N-400 to the bottom of the pile

This is outrageous.

The House overwhelmingly approved on Thursday a near total tax on bonuses paid this year to employees of the American International Group and other firms that have accepted large amounts of federal bailout funds, rattling Wall Street as lawmakers rushed to respond to populist anger.

It won’t pass the senate. It can’t. But if it does, I might go join the others in Galt’s Gulch.

Going Galt

The right hand side of the interwebs is ablaze with threats to Go Galt – a reference to the theme of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in which all the professionals and entrepreneurs in America downed tools in protest at punitive government tax policies and increasing government control of industry.

Will Wilkinson on the phenomenon,

I can’t help but feel that threatening to withdraw from economic production, ala Atlas Shrugged’s John Galt, is a certain kind of libertarian-conservative’s version of progressives threatening to move to Canada.

Will’s commenters are divided on the issue:

Why work more? They can live on what they make. They will just end up with more leisure time. Why work 60 hours a week on your small business when you can work 30 hours and still do ok? Instead of driving that business and employing 50 people, they will be happy will slower growth and 20 employees. 30 jobs go bye-bye. – uknowbetter

People acting as if a couple points of marginal rate are the difference between Heaven and Hell.

I don’t think the answer is to move the top marginal rate a point or two in an attempt to ally people’s fears. I think the answer is for entrepreneurs to be fearless. Make your money, and pay your tax.- odograph

Lisa Schiffren is on the side of the Galtians:

The doctors, lawyers, engineers, executives, serious small-business owners, top salespeople, and other professionals and entrepreneurs who make this country run work considerably harder than pretty much anyone else…[snip]…And now the president, who followed a path sort of like that, and who claims that his wife’s former six-figure income was a result of precisely such qualifications and efforts, is demonizing them. More problematically, he is penalizing their success and giving them very clear incentives to ratchet back on productivity.

Conor Friedersdorf responds,

But do you know why we are in a position where this sort of massive expansion of government is possible? It is partly because America’s professional class — its lawyers, engineers, and doctors, those meritocrats who “got into the better colleges and grad schools” — voted in large numbers for the Democratic candidate. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that affluent professional meritocrats, who often live in urban centers and prize competence, spent the 2008 campaign being told by the GOP ticket that big city professionals live in fake America, that a diploma from an elite college is reason for suspicion, that the wine these folks drink marks them as less authentic than the beer of their compatriots, etc.

The GOP cannot wage a culture war against elites when it is convenient to rally the base, and later make a credible claim to be the champion of those same elites when it comes time to talk about marginal tax rates. What does the average, apolitical law firm partner or neurosurgeon or mechanical engineer think when he flips on the television and sees Joe the Plumber being held up as the face of the Republican Party? Do they think, “This is a party that is going to reward meritocrats like me,” or do they think, “I’ve got a choice between a party that’s going to insult my intelligence, and another that’s going to take a slightly higher percentage of my annual earnings.”

I don’t mind either. But it is very weird to watch the whole right blogosphere go gaga for Ayn Rand, a Christian hating, sexually libertine, elitist extremist, so soon after holding up as its champions a symbolic everyman like Joe the Plumber, and an evangelical VP candidate. Speaking of Sarah Palin, I wonder what Ayn Rand would’ve though of the windfall profits tax she imposed on Alaska oil companies? My bet is that Ellis Wyatt would’ve strangled her rather than let her into Galt’s Gulch.

I’ll let Will have the final word.

By the way, Atlas buffs, the point of Atlas Shrugged is not that you are John Galt. The point is that you are not John Galt. The point is that you are, at your best, Eddie Willers. You’re smart, hardworking, productive, and true. But you’re no creative genius and you take innovation — John Galt — for granted. You don’t even know who he is! And this eventually leaves you weeping on abandoned train tracks.

No Moochers Here

I think the Randians are writing fake letters to the New York Times to pretend that the crazy moochers from Atlas Shrugged  really exist:

Thomas L. Friedman wants to “double the salaries of all highly qualified math and science teachers” to encourage more people to become teachers and help make the United States more innovative.

But without highly qualified language arts teachers to teach students to read and comprehend increasingly complex material and how to communicate it clearly to others (and, preferably, in more than just the English language), and without highly qualified social studies teachers to teach students about the global economy and the diverse societies around the world with whom we must interact, knowledge of math, science and technology in and of themselves will not increase American competitiveness.

To accomplish that, the salaries of all teachers should be raised, since all subjects are equally vital in stimulating students’ minds. Susan L. Schwartz

Haverhill, Mass., Jan. 11, 2009

As someone who is not opposed to the idea of merit pay, I would suggest that exemplary math and science teachers be rewarded for their work. But to pay people differently based on their title or perceived value at a given political moment, and not based on their work, effort or skill at teaching, is blatantly unfair. Lauren Friend Santa Cruz, Calif., Jan. 11, 2009

Luckily, these are fake people.

Objectivism for a New Century

One of my new favourite blogs, Secular Right, has an open thread on Ayn Rand.

I have never met a real life objectivist but the ones I have come across online have been batshit crazy and they are always engaged in pitched battles with batshit crazy liberals trying to live down to Rand’s caricatures. Between them they generate more heat than light. It was a pleasant change, then, to come across some mostly well-reasoned arguments for and against Rand’s fantasy land.

I made my opinion clear in my review of Atlas Shrugged. It was good to hear the case for the other side but they didn’t quite shake my first conclusion that, as adolescent budding-philosophers, they thought of themselves as Hank Rearden driving his train into Dagny Taggart’s tunnel.

Some snippets of the conversation:

Ayn Rand was the first person to define and present a rational philosophy for living in this universe. Once you read her works, you’ll have a rational philosophical base with which you can evaluate the ideas of the so called “experts” around you, in newspapers, on radio, on TV etc. You’ll come to the conclusion that these so called “experts” have massive flaws in their thinking and their ideas.

As I said, to the extent that Rand attempted moral complexity with the Rearden character, that is it. But to the extent that there is conflict in that storyline, Rand makes it a very easy choice for Rearden. Has there ever been a reader, ever, anywhere, in the history of this book who ever wondered, even for a millisecond, what choice Rearden would make?? Some precocious, but misguided eleven year-old, somewhere, maybe. No, we all know how he was going to choose, because Rand does not present Rearden with two moral positives (or moral negatives) and explores how and why Rearden would choose between them. What she wrote was not complexity, but the minimum necessary to recite on her ideas about people freeing themselves of the ideas which lead to what she saw as emotional repression.

Bingo. No one in Rearden’s family has any redeeming values. They were rotten through and through. Most people Rand would call “altruists” would have advocated Rearden dumping the lot of them, too.

In toto, Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism offers individuals certainty—which feeds their ambition and results in their happiness. Her philosophy will add years to man’s existence and has jump-started an entirely “new ball game” in his continuing accumulation of knowledge.

I just flipped through the first 150 pages of the paperback of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and confirmed my memory: there are no “speeches,” yet, though in its thousand-some pages ‘Atlas’ contains a number of them, e.g., one on love and sex, another on the soul of an artist, another on the moral meaning of money, and, of course, a very long one outlining Rand’s entire system of philosophy.

These are tightly integrated with the action of the story which is actually an otherwise lean and fast-paced mystery of epic scope, containing effective thrills and chills — and much subtle, beautiful and profound poetry, so often missed by many who think they already know what to expect.

i just did a word count, John Galt’s speech is 32,000 words long. I’m not sure in what universe that’s considered “lean” and “fast-paced.”

Did you ever seriously think that Francisco was not putting on a show at being the playboy? That Dagny would end up with Galt? That Rearden would enjoy sex with Dagny? That Lillian would reject the Rearden metal bracelet? Is there any morally ambiguous characters in the whole book? Did anyone ever question whether one of the characters was an antagonist or a protagonist? Even for a second? If she printed the strikers’ words in a different color like they do with Jesus in some bibles, I don’t think she would have been that much more obvious than she was.

The thread was not completely batshit-crazy-free but I’d tried to avoid quoting them.

I’ll let Officer Barbrady have the final word.

There are so many things which is pedestrian, substandard, ridiculous, and nonsensical about the characterizations, the plot, the theme, and the dialogue that it is difficult to know where to start.

It convinced Officer Barbrady to never read another book again.

Atlas Whatever

Atlas ShruggedAtlas Shrugged is a classic tale of good versus evil.

The heroes are easily recognized by their strong profiles, high cheekbones and tendency to speech rather than speak. Heroes always know the precise angle to present their bodies so that the setting sun can highlight their virtues and their flat hips while the bright red glow of morality from the furnaces blazes in their Rearden Metal brooches and their steely blue eyes.

The villains, or looters, meanwhile (you can almost hear the boos from the cheap seats), are made of blancmange and have names like Tinky and Kip and Balph (Balph!) and Cuffy and Orren and Chick. The blancmanges don’t have profiles, they have pendulous jowls and sagging, tired features and, when they are not starting organizations with phony names like Friends of Global Progress, they stoop and they slouch and they deny everything that’s obvious and honest and true.

The blancmanges don’t have conversations either. They blubber nonsense about everything being self-evident and how it’s not their fault – it’s nobody’s fault. They have no independent thoughts of their own and they regurgitate half-digested ideas scavenged from the waste bucket of philosophy and they speak in unfinished sentences (the heroes always finish their sentences).

“It wasn’t real, was it?” said Mr Thompson.

“We seemed to have heard it,” said Tinky Holloway.

“We couldn’t help it,” said Chick Morrison.

“Who permitted it to hap-” he began in a rising voice but stopped ;

“We don’t have to believe it, do we?” cried James Taggart.

The overall effect is like a child’s pantomime where all the children boooo when the unshaven villain, in the stripey jumper and with a bag of swag over his shoulder, twirls his moustache as the lights grow dim and a badly played organ heralds his entrance on its lowest register.

There is no dialog in this book. In place of normal conversation, the heroes take it in turns to practice their oratory while the blancmanges barf out platitudes that can only have been retrieved from someone’s maiden aunt’s sick bucket after she’d had a little too much tincture of laudanum.

“Let me give you a tip on a clue to men’s characters: the man who damns money has obtained it dishonestly; the man who respects it has earned it.”

The glare of steel being poured from a furnace shot to the sky beyond the window. A red glow went sweeping slowly over the office, over the empty desk, over Rearden’s face, as if in salute and farewell.

When the heroes and looters actually do speak with each other it’s like some absurd Monty Python skit wherein the leprous townspeople, armed only with a bowl of radishes and a pound of liver, try to do battle with the Noble Paladins in Shining Armour mounted on Noble, Snorting Stallions only to be cut down one by snivelling one by the Paladins’ Virtuous Steel Blades. Terry Gilliam could not have drawn it better.

“All you want is production without men who are able to produce.”
“That…that’s just theory. That’s just a theoretical extreme.”

Even the adulterous sex is virtuous with the moral flame of righteousness reflecting in her chaste dampness and his thrusts like the pistons that power the engines of prosperity.

She lay back, conscious of nothing but the pleasure it gave her. Yet her mind kept racing. Broken bits of thought flew past her attention, like the telegraph poles by the track. Physical pleasure? – she thought. This is a train made of steel…running on rails of Rearden Metal…moved by the energy of burning oil and electric generators…it’s a physical sensation of physical movement…but is that the cause and the meaning of what I now feel?…Do they call it a low animal joy-this feeling that I would not care if the rail did break to bits under us now-it won’t-but I wouldn’t care, because I have experienced this? A low, physical, material, degrading pleasure of the body?

Oh, wait…maybe that really was about a train. It’s hard to know with these people – they live their whole lives in metaphor so it’s impossible to tell when reality begins…or if it ever does.

Perhaps passages like that help to explain why Ayn Rand is every budding libertarian’s favourite philosopher. Perhaps they got their first hard-on while imagining that Ayn was Dagny and Dagny was Ayn and that, when they closed their eyes, Ayn stood before them naked saying “I want you <insert name here>. I’m more of an animal than you think…[snip 100 pages]… If I’m asked to name my proudest attainment, I will say: I have slept with <insert your name here>.”

The only possible reason that the book is so popular among that kind of conservative is that, around age 19, they became confused between Ayn Rand’s prescription for a new Utopian Republic and Dagny’s high breasts and animal depravity. Now and forever, when they think of steel production, they become aroused by thoughts of themselves as Hank Rearden driving his train into Dagny Taggart’s tunnel.

I can’t count the number of times, on Usenet and on mailing lists, when a comment about cooperation causes a shotgun response, Earnestness set to Stun, with a one-line directive to “now go read Atlas Shrugged”. Just today, in the comments after an article about Ron Paul in the Times, someone grumbled about the fate of the dollar, sighed “Where is John Galt?” and resolved to buy gold presumably until the Industrial Philosopher Kings return.

I wonder how many of Ron Paul’s supporters have on their desk a framed, signed picture dedicated with “To Marcus. May you care about no-one but your self. With Love and Virtue, Ayn xxx” and a Heroines of Objectivism calendar on the back of their bathroom door? I’ll bet Greenspan had one.

I really wanted to like this book as I enjoyed The Fountainhead thoroughly. I had intended to write a mini review when I was about three hundred pages into it, while it was still just a fun ride on a moralistic steam train through Objectiville, but events conspired against me and I missed my stop. The book started to judder about a third of the way in and finally came off the rails on page 606 as Ayn, furiously shovelling coal and with whistle blowing, described, to the rhythm of a rickety train on an out-of-control track, why everyone who disagrees with her deserves to die…

The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 1, was a professor of sociology who taught that individual ability is of no consequence…

The man in Roomette 7, Car No. 2, was a journalist who wrote that it is proper and moral to use compulsion “for a good cause”…

The woman in Roomette, Car No. 3, was an elderly schoolteacher who had spent her life turning class after class of helpless children into miserable cowards,by teaching them that the will of the majority is the only standard of good and evil…

[…skipping cars 4 through 15 until…]

The man in Bedroom A, Car No.16 was a humanitarian who had said “The men of ability? I do not care what or if they are made to suffer”….

…and we are still only half way through our journey. Having now fallen into a ditch, the book ploughed on through some heavy mud until the surreal interlude where the publishers accidentally printed 60 pages of someone’s 10th grade homework on the subject “Why we must fear communism” (it turns out that From each according to his ability to each according to his needs was a terrible idea) and finally comes to rest, with a final mournful sigh, about 900 pages after the ending became obvious.

Still, there is a lot to like about Objectivism. Like many philosophies, it tries to scale a simple idea from a Personal Guide to a Virtuous Life up through an ethical system for interacting with one’s family, friends and business partners to a political recipe for Utopia.

At the first level , her moral philosophy is spot on. Colour me Objectivist when it comes to “What is the Good?” and of how to structure one’s hopes and dreams and, most importantly, actions to achieve The Good. It all gets a little shaky when ask our friends and family to earn the love we give them and then it totally falls apart when we imagine that we could structure our society around the idea that captains of industry and politicians are paragons of virtue (in the Ayn Rand sense).

In Ayn’s topsy-turvy world, successful businessmen would be successful precisely because they play by the rules and have a strict code of honour. Thy would channel their enlightened greed into production, commerce and other activities that benefit society accidentally but with supreme efficiency. Not once would they clear cut rain forests or dump plastics in the ocean or pollute rivers or poison thousands of Indians or any of the things that real businessmen do.

This is ultimately where the book, and the philosophy, gets it dead wrong. Sure we can all think of politicians and industrialists enlightened by self-interest but the liars and swearers are fools, for there are liars and swearers enow to beat the honest men and hang up them and the James Taggarts and Wesley Mouches and Orren Boyles outnumber the Hank Reardens a thousand-fold. I am a dyed-in-the-wool elitist but even I would not trust the elite to decide who is or is not elite.

Perhaps, in 1957, when she wrote it, fear of communism and fascism and other collectivist disasters was very real and she saw herself as writing a cautionary tale against the submission of the needs of the individual to the needs of society. But that does not explain why she seems unable to distinguish between, say, the enforced starvation of one group for the benefit of another (usually more privileged) group and a government program to build schools. It also does not explain why so many modern day Objectivists equate income tax with slavery.

In Ayn Rand’s fairy tale, the collectivist Utopian dream of the looters ends in dystopia and apocalypse. It’s hard to imagine the Objectivist dream ending differently.