July 30, 2010
Anti-Trident campaigners should today be lauding George Osborne, who has knocked back Liam Fox’s claim that the capital costs for the replacement of Trident would be met from outwith the defence budget. This makes it much more likely that Trident will not be replaced at all – Fox knows that in order to find the £20billion of capex a replacement would require, he’d face a very public drubbing from generals who have previously questioned the system’s usefulness in maintaining our security and fulfilling the operational requirements of current and future conflicts.
The reasoning behind this is very simple. Trident is a system intended to provide an unpredictable and undetectable launch platform for sophisticated multi-warhead ICBMs capable of overwhelming conventional missile defence systems surrounding a major city or substantial military installation. It was developed in response to an enemy with a global strike capability and potentially overwhelming conventional forces. Such an enemy no longer exists – the only nation that currently falls into this category is the United States, and unless there’s a (very) hidden undercurrent of anti-Americanism in the pro-nukes camp, the USA doesn’t count as a reason to retain Trident.
Let’s consider any potential future conflicts. The key consideration is the development of a global strike capability by a potentially hostile power – the only obvious player here is China. China, while being somewhat belligerent in its immediate neighbourhood in response to historical territorial disputes, has not ventured to expand its sphere of influence and its global capabilities much beyond its immediate naval boundaries. It has not sought to secure military bases in the Western hemisphere at all – its main activities outside its borders are almost exclusively focused on the peaceful aquisition of economic assets, although this is no reason to believe that there is no potential for proxy conflict over resources in, say, Africa as a consequence of this acquisition drive.
However, in order to constitute a threat, China would need its current source of economic growth to be something other than exporting goods to the West. As it converts to a consumption-based economy, this may yet become the case – but even if it achieves this, it merely heightens the possibility of proxy resource wars rather than global conflict. I would therefore say that China does not constitute a reason to retain Trident.
The outstanding potential enemies is therefore reduced to those in possession of potentially overwhelming conventional forces – here I interpret ‘overwhelming’ as ‘Would as a minimum involve five years of nasty to-ing and fro-ing.’ The top of the scale is set by Russia, while the middle ranks are stuffed with middle eastern countries. Russia has reacquired its tendency towards belligerence, and there is the strong possibility of conflict in the rapidly melting Arctic ocean. It has aspirations towards – as a minimum – European leadership, and will undoubtedly use force again to preserve its influence in what it regards as its back yard.
However, Russia has lost its global strike capability, and outside its backyard is less belligerent than playground bully. It seeks the approval of its peers, and appears to recognise the importance of economic factors over hard power in achieving this. Binding Russia further into the European economy will substantially reduce the chances of Russian tanks sweeping over the plains of eastern Europe. Economic ties will deter agression far more than Trident ever could.
It’s the Middle Eastern states that present the most interesting challenge, and the greatest potential for a conflict in which we’d actually use nukes. This is because of their recently-acquired ability to use terrorism as a proxy for a global strike capability. In the event of a Middle Eastern state knowingly releasing a biological agent in London, say, the necessity of conflict would be unavoidable. Furthermore, conflict would be necessarily punitive in nature – the public clamour at the actions of a hostile state in killing hundreds of thousands of its citizens would require it.
Against a sufficiently large state, a conventional response would not be sufficiently punitive, and there would be a clamour to use nuclear weapons – a clamour it may be difficult to resist. Using Trident would result in the cities of that state being reduced to a smouldering radioactive wasteland, as well as worldwide condemnation.
There is another way. Replacing Trident with nuclear-tipped ‘smart’ missiles like the ridiculously bombastically named StormShadow system would allow us to overcome significant conventional forces with the minimum of losses to our side, providing a significant deterrent to those regimes most likely to actually launch an attack on our shores. The strongest objection against this proposal is that it’s easier to shoot down missiles like the StormShadow than Trident’s ICBMs – but this rather assumes that our opponents have effective missile defences. I invite you to compare our guided missile capabilities against our potential foes.
In summary, there is no short to medium term prospect of conflict with a power sufficient to require Trident as a deterrent – but there is a short to medium term prospect of conflict with powers we can deter with cheaper methods. The generals knows this, which is why Trident is unlikely to survive any future review of defence spending in its current form. Thank you, George Osborne!
July 29, 2010
I work as a campaigner in the renewables industry. Right, that’s the disclaimer out of the way – although I should stress I signed up because of principles and the planet and bunnies and the green green grass of home and that sort of thing, rather than the derisory sums they pay me.
The Devil’s Knife has posted a piece claiming that Chris Huhne is The Most Dangerous Man in the Country. Huhne is, apparently, a meglomaniac environmentalist bent on bringing British industry to its knees by pursing a demented energy policy based on windmills. Chris (Mounsey, I’m sure DK resents sharing Huhne’s first name) uses an article by Christopher Booker in the Mail denouncing Huhne in similar terms.
Before getting into the fun nitty-gritty of comparative energy policy, it’s important to set Booker in the context of the Daily Mail’s core market. This is predominantly middle-aged, well-off, and living in suburbs or rural areas – exactly the same sort of people who typically view a wind farm near their property as an intrusion. The Daily Mail knows this, and is very good as tailoring its news product to their prejudices – just like the Guardian, in fact. The Mail is also very good at avoiding PCC complaints, which is why it’ll typically push nonsense like Booker’s piece into an op-ed, because, as a response to an earlier complaint I raised against the Mail stated:
“[It] was clearly an opinion piece rather than a definitive statement of fact.”
Even though that op-ed made some statements which were clearly intended to be factual. Booker’s employment by the Mail should be seen in the same context as Polly Toynbee’s by the Guardian: someone who is very good at writing articles that appeal to a particular demographic.
Now, the next ten years. New nuclear is unlikely to be built until 2018 at the very earliest (and that is extremely optimistic in any case), while our current plant will begin shutting down by 2015. We need something to bridge the gap. CCS has not been proven (specifically the ‘storage’ part), and there is absolutely no political support for new coal without it. In terms of deployable renewables, the only technology mature enough to be deployed in sufficient quantities in time is wind. Our remaining option is gas, in new CCGT or OCGT plant.
The question – which DECC’s energy pathways attempt to address – is therefore to do with the balance of wind and gas on the system, rather than pretend we can rely on nuclear. Luckily, gas and wind complement each other very well – OCGT plants in particular are very efficient at handling variability. Left to itself, the market would probably opt for substantial numbers of new CCGT plant, as well as significantly more onshore wind turbines, as both have relatively low capital costs (by ‘leave the market to itself’ I also assume that planning isn’t a factor – it’s funny how fond many anti-state activists are of planning regulations. I don’t include DK in this, of course). Of course, in the real world, the outcome we end up with will involve a certain amount of state intervention.
Luckily for us, OfGem has already done some research on potential scenarios for 2020. It considers the implications of both strong investment in renewables and also the potential level of economic growth. A cursory glance at the document will tell you that in the event of weak economic growth, energy bills are lower with more gas on the system by about 1%. Conversely, with strong economic growth, more renewables on the system coupled with strong energy saving incentives means energy prices 44-30% cheaper. This is largely to do with the likely rocketing price of gas – we’re not the only European country to recognise the compability of wind and gas.
I know which path I’d opt for if lower energy prices for consumers was my aim, quite apart from anything to do with carbon emissions. As a betting man, I know where my money is going.
July 25, 2010
Part 8 of my blog of reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 8: The John Galt Line
Dagny has been thrown out of the Taggart Transcontinental offices, and runs the new John Galt Line company from a couple of pokey rooms behind the tower of her former empire; part of the pretence that this new line is nothing to do with TT.
The Equalisation of Opportunity Act has forced Rearden to divest himself of his ore and coal mines, leaving only his forges remaining. He sells his ore mines to a rather wet chap called Paul Larkin, who appears to find the whole business so upsetting that in a peculiar way he wants Rearden to say that it’s fine that the government has forced Rearden to sell Larkin his ore mines, because he trusts Larkin. Rearden doesn’t believe trust has anything to do with commerce.
Rand launches on a brief survey of public attitude towards the John Galt line, which is mostly of the ‘IT’S GOING TO KILL US ALL!’ variety. She indulges in attributing a few ridiculous arguments to her straw men: Slagenhop says, “There is no source of public opinion. It is spontaneously generated. It is a reflex of the collective instinct of the collective mind.” The general policy of the press is set by the maxim: “There are no objective facts. Every report on facts is only someone’s opinions. It is, therefore, useless to write about facts”.
Oh Rand, you are naughty. How can the convincing win which Dagny is doubtless about to achieve be convincing in the face of morons like this? At least give their arguments a little intellectual bite.
Dagny confronts the Union of Locomotive Engineers, who are refusing to let any of their workers drive trains on the John Galt line. Dagny (and by extension Rand) uses the following argument against them:
“I know what you want. You want a stranglehold on your men by means of the jobs I give them – and on me, by means of your men. You want me to provide the jobs, and you want to make it impossible for me to have any jobs to provide. [The train is going to be run, and you can choose whether it’s run by your men or not]. If you think that I can run an engine but they can’t build a railroad, choose accordingly.”
No wonder all the libertarian boys love Thatcher. She spent much of the 80s channelling Dagny. This argument works by the implication of control – if a few men represent the workforce in an area of endeavour that requires skilled labour, then they can determine which manufacturers they permit their staff to work for, thus determining which manufacturer has the advantage over the others. By doing so, they can shut down manufacturers they don’t like, and force the remaining manufacturers to only employ union members.
However, this argument has little to do with real-world unions, as in AtlasWorld they seem more akin to guilds – or, perhaps, the RMT, and to a certain extent British unions before Thatcher’s reforms. Unions representatives exist to secure better pay and conditions for their members; during period of low unemployment they provide an effective path towards collective negotiation. Rand’s attitude towards this appears to be that given that workers are incapable of building an industry in the same way as Dagny, they do not have the right to bargain collectively. Individual worth is the determinant of economic success – collective action represents a check on the individual, and so is to be ignored or circumvented. This argument only really applies when unions are too strong – but, of course, given that this is AtlasWorld, the unions are too strong.
Dagny holds a press conference in front of the media of AtlasWorld, who are naturally shocked that she intends to make a profit out of her business venture.
This chapter is generally wonderfully written and joy to read – Rand is a superb author of scenes of triumph and success – but the sheer stupidity of the opposition somewhat detract from this.
The day of the completion of the John Galt Line arrives, and Dagny and Rearden ride the first train along the line. Rand spends thirteen pages talking about how wonderful this is – and quite deservedly so, as even the most hardened socialist couldn’t fail to be moved by this section. There is one interesting argument; although perhaps it’s more simile than argument:
‘[Machines] are alive, she though, but their soul operates them by remote control. Their soul is in every man who has the capacity to equal this achievement. Should the soul vanish from the earth, the motors would stop, because that is the power which keeps them going… the power of a living mind – the power of thought and choice and purpose.’
The train arrives, amidst hullabaloo. Wyatt greets Rearden and Dagny, and they have a triumphant dinner, marred only by Wyatt’s despair at the state of the rest of the world.
Dagny and Rearden become lovers (which surprises no-one who’s been paying attention). Rand makes lots of references to submission, but like the rest of this chapter it’s beautifully written.
The argument I quote above is perhaps the core of the book – the notion that the removal of a mind from the world will remove the motive power that mind’s achievements lend to it. It’s a strong statement of the significance of the individual – that the individual is the key to advancement, that the strong and visionary mind powers the world by reshaping it in its image. It is countered with the weaker collective minds of the press and contemporary commentators, who ride on the back of the strong. This provides part of the justification for Rand’s version of freedom of the individual.
The obvious problem with this argument is that it’s a false dichotomy – human achievement comes in both collective and individual forms. The largest engineered object mankind has ever produced, the Large Hadron Collider, is the product of collective action – state funds and committees of engineers and scientists, as well as the aggregate demand of European scientists for such a facility. It was not the product of a single mind, but rather the shared vision of many. This is a necessary function of complexity; as the knowledge of our species grows, so does the complexity of our tools and specialisation required for each individual to play a part. Thus, the complex collective achievement of public services represents not a single vision but rather a multitude of overlapping visions, one for each employee therein. We should celebrate both the individual and the collective, for both are vital, but Rand would seek to diminish co-operation as a virtue, and in AtlasWorld it inevitably leads to destruction. Why?
Part 9 is here.
July 23, 2010
The ONS today released their second-quarter preliminary estimate for GDP growth in 2010… Wait, where are you going? Come back, this stuff is important!
The electoral fortunes of the Lib Dems are currently at a low ebb, as the combination of unpopular budget decisions and a media squeeze push our poll ratings back towards pre-election levels. This is not unsurprising, but it’s doubtless causing some in the party consternation. If we’re to reverse our fortunes, we need to consider the likely state of the UK in five years’ time, which remains the most likely date of the next general election – giving up the coalition now would see us eviscerated by the electorate.
Our future fortunes depend on the growth of the economy in those five years – if we’re able to secure a strong recovery and a return to prosperity, we’ll be rewarded. If we have a double-dip recession, we’ll, well, not be. That’s why I’m sure the party’s strategists are examining today’s announcement with some relief – the stronger than expected growth figure of 1.1% would seem to indicate that the economy is indeed picking up. But what’s the actual picture?
This growth is primarily the result of expansion in two sectors: business & financial services, and construction. I predicted the continued expansion of financial services as a result of early cuts here, but construction is something else – indeed, the furore around the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme seemed to imply that the likes of Balfour Beatty would be in for a rough ride indeed.
It’s possible that what we’re seeing in construction is the aftermath of Labour’s late-term spending spree, providing a temporary fake boost to the industry – part of this increase comes from extra Government spending, particularly on health. It could also be the impact of a shift in spending from cash savings into infrastructure to offset potential inflation. If it’s the former, I would anticipate the next quarterly estimate to remain positive thanks to continued expansion of financial services, but for the increase to be significantly less. However, resurgent growth in the financial sector means that the prospect of a double-dip recession – and thus further diminishment in our electoral fortunes – seems less likely.
Of course, this means we’ll have failed to diversify the economy away from finance thus far – but we’ve got another five years to achieve that.
July 22, 2010
Part 7 of my blog of reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 7: The Exploiters and the Exploited
The chapter opens with Dagny hard at work rebuilding the Rio Norte line, hampered by the pathetic contractors she has been forced to engage for the project. Effective contractors have been becoming rarer and rarer. The ones she has brought onboard are wary of working with Rearden Metal; the vitriol attached to it in the national press has been growing daily.
Ellis Wyatt visits the work site, offering frequent suggestions to improve the effectiveness of her contractors’ work. He has the ability to identify potential improvements and risks quickly and effectively, and is pleased with Dagny’s progress on the line. Rearden offers to build her a new strong and cheap bridge made of Rearden Metal.
Rand’s aristocracy of the talented is becoming slightly wearing, for the rather obvious reason that minds capable of overseeing every single aspect of a business simultaneously without assistance from employees do not exist. The example given later in this chapter of Rearden personally working on a new design for a bridge support is a case in point – there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for a CEO of a multi-million dollar company to spend time pouring over new engineering approaches himself, unless he’s handed all the actual management to other people. Not to mention that his idea for ‘combining an arch and a truss’ suggests that Rand knows very little about engineering.
Meanwhile the attacks on Rearden Metal continue. Rearden receives a request from the State Scientific Institute to remove his product from the market until the social conditions are right, a request he treats with the short shrift it deserves. In response, the SSI issues a statement that fails to claim Rearden Metal is a bad product, but which emphasises the uncertainty attached to it and the potential risk. The market reacts badly, and Dagny’s contractors do similarly.
Dagny visits the head of the SSI, Doctor Robert Stadler. Dr Stadler is one of history’s greatest scientists, and it was at his urging that the Government paid for the SSI, to set science free from the ignominy of having to work for industry.
Bit of a misrepresentation of the history of science here. Science, especially abstract science, was historically the preserve of the sons of the rich, until the value of public funding for blue-sky research was recognised. You would find it very hard to identify any instance anywhere in the world of abstract or pure enquiry being funded by private enterprise – until that private enterprise had seen how they could make a profit out of it. The brutal fact, which Rand fails to address here, is that a significant amount of basic science – for example, zoology or in its early days geology – has no useful application beyond the advancement of human knowledge. Private enterprise in these fields is typically built on the back of public endeavour. In a Randian world, these fields would remain unexamined except if by chance a genius arose talented enough to compress the work of thousands of scientists and hundreds of years into a single lifetime. This would appear to put a brake on prosperity and human advancement for the sake of principle, and ignore knowledge as a value in itself.
Stadler plays the fool, pushing the blame off onto a subordinate, while recognising that the mealy-mouthed statement is an indictment of the SSI. He briefly refers to three students of his who took joint majors in physics and philosophy, whose genius he recognised and whose interest he competed for with their philosophy professor, Hugh Akston. The three were Francis d’Anconia, a Scandinavian pirate, and a vanished third man.
The collapse of public confidence in the Rio Norte line leads to Dagny persuading Jim to allow her to hive off that part of Taggart Transcontinental into a separate company for the time being to avoid attracting further opprobrium to TT. The line is renamed the John Galt Line. Dagny receives financing from a consortium of businessmen, including Rearden – but d’Anconia refuses.
The reader is left it little doubt that part of Rearden’s motivation for working so closely with Dagny is his complete infatuation with her.
Again with the wanting to make a woman submit thing Rand’s talked about before. It’s couched in terms of ‘wanting her to surrender to him’ – in other words, making her his property in order to use her to fulfil his desires. A feminist tract this is not.
The Equality of Opportunity Act passes (I unfairly suspected Rand of using this to mock anti-monopoly legislation in a previous post; this act is so insane no-one would think of it as anti-monopoly legislation), thanks to a sneaky flurry of activity within the legislature. The Act provides that any businessman may own only one business concern. What ‘concern’ entails is not clear, but it’s likely that it means only one business in one area of industrial activity – nothing more than a single area of single purpose plant. This will force Rearden to sell his ore mines to retain his smelting operation. Rearden reacts to this by designing a new bridge.
The ‘legislature’ in AtlasWorld is clearly insane and evil – the Equality of Opportunity Act is a gross perversion of anti-monopoly legislation that would crush any vertical conglomerate and its attendant economies of scale, without actually ensuring that any single business cannot dominate a sector of the market. Yet the legislature is mandated by public consent. The twisted versions of philosophers and social commentators we encountered in the previous chapter have won the public debate to the point where such perversions are possible.
In AtlasWorld, the titans of industry are uninterested in public affairs. They find it despicable, to a large degree. They are now reaping the whirlwind of this distaste. This is an arena in which they have refused to compete, and so have been bested. It is surprising that Rand, who clearly believes in competition, would present as virtuous characters who refuse to engage in this particular type of it, and as sinful characters who gladly do.
Part 8 is here.
July 19, 2010
Part 6 of my blog of reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 6: The Non-Commercial
This chapter sees a return of the man with the mind of a surly teen, Hank Rearden. It’s his wedding anniversary, and his wife has thrown a party to which the cream of society have been invited. Naturally, he resents it – not as a frivolity, because he wishes to make his wife happy (somewhat inexplicably, as he considers his marriage an interminable agony), but rather because of the urgency of his work. In some ways this chapter is a retread of our previous examination of Rearden in social situations – him being thought of as selfish, his focus on his work to the exclusion of discourse with the people who depend on them, his resentment combined with inexplicable generousity – but it also allows Rand to bring together a few strands of the story to present, and moves on the plot a little.
We encounter Rearden as he hurriedly dresses, rushing past a newspaper with a highlighted article on the subject of an ‘Equalisation of Opportunity’ bill – a bill inspired by limited resources, limited opportunity, and the necessity of competition to limit the number of business concerns a single man may own.
Rand is clearly beginning to build up to some sort of anti-monopoly legislation argument here, but all that’s expressed at this point is Rearden’s rage at such a limitation.
Rearden enters the party, and the first person he encounters is a philosopher called Dr Pritchard, who decries anything created by man and claims that the key task of philosophy is demonstrate that there is no such as meaning. Pritchard applauds the Equalisation of Opportunity bill, pointing out that man must be forced to be free in the matter of competition. He then sneers at reason as ‘the most naive of all superstitions’.
This is a horrendous caricature of Anglo-American philosophy in the 1950s, which has absolutely nothing to do with what was actually happening on the ground. Quine published ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism‘ in 1951, ostensibly to move analytic philosophy towards a holistic scientific rationalism. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of contemporary philosophy during the period would have been aware of his political conservatism – not to mention the rigour of reason philosophy required in this period. Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957.
There is absolutely no excuse for Rand’s caricature here. Even if she intended to poke at continental existentialist philosophers like Heidegger or Sartre, none of the thinkers in this period would have rejected meaning as not existent – rather, existentialists tend to concieve of meaning as generated by the self. This is not dissimilar to the self-motivated men and women who are the heroes and heroines of this book. The utter ignorance and arrogance here is appalling.
On the other side of the room, a writer called Balph Eubank is holding court. Like Pritchard, he is very much a straw man – putting forward arguments like an Equalisation of Opportunity act for literature. This would involve only permitting any given book one print run of 10,000 copies, and is so absurd as to be not worth discussing further.
In a conversation with a journalist named Bertram Scudder who wrote a scathing fact-free article on Rearden called The Octopus, a character called Claude Slagenhope (It would be nice if Rand gave her strawmen slightly less ridiculous names) makes a key strawman argument:
“Need is the only consideration. If people are in need, we’ve got to seize things first and talk about it afterwards”
In other words, Rand is accusing socialists of taking without thinking of the consequences. Perhaps some people do genuinely think like that, but the onus is rather on Rand to demonstrate some real examples of her bogeymen.
Dagny enters the party unexpectedly, as befits someone who typically stands aside from society. She approaches Rearden, the only man the room she respects. He is cold to her, most likely because she’s lowered herself to come to a party when she could’ve been working. Dagny actually comes across as rather socially incompetent in this entire chapter, the initially strong heroine seemingly being broken down by her repeated encounters with strong men.
After a mild period of inconsequential shilly-shallying of strawmen, Franciso d’Anconia arrives, to the annoyance of Rearden who regards him as a man who has squandered his fortune. Of course, we know from the previous chapter that the golden boy of copper is no squanderer, rather moving with the purpose of a man who wishes to hasten the end of ‘looter’ society.
d’Anconia approaches Rearden, who is intrigued by his seeming understanding of the inner rigours of Rearden’s psyche. A key point in their discussion is d’Anconia allowing Rearden to realise that without his efforts and work, all those attending the party right now would likely be naked outside in a storm. d’Anconia offers his gratitude for this, which Rearden rejects on the grounds that he works purely for himself – the support of his hangers-on is incidental to this fact.
We move through the party, hearing tales of a Norwegian pirate stealing from aid ships, and of Atlantis, a home for the spirits of heroes, which the mysterious John Galt – a rich and successful businessman – found, and purposely drove his yacht to the bottom of the sea to reach.
Dagny swaps her diamond bracelet for the one made of Rearden Metal possessed by Rearden’s wife, Lillian. This odd act, mysterious to Dagny herself, is resented by Rearden.
The party ends, and so does the chapter with a discussion of Rearden’s rather pathetic inability to come to terms with his own marriage and sexual desire. He no longer desires his wife, and sex is brief and perfunctory, a function of instinct rather than joy.
This is a chapter in which various strands of the story begin to be woven together. As such, its arguments tread no new ground, being rehashes and restatements of previous discussions. The only new matter is that of monopoly legislation, which Rand argues against only with the ridiculous strawman of ‘forcing to be free’, leaving one to conclude that she has little idea how markets work in real life.
Rearden is painted as being fundamentally unhappy and unable to cope with the world outside of work – this theme is picked up in his c0nversation with d’Anconia, and may yet develop into something more interesting. Will he yet abandon his wife outside in the storm?
Part 7 is here.
July 17, 2010
Part 5 of my blog of reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 5: The Climax of the d’Anconias
The chapter opens with the discovery by the Peoples’ Government of Mexico that the d’Anconia copper mines they’d nationalised in the previous chapter were worthless. No decent ore was to be found in the mountains at all, leaving the ‘looters’ feel as though they’d been cheated.
Dagny takes this rather hard – Taggart Transcontinental had been exposed to the copper mines as a consequence of Jim’s manoeuvrings, meaning that the clear deception practiced by d’Anconia had financial implications for TT too. She goes to meet Francisco d’Anconia, with whom the previous chapters have hinted she has some sort of history.
We go into another childhood flashback, in which we learn the Taggart children (Jim & Dagny, along with Eddie) spent their summers with the young Francisco. Francisco is presented as being good at anything he turns his hand to, sneaking away from home to take up jobs on the railroad and in mines; acquiring his first mine at a young age by raising the capital from the stockmarket. He’s your perfect proto-mogul; focused on work, and instantly skilled at anything he tries. Naturally, Dagny greatly admires him.
Dagny’s mother arranges her society debut, an event Dagny finds greatly disappointing, partly as a consequence of the poor quality of men on offer, and that the people there appeared to believe that the decorations – the ‘lights and flowers’ would make them romantic, rather than the other way round.
Okay, we get it. Rand doesn’t think ordinary people are worth a damn. However, this is a bizarre criticism of balls as an event concept – balls have an edge on other similar parties because of the increased effort put into presentation of the venue and the attendees, adding another layer of pleasure to a standard party.
Dagny complains to Francis about the pathetic people she’s encountered at the ball. They end up making love; a peculiarly out-of-character sex scene in which Dagny enjoys submitting to Francis.
I’m not going to speculate on Rand’s sexual proclivities, but women who are submissive in bed tend to be (a) rubbish and (b) in possession of mental health problems. At least, in my experience.
They become lovers, and Francis begins to act strangely. He talks about giving it all up – all of his business, all his endeavours. He makes references to finding it hard, even though he knows that “he’s right”; an unidentified character.
Who is John Galt?
Dagny and Francis part ways for a period of time, in which Francis becomes a playboy – ice palaces in the desert, absurdly huge yachts – all emblems of a lack of purpose, a purpose he once said he couldn’t imagine not having. His business ventures become occasionally forays, as if for sport. Dagny doesn’t understand this apparent conversion to hedonism, finding it distressing. Francis’ only response appears to be a slightly patronising version of ‘You’ll understand when you’re older’.
Back in the present day, Dagny goes to confront Francis over the San Sebastien mines. Francis professes to now be a creature of the moment, delighting in the spectacle of the investors in the mines losing money and the sheer angry frustration of the Mexican government. His goals have shifted from having purpose to accelerating the decline of contemporary society, by pushing capital away from men with ability to the corrupt. Dagny doesn’t understand this personality change, and leaves in a kind of frustrated despair.
The interesting argument in this chapter has little to do with the advancement of the plot, but is perhaps the key to unpicking this sub-plot. At one point during the chapter, d’Anconia claims that the only kind of morality that makes sense is an ethic of competence – a ‘gold standard’ he refers to it as. How well you do your job is taken as the only moral value worth the name.
This doesn’t sit well with the ‘acquisition by neither force or fraud’ principle the book has touched on before – one can be a competent practitioner of violence. Perhaps Rand will resolve this in a future chapter. It does, however, have a deeper problem than mere inconsistency – how does one assess competence on an objective framework? Value of competence in a particular field is given by the marketplace, not an objective measure. Perhaps one could work up a definition around productivity, but that would prevent significant fields of human endeavour counting as endeavour in themselves – making X products in Y time doesn’t really cover, say, composition.
Part 6 is here.
July 5, 2010
Part 4 of my blog of reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 4: The Immovable Movers
The chapter opens with our heroine, Dagny, returning from a visit to a supplier of diesel trains, who had been unable to offer any real reason for his delay in supplying the trains to the Taggart company. He had been, as many of the foils to Dagny’s wit had, pathetic – in the yard of his company lay an enormous irreplaceable machine tool now beyond use through neglect. Dagny was driven into a fury by such a egregious waste of potential.
Everyone’s useless except a few select men and Dagny.
Back in her office, she learns that the contractor who had efficiently laid out the San Sebastien track has mysteriously vanished – McNamara simply left his profitable business concern, and disappeared.
And now those select men are disappearing.
Dagny returns home, and listens to the music of Richard Halley, her only pleasure outside work. We briefly examine the tortured existence of Halley, who fought for years to achieve recognition, and at the peak of his success simply walked out of his own life, never to be seen again. His music had the quality of the heroic, a virtue lost on the world in which Atlas Shrugged is set.
Jim Taggart learns that the San Sebastien line has been nationalised, as Dagny predicted, and takes the credit for her fore-sighted reduction of service.
Rand, we get that Jim is a bit of twat.
Thanks to Boyle’s lobbying, the National Railways Alliance passes the ‘Anti Dog-eat-Dog Rule’, which effectively forbids competing railway networks and gives the preference to the antecedent in areas in which competition already exists. Dan Conway, the owner of the Phoenix-Durango line which had begun to take trade away from the Taggart Company’s Rio Norte line, is ruined at a stroke.
Dagny attempts to encourage Conway to overturn the ruling, but Conway refuses to on the grounds that he had committed to obey the rulings of the majority, and as a man of his word cannot countermand that now that the will of the majority has gone against him.
This is the crucial argument in this chapter – I will discuss this more at the end.
Ellis Wyatt, the man responsible for the sudden industrial expansion in Colorado that led to the importance of the Phoenix-Durango line, bursts into Dagny’s office to demand that she bring the Rio Norte line up to scratch, otherwise his sudden inability to export his goods will ruin him. Dagny consents, despite the pain of being taken to be a ‘looter’.
Rearden and Dagny have something of a love-in, engendered by Dagny’s sudden urgent need for her line to be finished in time to meet Wyatt’s demands. Dagny finds Rearden’s commitment to his product, Rearden Metal, inspiring, and the two contemplate its potential uses. We are left in no doubt that people like this are those who move the world.
Effective people are the movers of the world; the ones who bring about the goods of civilisation. In the world of Atlas Shrugged, you are either a mover or you are not – Rand does not present any real middle ground between movers and non-movers, although she does occasionally touch on movers who’ve decided to stop moving. In this sense, there’s a definite Manichean aspect to the argument that she’s developing, which may or may not be a hindrance.
In this chapter, we encountered Conway, who was hoist by his own commitment to majoritarian decision-making. Rand demonstrates the obvious here – the majority may decide to take an action which enriches them at the expense of a minority, thereby destroying the good thing that minority created. Her Mary Sue, Dagny, refuses to accept this – “One can’t be punished for ability”.
This, of course, is the central problem of democratic politics – the majority may decide to do something that is objectively wrong. Dagny’s response to this is highly emotive, and it’s not clear at this point whether Rand believes this too. It is a triumphant expression of individuality, and stands at the opposite end of the spectrum of answers to the democracy problem to something like the philosophical statism espoused by Plato. However, simply rejecting democracy because you don’t like the outcome isn’t an argument, merely a statement of preference. It remains to be seen whether Rand has anything substantial beyond the emotive.
Part 5 is here.
July 3, 2010
Part 3 of my blog of reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 3: Top and Bottom
The increasingly unsubtle chapter titles are becoming slightly grating. You’ll see what I mean in this chapter in particular.
The chapter opens with Jim Taggart, the renowned pussy of the first chapter, discussing the future of the steel & railway industries with a set of co-conspirators in a dreary yet expensive bar at the top of a skyscraper. These conspirators include Orren Boyle, Jim’s friend to whom he had originally given the contract for the Rio Norte line. Once again, we encounter the very odd method of conversation we encountered in the first chapter, in which one person lectures and the others respond. I can only assume that this is how Rand believes conversations actually work – or that she’s trying for a prose form of a Socratic dialogue.
Socialists they are, despite being captains of industry. This is given by the description of Boyle as a man who started out with $100,000 of his own, and a $200 million loan from THE GOVERNMENT. A loan, it’s worth reminding ourselves, sourced from taxes. Boyle has bought himself the best available plant for his company, leading to being given the ‘Industry Efficiency Award’ from Globe magazine the previous year. He uses this to claim that he’s doing his best.
The arguments used here begin to get even more ridiculous and self-serving. It’s possible that Rand really believes that this is how socialists think. I shall call this particular group of antagonists The Straw Men from now on.
Following a circumspect discussion of the importance of collective action and the position of private property (Rand cannot possibly believe that anyone would ever say ‘The only justification of private property is public service’), the Straw Men pledge to use the power of their connections to overcome the competition their enterprises are encountering. Taggart will talk to Washington about the health & safety implications of Rearden Metal, and Boyle will use his connections with the National Alliance of Railroads to overcome the competition the Rio Norte line is experiencing from the Phoenix-Durango line.
The Straw Men discuss briefly the fate of the San Sebastian mines in Mexico – a high-profile investment made by a playboy called Franciso d’Anconia. They all have stock invested in the mines, and Jim was so persuaded of their potential that he overrode the objections of Dagny to building a railroad to serve them. Boyle informs Jim that the service on the line has been reduced to one passenger train per day and a freight train at night, using an ancient wood-burning locomotive. Jim is astounded that such a major operational change has slipped him by.
Scene change, into Dagny’s memories. We learn that she started working at the bottom of the Taggart pile aged 16, as a night operator at a small country station, and forged her way upwards by being willing to take decisions while others, seemingly, pussied out of them. By comparison, James Taggart started work at the age of 21 in Taggart’s Department of Public Relations.
Oooooh. Quick dig at PR there; but oddly Rand appears to think of PR as more like Public Affairs; in other words, lobbying. It’s not clear where she stands on advertising per se; surely projecting an image beyond the product counts as fraud?
Jim enters the office to confront Dagny over her scaling back of Taggart’s operation on the San Sebastian line. Dagny crushes this impertinence by once again pushing the decision onto him – a decision, of course, he is unable to take, on account of being a Straw Man.
Dagny is convinced that the People’s Republic of Mexico will nationalise the line, so has reduced service to a minimum. There is no profit to be had there, as copper has yet to begin flowing from the mines. One of her lines summarises her position rather succinctly: “So that the looters won’t have too much to loot when they nationalise the line”. Jim’s response to this is another Straw Man argument about the necessity of helping out developing nations rather than achieving profit.
I am increasingly convinced that Rand really does believe the arguments in favour of socialism are this weak.
Dagny leaves the office, and pauses to idolise the statue of her ancestor, Nathaniel Taggart, the original railway pioneer. ‘Idolise’ really is the right word here; we are left in no doubt that Dagny considers this man her personal Jesus – a man who rose from nothing from sheer personal endeavour to build a railway across the continental United States. We learn he acquired every penny of his wealth without force or fraud – and yet was content to murder senators when they attempted to revoke building permits in order to make money from selling Taggart stock short. He offered his wife as collateral for a loan from a man who hated him – with her consent – and paid the loan back on time. This was instead of being forced to accept a loan from the government – and, indeed, he threw the man who offered it to him down the stairs. We also learn he was never popular, and was infamous rather than famous, although it’s not clear why.
Meanwhile, Eddie eats in the company of an engineer in the Taggart Building cafeteria, and informs him that the only thing Dagny likes outside of work is the music of Richard Halley. What does this mean? Who is John Galt?
The ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ should be obvious; Nathaniel and James Taggart represent the best and worst of Rand’s system of virtues. The key phrase to this system is ‘without force or fraud’; from my previous readings of summaries of libertarian thought, this principle is one they take as the foundation of their morality. This is where Rand departs from Nietzsche – he would doubtless view this principle as another iteration of a ‘slave morality’ like those of Christianity or Islam, one designed to hold back the ubermensch. I must admit I am surprised at this – why anyone almost evangelically committed to competition, as Rand appears to be, would limit its scope is beyond me. It rather appears to be a charter for the bullied.
Part 4 is here.