Who is John Galt?
That was the bumper sticker on the truck in front of me this morning.
Coincidence? Perhaps. Given that this week NPR has been running a three part special on influential economists, which I’ve been listening to on the way into Anchorage each morning.
Today’s segment was about John Keynes.
Yesterday it was about Fredrick Hayek.
And Monday, it was about, wait, what? Ayn Rand?
One of these things is not like the other.
Not at all.
John Maynard Keynes was a brilliant British economist and mathematician. In fact, he was the son of another brilliant British economist and his intellect was backed up by an impeccable education, credentials, and a lifetime of experience. Keynes spent his entire life working in the field of macroeconomics, teaching macroeconomics, reading about macroeconomics, writing about macroeconomics, and developing what is now one of the major modern theories of macroeconomics. Along the way he was: an editor and contributor to numerous prestigious economic journals and publications, an officer of the Royal Treasury specializing in international wartime credit, specifically called by the Crown to advise the Chancellor of the Exchequer (the British version of the government’s comptroller), financial representative for the British government to the Versailles Peace Conference at the end of WWI, an internationally known and respected financial consultant, the impetus behind Britain’s abandonment of the gold standard, the guy that invented modern (Keynesian!) macroeconomics with the publication of his General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, served on the Court of Directors for the Bank of England during WWII, designed a way for England to pay for her WWII war debt without collapsing into depression after the war was over, created a post war global economic system designed to prevent the exact financial crises we find ourselves in right now (it wasn’t adopted because England was overruled by the United States, but Keynes’ ideas did contribute to the creation of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and, later, the European Union). Keynes’ theories continue to have a direct influence on nearly every government and financial system in the modern world. Agree with his theories or not, you can’t argue that Keynes didn’t know something about economics (well, you can, if you’re a C-student governor from Texas who nearly flunked economics, but I digress).
Likewise, Friedrich Hayek was a brilliant economist with massive influence on modern economies. His education, credentials, and experience were also impeccable. He held two doctorate degrees, one in law and one in political science, and also formally studied philosophy, psychology, and economics. He was a polymath of extraordinary ability. He is considered to be one of the most important economists and political philosophers of the last century. He was a protégé of the famed Ludwig von Mises and one of the principle designers of the Austrian School (Theory) of Economics – and he won the Nobel Prize in 1974 for it. During his lifetime he: founded the Austrian Institute for Business Cycle Research, taught at the London School of Economics, taught at the University of Chicago, taught at the University of Freiburg and then at the University of California, trained some of the most notable economists in recent history – along with a number of notable industrialists and world renown scientists – and wrote extensively about a variety of topics centered on economic theory. His seminal work, The Road to Serfdom, continues to influence liberals, libertarians, and conservatives alike, from European kings to American presidents and congressmen to Glenn Beck. Like Keynes, you don’t have to agree with him, but you do have to admit that Friedrich Hayek knew more than a little about economics.
Then there’s Ayn Rand.
Ayn Rand? Novelist. Playwright. Screenwriter.
On the same economic plane as John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek?
You’re kidding, NPR, right?
That’s like comparing Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and L. Ron Hubbard – or maybe Jesus, Mohammed, and L. Ron Hubbard. Or maybe Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and L. Ron Hubbard. Okay, anybody and L. Ron Hubbard.
Seriously, NPR, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?
Sure I’m being mostly snarky with the L. Ron comparison, but I didn’t come by that comparison accidentally. Like Hubbard, Rand was basically a mediocre science fiction writer who started to believe in her own press releases and ended up founding an anti-religion composed of garrulous glassy-eyed fanatics.
According to the lead-in by NPR correspondent Andrea Seabrook, Rand was given equal time with actual economists because a number of folks seem to think that Atlas Shrugged is somehow on an equal footing with the General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money and The Road to Serfdom instead of the depressingly painful piece of schlock science fiction that it really is. Sure she sold a lot of books, so? So did L. Ron Hubbard. What folks take Rand’s crap seriously? Folks like Congressman Paul Ryan and Texas Governor Rick Perry, Speaker of the House John Boehner, not to mention certain Tea Party types who repeatedly paraphrase Rand’s silly nonsense about taxes being the same as a government mugging citizens at gunpoint – not that most said Tea Party types have actually read John Galt’s endless excruciating sixty page long monologue on the virtue of being a self-centered bastard flavored bastard with bastard filling and little bastard sprinkles on top at the end of Atlas Shrugged (How do I know they haven’t read it? Simple, they haven’t jammed knitting needles through their eyes).
Before we go any further, please understand something: I’m not saying your can’t, or shouldn’t, read and even enjoy Ayn Rand if that’s your thing. Hell some people actually like tofu, Justin Bieber, and the Ewok Christmas Special. Me? Given a choice I’d rather be forced to sit with a hemorrhoidal badger in my lap through every single George W. Bush and/or Al Gore speech ever recorded than to have to read either Atlas Shrugged, or please God no Anthem, ever again. If you like reading Rand as entertainment, as science fiction, as something that makes you think, well good on you. However, and this is my point, while you might enjoy reading an Alan Dean Foster knock off Star Wars novel, you probably don’t think we ought to run the country by the Jedi Code. At least I hope not.
I can, at first blush, understand why right-wing and libertarian extremists love Ayn Rand – she was a bitter self-centered paranoid Bourgeois egotist who was desperately afraid every single day of her unhappy life that the commies and/or the dirty unwashed rabble were going to come in the middle of the night to kick down her door and take all of her stuff. She might even have had a legitimate reason to feel that way given her escape from the Bolshevik Revolution and Soviet Russia, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to live with that fear gnawing wormlike at our brains. Rand thought service to your fellow man was a sucker’s game, charity was for saps, and that society should be based on every man for himself. She was terrified of socialism in any form, including things like Unemployment Insurance, and her entire economic philosophy can best be summed up as “I got mine, fuck you” or maybe “Get a job, Hippies!”
Rand’s Objectivism is little more than angry sullen masturbation.
So, yeah, you can certainly see why, on the surface, she would appeal to the likes of Paul Ryan, John Boehner, and the (various) governors of Texas.
Now here’s the really ironic part, Rand’s biggest fans in government are, without exception, full frontal whole hog Jesus freaks.
Of course, that’s not particularly surprising given that Creationists by definition peek out through their blinders to selectively cherry pick little bits and pieces in order to support their fantasy while ignoring anything that inconveniently contradicts their worldview. Like say the fact that Ayn Rand was an atheist to a degree that makes PZ Myers and the folks over at Pharyngula look like born again snake handling Pentecostals. Somehow, despite the fact that these same people are so obsessed with the supposed godlessness of the immoral Left, not to mention the supposed question of Obama’s Christianity, they don’t have a problem with Rand’s loudly outspoken scorn of all things faith based. Rand was also loudly outspoken when it came to a woman’s right to an abortion, funny how the Right doesn’t embrace that philosophy, eh? Rand intensely disliked homosexuality, but said repeatedly that all laws denying gay people full and equal rights should be repealed. She was also a speed freak, not the kind that goes bang bang fast, the kind that pops amphetamines like Milk Duds and turns into an exhausted emaciated paranoid. She was against war in any form and one wonders what she would have made of the current conflict and her loyal adherents’ condemnation of Obama ending it (the same observation could be made about Jesus, I mean as long as we’re on the subject and all). Of course, she did support Israel and had a habit of picking losing Republican candidates for president so maybe that’s why so many conservatives love her. In the end, after she’d driven away all her rich egotist friends with her obnoxious selfishness and after the Objectivists had abandoned her and as she lay destitute and sick she accepted Medicare and Social Security and other such socialist safety nets in order for the taxpayers to treat her lung cancer – which she brought on herself through decades of chain smoking – instead of accepting the consequences of her own actions by simply dying a painful death as she and her libertarian followers enjoin everybody else to do. Funny how Paul Ryan never seems to mention that bit of hypocrisy. Do as I say, not as I do.
Oh yes, you can certainly see why the folks in bed with Wall Street bankers think Ayn Rand is just the most spiffy cupcake ever.
The simple truth of the matter is that Rand’s economic theories are brilliant because Rand wrote the story that way. Just like Jerry Pournelle’s ultra right wing military strategy is always successful in the Falkenberg series or his laissez-faire libertarianism and ad hoc free market worked perfectly for the Rimrats in Birth of Fire. Just like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Eco-economics worked so elegantly and successfully in Blue Mars. And both Robinson and Pournelle spent a hell of a lot more time and effort designing their respective economies than Rand ever did. When you control the story, of course your economic system works brilliantly. However, the real world tends not to be so simple, unlike Pournelle’s John Christian Falkenberg you can’t just shoot all the liberals and then fly away into space – well I suppose you could, but it’s bound to get you talked about (note that Dr. Pournelle has an extensive background in matters military, political, and economic. He has advised more than one president and when he talks you should probably listen even if you don’t agree with him, plus he’s a hell of a writer and not just of military science fiction. Also, I love the Falkenberg’s Legion series).
Here’s the thing: learning macroeconomics from reading Atlas Shrugged is like learning psychology from Battlefield Earth.
But, hey, as long as we’re on the subject of running the country based on a second rate science fiction novel, why not L. Ron Hubbard? No really, at least the Church of Scientology knows how to make boat loads of money. Sure we’ll all end up wired to the electronic version of a mood ring waiting for Xenu to suck out our engrams or intestines or whatever those goofy bastards believe, but no debt so we’ll have that going for us. Just saying. Plus, free screenings of Mission Impossible IV: Tom Cruise, Still Crazier Than A Shithouse Rat. Also, I think John Travolta has to bake you a fruitcake or give you a non-homoerotic baby oil neck rub or something when you sign up.
Of course, you know it doesn’t have to be shitty half-assed pulp fiction. I mean if we’re going to base our economy on a scifi novel why not the good stuff?
I’ve already mentioned Pournelle and Robinson, so how about Frank Herbert? We could run the government like they did in Dune. Techno neofeuldalism, mystic drug addicts predict the future, giant sandworms. The spice must flow. Sting in a big man-diaper*. What’s not to like?
What, Herbert is too monarchist for you?
Ok how about something more libertarian? Say like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers? Hey, it doesn’t get any more non-socialist than that. You have to earn the right to vote and hold office through voluntary military service – oops looks like that rules out about 99% of Washington on both sides of the aisle. Yeah, we’d better skip the Heinlein.
Or maybe not.
Hang on here a minute. Just hang on, not so fast. Heinlein was a vet, a conservative libertarian, a staunch advocate of gun rights, small government, and individualism. And he was an avowed nudist, so there’s something in there for both conservatives and liberals. He wasn’t big on taxes or free medical treatment either. Maybe one of his other works? Unlike Rand’s two and a half novels, Heinlein wrote eighty something books, there’s got to be one we can use.
Let’s see, Farmer in the Sky? No.
Between Worlds? Podkayne of Mars? No.
Citizen of the Galaxy? Oh yeah, the anti-UN types would have a field day with that one.
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress? No,
but we’d probably better keep that one away from the Occupy crowd, I’m just saying. Don’t need them dropping rocks on us from lunar orbit. Scratch that, maybe Moon is exactly what OWS needs, I know I’d like to drop an asteroid on the Berkeley PD right about now.
Space Cadet? Probably not, even though it would be almost worth it just to watch the New World Order conspiracy nuts dance around screaming like cannibals infected with the Mad Cow. Ditto The Puppet Masters.
Farnham’s Freehold? Closer. It sure doesn’t get much more laissez-faire than the end of Freehold. Can’t say I’m a big fan of shacking up with my dead daughter’s best friend in the middle of a minefield and raising mutant babies in the midst of a post-nuclear war wasteland though.
Ah ha! I’ve got it: Stranger in a Strange Land. Woohoo! Free love for everybody. Booze! Gambling! We’ll all be eternally saved. Can you grok it, man?
Now I’m just being silly?
Well sure. But it’s not my fault, NPR started it.
*Yes, if you must know, I did write this entire thing just so I could use the phrase: Sting in a big diaper. You’re welcome.