Monday, January 24, 2011

Atlas Shrugged - A Book Review

After many weeks, I've finally finished the Audiobook version of Ayn Rand's classic novel, Atlas Shrugged. And it's a good thing that I did decide to tackle this project by audio, because it's one whale of a book! Eight segments of eight hours apiece! Jeez, Ayn Rand was one wordy-assed bitch! Christopher Hitchens, at a conference I attended in Madison, WI, back in 2008, described Ayn Rand's books as "unreadable." Now I know why.

I could easily attack her book on that particular point. I mean, five pages describing the look in Hank Reardon's eyes is ridiculous. Fifteen pages of a monologue given by (of all people) a tramp, taken in by Dagne Taggert, on the evils of the 20th Century Motor company for adopting Marx's ideal of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need," was outright ludicrous. Any of us would have tossed the bum back out into the cold again for refusing to shut the fuck up! Over a hundred pages of a three-hour radio broadcast given by John Galt on the evils of regulating the producers of the goods people depend upon is weighty beyond endurance. Oh, there's some good quotables in various places of Rand's book, to be sure. But any of us would have been able to say in five words what she said in five paragraphs!

That having been said, we don't even need to attack her polemic on its sheer unnecessary bulk alone. Her points can be attacked on their own merit, or rather, the lack thereof. The primary thrust of her argument is that the producers have earned their wealth by means of providing that which the people most need in a national economy: Goods, services, the means to get them from point A to point B, and the millions of jobs these things create. Those who are too incompetent to be able to produce such things are depicted as "looters." They are people who cannot work for hire or make their own way in the world, so they turn to the government to prey upon those with the strength to earn their own living, sucking upon their lifeblood like swarms of bloodthirsty insects, on the seemingly moral principle that those of strength have a duty to those in need. The symbol of this condition is the Greek myth of Atlas: The wealth and strength of the producer is, like Atlas, holding the weight of the entire world upon his shoulders. But the world keeps making Atas' burden bigger and bigger, heavier and heavier, demanding more and more of his mighty shoulders. Finally, nearly crushed by the burden of the demanding masses, sweat pouring from his body and blood streaming down his chest, he decides to shrug off his burden, and let the world collapse! In Rand's novel, this means that, instead of the workers of a union going on strike, the producers and business owners form their own union and go on strike! One by one the business owners disappear, leaving the world to its own fate. Having turned the tables around on the entire world, the striking producers watch as the entire nation, indeed the entire world, lost and confused without the strength of those businessmen who deserved to succeed in the first place, sinks into destruction, drowning in a pool of chaos and incompetence. Then, they emerge out of hiding to establish a new order, with the first tenet of the new constitution being: "Congress shall make no law impeding the freedom of trade."

It's a passionate argument, and it reminds us of the importance of realizing that economics is a two-way street, relying on producers and consumers both. But upon closer scrutiny, it utterly fails. First off, in Rand's world, there are no corporations, only sole proprietorships. Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, and the empires of McDonald's, Coka Cola, Exxon, and Verizon had yet to fully emerge. Only some faint hints of what was to come existed, such as Ford, Firestone, and TWA. Those who own the businesses in Rand's novel do so because their own natural competence makes them worthy of it, almost as if they are born to their destiny -- destined for greatness just like Superman, or any other ultra-human hero. Even Rand herself admitted that the primary criticism she received regarding this was that such men don't exist. She argued back that her husband was such a man. Touching, but her husband was hardly a titan in business, and in reality, we find that the true titans of business are more lucky than good. Howard Hughes was a complete crackpot. Donald Trump was/is narcissist whose agent is ten times more competent than he is. Ted Turner is an incompetent nincompoop who built a cable network on debt and sheer luck. And littered in their shadow are a hundred thousand people with the intelligence of Rand's heroes: people like Fancisco D'Anconia, Henry Reardon, or Calvin Atwood, whose businesses were crushed by the winds of strange fortune, while less competent people reaped the success of being in the right place at the right time.

And her ultimate hero, the woman Dagne Taggert, who basically runs Taggert Transcontinental Railways, commands the respect of the entire company, while her incompetent brother, James Taggert, while technically in charge of the company, blunders his way through life riding his sister's skirt-tail. This is utterly surreal! In Rand's world, the glass ceiling for women in the workplace simply does not exist, and this is a gargantuan oversight on her part, especially in America of the 1950's! Rand makes this error largely because she was an anomaly during her lifetime, having a circle of loyal followers who made her into a cult of personality while she was alive. It simply never crossed her mind that a woman might have a very hard time being similar to her in that way! She'd been on a pedestal for so long that she'd forgotten what it looked like from down below. In real life, Dagne's incompetent brother would have taken all the credit, garnered all the respect, basked in all the glory and paid her next to nothing! Rand's was a fool's paradise.

Her depiction of academia and politics is equally as colored. While rightly criticizing the post-modernist view that there are no absolutes, it seems that everyone who criticizes industry, from college professors to politicians, are nothing but incompetent buffoons, incapable of putting a coherent argument together, or think their way out of a wet paper bag. Rand does not acknowledge the existence of the mistaken genius (whose existence is confirmed all around us every day!). The exaggeratedness of this contrast between protagonist and antagonist in Rand's work really does strain her credulity well past the breaking point. The opponents of industry are so unbelievably daft, that they attempt to make the rebel industrialist, John Galt, into a dictator just to save the economy. And when he refuses, they actually attempt to force him into becoming a dictator by subjecting him to torture! Even then, the imbeciles who engage in this cracked scheme end up failing when the electrical torture device they are using breaks down, and they are unable to fix it. John Galt, laughing on his torture bed, instructs them how to fix the machine they are too stupid to repair!

Yet Rand did have some remarkable insights. At the time she wrote her novel, the welfare state had yet to emerge in the way we know it today. There were welfare programs, yes, but people weren't dependent upon them. The New Deal was still new. Whole populations of inner-city slums weren't living on food stamps and welfare checks the way they do today. People regarded welfare as dishonorable, even filthy, and many would rather have starved than accept it. Today, people accept their welfare checks without batting an eyelash, and many deliberately have more babies out of wedlock just to garner themselves more funds. Rand herself died in 1982, and she must have laughed in her elder years, saying to whomever would listen to her, "I told you so!"

But we cannot forgive the utter callousness of her writing simply because she pointed out the tendency towards dependency within human nature. In Rand's world, those who suffer and die do so because their own incompetency brought their fate down upon their own heads. Unless the victim is an industrialist who suffers at the hand of well-meaning Marxism, there simply are no innocent victims. A train disaster on the Taggert line kills nearly two dozen civilians and several railroad workers, because an overbearing politician forces a stalled train into a petroleum-fumed tunnel using a coal-burning locomotive, suffocating the entire compliment of crew and passengers before the fumes ignite and destroy the tunnel. Rand then goes on to list the entire train's manifest (for seven goddamned pages!), noting how each and every one of them was an anti-industrialist with views bent on helping government looters stifle deserving businessmen of their just due. In sort, they all died, which was tragic, but it's not so bad, they all had it coming, because they were damned liberals.

What arrogance! What hubris! What utter myopia! Did Rand really think she could get away with such an unrealistic piece of fictional shit as that?! On the entire train, there was not one, single person with similar views to hers who died as an innocent?!

Nor does the surreal or unjust end there. As the industrialists vanish, and the world descends into economic chaos, New York loses electrical power, the transcontinental railroads are severed at the Mississippi, people die by the thousands, and those who survive return to horse-drawn covered wagon trains just to escape. And all these poor bastards who die in the collapse? Are they all guilty? According to Rand, yes! They were all complicit in the efforts to pick the pockets of those who had rightfully earned the money. For this, they were all rightly sentenced to die, hanged by a noose of their own making.

It's hard to overstate just how evil such a depiction can be. Not since the story of Noah's flood has their been written such a royal depiction of utter injustice, and people been so blind as to its obvious moral implications. But Rand is so blind to the moral implications of her own work that one of her heroes is one Ragnar Daniskiold, a pirate who attacks any ships loaded with cargo gotten by the government!

Yet the impact of Rand's work is undeniable. It played an important role in the development of the Chicago school of economics, whose mantra of free trade, while not without some merit, has the same level of callousness as Rand herself. The modern ultra-conservative tea-party movement, and its heartless rhetoric, can trace its roots back to her, and the evil that flowed from her typewriter.

Finally, decades later, an insane college-dropout named Jared Loughner would take something similar to her harsh execution of fictional characters and decide to execute people in real life, bringing home how tragic Rand's viewpoint is, when made tangible. (Loughner repeatedly stated how paper money, rather than gold or silver, was illegal and unjust - something Rand explicitly wrote about in her book.)

So why on earth, with the glaring deficiencies of Rand's writings, do people continue to buy into the viewpoint itself? How can people not see how the deserving Francisco D'Anconias of the world, and the even more deserving Dagne Taggerts of the world, go without, while the Jim Taggerts prosper, and still conclude that Rand was right? How can people still believe that all the rich are all deserving, while all the poor are broke entirely due to their own actions?

Who the hell knows? Or, as Rand would say, "Who is John Galt?"


Monday, January 10, 2011

Gun Rights, Gun Wrongs

Everybody's weighing in on the horrific shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords by Jared Lee Loughner, and why not? Nothing this horrific has happened since... well, since the school board shooting in Panama City, Florida just last month. Of course, no pretty female politician was killed in that act, committed by a black man, so you probably didn't hear about it. Acts of atrocity are really not that uncommon, if only one looks at the ruthless gang violence being deliberately fueled by our stubborn prohibition of cannabis. But I digress.

Some on the left are claiming weak gun laws. Those on the right are trying desperately to assure everyone that their harsh, militant rhetoric doesn't result in harsh militant actions. As usual, both sides are wrong.

And me? I've repeatedly said that I support a citizen's right to own and use defensive weapons. This incident allows me to put that to the test.

Loughner used a 10mm glock pistol. This is a weapon I would clearly put in the defensive weapon category, even with the extensive clips which store extra ammo, and which have been illegal in the past. At least one Wal-Mart was smart enough not to sell this crazy bastard ammo, but even the craziest of shitheads can act sane enough to walk into a store and buy a weapon without drawing too much suspicion. This doesn't rule out someone losing their sanity long after they've bought a weapon. So I can't attack accessibility. But I do have a point to make.

Loughner was described as a loner with radical ideas. He had a few friends, who lost contact with him for weeks at a time. This is a kid who was ostracized, outcast, and probably picked on in school. He found an outlet in radical violence because his crazy ideas were allowed to fester and grow. He didn't have a close circle of friends around him who helped hone his ideas. These friends weren't there to tell him his thinking was starting to go way out of line. They weren't there to make sure he was healthy enough to think better.

We humans are social creatures. While it's important to think for oneself, we also need friends, just as we need oxygen. People like Loughner are suffocating from this lack, and when they finally come up for air, wielding a pistol and shooting indiscriminately, we wonder what went wrong. What went wrong was that people let too much anti-social attitude grow in a corner of society, and it became a weed which choked the lives of many innocent people.

We seem to think being a loner is something of a virtue for some. The quiet kid is often thought to be pensive, harmless. But all too often such a kid takes his thoughts off into a dark place, and no one discovers it. We need to make sure that sort of thing doesn't happen. We need to strengthen our social bonds at every level of society.

I have a homework assignment for everyone: Find where, in your lives, the anti-social person may be festering, and go make a friend. Strike up a conversation. Be a positive influence. Who knows? That person may decide to sell his glock instead of use it.

We don't need tougher gun laws. We need closer ties to our fellow humans. Evil needs privacy. Don't let it hide in the corner!


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Okay, YOU Balance The Budget!

Taking it easy over the last two weeks, I seem to have missed a lot. Our Trophy President seemed to be accomplishing everything over the lame duck session except making it stop snowing over the East Coast, and it seemed like I could pay attention to other things for awhile.

Not so, for now our newly elected Republicans, all but wearing red capes and spandex, are out to put a lid on government spending -- by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. And if the debt ceiling doesn't get raised? The government shuts down. Medicare and Medicaid? On hold. Retired and expecting a Social Security check? You're screwed! Interest owed to foreign nations who were so nice to lend to us? Fuck 'em! Strategic purchases of oil from Saudi Arabia? Nah, fuck the Saudis, too! In fact, fuck everybody unless we slash spending.

What heroism! What high moral standards! What tactical insanity! What utter disregard for the integrity of the dollar!

Look, it might sound like a great idea to say that the government needs to curtail spending, but when it comes to specifics, nobody in the GOP is saying WHAT, exactly, is going to get cut! And herein lies the sub-moronic-level stupidity of the posturing. A SPECIFIC budgetary plan must be offered BEFORE lines in the sand like this can be drawn. But for whatever reason, this young and naive electorate has adopted a "ready, fire, aim" approach to budget balancing.

That's a good way to shoot yourself in the foot.

So, to illustrate how silly this whole thing is, I'm challenging my readers (all four of them) to do what the GOP says it will do, but refuses to get specific about: balance the Budget! Do you support the Republicans? Great! Try to balance the budget yourself. I've got some numbers to give you.

Now, I haven't ordinarily been too pleased or proud to be an accountant by trade. It's boring work, and the term "bean-counter" is well-earned. But it does enable me to look over financial documents and more or less make sense of them. So I can break things down for you, the reader, to understand easily. Here, based on the official Summary Tables of the U.S. Federal Budget for 2011 are the revenues Uncle Sam will be making, and the items he'll be spending on. YOU decide how to cut spending, or increase revenues!

Projected federal receipts: $2.567 trillion.
Projected federal outlays: $3.834 trillion.
Projected 2011 deficit: $1.267 trillion.

So, to balance the budget, you'll need to slash about $1.267 trillion, or about 49% of our nation's tax revenue! If we hit the debt ceiling, and are unable to raise it, that's exactly what will need to be done. Actually, it's probably more like $1.29 trillion, because the official budgetary summary tables project that the Obama-era health care reform act will save $23 billion. (That's right, the non-partisan projections project savings, not increased spending!) So, in fairness, since Republicans want that repealed, we'd better add that $23 billion back into our projected deficit. Hence, the $1.29 trillion total. We'll round it up to $1.3 trillion.

Now, if you'd let the Bush-era tax cuts for the upper 2% of income earners expire, you'd have brought in an additional $700 billion (according to CBS, Dec. 2, 2010), and you'd only be facing a deficit problem of $0.6 trillion, or $600 billion. Oh, well! Missed that opportunity, didn't ya? Too bad. Well, back to the problem at hand...

Here are the non-discretionary items (that is, stuff you CAN'T cut, either because it's an entitlement, or else cutting the spending would actually cost more due to fiscal or non-fiscal backlash). In other words, mandatory items:

Social Security $730 billion
Medicaire $492 billion
Medicaid $271 billion
Other Mandatory Programs: $596 billion
TARP: $11 billion
Interest on the debt: $250 billion
Disaster relief fund: $3 billion

These projections already include the new mandatory retirement age of 65, so we've cut about all we can from Social Security. Health care reform will mean less reliance upon Medicare and Medicaid, so these projected numbers are lower than they would be if health care reform were repealed, but we'll leave them at their current levels for now, just to make it easier.

Here are the discretionary (cuttable) items:
Security: $846 billion
Non-Security: $530 billion

Security is, of course, the military. It's so huge because we're fighting two wars (er, conflicts) in Iraq and Afghanistan. Non-discretionary is everything else. That means all federal employees, all research programs, all commissions to find ways of keeping Asian Carp out of Lake Michigan, all NASA programs, aid for public schools, etc.

Now, these numbers are rounded, so they don't add up to $3.834 (they add up to $3.728), but they give us a good percentage approximation to work with.

So what would YOU cut?

If we cut ALL discretionary spending, and that means recalling all troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, that would save 1.37 trillion. Of course, it would cost money to recall our troops, put them on fuel-powered ships and planes to bring them home, and then cover their G.I. bills and medical costs, so it's impossible to cut all military troop spending. It would cost money to decommission and mothball all our navy ships and fighter planes. It would cost even more money to close and either lock-down or sell off all our military bases. Hell, shutting down our military might cost more than the military presently!

In the words of the banner that once hung behind Dubya, "Mission Accomplished?"

Well, no, obviously not. Even if we wanted to slash the military budget, nobody wants to leave Iraq and Afghanistan stranded. We could save a significant amount of money by scaling way back in both these countries, which we can do, but nobody wants to dismantle our entire military. We'll need to cut somewhere else.

How about other discretionary programs? John Boehner, the new Speaker of the House, insists that the new Republican Congress will only make cuts here. He says there will be no military cuts. Ah, but even if he cut everything from NASA to the U.S. Highway fund, he would only bring the deficit down by 530 billion. That's not even half of what we need to do to keep from getting a concussion when we hit the debt ceiling! We'd be $770 billion short. And with $846 billion locked up in military spending, we'll never reach that goal just by recalling all troops.

So, there we have it. It seems that the ONLY way to eliminate our deficit is to raise taxes. We simply have no choice. If the debt ceiling is hit, then in order to prevent the dollar from going insolvent, we may be forced, Republican and Democrat alike, to enact an emergency, retroactive tax hike. Think it won't happen? You're probably right, because threats to not vote for an increase in the debt ceiling are likely empty threats made by politicians playing a game of chicken. But if not, well, then, the shit hits the fan.

Now we know why, according to Accounting Today (Nov. 23), 45 millionaires signed a petition saying that the Bush-era tax cuts should expire for themselves. Now we know why Alan Greenspan said that the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to expire. Now we know why Steve Jobs and Bill Gates each endorsed an end to the Bush-era tax cuts for their own income brackets.

How would I balance the budget? Well, I'd try to strike a new compromise, and have Bush-era tax cuts be effective for 99% instead of 98%. (I know it's technically too late, but hope springs eternal.) That would both create jobs, and generate about $600 billion (the additional revenue doesn't decrease significantly because small businesses would not have a tax increase - see my previous posts - and most of the money comes from the uppermost portion of the upper 1% anyway). Next (I have to repeat this), I would legalize and tax cannabis. This would save 48 billion spent in a useless drug war, save additional billions in the federal prison system, and generate at least 200+ billion in new revenue. Call it a swing of $250 billion, at least. Next, I would reassess Iraq and Afghanistan. We know, from analysis, that we need at least 10,000 troops in Iraq, because the Shi'ite dominated Iraqi government, might turn to help from Iran if the U.S. has insufficient forces to protect the Iraq government from the Sunni rebels.

Oh, if only we hadn't put that ass-head Paul Bremer in charge! If only we hadn't hired Blackwater to shoot at civilians! If we hadn't needlessly pissed off the Sunnis, and made them feel like an important part of the New Iraq, or even a Federated Iraq. Then we could have saved BILLIONS! Oh, well. Missed that opportunity, didn't we?

Still, we have about 40 or 50 thousand troops in Iraq right now. We can dial that down, and still secure Iraq for the future.

How about Afghanistan? We're at about 94,000 troops there, including the additional 30,000 from Obama's troop surge. Clearly, Bin Laden isn't there. He's in northern Pakistan (if he's even alive, which I doubt). So how do we deal with this? We're starting to see the Karzai administration resulting in changes throughout Pakistan. Women are running for political office (much to the Taliban's ire), and we don't want to let that fall. So, I'd say at least 10,000 troops there as well. And a heavy reliance upon air power and technology.

Then there's Pakistan. How do we deal with Pakistan and the fact that Bin Laden might be there? Well, the Pakistanis are sovereign. We need them to cooperate with us in order for us to get Osama's ass out of there. We can achieve this by giving them more foreign aid.

Yes, spending more seems less than ideal, but we don't have to spend much more. If the Pakistani government succeeds in capturing Bin Laden and turning him over to us, there will be a tremendous backlash among the Islamic fundamentalists among their own country. The ruling powers of Pakistan will need assurances that they can remain in power in the midst of such backlash if they are to cooperate with us. We can give them that, in the form of money.

Right now, we spend about only 1 billion on Pakistan in terms of foreign aid. According to international political analyst, Bruce Bueno De Mesquita, we can assure Pakistan's cooperation if we raise that to 5 billion. Yes, there will be corruption, and there will be some wasteful spending, just as there has been wasteful spending of the $1 billion per year we've been paying them now. (For example, some of that money went to buy anti-aircraft guns. It's pretty clear that the Taliban have no aircraft! The AA weapons were meant for India!) Still, if that's what it takes to secure Pakistan's cooperation, and finally get Bin Laden, it's worth the money.

Frankly, I think Bin Laden is dead. It's entirely possible that Pakistan may pretend that he's still alive just to secure the receipt of more U.S. funds. But if they deliver Bin Laden's head, so much the better. Years later, as Pakistan stabilizes, we can always say Osama is dead, and cut funds. (Or, better, yet, threaten to cut funds if they don't deliver his head!) Besides, $5 billion is small change when compared with the cost of invading northern Pakistan. We can't win positive relations with its people by dropping food on them only during natural disasters such as flooding or earthquakes.

So here's where I'm going with this: Increasing foreign aid to Pakistan while dropping (but not eliminating) our troop strength in Iraq and Afghanistan, together with military cuts elsewhere, such as weapons development, redundant military bases, and retirement and non-retention of existing personnel, could easily drop our military budget by $450 billion at least, still leaving the Pentagon with a whopping $400 billion to play with in the future. (They really ought to be happy with that!) With the increase of $4 billion in aid to Pakistan, that's a $446 billion dollar spending cut for Uncle Sam.

Sum totals: $600 billion in tax receipts from the upper 1%, plus $250 billion in new revenues from ending prohibition on cannabis, plus $446 billion in military budget cuts, gives us 1.296 trillion income-vs.-expenditure difference in the national budget, which is now balanced.

Whew! What a job!

You know, I'm forced to retract a claim I made in earlier blog posts. Looking at our nation's books, it's clear that legalizing and taxing cannabis would generate a lot of revenue, but not enough to eliminate the deficit, begin paying the national debt, AND pay for health care. Someday, when all our troops are gone from Asia Minor, and our military budget is even lower, it will be. But not right now. Eliminating the national debt would free up another $250 million to pay for health care as well.

Oh, shit! We still have to pay down the $10.498 trillion dollar national debt, don't we? Ah, but that's a subject for a later blog post!