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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Atlas Dumped

The premise of the Ayne Rand fantasy novel Atlas Shrugged is that certain members of society are far more productive than others and so are underpaid for their services. If they went on strike, all would suffer.

from enotes

the mysterious John Galt begins a revolution against the existing order, believing that the parasitic society would destroy itself if its competent and hardworking members would simply stop working. But first, the protagonists must learn how to let go of the ties of obligation, responsibility, and guilt connecting them to the abusive community in all aspects of their lives.

the political and industrial parasites support each other and live off of the creative and productive "giants" who remain and must support them on their shoulders. The apathy of the people is summed up in a new slang expression, "Who is John Galt?" which conveys hopelessness, fear, and a sense of futility, as well as everything unachievable and imagined.
from Wikipedia

Rand stated that the idea for Atlas Shrugged came to her after a 1943 telephone conversation with a friend who asserted that Rand owed it to her readers to write a nonfiction book about her philosophy. Rand replied, "What if I went on strike? What if all the creative minds of the world went on strike?"

Rand then set out to create a work of fiction that explored the role of the mind in man's life and the morality of rational self-interest, by exploring the consequences when the "men of the mind" go on strike, refusing to allow their inventions, art, business leadership, scientific research, or new ideas to be taken from them by the government or by the rest of the world. Leonard Peikoff noted that "Atlas Shrugged did not become the novel's title until Rand's husband Frank O'Connor made the suggestion in 1956." The working title throughout her writing was The Strike.

According to Barbara Branden, the change was made for dramatic reasons––Rand believed that titling the novel “The Strike” would have revealed the mystery element of the novel prematurely.


In the final section of the novel, Taggart discovers the truth about John Galt, who is leading an organized "strike" against those who use the force of law and moral guilt to confiscate the accomplishments of society's productive members. With the collapse of the nation and its rapacious government all but certain, Galt emerges to reconstruct a society that will celebrate individual achievement and enlightened self-interest, delivering a long speech (fifty-six pages in one paperback edition) serving to explain the novel's theme and Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, in the book's longest single chapter.

Anyone with a sense of reality can get through only about three pages of this nonsense. The society of collapse it begins with bears resemblance to nothing so much as the Great Depression, caused by unbridled free markets.

Rand was unfortunate in her choice of steel and railroads as industrial vehicles for her heroes. Steel rose on the back of the War. Railroads on the back of a gargantuan land give-away. Neither rose from its own.

It is the fact that the benefits of the society flow to the powerful. The barons of industry collect income far beyond their contribution. Of course, these folks bear no resemblance to the Atlases of Rand's imagination. They are organization men who control corporations titularly owned by stockholders, but run primarily for the benefit of their executive teams.

It is no accident that the dicta of Rand when allowed to work into the society, say through the auspices of disciple Alan Greenspan or through the Reagan Revolution, have resulted not in prosperity, but in collapse. Those who have end run the law and ignored moral imperatives have simultaneously run the society over the cliff.

Mighty scarce these days are advocates of the free market who ascribe no role for the government today. Much more common are those who say we must rescue the prodigal financial institutions from the enormous mess they made so they can again operate in their former styles. We have transitioned into an unsteady corporate welfarism, which allows the private sector the profits and assigns the losses to the public sector.

How are we going to pay for this mess? This is often the segue into how irresponsible the government is to run deficits. Today I would like you to consider how can we asssign the costs to those who incurred them.

I would like to suggest we tax the wealthy. It is no stretch to say that those who retain wealth today are those who benefitted from the out-of-control market fundamentalism and financial sector excesses of the past decade. By taxing the wealthy we will be taxing the beneficiaries, if not the culprits, of this massive error.

The Atlases of the world exist only as convenient folk figures to justify the coddling of the wealthy. Economic actors, from the minimum wage worker to the CEO, all act from incentives. To think that those at the top deserve outsized incentives while those at the bottom can be content with the incentive of subsistence is contorting the idea of incentive.

In fact, the wealth of a market society automatically flows to the talented. They have a monopoly, as it were, and can benefit just as any monopolist can benefit. Corporations often think they can corner the market of talent in a particular area just to ride on this monopoly. Of course, all too often, the talented develop better in a garage than on floor three of module A-6.

But take for example sports. The top twenty stars get millions. The next five hundred get some lesser millions. Below that, even if only a small gradation in talent different, the reward is a particle of the others. We could go on.

The point is that it is a distortion and an illusion that Atlases exist in today's society. Rewards are cornered by the powerful, often the monopoly power associated with talent, but more often simple political or institutional power. However they are cornered, the role of the government is to access them for the benefit of the society upon which these gains have been made.