, assaulting Eddie Willers and demanding to know where she went when she quit. This is all her fault, for quitting!
Eddie keeps his cool, admits that he knows and that he will not tell Jim under any circumstances, because Jim is an asshole. Eddie’s glad Dagny left and he hopes she doesn’t come back. Yesss, Eddie’s testicles are finally descending!
Except this is Dagny’s cue to storm back into the office, totally undermining Eddie’s stand. She immediately ropes Eddie into her corner suite where they can take charge and get the nation’s core infrastructure back online.
Jim, still in the midst of a nervous breakdown of his own, and clearly getting no attention from the useful people, flees back to his office to destroy the resignation letter and ponder the impotent void of his personality.
Then Dagny and Eddie’s cram session is interrupted by a phone call from Wesley Mouch, who has already heard of her return from “vacation,” and lugubriously promises her any legal waivers she may need, despite all the laws she broke by quitting. She tells him to fuck off forever and send any further messages through his secretary.
While she’s at the phone, she calls Hank and they commiserate about how they’re gluttons for punishment, making sure the world keeps spinning when the world has gotten as crappy as all this. They agree to meet later that night for a therapeutic dose of kinky fuckery.
And now take everything that just happened in this chapter and make all the philosophical points sound about ten times douchier, and that’ll be roughly like how Ayn wrote it.
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: Dagny launched a one-woman investigation into the history of the mysterious clean-energy motor. Hank had a fight with his wife that may have broken the camel’s back. The Bureau of Economic Planning drafted several bills that would effectively stifle the booming Colorado economy.
Dags commences her investigation by meeting with Lawson, the former banker who now works for the Econ Bureau. She wants info on the condemned GM plant where she found the motor; he keeps throwing out irrelevant defenses of his piss-poor record as a banker. He did not know any of the R&D engineers at the plant but the company that ran it when he held the mortgage, the last company to run it before it went bankrupt, was
Bain Capital Associated Services. The head of A.S. was named Hunsacker.
Dagny tracks Hunsacker down in Illinois, where he’s now living as a lowly boarder and drafting an autobiography about which no one will care. He’s even more of a lousy whiner than Lawson. He recalls that when he first tried to raise the funds to purchase GM he applied for a loan from Midas Mulligan, the world’s richest man and one notorious for his impeccable investment record. One can only assume he paid less in taxes than his secretary.
Anyway, Mulligan turned him away for having no collateral or prior achievements and he sued Mulligan by exploiting an anti-discrimination law that was intended to protect day laborers. One Judge Narragansett ruled against him, but a higher court reversed the decision. Shortly thereafter Mulligan disappeared mysteriously forever. A few months later Judge Narragansett did the same. But Hunsacker got his loan from Lawson in the end, which worked out real well until they both went bankrupt.
Yeah yeah whatever, did Hunsacker spend much time at the R&D lab? No, not really. The founder, Jed Starnes, who was a self-made man (obviously), he was quite the innovator. But when his heirs took over some kind of wackness went down at the plant and the research staff abandoned ship. Hunsacker didn’t feel the need to reinvest in that department. The Starnes heirs? Oh, they live low-profile in Lousiana now. That’s all the info Hunsacker’s got. Dagny bolts.
Deep in the bayou our heroine uncovers the next lead. One of the Starnes heirs is a bitter drunk; another killed himself several years back; the third, Ivy, lives in a decrepit old manse studying Hinduism and, I’m just going out on a limb here, smoking a metric ton of weed. Ivy Starnes explains that she and her brothers also neglected the research & development team. Their innovation as managers was to implement a Marxist payroll structure where checks were written “from each each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
Basically everybody at the factory voted monthly as to who needed money the most and who worked the hardest. The hardest workers were expected to log overtime hours without pay to cover the neediest employees’ generous salaries. If the industrious didn’t meet the output expectations of the payroll votes, they were fined to make up the difference. Dagny is apalled. Probably because this makes absolutely no sense. Everyone knows that communist countries didn’t abide by democratic votes! Allegory fail.
But I guess that’s kind of besides the point, which Dagny gets because she’s trying to drag the conversation back towards the R&D staff. The only name Ivy’s ganja-addled brain can remember is William Hastings, chief engineer. She remembers him because he quit pretty much immediately after the commie pay scheme was enacted.
Wyoming now, and Dags knocks on the door of Mrs. Hastings, who is the first dignified person she’s yet encountered in this little adventure. Unfortunately, Mr. Hastings passed away five years ago of a heart condition. But the widow Hastings remembers the last few years of his life quite well, and is happy to regale Dagny with the tale.
William ran R&D at GM for nearly two decades. Towards the end of his tenure he had a young assistant whom he constantly called a genius. The assistant had an idea for a revolutionary new motor, and Hastings helped him complete a prototype. But Jed Starnes died less than a month later and his hippie heirs with their naive ideals showed up to implement socialist theories of compensation, and so Hastings quit and refused to take another job.
He didn’t quite disappear mysteriously forever, though. Disappeared, sure. Mysteriously, yes. But temporarily, always. See, he and the missus continued their life together as usual except for a month every summer when he’d go on a vacation from which he returned in the fall sans explanation.
She does remember picking him up once and catching a rare glimpse of his enigmatic associates. One was the assistant engineer in question, the other a dignified older gent. Though she never learned their names, by pure coincidence she happened to run into the older guy again not too long ago. She remembers it clearly, because she was shocked to see such a dignified character working as the short-order cook in a roadside diner in Bumblefuck, Wyoming…
Bumblefuck, Wyoming. Dusty road, nothing for miles, just this one crummy diner. Dagny pulls up, steps inside, and orders a hamburger. She has butterflies in her stomach. This is it, she can feel it. The case is about to crack wide open.
There are two truckers at the counter and she waits for them to leave before she strikes up a conversation with the cook. “This is the best hamburger I’ve ever eaten,” she says. “Thanks,” he replies.
She sizes him up. “Come work for me. I’ll pay you $10,000 a year.” That $75,000 adjusted for inflation, by the way, but he turns her down flat. She doesn’t understand why. ‘I hate to see ability being wasted!’ she cries, and he says ‘So do I.’
She can tell by his tone that they’re simpatico and is suddenly overwhelmed with how much bullshit she’s had to put up with lately. She spills to him how impossible it is to find anybody worth dealing with anymore and how she’s trying so hard to make something good happen but everybody along the way is a total fucktard.
He takes all this in rather serenely and then asks what exactly it is she came here looking for. “Did you know the last man to serve as the assistant R&D engineer at GM?” He cautiously admits that he did. What’s it to you, lady? “He invented a motor. It’s vitally important I find him.”
The cook asks who she is and she tells him she’s Dagny Taggart. This whole scene makes a lot more sense to him now but he tells her ‘Give it up, Miss Taggart.’ He will not give her the name, or even tell her if the man is alive or dead. This is the end of the road.
“Who are you, anyway?” she asks him. “The name’s Akston. Hugh Akston,” comes the nonchalant reply.
Dagny’s mind is blown. “Hugh Akston the philosopher? Hugh Akston, Francisco’s former mentor? Hugh Akston who disappeared mysteriously forever years ago? What the hell are you doing frying eggs in the middle of the desert?! None of this makes any sense!”
Hugh Akston leans back against the counter and takes out a pack of cigarettes. He offers her one and then lights them both up. “I told you you hit a dead end. But I’ll give you one clue. There is no such thing as a contradiction. Only faulty logic. If your conclusions make no sense, go back and check your premises.”
A bell rings in Dagny’s head. Francisco told her the same thing when trying to explain his behavior the last time she saw him. She thanks Akston for the burger and the butt and leaves. As she steps into her car she stops to examine the cigarette in her hand. It belongs to no brand she can recognize. The only insignia is a tiny golden dollar sign stamped above the filter.
The time has come to give up and go home. Dagny arrives at the Wyatt Junction station to wait for the Galt Line to take her back east. But there is hubbub on the platform and she overhears somebody saying they don’t think Rearden will be able to follow all the new regulations at the same time. Some other guy is like “Hey fuck him, he’s rich. He can figure it out.”
Dagny’s blood freezes and she grabs the nearest newspaper. The Congress has given Wesley Mouch blanket authority to issue economic directives. He has placed production caps and price controls on nearly everything and levied extra taxes on Colorado businesses to subsidize the rest of the country’s failing infrastructure.
The memory of when she first met Ellis Wyatt leaps into her brain, the time he stormed into her office and threatened to fuck her up if she fucked around with his business. Another sudden recollection: the time he furiously smashed his glass after they toasted the opening of the Galt Line.
In a panic Dagny races for a pay phone, unsure what she’s trying to prevent but determined to do something. She dials Wyatt and starts screaming ‘Ellis, don’t! Don’t!’ but reaches only a dial tone.
Behind her, just past the station, the rolling hill with Wyatt’s estate and the vast expanses of his oil fields suddenly explode into a teeming wall of flames. All of the silhouetted derricks go up like torches. Dagny drops the phone in despair. He’s not there, she knows that much. He’s disappeared mysteriously forever. This is just his parting gift. One last “fuck you” for The Man. No more oil for you! Try running a techno-industrial economy now, sorry motherfuckers! Peace out.
REFLECTIONS ON PART ONE: The Logical Downfall of Ayn Rand
PART TWO, CHAPTER 1: “Storm’s Abrewin'”
Welcome to the part where the book gets good. Yes, as of Chapter 9 we’ve finally been introduced to Atlas’ MacGuffin: a lean mean clean green motor that could replace the internal combustion engine and save the world from environmental disaster if only it weren’t broken beyond repair in an abandoned warehouse.
You may have also noticed that in Chapters 8 & 9 I started referring to Rearden Metal as rMetal, expanding on the comparison to Steve Jobs that I made in Chapter 2, and started calling Taggart Transcontinental Taggart Transcon, which sounds more like a telecom company.
Slowly but surely, we’re drawing the Randverse away from its steampunk alternate history and towards a cyberpunk future more like our own. And while we could really use that motor here in reality, the most obvious and important cyberpunk element of our world that the Randverse lacks is cyberspace itself — the internet. No doubt the open-source, democratizing, community-building, often non-commercial culture of the web would horrify Ayn, but that’s exactly why it will be a major element of this blog during Part Two (Chapters 11-20) in the same way that lobbying and climate change have been the major motifs of Part One (Chapters 1-10).
And as we are still in Part One, it’s worth revisiting the post I wrote after Chapter 3, “Political (and Actual) Climate Change,” to see how the themes I introduced there have paid off handsomely now that we’re near the ‘season finale,’ so to speak.
That earlier post focused mostly on the lobbying, which rears its head again here when Dagny’s former contractor mentions Wesley Mouch, the shadowy influence-peddler who has now become a government official overseeing economic management.
Before, I emphasized how lobbying corrupts legislation even if individual lobbyists and congressmen aren’t corrupt. I didn’t even mention the infamous revolving door of K Street (DC’s lobbying district), the part of the lobbyist-politician axis that makes conflicts of interest most obvious to the layperson. Now that Mouch has walked through that door, it’s worth adding a bit more to the picture.
Here in real life, we see the negative influence of the revolving door on both sides of the aisle. A decade ago, former House Majority Leader Tom “The Hammer” DeLay (R-Texas) actively encouraged lobbyists to become Republicans and Republicans to become lobbyists in what was called The K Street Project (in which Rick Santorum pariticipated). Three years later he was convicted of money laundering and conspiracy in Texas elections.
More recently and less criminally, former senator Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) became the top lobbyist for the MPAA after leaving office, despite promises that he would never become a lobbyist, which means his job for the past year has been to promote SOPA and PIPA and other roads to cyber-serfdom.
By contrast, this sort of problem is what President Obama has specifically sought to avoid by setting rules for his campaign and administration that ban registered lobbyists from fundraising for him and former lobbyists from taking jobs regulating industries that they’ve recently lobbied for.
The latter scenario is exactly what happens with Wesley Mouch, but even if Obama’s policies address the danger of Ayn Rand’s fictional example (and there is some debate about the rules’ effectiveness), the real world examples above suggest the danger isn’t just lobbyists becoming G-men, it’s G-men becoming lobbyists.
Because as Matt Yglesias illustrates in this post, for the middle class on down a government job is a sweet gig with good benefits relative to the rat race. That’s why populist rhetoric often includes the accusation that government workers of being do-nothing bureaucrats living cushily off the taxpayers’ dime. But for civil servants with a doctorate or professional degree, which is to say the highest ranking ones, private sector work pays better than public sector work, so public service at the elite level is genuinely a sacrifice, presumably made out of a sense of patriotic duty.
But this nonetheless warps the incentives of our top public officials away from representing genuine public interests and towards networking with the people they’re supposed to regulate, so that they will have good job offers to look forward to when they’re done regulating. For many, that may not even be an explicit plan, and certainly not at first. But if they aren’t consciously avoiding it, it becomes the path of least resistance pretty easily.
So let’s grant that the institutional corruption circles back and corrupts individuals. Those individuals still don’t think of themselves as corrupt because the costs of selling out are external and don’t fall on the corrupt people themselves unless they get convicted of a crime like DeLay. From their own subjective position, their choices are self-interested in an entirely reasonable way.
Hey what do you know, that’s how climate change works too! When I wrote on it before, I acknowledged that a strict reading of Atlas Shrugged doesn’t involve climate change per se so much as a general energy crisis. Yet climate change is actually more vital to the story. Not only because it makes the book better and more suspensful, but because it shows clearly how Rand’s philosophy fails to work in reality, due to natural conflicts between individuals’ incentives and how those seemingly reasonable choices have unseen costs that compound over time and burden every individual in the society.
The only real difference between that argument for climate change and Rand’s argument for the road to serfdom is that on the road to serfdom the crisis is one of dwindling liberty, but on the road to climate change the crisis is one of abusing liberty. Abuse which takes the form of negative externalities.
Negative externalities are any cost of a transaction that affects the market as a whole but isn’t factored into the price between the producer and the consumer. For example, we learned in 2008 that unregulated derivatives and other financial products didn’t actually reduce risk as claimed, they just turned it into a negative externality. The risk became an invisible danger building up in the economic atmosphere until things reached a tipping point and the real cost of the products became apparent — a cost that had to be paid by the country as a whole.
Negative externalities therefore require one to admit limits to self-interest. If you exceed those limits, there are costs, but they’re paid by everyone and especially by future generations living further down the road, who will face even stricter limits on their liberties and opportunities due to their forefathers’ excesses. It brings whole new meaning to the phrase so popular among supporters of the War on Terror a decade ago: freedom isn’t free.
And that’s the bottom line here. For people who believe in Rand’s radical vision of capitalist philosophy, whether they would call it Objectivist or libertarian or just Republican, the idea of climate change provokes a nearly unbearable degree of cognitive dissonance, because the negative externalities involved in climate change are created by billions of individuals behaving mostly reasonably and thus addressing the issue threatens individual liberty across the board.
This is a very legitimate concern and important to consider in shaping a solution to the climate change problem. One doesn’t want to get off the road to environmental apocalypse by getting on the road to serfdom. But we must admit that there is a problem and that course correction is necessary. Unfortunately many conservatives reject the whole premise as false because it would call their entire value system into question.
So yes, Ayn Rand considered herself a hard-nosed realist as well as an opponent of social thought. But the threat to the techno-industrial lifestyle presented by climate change requires all realistic individuals to take social concerns into account if a free and prosperous civilization is to survive. To ignore this would be to resent the facts and live in denial about the truth, while promoting willfully ignorant consumption that will inevitably climax in nihilistic self-destruction. Which, not to put too fine a point on it, is a real Jim Taggart move.
Once again, just as I pointed out in Hayek Anxiety, Rand turned out to be remarkably insightful about what the major issues of the early 21st century would be, even as her philosophy turned out to be not only unsuited to address those issues but to have made them worse.
You know, maybe I should have mentioned earlier that Part One of this book is titled “Non-Contradiction.”
PREVIOUSLY: The John Galt Line, Dagny & Hank’s game-changing high speed railroad, opened in Colorado to phenomenal success. Dagny & Hank celebrated with some highly cathartic adultery.
Dagny wakes up the morning after in a post-coital haze. Completely content, she watches Hank getting dressed. Then he turns to her and is like “I want you to know I hate you now, and I hate myself even more. We are depraved animals. I act like a principled man, but I want nothing more than to make you my fuck puppet. It’s disgusting.” Dagny, progressive at heart and decidedly not as… married, laughs in his face. “What is this, the real 1950s? We live in the steampunk ’50s, stop being so repressed. I want to be your fuck puppet, baby. I want to be your fuck puppet all day. Now creep up on this.” And he does.
That night on the east coast, Jim Taggart is wandering aimlessly around New York. The success of the Galt Line and Dagny’s imminent return to Taggart Transcon with the Line’s fresh business in tow have sent Taggart stock sky-high again. As CEO, Jim is getting all the publicity, but the accolades make him feel like shit because he didn’t really do anything. To avoid acknowledging his self-disgust, he projects all his hatred and resentment onto Dagny and Rearden. But with nothing to keep him busy at night, introspection is harder to avoid.
So that’s how he finds himself in some ghetto-ass neighborhood in the rain, coming down with the sniffles. He steps into a run-down bodega for some tissues. Inside, the place is unsurprisingly barren under pale fluorescents but the girl behind the counter is staring at him like he’s radiating sunlight. She timidly asks if he’s THE James Taggart.
Why yes, yes he is. And it turns out this blue-collar ingenue is Cheryl, your classic small town girl who moved to the big city to make it and found herself working the night shift at a corner store in… Harlem? Is it racist to assume it’s Harlem? Either way she is utterly starstruck that the guy on the front page of the day’s paper is buying Kleenex from her. He is in turn struck with perverse fascination at how innocent she is. The poor thing actually believes his company’s media talking points for Christ’s sake. He flirts with her in his vaguely sociopathic way and convinces her to come back to his place.
Alone at his apartment, Jim quizzes Cheryl on her backstory. She lived somewhere in the blighted midwest and decided she had to move away before inertia settled her permanently into white trash mediocrity. And how’s that working out? Not well obviously, but she still believes in pulling herself up by her bootstraps.
Jim confesses to her that he’s in an awful mood. She can’t understand why. Shouldn’t he feel completely triumphant after tasting the fruit of all “his” labor? No. He can only talk mad smack about Dagny and Hank for being self-absorbed and conceited, and about Orren Boyle and his other friends for being corrupt cowards. He hates everything. Poor naive Cheryl can’t square it. The American economy finally has a shot at recovery thanks to “his” achievements. Why does it upset him? Would he rather society collapse?
Jim lashes out — he didn’t say that! Don’t put words in his mouth! And who cares about that material bullshit anyway? Why can’t the news promote proper values? Spiritual values! Think of all the suffering in the world… frankly, being unhappy for the sake of others is the real test of virtue. Yes, a great capacity for unhappiness is what truly makes one great, Jim decides. Cheryl is like “Golly Mr. Taggart, that sure is swell of you to be so hard on yourself when you’ve already done so much. I wish I had all your fancy book-learnin’.”
Taggart just stares at her in cynical awe. What a rube! Dawn is breaking so he takes her back to her apartment. She thanks him profusely for not taking advantage of her. Will she ever see him again? He does not say. But he knows she will, because he is still grotesquely mesmerized by her free spirit.
A couple weeks later, Dagny and Hank meet up at her place for a brunch-time bone. He orders her to tell him about all the other men she’s fucked while he bangs her. Dagny’s like, “There was only one other man and I’m not telling you who it is.” He likes it when she talks back. In all seriousness if you had to make this book 1100 pages Ayn, you should’ve made at least 800 of them sex scenes.
Meanwhile one of Dagny’s former contractors, one of the guys who was afraid to buy rMetal, is watching the factory across the street from his get liquidated for parts. He starts up a chat with one of the day laborers hauling the scrap, lamenting how every local business he knew growing up is collapsing and all the rest are hauling ass to libertarian Colorado. He’s all over the place politically, wishing the government hadn’t shut down competition among the railroads because it cost him business, but wishing that it would subsidize legacy companies like his so he can stay in business now.
He mentions an oil man in Oklahoma who had to stop pumping his fields because he lost all his business to Ellis Wyatt, which makes absolutely no sense. A guy with oil supply in a time of scarcity would find demand, period. The vagrant worker offers his own counterpoint, citing Rearden’s mills in Pennsylvania that are booming with rMetal production.
Fair enough. Mr. Contractor asks his name. “Owen Kellogg,” says the vagrant. Hey wait a minute, that’s the corporate suit who handed Dagny his resignation in Chapter 1. Didn’t he disappear mysteriously forever? Why is he roughing it as a hobo now? How curious.
But the name means nothing to the nostalgic contractor. He simply hopes the latest government initiative will help him keep his business afloat. You see, to manage the Equalization of Opportunity that is now required by law, the Congress has commissioned a Bureau of Economic Planning. And it will be headed by a brilliant young policy wonk taking his first job in the public sector. His name? Wesley Mouch.
What Mr. Contractor doesn’t know, because he gets his news from the same press that reprints Taggart’s PR memos, is that Mouch is a well-connected former lobbyist. The foxes are running the henhouse, people!
Nex– oh, Dagny and Hank are having sex at her apartment again? Well, they’re about to. Hank just got in from some awards ceremony honoring him for inventing the now-popular rMetal and saving America, but everybody there was just a hanger-on or a fair-weather fan. Dagny sympathizes. Hank has an idea to cheer himself up, though. The two of them should go on a month-long off-the-grid vacation, roadtripping around the country in cognito. Dagny thinks that sounds awesome.
So cut to them on the open road, tearing down the decaying routes of the blighted midwest, touring the abandoned factories and warehouses of the Rust Belt. This is your guys’ dream vacation? You are the shittiest. They watch the natural beauty speed by all around them and Hank literally goes “You know what this view needs? Advertising. Where are all the billboards?” Ugh, blow me. I’m trying to revise you into a likable character Hank, and you’re making it really hard.
Their journey takes them to the condemned campus of
The 20th Century Motor CoGM. The surrounding ghost town is full of dull-eyed impoverished zombies who have given up on improving their lives or leaving, if they were ever inclined to do either in the first place. One lady is wearing a potato sack for a dress. Not an exaggeration.
The factory itself is a skeleton. Or so it would seem until Dagny notices an unusually futuristic coil amid the wreckage in the old R&D lab. She digs out the machine to which the coil belongs. Though it has been looted for parts it is recognizable as a motor. A crazy cyberpunk motor, trapped in this dying steampunk world. Venturing further into the rubble she finds a yellowing report on the device, mostly illegible.
Hank hears Dagny screaming for him and runs to the R&D lab. She shows him the gutted device and the shred of paperwork describing how it works — or how it would have worked. The coil, you see, would draw static electricity out of the air to drive the gears. Simple, clean, brilliant: it is in essence a low-cost carbon-free completely renewable energy solution. Or it would have been, if it hadn’t ended up as junk.
“Fuck, this could revitalize the entire infrastructure of modern civilization! Fossil fuels would go right out the window! Imagine this motor paired with rMetal construction — we’d be living in a prosperous utopia of economic efficiency! This is what the world needs!” Dagny is spazzing out like a true tech nerd.
“Yeah but Dags, why is it here? Why is it buried, broken, and lost? What cruel fate could have befallen the inventor that such a work of genius was covered up?” Hank responds ominously. The two grimace at each other, suddenly aware they are up against much darker forces than they had imagined.
So… vacation canceled then?
NEXT: 1:10, Wyatt’s Torch — “Desperate Times”
Okay we are now three chapters deep in Atlas Shrugged and the plot skeleton has finally developed real meat on its bones, specifically in the bar scene with Jim Taggart and the other villains of the piece. On the surface it’s pretty dry stuff, flat even, but it’s meaty because this is where Rand starts making points that are, at least from today’s perspective, both conservative and liberal.
Right off the bat she illustrates what she learned in Russia about how leftist socioeconomic policy can ruin the competitiveness of the market. The Tea Party approves. But the context of this lesson, strictly speaking, is a cabal of established businessmen who instigate the government’s malfeasance by warping the law to their own desire. Occupy Wall Street approves too! The Randverse, it turns out, is not as partisan as conventional wisdom would have you believe. In fact, despite Rand’s heroic feats of oversimplification, her world is riddled with dilemmas. I’ve embellished the text in two places to accent this:
The bigger and more dramatic of the two updates is the nature of the energy crisis in the book (or, “in the book”). Ayn puts the phrase ‘natural exhaustion of the mines’ in the mouth of the evil Orren Boyle, while the valorous Ellis Wyatt has struck new oil through sheer force of will. So Rand sees the problem as a withering of human ambition and not a genuine environmental limitation or the cause of catastrophic climatic side effects. Granted, she was writing in 1957 and you can’t predict everything about the next half-century.
But if the energy crisis (“in the book”) is legitimate, the villains while still villainous are at least reacting to real threats, just poorly, and our two main protagonists, Dagny and Hank, are effectively the champions of 21st century progressive projects like high-speed rail and sustainable development. All this reorients the way Atlas maps onto our real-life politics in ways that are far more interesting than going by the author’s, you know, actual intentions, and as such this new paradigm will become increasingly important as we progress.
The second update I make is the substitution of the word ‘lobbyist’ for Rand’s phrase ‘men in Washington.’ Again, by Rand’s account, the catalyst for state interference here is a syndicate of elite market players who work with influence-peddlers like Wesley Mouch to protect themselves from market forces. The vast majority of Americans today recognize that as a real problem and see lobbyists as the poster boys for it.
Generally speaking, conservatives blame government bloat for our troubles, because bureaucracy is inefficient and creates opportunities for rent-seeking (political science for ‘bribes’). Unfettered business is the natural corollary to their desire to shrink the state. Liberals blame the concentration of power in the corporate class for our troubles, since this class can fetter business to its own ends through lobbying, as a sort of covert class war. The truth is that the distinction is akin to arguing over whether a coin is all heads or all tails.
But the reality of how we ended up this way is more complex than the Randverse can contain. To explain that reality in three paragraphs I’m going to draw heavily from Lawrence Lessig’s new book Republic Lost, which you should buy here for more info. Here it goes:
Over the last three decades, the cost of running a campaign has skyrocketed into a financial arms race. Candidates need either a personal fortune or corporate backing just to compete. The average member of Congress now spends 40-70% of her time raising money, and the more competitive her district is (that is to say, the more a vote actually counts), the more money she’ll need (so the money counts first). She also no doubt won office by championing a couple of high-profile issues that she genuinely cares about, but now she has hundreds of votes to make on a wide variety of issues about which she knows very little. With no time to study obscure technical matters, she needs help to know how to vote and why. That’s where the lobbyists come in.
They aren’t buying results per se. They’re providing congressmen who don’t have enough hours in the day with vital background on all sorts of wonky topics. Is the research in their reports slanted towards the interests they represent? Certainly. But that’s obvious and they naturally work with the congressmen who are already friendly to their interests due to a vague sense of shared values (just like how voters pick their congressmen!). In short, they provide what political scientists call a “legislative subsidy.” If, for example, you agree with this post so far but didn’t have the details to back up your opinion before, I’m providing you with an “argumentative subsidy.” That’s the value lobbyists ostensibly bring to the table, but in the case of governing it creates a vicious circle.
The laws of the land end up de facto written by various lobbies in various uncoordinated bits and pieces, resulting in ever more technocratic votes that leave Congressmen relying ever more on lobbyists’ help. The tangle of statutes produced gets so convoluted that you need, say, a phalanx of lawyers to understand it. That creates a bias towards big companies, which creates barriers to entry for start-up businesses, stifling competition. In the end the established businesses have done right by their investors but wrong by the market as a whole. The congressmen have done right by their constituents, voting their values on the issues that defined their campaigns and sending pork projects back home to boost the local economy, but they’ve done wrong by the country and our Constitutional institutions as a whole. Everybody hates Congress but likes their Congressman.
Maybe you noticed what this perverse dynamic doesn’t require: explicit pay-offs or quid pro quos. The ways in which lobbyists introduce politicians to major donors definitely skirts that line, but everybody networks, right? Individually, everybody’s doing what you would do too. Considering the social structure of their day-to-day lives and the personal cost/benefit dynamic, everyone’s behavior is in their rational self-interest, and pretty normal. Even if no one is corrupt, everyone’s actions in the aggregate produce a corrupt society. How can that be? Everyone is satisfying their rational self-interest just like Rand wanted, with the end result being the societal decay that she feared. All the powerbrokers are getting what they need but not what they’ve earned, while the true innovators who could address real, impending, potentially apocalyptic issues like energy scarcity and climate change are tarred as controversial figures whose goals are obstructed by a dysfunctional civic culture. Hey wait, that’s the plot of the book!
So in Rand’s favor she gets the broad strokes of today’s problems right, but her personal life philosophy actually enables those problems. Rational self-interest, it turns out, will not suffice as an ethical standard of behavior unless the impact of the individual on his culture is part of what defines that rationality. Anything too selfish is corrosive to the climate, political or otherwise, and exposes ‘self-interest’ as having been defined too narrowly.
Yes, in the recaps I joke that Ayn has a thing for fascism when describing her heroes. But fascism is often described as collusion between big business and big government, and that’s exactly the state of affairs
we live in she depicts as villainous. Likewise, if you read Benito Mussolini’s definition of fascism, certain phrases about human values and the failures of egalitarian democracy seem straight out of Rand, even as the statist politics he promotes are the total opposite of her libertarian vision.
By the same token I think updating Atlas to include modern lobbying and the climate & energy crises is actually true to the spirit of Rand’s work despite her political legacy because of the cognitive dissonance it provokes. Keep in mind that many of those who fund the most powerful lobbies and shower money on politicians preach Rand’s philosophy even as it condemns their behavior (Koch Brothers, I’m looking at you) — a self-contradiction in the very style of James Taggart.
And that makes Atlas Shrugged a self-fulfilling prophecy about a philosophy of self-fulfillment whose adherents are self-contradicting in direct contradiction of their self-styled philosophy causing the philosophy’s prophecy to become self-fulfilling. Holy Meta!
Next week I’ll be following the Monday Chapter 4 recap with more Food for Thought on Wednesday. If you’re intrigued, please subscribe by e-mail or RSS at the bottom of the page, and if you like, get caught up on the reading.