6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person

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I love David Wong’s writing. I think this article of his actually captures much of the message of Atlas Shrugged that I agree with:

http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-harsh-truths-that-will-make-you-better-person/

“… I want you to try something: Name five impressive things about yourself. Write them down or just shout them out loud to the room. But here’s the catch — you’re not allowed to list anything you are (i.e., I’m a nice guy, I’m honest), but instead can only list things that you do (i.e., I just won a national chess tournament, I make the best chili in Massachusetts). If you found that difficult, well, this is for you, and you are going to fucking hate hearing it. My only defense is that this is what I wish somebody had said to me around 1995 or so.”

This article contains the following sections:

#6. The World Only Cares About What It Can Get from You

#5. The Hippies Were Wrong

#4. What You Produce Does Not Have to Make Money, But It Does Have to Benefit People

#3. You Hate Yourself Because You Don’t Do Anything

#2. What You Are Inside Only Matters Because of What It Makes You Do

#1. Everything Inside You Will Fight Improvement

I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Postscript: The irony of posting to an article talking about “truths” from a blog called “Forget Truth” hasn’t escaped me, but if I think there’s value to be found in something, I don’t care what the author calls it.

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Chapter 3 — The Top and the Bottom — Part 3

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The next scene is an extended look at Dagny Taggart’s childhood and early days at Taggart Transcontinental, culminating in the decision by James Taggart (and the board) to focus on the San Sebastian Line to the San Sebastian mines at the expense of crucial money-making operations. Hints are dropped that the mines are not all that they appear. This post will focus on the childhood bit.

When she is nine, Dagny decides that she would run Taggart Transcontinental one day — and that the decision was actually the “final seal” on something she had known long previous (along with Eddie Willers). I can’t help but roll my eyes a little when reading this; it’s pretty hard for me to imagine this situation in reality. I can imagine a fascination with trains and such, but I just can’t take the idea of a steel-eyed nine-year-old seriously. That’s generally okay if we take these characters as mythic and symbolic, but it does leave a serious hole in Rand’s work as a model for real life. Real nuclear families are pretty much communist, at least to some extent, and that doesn’t fit well with the general laissez-faire capitalist-in-all-things model promoted by Rand.

Anyway, Dagny feels an “arrogant pleasure” at the way some track cuts through the woods. This hilights two other interesting points. First, as we’ve already seen, Rand delights in using traditionally negative adjectives as virtues —  selfishness, arrogance, conceitedness. Second, she viewed the environment as a blank canvas on which to impose structure. I certainly don’t hold that against her; almost no one was really aware of environmental concerns at the time. I do think that environmental concerns are an excellent example of potential external costs incurred by business, which is a critical drawback of laissez-faire economics, but it isn’t the only one.

More examples of the first point: ‘ “You’re unbearably conceited,” was one of the two sentences she heard throughout her childhood, even though she never spoke of her own ability. The other sentence was: “You’re selfish.” She asked what was meant, but never received an answer. She looked at the adults, wondering how they could imagine that she would feel guilt from an undefined accusation.”

Dagny likes mathematics (the only subject she liked in school), the excitement of solving problems, the “insolent delight of taking up a challenge and disposing of it without effort, the eagerness to meet another, harder test.” She feels the same about the railroad. She starts work at age 16 as a night operator while attending a college of engineering. It occurs to her that “women did not run railroads and that people might object. To hell with that, she thought — and never worried about it again.”

In short, Dagny is a super-go-getter, with many admirable qualities. It’s implied that she accomplishes everything from personal grit and raw talent alone, in the face of opposition (or at least a lack of emotional support and encouragement, other than possibly from her father), and gets no significant aid from the fact that her father runs Taggart Transcontinental. I haven’t really personally investigated the histories of “self-made men” (or women), but I am willing to accept this as a reasonable approximation for a small part of humanity. I believe that the ability to change socio-economic classes is measurable, and I think that the more mobile people can be, the better.

I find myself wondering exactly how much of herself Rand put into Dagny.

 

Chapter 3 — The Top and the Bottom — Part 2

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The bar scene continues. There are way too many discussable quotes in there to address them all, but there should be ample similar opportunities in the future.

As for the action of the story:

‘ “Friendships,” said [James] Taggart in the tone of an idle abstraction, “are more valuable than gold.” Unexpectedly, he turned to [Paul] Larkin. “Don’t you think so, Paul?” ‘

Paul agrees, being the weak man that he is. Irony abounds, as Paul is ultimately being asked to betray his friendship with Hank Rearden. It is axiomatic that Rand’s heroes say exactly what they mean without exception, and therefore her villains are generally saying the opposite of what they mean, or at least lying about their motives.

It is interesting that Paul has to squash shreds of conscience; he can’t bear to look at Wesley Mouch at one point. Wesley, it is revealed, is Hank’s “man in Washington,” but is apparently really a sock puppet for James, and is about to backstab Hank.

There is talk of the People’s State of Mexico (the entire world has apparently gone communist, with the U.S. on the way) and the San Sebastian Mines. ‘ “Wonderful place, Mexico,” Boyle answered cheerfully. “Very stimulating and thought-provoking. Their food rations are something awful, though. I got sick.” ‘ The mines in question have enormous deposits of copper, and it apparently is the last bit of private property in Mexico. (Orren casually mentions a “Spic” superintendent, but it remains my impression that race is simply not one of Rand’s issues.) Orren angrily denies rumors that it is to be nationalized.

Orren mentions that Taggart Transcontinental service to the mines is terrible, with only one passenger train a day, and that, a wood-burning train. This news bothers James.

The scene ends with the four talking about a “difficult undertaking” ahead. James ends with, ‘ “That’s what has to be known — who makes it possible.” ‘ This is clearly an echo of the question, “Who is John Galt?”

Unintended Consequences

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By the way, I’m currently on vacation and have only occasional and limited web access right now. However, I wanted to post a link to an article on fivethirtyeight.com that reviewed a paper with an interesting result related to government control, which is of course what Atlas is all about.

http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/in-the-papers-cash-for-clunkers-affirmative-action-oil-and-water/

Title: “Free to Choose: Promoting Conservation by Relaxing Outdoor Watering Restrictions”

Authors: Anita Castledine, Klaus Moeltner, Michael Price, Shawn Stoddard

What they found: Rigid, schedule-based watering restrictions can lead residents to use more water than they would under more flexible regulations.

I didn’t pay to read the paper itself, but assuming that fivethirtyeight’s description is accurate, it is at least a clear example of how the devil is in the details with regard to regulation; unintended side-effects are always a danger. That’s why I would support that legislation have explicit built-in measures of its success and some kind of sunset mechanism if its original purpose is not being met.

John Scalzi’s Review of Atlas Shrugged

A friend recommended this review of Atlas to me by science fiction author John Scalzi, so I thought I’d share it here (spoilers!): http://whatever.scalzi.com/2010/10/01/what-i-think-about-atlas-shrugged/.

I liked the review, without necessarily agreeing with every word, which isn’t surprising since I also like most of what I’ve read by Scalzi. Just don’t read it if you want to avoid spoilers.

Chapter 3 — The Top and the Bottom — Part 1

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Chapter 3 opens with a new kind of scene, comprised of wholly non-heroic characters; James Taggart, Orren Boyle (now officially being seen for the first time), Paul Larkin (which is a bit of a surprise; I’d forgotten that he knew them), and a new character, Wesley Mouch. Gotta love that name, it’s like a crouching mooch, just oozes off the page. Anyway, the four of them are in a bar that, in spite of being at the top of a building, gives the impression of being in a cellar both physically (in terms of architecture, lighting, and so forth) and metaphorically (the service is bad).

The conversation is rather hilarious in that it takes about twice as long as would be expected if the heroes were delivering the same information somehow, with lots of passive tenses (“Disunity seems to be the basic cause of all social problems,” says James) and other weasel phrases (“I think”, “in my opinion”). Orren, who you will remember is the CEO of Amalgamated Steel, is upset that he is losing business to Hank Rearden, and in essence is pushing for support to pass laws that send him a “fair share” of business and raw materials via government intervention. Part of the humor (dark and bitter, if one is paying attention to the implications of what they’re proposing) is that James keeps complaining about how bad his drink is and how the bartender should be fired.

Incidentally, Orren had appeared “from nowhere” five years previously, with a hundred thousand dollars of his own money and a two-hundred million dollar loan from the government, and had been buying up smaller concerns. He’s a variation of the bad-guy capitalist like James, different in that, instead of inheriting his position, he is self-made by financial/political shenanigans (as opposed to actually delivering the goods). It’s worth pointing out (again?) that most of both of the good guys and the bad guys appear to be wealthy capitalist entrepreneurs; in order to tell the difference, you’re expected to judge them by the details of how they got their wealth. This is something that many critics of Ayn Rand get wrong; they seem to think that she blindly glorifies the wealthy, which completely misses her point.

“The only justification of private property,” said Orren Boyle, “is public service.” I’m finding that to be a very interesting statement. For a start, what is private property? What does it mean to own something? Clearly, it can’t really have anything to do with physical, immediate locality, or I could just go out to a parking lot and drive off in any convenient BMW that I liked because I was there. From what I can see, ownership, like freedom, comes down to specifics in the social understanding (i.e., laws) that mean we should be able to expect others in society to defend our ability to act, to use the thing possessed. In other words, I expect my car to be in the parking lot, and if it isn’t, I can call the police and they will work to get it back for me. In essence, this is what government and society are all about.

I do happen to believe in the goal of working to build and maintain a society that maximizes human happiness, or at least the opportunity for seeking it. In a sense, that’s “public service” (although we all know that Orren isn’t really interested in anyone else, he just wants an excuse to grab more for himself). I also believe that private property is likely essential to any such society. Heck, if you consider our own physical ability to act to be a possession, then there really is no difference between private property and freedom, and I certainly believe that freedom to act, at least in certain ways, is essential to human happiness. Aside from the fact that we know that Orren is misrepresenting his true underlying position, I’m having a hard time disagreeing with his statement.

I thought I’d get through the bar scene this time, but as usual, it took longer than I thought, so it will have to wait. Cheers!

Chapter 2 — The Chain — Part 8

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Finishing The Chain.

Two final shots: Philip “brags” that he is not collecting money for any personal, selfish reasons, which causes disgust in Hank. Further, Philip asks if he can have Hank’s donation in cash so that they can avoid having Hank’s name attached to the charity, which should generally cause disgust in anyone as reprehensible hypocrisy.

Paul Larkin tells Hank that he shouldn’t have given Philip the money, which, in a rare note for Rand, speaks well for a character that she intends to be a bad example, but Lillian Rearden contradicts him, ultimately saying that it is representative of how they are all “in bondage” to Hank, as is the chain he has given her.

To address the first point, which I’ve decided to tag as the virtue of selfishness: I agree with Rand’s implication that it’s twisted and bizarre to somehow believe that the ideal to aspire to is to have absolutely no personal stake whatsoever in any sort of giving or charity. Why in the world should anyone not take personal satisfaction from what they do, or in working towards their goals (charitable or otherwise)? Further, if they would enjoy the publicity of their work, why not have it? It does in principle take away resources from the actual cause being championed, but if the balance sheet comes out ahead in terms of pursuing the goals of the charity, then there should be no problem with this.

There does seem to be an element of unfairness that someone who gives a larger absolute donation to something, but a much smaller fraction of their total wealth, gets more publicity. Grist for the mill, for the future.

Finally, it is obvious that Rand means to show the exact opposite of what Lillian Rearden says: Hank is actually the one in bondage; he simply doesn’t realize it. This is, in many ways, the fundamental theme of Atlas Shrugged: those who work are effectively enslaved by those who don’t (for a very broad definition of work, which would include providing any sort of value, including non-material value such as purely emotional support or even just sincere gratitude). As usual, I’m anticipating here, but know that there will be plenty of opportunities to address this.

Thus ends “The Chain,” and on to “The Top and the Bottom” next time.

 

Chapter 2 — The Chain — Part 7

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Wrapping up Paul Larkin. Hank Rearden is expressing his frustration with the idea that he has to pay someone to be his spokesperson in Washington, and says, ‘”…What’s wrong with the world?” Paul replies, “Why ask useless questions? How deep is the ocean? … Who is John Galt?”

Rearden sat up straight. “No,” he said sharply. “No. There’s no reason to feel that way.” ‘ Rand’s heroes are consistently dynamic and vital, dead-set against fatalism or defeatism of any sort.

Hank exchanges a few more pleasantries with his mother, who simultaneously chides Hank for not caring about how hard his brother works, and when Hank says he’s happy that Philip has found an interest he works at, chides him for liking seeing his brother “sweating his health away.”

Philip is working to raise money for a pet charity, “Friends of Global Progress.” He complains about how people have no social conscience and the wealthy can’t be bothered to give money. Hank perceives that Philip (like the others) is hopelessly at his mercy, and is essentially twisted in misery. He tells himself that maybe he can break through Philip’s “chronic wretchedness” by donating ten thousand dollars (an especially substantial sum back in 1957). Philip replies with thanks that are curiously devoid of emotion, “not even the simple one of greed.” Hank feels a particularly “gray and ugly” disappointment in response, a “collapsing” “weight and … emptiness, together”. Philip then snarks Hank by saying he’s surprised by Hank’s generosity, and Lillian claims it’s because it’s the day of the first pour of Rearden Metal, implying that Hank’s accomplishment is nothing to be proud of. ‘” Shall we declare it a national holiday, darling?”‘

Philip reproachfully accuses Hank of not really caring about the underprivileged, to Hank’s disbelief. Hank agrees, no, he doesn’t, he just wanted Philip to be happy.

It’s an ugly, disturbing, emotional swamp. There is no question that everyone here (except for Hank and, maybe, Paul Larkin) is acting in a completely objectionable and dysfunctional way, and they would all be better off being physically, emotionally, and financially separated from one another. Hank thinks at some point that they are all children, including his mother; and he’s right, apparently. Of course, there’s an underlying implication by Rand that all dynamic entrepreneurs are themselves responsible and mature, and all people who have economic issues aren’t; and that’s the kind of implication that makes people react so violently towards her work. Personally, I think that everyone has different sets of issues that make them more or less mature in different areas.

“Forget Truth”, Part Deux

I just posted this elsewhere, and I thought it apropos enough that I’m repeating it here:

Existence is not about knowing “truth”, it’s about building models in our heads that explain and predict our experiences. Hopefully, our innate intelligence prompts us to reconcile problems with our models over time, based on experiences contradictory to those models, and to seek out new and better knowledge and explanations. Alternatively, the universe eventually hits us with a metaphorical (or, if you’re delusional enough, actual) bus.