(Interviewed by Louis James, Editor, International Speculator)
L: Doug, the news of the day is the somewhat surprising – to some – decision by The Supremes to uphold "Obamacare." Any thoughts to share?
Doug: I hate to clutter my mind with stupidities and political trivia; I have more interesting things to think about. I know people like to get all worked up about these things, but it's all déjà vu – just another nail in the coffin of the America that Was. I certainly don't want to get into the legal details of this sort of nonsense. It's like medieval monks arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The people in government don't operate on any actual principles. That's part of what economic fascism is all about: the complicity of government and business. We've talked about the Constitution, which has been a dead letter for years – but anyone who reads that unfortunately flawed document will see that the state should have nothing whatsoever to do with how people pay for their medical bills. But what the Constitution actually says is of no real interest to these people; for them, it's all a game of figuring out how to do whatever they want, to further their own interests.
I don't know why anyone should be surprised by the decision. It's naïve to expect these black-robed employees of the state, whose appointed task is to uphold the state's law, to cut back on the power of their employer. It's all a ridiculous charade; they can and will do whatever they want.
L: So it doesn't matter?
Doug: I didn't say that. The result will be a less effective medical care system in the US, which means that more people will die than would have otherwise been the case. And please note that I didn't say "health care," because that is strictly an individual responsibility, revolving around diet, exercise, and lifestyle. It's destructive misdirection to confuse medical care with health care. Anyway, this is very bad – eventually disastrous. They're just extending Medicare and Medicaid, which are major factors bankrupting the US, even while they degrade the quality and inflate the cost of medical care. Obama may actually turn out to be a worse president than Baby Bush…
L: Not that voting for McCain would have been any better.
Doug: No, it wouldn't have, and the people who are being driven toward Romney by their dislike of Obama are just not thinking straight. There's little real difference between these two empty suits other than style. Romney actually implemented something very like Obamacare when he was governor in Massachusetts. People there call it Romneycare.
I mean… I… I'm at a loss for words here. The brazenness of Romney's hypocrisy is breathtaking. And the stubborn, suicidal refusal of his supporters to see that the stupid party is no better than the evil party just about leaves me speechless.
L: A pox on both their houses?
Doug: Yes. That's why I'm an anarchist. And why I feel less and less sympathy for the people who vote for free lunches. Or vote to limit the freedom of those they deem different or dangerous. Or vote at all, for that matter. Elections are no more than advance auctions on stolen goods, as Mencken correctly said. The whole process is shameful and demeaning to those who participate in it.
This is part of why I think things will get much worse before they get better; there simply is not enough understanding of economics, production, savings, and freedom by the average guy. The entire global socioeconomic structure is riddled with rot, right to its core. It needs to be scrapped, so something better can replace it. But we'll likely get something even worse next. The bad news is that we're going through the wringer. The good news is that, if we make it through the wringer, there's a chance something better will materialize. Eventually.
It's like in Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's story in which the productive people in society go on strike and the economy collapses.
L: If that was a prediction, it hasn't culminated yet, but she sure does seem to have seen it coming.
Doug: As in all good science fiction, Rand successfully anticipated a lot of things. Even though she wrote the book back in the 1950s, she posited the existence of biometric security devices, the economic extraction of shale oil, new high-strength metal alloys, and a sonic weapon developed by the government to subdue the population.
L: I remember thinking when I first read the book that "Project X" – the sonic weapon – was silly, but now police use sound cannons against protestors and holed-up suspects who refuse to cooperate. Guess I was too hard on Rand's imagination.
Doug: She was especially prescient with the socioeconomic aspects of the dystopian future she painted. Actually, she was far too conservative about how powerful the US government would become. On the macro level, she hit the nail on the head, writing that the final economic collapse would start in the more collectivized European countries before hitting the US. On the micro level she was spot on, writing about back-room deals between corrupt corporate CEOs and their cronies in Washington; she anticipated Goldman Sachs conniving with Nancy Pelosi. And on the individual level, I can't count the thousands of times I've seen people act in ways Rand depicted in her novel. Heroic people struggling to innovate and create wealth; the intellectually dishonest refusing to question their superstitions; hypocrites who go through mental gymnastics to make excuses for themselves; and just plain dirtballs acting the way they always do.
But in some ways, she underestimated how far beyond bad, how totally ludicrous, things would get. In today's USA, Dagny would never get to tear out all that old rail track and put in some new, controversial metal. That was a salable concept back in the 1950s, but today, OSHA, EPA, and a host of federal, state, and local authorities would kill the idea before it got off the drawing board. Entirely apart from the fact that Amtrak, a disaster that's in some ways even worse than the post office, now controls most of the US rail system. In fact, in a fascist economy, like what we now have in the US, the state really controls all property. You only have nominal ownership of your property.
For instance, just the other day, a guy who has a ranch near mine just outside of Aspen put in a polo field and was immediately red-tagged, because some bureaucrat noticed that he'd put in Kentucky bluegrass instead of some local variety. He was forced to rip it all out. In a world where that can happen, forget about Dagny and Hank deploying Rearden metal. Things are much worse than she portrayed in the novel.
L: I would agree with that. We've mentioned Atlas Shrugged many times in these conversations, including our talk about speculator's fiction. It was important to both of us – which is why I was surprised you missed the recent film when it was in theaters. Did you ever get 'round to seeing it?
Doug: Yes, I finally did watch it on DVD. I'm not surprised it didn't do well in the box office, given that the ideals in the story are the opposites of what most people are taught is right and good. But I liked it. It was obviously a somewhat low-budget film, but I thought it was well acted and well shot. Best of all, it stuck pretty close to the story line in the book, and was true to its intellectual themes. That's a major reason the average Joe wouldn't go see it. And if he did go see it, he wouldn't understand it. And if he did understand it, he wouldn't like it. So forget about the public.
And forget about the reviewers. It didn't get very many reviews, and almost all of them that I read were unfavorable. Perhaps the worst was by Roger Ebert, who's always impressed me as a worm, even though he's probably the most powerful reviewer in the country. He's like a character out of the Atlas Shrugged novel itself [laughs]. Now, I don't care if someone dislikes a movie for one reason or another. De gustibus non disputandum est. But as I read his review – which was at once snide, catty, dishonest, and inaccurate – it occurred to me that it might have been he who Charles Bronson (as I recall) once talked about. Bronson said movie reviewers were mostly pear-shaped, left-wing faggots who live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and hate movies. For the sake of clarity, I believe Ebert lives in Chicago, and I have no idea what his sexual preferences might be. I generally like gay people – as much as I like straight ones, anyway. But, notwithstanding that, Bronson pretty well hit the nail on the head. The main purpose served by movie reviews is to – maybe – give you a rough idea what a film is about, assuming you can read between the lines.
It may not have been Casablanca or The Wild Bunch (probably my two favorite movies). And it wasn't up to the production standards of Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings, King Kong) or Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Alien). But I liked it. I was entertained. And, after 50-some years, it needed making.
L: Wow – this may be the first time I find myself strongly disagreeing with you on something like this. I loved the book, and acknowledge that I will always owe Rand a great intellectual debt – but I loathed the movie. I thought the acting was so bad, at times it was embarrassing. Who the heck would cast a sharp young man as the corrupt, incompetent, alcohol-soaked, back-stabbing business executive James Taggart? He looks like a California surf dude. The guy who played Ellis Wyatt exaggerated his gestures even more than William Shatner, which I didn't think was possible – his acting was so bad, it made me want to get up and leave the theater.
I had not expected much, given the low budget, but I was hoping for something at least tolerable, so I could introduce the story to friends and encourage them to read the book. I sincerely doubt anyone unfamiliar with the story would want to read the book after seeing this movie. My hope now is that people will just forget it movie was ever made.
Doug: I thought James Taggart was well cast. You don't want a morally weak villain to look like a villain; it's much more compelling if he looks like an up-and-coming corporate suit – the type who'd be successful at backslapping and backstabbing. A young Mitt Romney, perhaps. And I've always been a big fan of William Shatner's – I love his overacting.
L: You've got to be kidding! He's so bad, he even made fun of himself on Saturday Night Live.
Doug: Well, all the more reason to respect him. I really hate actors who take themselves too seriously. Actors, until quite recently, were classed with prostitutes at the bottom of society. Of course they're both honorable professions, but shouldn't be taken too seriously. But maybe things are changing, now that we've evolved from an industrial society to an information society, and now to an entertainment society. Maybe next lifetime I'll want to come back as somebody important – like an actor. [Laughs] But I enjoyed the story as presented in the film, and would recommend it to our readers.
L: You're a brave man.
Doug: I've been called worse. But look, it would be hard for any producer to make a popular hit out of Atlas Shrugged, because it's so overtly, uncompromisingly hard line. That's why so many people, even among those who agree with her ideas, say that her characters are cardboard cutouts. They're unidimensional because they are meant to portray various ideas and principles. Her great heroes are unconflicted, because they are not meant to portray Man as he is, but Man as he could and should be. They have a clear sense of right and wrong. They move purposefully toward their goals without deviating from their paths or falling into ethical errors. Few people can identify closely with such characters. And her bad guys are the mirror image – they're pure, contemptible scumbags. But I find it refreshing to sometimes see things in pure black and white, with no shades of gray.
I don't think the problem was with the acting, but with the nature of the characters as they appeared in the book. But it's a non-problem. It isn't really a novel, but a novelization of a philosophy.
L: Well… I just don't agree, Doug. I mean, I agree that the novel was a philosophical treatise defending unpopular ideas – even heretical ideas, at the time – but the novel became a mega-best-seller. If the uncompromising ideas and idealized characters could take the book to the top of the NY Times best-seller list, why couldn't a movie based on those things become a best-seller?
I'll even give you that the producer did a better job of staying with the book than, say, Peter Jackson did with his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Jackson's films deviated from the story in ways that made absolutely no sense, seriously gutting some of the characters, like Faramir and the Ents. But they sold spectacularly – because they were visually stunning and highly entertaining. Atlas Shrugged stayed much closer to a globally best-selling and highly influential book, but didn't even come close to breaking even. Why? Simple answer: the movie stank.
Doug: I'd heard before I saw it that there was a great division in response to the film, even among fans of the book – never mind the hostile press. Some people deplored it, as you apparently do, and some call it a magnificent work of art. It's interesting to come down on opposite sides of an issue with you: I liked it.
But I have to also disagree about Jackson's Lord of the Rings. The movie felt like it was taken right from my own imagination's picture of the book, straight to the screen. It was a work of genius. I won't quibble about some possible oversights in filming three huge volumes…
But Atlas was necessarily a tough row to hoe, with philosophical principles masquerading as characters. I don't know what they're going to do when they get to John Galt's speech, which runs almost a hundred pages.
L: They'll probably just cut it – they left out Francisco d'Anconia's "money speech," which is much shorter and punchier – and one of the best parts of the book.
Doug: That or maybe the Cliff's Notes version... if they ever get that far, what with this film's lack of traction. But I wish them well, and it's worth trying, because it's a story more people should grok.
L: I'll agree as far as the book goes. I was headed the other way when Ayn Rand kicked my intellectual posterior and made me reconsider my premises. I never agreed with her on everything, but on a good many fundamentals, I had to agree that she was right and I was wrong. I would not be the person I am today had Atlas Shrugged not jolted me out of my mental rut.
Doug: Same here. My main objection to Rand is that she didn't go far enough. For instance, she stopped way short of being an anarchist.
L: Agreed. But just to play devil's advocate, why should anyone today read a political polemic written 55 years ago? What could Rand have to say that's still relevant today?
Doug: Well, why should anyone read ancient Greek and Roman classics? They're timeless precisely because they are not about the vicissitudes of the day, but are looking into the essence of human nature. That's why they're every bit as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. The nature of life. The nature of ethics. I'd rather read something like that than almost anything of transient importance in the media today.
L: So, what timeless lessons should we draw from Atlas that are particularly important today?
Doug: There are many. Rand's defense of rational egoism is an absolute must for any thinking person to comprehend. Her uncompromising defense of liberty is a vital message in this and every day. Her vision of the heroism of production is right in line with what I believe and what we try to teach people to realize in their own lives through our publications. Sure, we write about winning investments and speculations, but the goal goes beyond making money, to accumulating the capital it takes to do really significant things with one's life, and for posterity.
Sadly, that's getting harder and harder today, in our world of governments run amok. I'm hard-pressed to think of too many Hank Reardens, Howard Roarks, or John Galts out there in the world today. But there are some…
L: Well, Steve Jobs created something new and huge in a spectacularly short time – and he did it for profit, not as a charitable venture to give people cool gadgets and cheap downloads.
Doug: That's true, although I don't know what Jobs' personal philosophy might have been... or if he even had one. I suppose Elon Musk of SpaceX and PayPal might qualify. I know Burt Rutan, builder of SpaceShipOne – he almost surely does. John Mackey, who founded Whole Foods Market, is a libertarian and could definitely qualify. And I'm sure we're overlooking some other real stars. As we just discussed regarding Facebook, Zuckerberg is literally changing the world faster than regulators can keep up with, so there are examples – although I've got no reason to believe Zuckerberg has any philosophical core. But while we can sit here and think of a few heroic innovators, the number of corporate parasites, political entrepreneurs, shameless panderers, and so forth number in the millions.
You know, it's no wonder that the Occupy people hate businessmen and at least think they despise capitalism. There appear to be so few businessmen who are admirable, men of integrity and honor. They are basically statistically insignificant. The way to make big money today is to play the game, which means to participate in a corrupt system in which all the rules are set by governments, and political favor matters more than business acumen. The Occupiers are wrong – throwing the baby out with the bathwater – but I can understand their mistake. Most big corporate types today are no more than political hacks. They're not entrepreneurs. They don't own any shares in the companies they manage – none they paid for. But they give themselves huge salaries, gigantic bonuses, big option packages, and shameless expense accounts. They're worthy of contempt. The system is completely corrupt.
L: Do you think there ever was a time when most businessmen really were creative producers? Historically, it wasn't people who got rich in the marketplace who seized power, but the other way around: rulers used their power to maximize the amount of wealth created by society that flowed to them. I've long thought that there's a good reason why so many people like to hate the rich: For much of history, the rich literally were royal bastards, and ordinary people suffered under their rule.
Doug: You're quite right, but there was a period in the 19th century, starting in England and then in the US, when anyone with an idea for a better mousetrap could pretty much do whatever he wanted without having to gain leave of his betters first. But those days are long gone; and even then, there were plenty of people who tried to get politicians to pass laws that favored their businesses, rather than going out in the world and winning market share through excellence of goods or services.
L: That reminds me. I understand that the real, historical character who inspired Ayn Rand when she wrote about the founder of the great railroad in Atlas Shrugged – Nat Taggart – was real-world railroad tycoon James Jerome Hill –
Doug: – who built the Great Northern Railroad, right?
L: Yes. J.J. Hill did not win the race to build the first transcontinental railroad, but he did it right, and his rail lines are still in use. The famous Union Pacific, which did win the race, went bankrupt within three years of the feat.
Doug: And they got all sorts of subsidies from the government, including huge tracts of land given to them by the state.
L: Right. Hill actually gave land, cows, seed, and such to farmers to create customers for his railroad as it grew. A lot of those farmers didn't know about crop rotation and proper irrigation, which led to Dust-Bowl disasters. Many of them ended up reviling Hill, but that was not Hill's failure – he seems to have been a quintessentially Randian hero.
Doug: I remember reading about that too – but there are fewer men like him today. Even Jobs in his day and Zuckerberg today don't seem to have the gumption to stand up to the state the way Hill did. All more evidence supporting my belief that we're headed through the wringer.
L: And it's going to be even worse than you think it is… In our last conversation, you told readers that you think it's actually time to "shrug," as the productive people do in Atlas Shrugged. Do you think that could actually work? I mean, theoretically, sure, if all the productive people in a society stopped producing, the place would have to collapse, almost by definition. But could such a revolution actually be implemented? People need to produce, in order to feed their families and meet other needs that are hard to set aside.
Doug: No, I don't suppose it would. People have mortgages to pay, children to raise, and so forth. I've been urging people to stop acting like milk cows for the government for a long time, but it's inconvenient for most to sell their homes and go live in another country with low or no taxes. Or they have a spouse who won't go along because he or she has the mindset of a medieval serf. Excuses for being a loser are dime a dozen. And that's among people who have the means to opt out, as I have – the average guy has almost no chance of shrugging without suffering serious problems in his life. Yet another reason why things will continue along their current track – right off the cliff the tracks are headed for.
L: So your call was not a practical call for the producers of the world to rebel, but a moral stake in the ground, because you've had enough of giving what Rand called the "sanction of the victim."
Doug: That's right. People should know they are being used, and should be outraged. It's bad enough to be a whipped dog, but you shouldn't wet yourself and grovel while they kick you. Maybe the time will come to fix bayonets – after all, nobody gets out of here alive.
L: So noted. Hm. Who would you say were your favorite characters in Atlas Shrugged and why?
Doug: Let me see… I'd have to say I'm partial to Francisco d'Anconia and Ragnar Danneskjöld.
L: The playboy and the pirate.
Doug: Exactly. They were fun characters who took direct and bold action against the bad guys in the story.
L: I'd have to confess that I like Dagny. Okay then, we'd better wrap this up before we descend into trivia. Or open sedition.
Doug: A good plan, But I do want to mention, for whatever it's worth, an interview I did recently with Talk Digital Network, which I think came out well. Some of our readers might find that interesting.
L: While we're mentioning things then, I'd like to mention that the music CD you and I invested in is finally available in English on iTunes, Amazon, eMusic.com, Rhapsody, Google Play, and other online music sources. As longtime readers know, Casey Research sponsors my teaching efforts in Eastern Europe each summer, via the Casey Youth Conference on Liberty and Entrepreneurship. What they may not know is that one of our former students is a very talented singer-songwriter who shocked us with her talent in 2008 – one of the years you taught with me. Even though she sang in Russian, we were both floored by the emotional power she conveyed. When we challenged her to get serious about her music, she put a band together and, with help from us, recorded an album. It's taken a while to translate and publish in English (translations by yours truly), but at long last it's done, and the English version is available. It's called Tomorrow is a New Day, by Prana.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that this is theoretically a for-profit JV between Prana, Doug, and me. It's highly unlikely to ever break even, but it's just really great to see a student stretch her wings and dare to fly.
I hope some of you will give it a listen. I believe that if you like it, the best compliment you can give any artist is to buy their CD, and to pass the word along to others. Posting "likes" and positive reviews via various social media can be a big help too (and doesn't cost a dime).
Doug: You should mention the original tracks in Russian too.
Doug: Great. I'm glad to see this finally done – and I hope she goes on to record more music.
L: Me too. But that's off topic, so I'll just thank our readers and wish them a profitable week in the markets. Our world needs more Roarks and Reardens!
If you enjoy Doug's musings as much as we do, you owe it to yourself to hear him live. While his talks often sell out in advance, there's one venue he'll be appearing at where you can still get a seat: Navigating the Politicized Economy. Joining Doug at this Casey Research/Sprott, Inc. Summit will be David Walker, the former top accountant for the US, who quit in protest over profligate government spending and devised a bold new plan for saving the country. Many other financial experts will be on hand to help further your understanding of our overly politicized economy and teach you strategies to profit from it. Learn more about the Summit and register soon – early-bird pricing ends July 31.
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