I am not generally in favor of censorship. In fact, I am deeply committed both to freedom of expression and access to information. Especially in literature! But if there is one author that makes me question this, it is Ayn Rand. I recently donated some books to a local school. They had been gifted to us by some generous friends during hard times, and were sitting in our studio out back for many months….having been unsuccessfully listed for sale online. As I was going through the boxes I actually removed a copy of Atlas Shrugged and one of The Virtue of Selfishness and threw them into a bonfire. Yep. A real live book burning….right here in my backyard. Because while I am deeply committed to the idea that people should be able to read whatever they want, I feel Ayn Rand novels should be read only after several years of serious study on topics such as economics, philosophy and history. In other words, rated X for mature audiences only. Actually EX for educated mature and thoughtful audiences only. Which is why I declined to donate it to an audience of impressionable children. Some of them will find it eventually on their own no doubt, as did one of my boyfriends in high school. When he loaned it to me, I realized he was not my type. And I personally felt fire fodder was the most productive use of that particular drivel.
Ayn Rand’s novels are wildly popular with today’s so called conservatives. The are highlighted in curriculum s of conservative educational institutions. Actually, they have been popular with the same sort of people since they were published. The reason seems obvious to me. Her philosophy of objectivism justifies inequality and greed from a moral perspective. Kind of similar in feeling to the divine right of kings. So if one is both rich and morally lazy, Ayn Rand’s works encourage the continued, unfettered exploitation others without even guilt—let alone mitigating safety nets of any kind. Standard rhetoric of the right wing adheres to the objectivist idea that society is divided into “producers”and “looters”. That people are either well off because they deserve to be, having produced value for society, or not so well off because they are lazy and parasitic.
So….years ago I worked for this guy named Bob.
Bob was a financial adviser. He had gone to college on a golf scholarship, and written his MBA thesis on the flat tax. I was his assistant. Actually, I was what they call a registered assistant—I had a full stockbroker’s license. My salary was $27k, with no benefits. Bob took 1.5% of the annual value of his client’s investments–money which we had under management. Bob had paid for my license, since it meant he would not have to deal with actually moving money around, and the industry was moving towards requiring licenses for everybody. The test was killer. I studied hard for three months straight and passed with the equivalent of a “c”. Lots of people flunk several times. Including the son of the guy who owned the larger agency Bob’s office lived inside of, but I digress….
Bob was very good at sales. He made all his sales on the golf course. He was also good at comparing results of different possible investments of the same type…mostly mutual funds and bonds. These are conveniently pre-sorted by category on several listings available by subscription to licensed advisers. So Bob picked the investment vehicles for the clients. I did nearly everything else. Marketing, account analysis, internal and external communications, actual trades, account management, customer service. I managed the employee group plans pretty much by myself, since Bob only wanted to speak to the business owners. I took care of everyone else in the plans. I also handled all the communications with external staff—insurance and financial operations people who are vital to the process of doing anything in finance. During the year I worked for Bob, “we” (Bob always said “we” when referring to his business) we went from $4 million to $54 million under management. Now it was the 90′s, so there was of course the phenomenon of rising tides and boats. But it should be noted that before I arrived on the scene, Bob’s gift for sales was significantly undermined and countered by the fact that he was too disorganized to actually deliver what he had sold, or effectively address the needs of existing customers. He hated filling out paperwork, and left critical tasks to the last minute, ensuring that at least one client a day would call very upset, demanding to know why x, y, or z had not been accomplished. He lost big clients all the time, which put a real dent in his business.
I analyzed his operations, and designed systems around his strengths and weaknesses, and implemented those systems. I kept a strict record of everything he requested, and everything I did, as Bob had a tendency to blow up and blame me for not doing something he had neglected to ask me to do. I worked from 6:30 am to 6:30 pm most days. Bob showed up around 10:30, took a long boozy lunch, and usually hit the green by 3:30 if the weather was good. In bad weather he either wandered the halls chatting with people, took meetings in his office, or simply turned of the lights and shut the door. I don’t know what he was doing those afternoons….nor do I wish to speculate.
Bob and I used to argue about politics a lot. He enjoyed arguing with me. I think he found it sexy. When he lost an argument (which was most of the time) he would hover uncomfortably close to me in a harassing way or come and fart in my cubicle. But I somehow always rose to the bait anyway. Because he was just smart enough that I held onto the hope that someday my incisive logic and convincing rhetoric would cause him to wake up.
Once we had a big argument about the flat tax. Being a student of economics, I thought it was stupid and unfair. But Bob loved the flat tax. He had written his masters thesis on it, having read Ayn Rand in college. He started in with this bullshit story about two farmers, with land and equipment of equal size and quality….one who worked hard and had a great harvest and one who was lazy and had meager reapings in the fall. I cut him off, and told him that as soon as we actually had equal opportunity in this country we could have that conversation. I drew two pie charts comparing the relative percentage of income taken up by fixed expenses which are not proportionally affected by income and stormed out of his office.
For those of you unfamiliar with such pie charts, I will explain briefly what I mean. If a rich family eats steak and a poor family eats beans, it sounds relative to income, right? But if the rich family makes a million dollars a year, and the poor family makes ten thousand, I guaran-damn-tee you that poor family spends a much greater percentage of its income on beans than the rich family spends on steak. Same for housing, transportation, medical care….lots of expenses necessary to life. So a flat tax is proportionally higher on those with less money since more of what they do have is taken up with necessary expenses which are not really relative to their income.
It is a little complicated to wrap some heads around. But really, this illustrates the underlying problem. Structural inequality is real, and often more relevant to a person’s circumstances than any personal moral qualities. The myth of “producers” and “looters” TOTALLY DISREGARDS any structural inequality between people, attributing everything to individually controllable personal qualities such as moral fortitude, perseverance and effort. This is to say, if one is so immoral as to be born into a poor family, or commits the unpardonable sin of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, one is classified as a looter. If one is fortunate enough to be born into a family of substantial means, and treated well, and educated well, and takes advantage of the excellent connections that usually accompany such a life, one is classified as a producer.
So conservatives that worship Ayn Rand are mentally and morally lazy. They may be selfish, but there is no damn virtue in it.
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