Two and a half years ago, I watched the televised bipartisan Health Care Summit called by President Obama to help find a way to pass his embattled but vitally important health insurance reform bill (a few weeks later, Obamacare finally became law). During these intense sessions, I noticed a single Republican politician at the table who seemed far more driven and articulate than all the others. This was my first glimpse of Paul Ryan, the young Wisconsin congressman and House Budget Chief, and I immediately knew he was a politician to watch. Closely ...
My first impression of Paul Ryan became complete when I discovered that he is an enthusiastic follower of Ayn Rand (though he later tried to cover this up after discovering that Ayn Rand polls very badly with religious voters). I don't think it reflects badly on Paul Ryan's character that he believes in Ayn Rand's philosophy of extreme free-market capitalism. I have tried to reach out to the growing worldwide community of Rand enthusiasts through blog posts and a book called Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters), a book that evaluates the Rand doctrine seriously and treats her followers with respect. The book has been a success in several ways -- it continues to sell hundreds of copies each month (it has received a significant Paul Ryan bump), and has also allowed me to enter into private or public discussions with Objectivists all over the world when they contact me with critiques of my book. This experience confirms for me what I already knew: Objectivists tend to be very smart, complex, articulate and creative people. The stereotype of a Randian as a lunkheaded bully belongs to the past; today's Randians are young and energetic and full of new ideas. And their ranks are growing, not shrinking -- Ayn Rand is dead, but Objectivism is increasingly seen as a movement for the future.
It shouldn't reflect badly on Paul Ryan's character that he is into Ayn Rand. However, it should reflect very badly -- very, very badly -- on his claim to be a good choice for Vice President of the United States. Do we want an Objectivist one heartbeat away from the leadership of our great nation? I'm sure we don't.
It's funny that some people think presidential elections don't matter. There's little doubt that many things will change quickly if Americans make the nihilistic choice to empower Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to lead our government in 2012. Every woman's right to privacy over her health decisions will be threatened. The gains made via Obamacare against corrupt health insurance practices will be reversed. A newly aggressive and muscle-bound foreign policy (think: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney) will make an unwelcome return. In fact, so many changes would occur that we the people have barely even begun to discuss all the vital things that will change if we give these two out-of-touch plutocrats a mandate to run our government according to their ideas.
Let's talk about trains.
When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a crane driver. My parents thought this was pretty funny, since I was apparently a rather brainy and un-physical kid. Nobody else ever saw a hard hat and a metal lunchbox in my future, yet I was always obsessed with buildings and urban architecture, I always wanted to stop and look when we passed a construction site, and I still wonder today if I would have found greater overall satisfaction if I'd stuck to my earliest career plan. My crane-driver dreams were probably also inspired by The Flintstones.
I recently took a walk during a lunch break from my current day job, which is in the high-tech corridor of Herndon/Reston in Northern Virginia, and spotted a bustling building site where hundreds of construction professionals were hard at work. It occurred to me that I was looking at a real-life version of the positive vision presented by countless Republican or Democratic party political ads, because these TV commercials love to show the stern, trusting faces of stolid middle-aged guys wearing hard hats at construction sites. The construction job is the idealized American job: decent pay and benefits, solid and dependable hours, the satisfaction of watching a building emerge under your feet. Here's a wider vista of the project I watched for a few minutes before heading back to my own less exciting (but also, in its own way, rewarding and satisfying) job developing Drupal-based web applications for government-sponsored sites.
As the morality tale of the 2012 USA presidential election plays out, the decision we are all making together is often spun in the media as a referendum on Barack Obama, or as an appraisal of Mitt Romney. But the real historical significance of this election may turn out to involve a President who was elected 32 years ago. In 2012, we may finally manage to exorcise the ghost of flawed economics represented by the legacy of Ronald Reagan.
This is not to say that American citizens will ever stop revering Ronald Reagan, who stands at the very top level of the American cultural/mythological pantheon, along with George Washington, Elvis Presley and Jesus Christ. (Indeed, it's funny that conservatives often mock liberals like me for our "worship" of Barack Obama, because we never worship Barack Obama the unabashed way that conservatives worship Ronald Reagan.) The fond memory of Reagan is probably the strongest glue that currently unifies the whole wide Republican/conservative community, from the libertarians to the Tea Partiers to the bankers, from Ron Paul to Michelle Bachmann to Rick Santorum to John Boehner to Mark Levin. Reagan's immense popularity stands on three main pillars, and two of these pillars will survive the 2012 election debacle. One of the three will not.
The Literary Kicks upgrade/redesign is progressing well. I'm on a rare family vacation out on Long Island, catching up on my reading and thinking (sometimes it feels great to just take in, to not be writing) and I'm looking forward to coming back refreshed in early September.
Meanwhile, up in the real world, some people are asking if Mitt Romney's selection of enthusiastic Ayn Rand follower Paul Ryan as his running mate represents the closest Ayn Rand has ever come to the White House, the zenith of her influence on American politics. Actually, Ayn Rand has been in the White House, and in Congress, and all over Washington DC, for nearly 40 years now.
Ronald Reagan was a Randian (though the fiercely independent Ayn Rand herself refused to salute him back). Trickle-down economics -- the idea that government policies should favor the wealthy, ignore the middle and lower classes and "allow the rising tide to lift all boats" -- is Rand's economic philosophy in action. This unfortunate and dangerous ideology, which culminated in the ruinous financial crash of 2007/2008, has dominated federal economic policy since the 1980s. Even the supposedly liberal administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have barely managed to make a dent in the trickle-down system. The fact that President Obama's call for the wealthiest Americans to pay more taxes is controversial (I think it's a no-brainer that wealthy Americans need to pay more taxes, and begin to pay off the deficit they voted for) shows the powerful presence of trickle-down policy in American economics today.
The photo at the top of this page shows Ayn Rand and her close friend and prize student Alan Greenspan, along with their spouses, visiting President Gerald Ford in 1974. Alan Greenspan had just been appointed chairman of Ford's council of economic advisors, and would eventually go on to run the Federal Reserve Bank under Ronald Reagan. Greenspan was not a strict Objectivist -- a strict Objectivist could never endure the endless compromises of real-world politics -- but his vision of deregulated and hyper-charged American capitalism was highly consistent with Ayn Rand's economic philosophy. That was nearly forty years ago. The important question today isn't whether or not Paul Ryan intends to bring Ayn Rand into the White House. The important question is: what do we have to do to finally get Ayn Rand out of the White House, and out of Congress?
Years ago, when I was working for a small litigation software company in New York City, I was leaving the office one day when I thought I heard someone shout my name from far away. I stopped in the building lobby and looked around, but I didn't see anyone and couldn't imagine why somebody would be calling for me. So I continued on my way and was just about to reach the building's front door when I heard the muffled shout again, coming from the mezzanine above the escalator I'd just taken, along with the sound of pounding footsteps. A figure finally came into view, running down the escalator. It was my co-worker John T. "Did the servers crash?" I asked when he finally reached me.
"No," he said, breathless, grabbing his knees. He regained his composure and began digging around in his pocket, finally pulling out his wallet and handing me a single dollar bill. "The soda machine before," he sputtered.
The soda machine. Several hours earlier, he'd asked me for a dollar to buy a soda, and I had handed one over. I'd completely forgotten about it, and he could have too for all I cared. After all, we're both software developers, allegedly well paid -- what's a dollar to either of us? But I guess he takes great pride in being the kind of person who pays back every single dollar he ever borrows. I could see the pride on his face. "Thanks," I said, shrugging and turning away, shoving the dollar bill in my pocket.
Congressman and Republican party rising star Paul Ryan, who has never made a secret of his admiration for Ayn Rand before last week, has suddenly caught a bad case of Vice President fever. Rand's Objectivist ideology is too extreme for many American voters, and so Paul Ryan has begun a campaign push to erase all traces of her influence on his thought.
“I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says.
Well, there are several components to Ayn Rand's philosophy. Epistemologically, she is a rationalist (as was Thomas Aquinas, though his humbler rationalism was more subtle than hers). Psychologically, she is a devout Egoist. Spiritually, she is an atheist (and this is the part of her philosophy Paul Ryan is most eager to distance himself from, even though his newfound and highly convenient embrace of traditional Catholicism isn't impressing several other influential Catholics). But I don't think any of these things should matter very much to voters. Most of us couldn't care less what Paul Ryan thinks about epistemology or psychology or religion.
Paul Ryan was elected by his fellow Republicans for a critically important post in the House of Representatives. He's the chairman of the House Budget Committee, and in this capacity has defined the detailed direction for the USA federal budget for the Republican party. The Paul Ryan budget proposal drastically cuts services that middle class Americans rely on, while lowering taxes for the very wealthy (most obscenely of all, it fails to cut military spending; we can't pay to send poor Americans to college, but profit-bloated military contractors keep getting a blank check). Mitt Romney has called the Paul Ryan budget plan "marvelous". Perhaps the most important question at stake in the upcoming November 2012 elections is whether or not this country will adopt the Paul Ryan budget plan beginning in 2013.
The room in which the boys were fed, was a large stone hall, with a copper at one end: out of which the master, dressed in an apron for the purpose, and assisted by one or two women, ladled the gruel at mealtimes. Of this festive composition each boy had one porringer, and no more—except on occasions of great public rejoicing, when he had two ounces and a quarter of bread besides.
The bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again; and when they had performed this operation (which never took very long, the spoons being nearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at the copper, with such eager eyes, as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed; employing themselves, meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with the view of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon. Boys have generally excellent appetites. Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months: at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, and hadn't been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a small cook-shop), hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age. He had a wild, hungry eye; and they implicitly believed him. A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.
The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook's uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbors nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:
"Please, sir, I want some more."
This unforgettable scene from Oliver Twist, first serialized in Bentley's Miscellany -- where exactly in the imagination of Charles Dickens did it take place?
Ruth Richardson, a British historian and preservationist, stumbled upon an amazing answer to this question while advocating against the demolition of the Cleveland Street Workhouse, one of many extant London workhouses like the one described in Oliver Twist. This old building turned out to have a special significance, unknown at the time to the entire world. Charles Dickens, she discovered, had lived on the very same block during several of his turbulent childhood years.
A surprising moment of revelation has taken place within this year's bizarre Republican presidential primary contest. It began after journalists investigated candidate Mitt Romney's claim that he created over a hundred thousand jobs as chief of Bain Capital, a very successful private equity firm. They discovered instead that during Romney's tenure at Bain Capital the firm was just as likely to profit by investing in struggling companies and stripping them for parts, allowing the businesses to die and selling off their assets (all the while charging the companies high management fees), as it was to profit by enabling jobs.
Rick Perry (of all people) made a strong point when he called Bain's practices "vulture capitalism", and it was brave of Perry, an otherwise plodding pro-business Reaganite, to make this statement. Newt Gingrich cleverly baited Romney for a full week with questions about Bain and about his own finances, forcing Romney to reveal that as a venture capital investor he has continued to have a luxurious income every year, but has been paying only 15% in taxes, less than half what a typical American pays. The outrage over this has allowed Gingrich to vault himself over Romney in South Carolina's primary this weekend, a stunning upset victory.
It's gratifying to hear conservatives finally join liberals in criticizing the predatory and hyperactive forms of "extreme capitalism" that Bain represents, which are rooted in the same syndrome of reckless misuse of honest finance that caused the crash of 2007/2008. It has been a conservative basic principle to avoid any criticism of free market capitalism, to blame the crash instead on home ownership initiatives, and to characterize even the slightest critique of economic inequity in the USA as "class warfare". The accusation that critics of Wall Street or tax breaks for the wealthy engage in "class warfare" is intoned repeatedly these days by conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. This tends to be a real conversation-killer, since the term carries such ominous historic undertones. It reminds us of the guillotine, the gulag, Mao's terrible starvation farms.
Cool the engines
red line's getting near
cool the engines
better take it out of gear
-- Boston, 'Cool The Engines'
I'd better take a break, let this Philosophy Weekend thing cool off ... let myself cool off a little bit too.
I've been writing a lot of high-pitched stuff lately, and getting into plenty of debates with friends and relatives everywhere from Thanksgiving dinner to Facebook. It's time for me to step back, review my progress, find my balance, and prepare for a new round of Philosophy Weekend next year.
I began this series sixteen months ago, first with a halting introduction followed a week later by the presentation of my main thesis, which amounts to a defense of the political and personal philosophy known as pacifism. I have gradually come to realize -- this wasn't apparent even to me at first -- that every article I write in this series is related in some way to the argument for pacifism. The connections may be hard to trace, but they are always there.
I'm giving this intense series a Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa break, and will kick off the new year with a new thread in January. Till then, here are a few philosophical links you might like: