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Freiherr
 
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'Atlas Shrugged': From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years

I know this article don't meet the high standards of posting here however I hope some of you get something out of it.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123146363567166677.html

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'Atlas Shrugged': From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years Article

By STEPHEN MOORE

Some years ago when I worked at the libertarian Cato Institute, we used to label any new hire who had not yet read "Atlas Shrugged" a "virgin." Being conversant in Ayn Rand's classic novel about the economic carnage caused by big government run amok was practically a job requirement. If only "Atlas" were required reading for every member of Congress and political appointee in the Obama administration. I'm confident that we'd get out of the current financial mess a lot faster.

Many of us who know Rand's work have noticed that with each passing week, and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that "Atlas Shrugged" parodied in 1957, when this 1,000-page novel was first published and became an instant hit.

Rand, who had come to America from Soviet Russia with striking insights into totalitarianism and the destructiveness of socialism, was already a celebrity. The left, naturally, hated her. But as recently as 1991, a survey by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club found that readers rated "Atlas" as the second-most influential book in their lives, behind only the Bible.

For the uninitiated, the moral of the story is simply this: Politicians invariably respond to crises -- that in most cases they themselves created -- by spawning new government programs, laws and regulations. These, in turn, generate more havoc and poverty, which inspires the politicians to create more programs . . . and the downward spiral repeats itself until the productive sectors of the economy collapse under the collective weight of taxes and other burdens imposed in the name of fairness, equality and do-goodism.

In the book, these relentless wealth redistributionists and their programs are disparaged as "the looters and their laws." Every new act of government futility and stupidity carries with it a benevolent-sounding title. These include the "Anti-Greed Act" to redistribute income (sounds like Charlie Rangel's promises soak-the-rich tax bill) and the "Equalization of Opportunity Act" to prevent people from starting more than one business (to give other people a chance). My personal favorite, the "Anti Dog-Eat-Dog Act," aims to restrict cut-throat competition between firms and thus slow the wave of business bankruptcies.
Why didn't Hank Paulson think of that?

These acts and edicts sound farcical, yes, but no more so than the actual events in Washington, circa 2008. We already have been served up the $700 billion "Emergency Economic Stabilization Act" and the "Auto Industry Financing and Restructuring Act." Now that Barack Obama is in town, he will soon sign into law with great urgency the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan." This latest Hail Mary pass will increase the federal budget (which has already expanded by $1.5 trillion in eight years under George Bush) by an additional $1 trillion -- in roughly his first 100 days in office.

The current economic strategy is right out of "Atlas Shrugged": The more incompetent you are in business, the more handouts the politicians will bestow on you. That's the justification for the $2 trillion of subsidies doled out already to keep afloat distressed insurance companies, banks, Wall Street investment houses, and auto companies -- while standing next in line for their share of the booty are real-estate developers, the steel industry, chemical companies, airlines, ethanol producers, construction firms and even catfish farmers. With each successive bailout to "calm the markets," another trillion of national wealth is subsequently lost. Yet, as "Atlas" grimly foretold, we now treat the incompetent who wreck their companies as victims, while those resourceful business owners who manage to make a profit are portrayed as recipients of illegitimate "windfalls."

When Rand was writing in the 1950s, one of the pillars of American industrial might was the railroads. In her novel the railroad owner, Dagny Taggart, an enterprising industrialist, has a FedEx-like vision for expansion and first-rate service by rail. But she is continuously badgered, cajoled, taxed, ruled and regulated -- always in the public interest -- into bankruptcy. Sound far-fetched?

On the day I sat down to write this ode to "Atlas," a Wall Street Journal headline blared: "Rail Shippers Ask Congress to Regulate Freight Prices."
In one chapter of the book, an entrepreneur invents a new miracle metal -- stronger but lighter than steel. The government immediately appropriates the invention in "the public good." The politicians demand that the metal inventor come to Washington and sign over ownership of his invention or lose everything.

The scene is eerily similar to an event late last year when six bank presidents were summoned by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to Washington, and then shuttled into a conference room and told, in effect, that they could not leave until they collectively signed a document handing over percentages of their future profits to the government. The Treasury folks insisted that this shakedown, too, was all in "the public interest."

Ultimately, "Atlas Shrugged" is a celebration of the entrepreneur, the risk taker and the cultivator of wealth through human intellect. Critics dismissed the novel as simple-minded, and even some of Rand's political admirers complained that she lacked compassion. Yet one pertinent warning resounds throughout the book: When profits and wealth and creativity are denigrated in society, they start to disappear -- leaving everyone the poorer.

One memorable moment in "Atlas" occurs near the very end, when the economy has been rendered comatose by all the great economic minds in Washington. Finally, and out of desperation, the politicians come to the heroic businessman John Galt (who has resisted their assault on capitalism) and beg him to help them get the economy back on track. The discussion sounds much like what would happen today:

Galt: "You want me to be Economic Dictator?"

Mr. Thompson: "Yes!"

"And you'll obey any order I give?"

"Implicitly!"

"Then start by abolishing all income taxes."

"Oh no!" screamed Mr. Thompson, leaping to his feet. "We couldn't do that . . . How would we pay government employees?"

"Fire your government employees."

"Oh, no!"

Abolishing the income tax. Now that really would be a genuine economic stimulus. But Mr. Obama and the Democrats in Washington want to do the opposite: to raise the income tax "for purposes of fairness" as Barack Obama puts it.

David Kelley, the president of the Atlas Society, which is dedicated to promoting Rand's ideas, explains that "the older the book gets, the more timely its message." He tells me that there are plans to make "Atlas Shrugged" into a major motion picture -- it is the only classic novel of recent decades that was never made into a movie. "We don't need to make a movie out of the book,"

Mr. Kelley jokes. "We are living it right now."

Mr. Moore is senior economics writer for The Wall Street Journal editorial page.
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Old 01-10-2009, 09:07 AM
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One of my favorite books. We have a combination of it with 1984.
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Old 01-10-2009, 03:59 PM
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Reading it again right now. I haven't read it since high school and remember very little of it other than it's appropriate for today and want to brush up on the specifics/details that I've forgotten over the years.
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Old 01-10-2009, 04:04 PM
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Fantastic book! Every American should read it.
Old 01-10-2009, 05:43 PM
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The book, written over 50 years ago, will prove to be incredibly (and unfortunately) prophetic.

Much of it already has, for example there were many phrases and arguments made during this last election that could have come straight from the book.
Old 01-10-2009, 07:26 PM
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Fantastic book! Every American should read it.
Hank?
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Old 01-10-2009, 07:46 PM
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Keep in mind that what Obama calls a "tax cut" is actually and expansion of the Earned Income Credit. No one will see a reduction in their taxes with Obama's "tax cut". He is planning on increasing the money the people who do not pay taxes get from the people who do. To use his own words, he is "spreading the wealth around for the common good". During the campaign, he called this a "net tax cut". He has since dropped the word "net".

Now the people in the Tinky Halloway faction....er I mean liberal Democrats in Congress, are opposing the "net tax cut" because they believe that government spending is a better stimulus than people having money. They believe that broad, monolithic government decisions are more efficient in getting things going than millions of small, targeted financial decisions made by individuals. The thing is, the a government decision to spend only has one shot at working. Each individual decision also has a shot at working, but these decisions occur over time and can adjust to changing conditions and learn from previous decisions.

Now we've got all of our hopes behind a second stimulus package (as the first one did not work as intended). Like the first, it has to be a home-run to be successful, but it's failure will necessarily cause a subsequent bailout package. At some point, the politicians will run out of ideas as they eventually try everything they can think of (and make things much worse in the process).

Who is John Galt?

Who is the man Congress will go crying to when their plans fail? Right now, it is Obama, but I hardly see him as the man that will provide "proper" direction.
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Old 01-11-2009, 09:48 AM
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I am beginning to see why Ayn Rand's books appeal so much to teenagers, and not to grown adults...
Old 01-11-2009, 03:04 PM
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Hank?
You got it!
Having "Dagny" as my user name didn't sound right
Old 01-11-2009, 03:58 PM
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It should be required reading in public schools if only to offset the other 99.99% of what they are taught.
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Old 01-11-2009, 04:25 PM
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It should be required reading in public schools if only to offset the other 99.99% of what they are taught.
They don't teach in public schools. They indoctrinate.
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Old 01-11-2009, 05:08 PM
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A good article and a dark and compelling book. I reread it ten years ago and thought it was even better the second time around. I remember thinking that it was flawed in that no "real" corporation would be willing give up the freedom of capitalism for government control. Boy was I wrong. Somebody recently said that capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without hell. Pretty true IMO.
Old 01-12-2009, 09:18 AM
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I read the article, and just read Atlas this fall. Still don't get it. It seems true enough in some sense, though, as I said on another thread, she poached most of the good Dagny/Reardon love/sex stuff from Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished "Last Tycoon" - which is a better and more realistic business book to my mind.

But what I don't get is the deeper part of the argument - the argument that if everyone would just get out of the way, these 100 geniuses would solve all our problems. If all the losers and crooks and James Taggart's think they are the geniuses (and they do), how do we distinguish between them? I have run a medium size business for going on 15 years. Like Atlas, I find that many of my competitors are less than they should be, and that regulation is higher than it should be. But that has allowed me to out-compete them year after year after year. Remove the regulation completely, and the "truth" won't just win out. Instead, the liars and cheats will win out by playing dirty.

In Atlas, it is not the government that kills, but the collusion between government and the "James Taggart" types who run things. That is what is falling on our heads now. To remove all checks and balances is a non-workable Utopian vision, and I don't think it would work for Rand any better than the opposite one did for Marx. It was a valuable book - a period piece - to help define the opposing ideas to Communism in the 1950's when we needed to know what options there were. But in the end, it is not practical for living, breathing, ambitious and/or greedy masses of people.

Reagan was right when he said "I'm from the Government and I'm here to help" isn't what we want to hear. But no government? It sounds nice, but let's start small - let all those guys on Wall St. who want no regulation deregulate the cab fares in NYC. Wait for a good snowy or cold rainy day, when the cabbies can charge whatever they can get to shuttle those guys to their apartments or their trains. On that day they'll have to admit that at least some level of regulation makes sense.

It is good that books like Atlas kept us from Socializing like the UK and having to then de-regulate 30 years later. But that is just about as far as the argument goes....

You'll also notice that our economy is one of the most free in the world according to today's WSJ. Not that it will stay that way without tension from time to time. But, in the largest sense, though things are tough, the sky is not falling, and America is (and will be) OK. We had 20 years of deregulation. Now we will have some number of years of increased regulation. That will go too far, and we will deregulate again. It's just like a tidal movement. If you run a company, you learn to ride whatever comes.....I believe that is what Dagny and Hank would actually do...

Or maybe it is just too early for me to give up. I am going to Telluride, Colorado in February - a lovely town in a high box-canyon surrounded by 14,000 ft. peaks...Not a bad place to live out my days.....I wonder if John Galt is there?

Last edited by RKC; 01-13-2009 at 01:08 PM..
Old 01-13-2009, 11:27 AM
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But what I don't get is the deeper part of the argument - the argument that if everyone would just get out of the way, these 100 geniuses would solve all our problems. If all the losers and crooks and James Taggart's think they are the geniuses (and they do), how do we distinguish between them? I have run a medium size business for going on 15 years. Like Atlas, I find that many of my competitors are less than they should be, and that regulation is higher than it should be. But that has allowed me to out-compete them year after year after year. Remove the regulation completely, and the "truth" won't just win out. Instead, the liars and cheats will win out by playing dirty.
+1!

Despite the fact that regulation is all too often influenced by lobbyists, it still provides a set of rules by which everybody must play.
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Old 01-13-2009, 12:20 PM
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Its called the rule of law. Gotta have it, but it gets heavily pressured by those seeking their own financial gain. COupled with the politicians reliance on lobbyists and such it can get out of hand. It is necessary in a republic.
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Old 01-13-2009, 03:07 PM
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+1!

Despite the fact that regulation is all too often influenced by lobbyists, it still provides a set of rules by which everybody must play.
The leading incumbent businesses in an industry don't mind regulation. In fact, they often lobby for it. It serves as a barrier to entry to upstarts -- minimizing competition.

The poster child of government regulating business is the Chicago meatpacking industry in turn-of-the-century Chicago (as characterized by Sinclair in his novel The Jungle). What you probably don't know is that the leading players in the industry were asking the government for more regulation and more inspectors because they wanted to squash the small competitors who were not being regularly inspected. The Meat Inspection Act of 1906 resulted in the taxpayers picking up the full tab for inspections *and* new regulations on small competitors.

For a non-business example of what I speak of, look at the regulations that the two leading political parties have created to encumber third parties from competing in national elections.

Last edited by Rearden; 01-13-2009 at 06:28 PM..
Old 01-13-2009, 06:05 PM
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I am beginning to see why Ayn Rand's books appeal so much to teenagers, and not to grown adults...
I have never met a teenager who claimed any of her books appealed to them, only mature adults. I am beginning to see why her books don't appeal to you.
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Old 01-13-2009, 08:59 PM
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Ah yes. Witnessing recent events, without pure laissez-faire capitalism and the highest morals, can you imagine the catastrophic financial state of affairs we might be in today?
Old 01-13-2009, 09:20 PM
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if we had pure laissez faire capitalism you would have a stronger point
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Old 01-13-2009, 09:26 PM
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if we had pure laissez faire capitalism you would have a stronger point
Yes. Even stronger.
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