Atlas Shrugged and Other Steamy Economic Theories
Every now and then some seemingly random incident in my life will kick off a series of other random events which, when viewed with a bit of hindsight, all seem to be weirdly connected, as s if some unseen director (cue “Twilight Zone” theme) is manipulating my day-to-day reality from just offstage. I know, I know, talk like that tends to suggest that I might benefit from a bit of R-and-R in a more controlled environment with some of those nice folks in the clean white coats. All kidding aside though, you’ve had this happen to you, right? Right?
Maybe not, but I have, so just bear with me. A couple of months ago it was finally time to sort through and deal with a half-basement’s worth of stuff which had belonged to my late father-in-law, Richard Wilcox. Dick was a genuinely fascinating man. Over the course of seventy-something years he managed to rack up an impressive list of accomplishments. Not the least of these involves being listed as one of 100 inventors whose scientific research resulted in the invention of what we know today as ‘bar codes.” Maybe that’s not quite as awe-inspiring as being the inventor of the “Post-It” note, but still…
So, when my wife and I were dating and it became clear that it was serious, we figured it was time to “meet the family” back in Minnesota. I had a performance scheduled at the Mall of America (that’s another story I’ll tell you another time). She came with me, and as we flew west she filled me in on some family background including the nugget that her dad’s “religion” was Capitalism. I’d never heard of such a thing, but I was about to.
I won’t even try to describe Dick’s philosophy of life. Let’s just say that my father-in-law viewed everything, and I mean everything, through the lens of capitalism and he was a hardcore, free-market, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may, read-’em-and-weep capitalist! Where most Grandpas would view an afternoon of kiddy games with a four-year-old granddaughter as an opportunity for a bit of childlike diversion, not so for Grampy Dick. Dick played Candyland like it was high-stakes Las Vegas Blackjack with enough ruthlessness to make Rupert Murdock blush. A family Scrabble tournament with Dick included more behind-the-scenes maneuvering than a hostile takeover on Wall St. I’d never seen anything like it.
Not, that is, until while I was preparing to donate several boxes of his used books and CDs to our local library. In one box I spied a multi-volume book-on-tape version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I set it aside. I had heard of Ayn Rand, of course, but never read anything she’d written. I had some sense that she was vaguely ‘radical” in a right-wing sort of way, but that’s about it. So I liberated Dick’s copy. I love a good book-on-tape. Even a mediocre one is OK with me. They’re just the ticket for reducing fatigue on those long drives, which are so common in my line of work. I figured Atlas Shrugged, all thirty-five or forty hours of it, would make the perfect road trip soundtrack in case I got another gig in Minnesota and decided to drive out this time.
So I started listening. Wow! Have you ever actually read this stuff? I don’t know what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t what I got. Rand’s writing style (and I understand I’m not alone in this assessment) is pretty clunky. I mean, it’s serviceable — it moves the story along well enough — but by the time I was few hours into the book I could see that the whole story just serves as a handy coat-rack on which Ms. Rand can hang her economic policy statements. Believe me, she has plenty of those. There’s the famous “Money is the Root of All Good” speech and the scene in which the band of renegade industrialists gaze in awe at the three-foot-high solid-gold dollar sign.
But, there are also lots and lots of hot and steamy romantic scenes that, I kid you not, are completely couched in economic terms. The dialogue runs along the lines of;
“Oh Dagney! I simply can’t stand another moment living without you! The way you run your railroad! The way your rumbling massive steel engines barrel along those gleaming metal tracks!….( pant, pant ) …I must have you ! Show me your bottom line!” I’m exaggerating for effect, but not that much. The whole novel is essentially one great big rambling economic “bodice ripper” featuring a Marvel Comics-level (Kreepy Kommie Komix?) storyline connecting these Industrialist-in-lust “sexy bits” It’s really a thousand-odd-page work of “soft-core econo-porn."
Remember how I started off talking about random incidents coming together in a weird way? That’s OK, you can forget, it’s my job to remember. Well, halfway through the book I tuned in to Terry Gross interviewing author Anne Heller, who has recently written a biography of Ayn Rand. I learned that Ayn Rand was actually the pen name of woman named Alisa Rosenbaum, born in 1905 in St. Petersburg in the old Russian Empire. As a child she’d lived through the Russian revolution. The family’s assets were seized in the name of “the people” and they were all forced to flee to the west to make a new life. That explains a lot.
So what has all this got to do with Maine humor? Not much really, except that it’s so strange and ironic and chock full of human folly that I just had to laugh out loud at the absurdity of the human condition. Also, like so many old Maine stories there’s a lesson in there. I finally understand my father-in-law’s stunned reaction when he realized that the CNAs who cared for him 24/7 following a paralyzing stroke seemed to do so despite the fact that they were over worked and underpaid. He couldn’t get that. Why didn’t they quit? The profit motive decreed that they should leave him, MUST leave him, to fend for himself and go find a better paying job. But, they stayed and seemed happy to help out. Now I get it. In Atlas Shrugged altruism is portrayed as the greatest evil to beset mankind. He had bought that worldview and it served him well right up until it didn’t anymore. It turns out that no philosophy and no economic theory is all-encompassing enough to explain away the inner workings of the human heart.
That, chummy, is a lesson well worth learning.