As I write these words, the United States Congress is attempting to wrap up one of the most surreal, theatrical and plainly ugly legislative battles in its history. The Republican-majority House of Representatives and the Democratic-majority Senate cannot pass a bill to raise the nation's debt ceiling, putting us days away from defaulting on our own national debt. This would be the equivalent of declaring national bankruptcy within a world economy that has always considered our debt to be completely solid and reliable.
The noisy spectacle aside, most observers are confident that a last minute compromise will be reached. (If it isn't, I trust that the smart and sensible Barack Obama will take steps to ensure the nation's solvency using every resource available to the Executive branch. We are at least a couple of options away from economic catastrophe.)
But what does it all mean? Here's what I think about the bigger issues, and I'd love to hear what you think too. I'll keep this as brief and succinct as I can.
I'm very sorry to hear that all the Borders bookstores in the world may close their doors very soon. This is not, apparently, because the book business is slowing down (Barnes and Noble and Amazon are still viable) but because of specific business decisions that turned out badly. I hope there will be a last-minute salvation, and if there's not I will certainly grieve this loss. Say what you want about massive book super-stores; they are great places to buy books, hang out and hear author readings. And we need the restrooms.
There's one Borders bookstore I specially remember, my favorite Borders in New York City, though this store closed nearly ten years ago. It was one of the flagship Borders locations in Manhattan, and it was a particularly good one because the vast building that housed it gave it the space of a barn.
This Borders had three floors -- a small one, a big one, and a very big one. The lowest, smallest floor let out on a subway/PATH train concourse, and so it held mystery and romance bestsellers, comic books, magazine racks, bubble gum, CDs and playing cards. It was good that all this stuff cluttered up the lower floor, because it freed up the first floor to be something special.
There's been an explosion of popular interest in the novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand lately, and not only because I wrote a book called Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong and Why It Matters (which, I'm happy to report, is selling quite well). Rand died nearly three decades ago, but her Objectivist philosophy has made headlines for two different reasons in the past couple of weeks.
She's been a sore point lately for Republican Congressman and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, an avowed admirer. Several Christian groups have been asking why a conservative politician with "family values" credentials would admire and follow the work of a stringent atheist with provocatively modern ideas. Ryan, a Catholic, claims not to be influenced by Rand's dislike of religion, but this answer does not seem to be satisfying his critics. A group called the American Values Network has begun targeting both Rand and Ryan in television commercials, and the Congressman was caught in a "gotcha" video dodging a persistent critic who tries to give him a Bible while asking "why did you choose to model your budget after the extreme ideology of Ayn Rand, rather than on the basis of economic justice and values in the Bible?" Time Magazine calls this Paul Ryan's Ayn Rand Problem.
The time is 1985, one year before Ronald Reagan’s massive Tax Reform Act began a sweeping overhaul of the federal government's byzantine Internal Revenue Code.
The place is Peoria, Illinois, a gritty blue collar and farming town in America’s heartland.
In David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, Peoria is home to the IRS’s Midwest Regional Examination Center, or REC. The IRS, of course, is the bureaucracy of all bureaucracies, or as a character in the novel describes it: “arguably the most important federal bureaucracy in American life”.
The mission of the IRS is to administer the income tax code, one of the most staggeringly complex pieces of legislation ever stitched and bolted together by the U.S. Congress. As the novel unfolds, the IRS is in the throes of change.
After years of anticipation and public and internal debate, the New York Times has announced that it will put up a web paywall, limiting visitors to 20 free articles a month, beginning March 28. Pricing plans begin at $15/month. Print subscribers will get access for free. The paywall will allow incoming links from Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc., to pass through, in an attempt to keep the New York Times connected to the vital arena of Internet-based social networking.
Here are a few links that followed the announcement, ranging from the chatty (an interview with Times digital chief Martin Nisenholtz) to the dismissive (Cory Doctorow pointing out how easy it will be to spoof past the paywall) to the substantial (a detailed analysis of the possible financial outcomes).
I am not impressed by the New York Times decision, because I favor free advertiser-supported models for topical and newsy content. I've written about this quite a lot on Literary Kicks -- here, here, here (the last couple got me into a spirited debate with John Williams of The Second Pass, a worthy adversary on any topic), and then again here and here.
Man — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
--Ayn Rand, 1962
The ethical principle Ayn Rand describes here was hardly her original discovery. She expressed it so clearly and succinctly that it may be useful to call it the Ayn Rand principle, though we could just as accurately call it the Thomas Hobbes principle (except he lived 400 years ago, and freshness is all). Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of "divine selfishness, of how it was once possible to be alone, undisturbed, unloved, hated, despised on earth, and whatever else may characterize the utter baseness of the dear animal world in which we live."
Various trends in modern political and economic theory can be mapped back to the Ayn Rand principle, especially (but not exclusively) among conservative thinkers. The vigorous capitalism preached by influential economists like Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan is often described as Randian (the Friedman/Greenspan laissez-faire attitude took a beating when the American financial system collapsed in 2008, but no competing modern theory of economics has emerged to clearly oppose it). The Randian embrace of self-interest and power politics is also visible in the muscle-bound approach to foreign policy proclaimed by politicians like John McCain, Sarah Palin, John Bolton, Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush. Ronald Reagan, whose 100th birthday is being celebrated this weekend (not by me, but by many others) has notably called himself an admirer of Ayn Rand.
I've never wished for wealth. I hate shopping, luxury is not my idea of pleasure, and I don't enjoy owning a lot of stuff. I've never been able to understand why somebody would get excited about a widescreen TV or a gigantic house or an expensive car. I drive a 2001 Saturn, and I really don't know what a car could have that this one doesn't. I guess the most luxurious thing I own is my Takamine acoustic classical guitar, which I paid a thousand dollars for because I could actually hear the difference.
The only amount of money I'd ever wish for is the amount that would buy me freedom from working for a living. I've spent my adult life earning my monthly keep and supporting my kids with long, hard hours. I've rarely managed to get more than a few months ahead of my bills, and a couple of times I got a few months behind. I did have one extensive flirtation with wealth (this was one of the main subjects of my memoir) during the Internet stock boom in 1999. But a million dollars in stock options didn't buy me any freedom at all. Instead, it shackled me to my job more tightly than I'd ever been shackled before, and the crazy year that followed (before the 2000 stock market crash wiped out my "wealth") was one of the worst years of my life.
So I don't think wealth buys happiness, and nothing I've observed around me has suggested otherwise. But money sure does have a hold on the public imagination, and it sure gets people riled up. The big public debate that's taking place in the United States of America these days about taxes and budget deficits is worth studying from many different angles. As far as the battle in Congress indicates, the Democratic Party wants to cut taxes on lower and middle class Americans but wants the wealthy (those earning above $250,000 a year) to pay more, while the Republican Party wants to extend tax cuts to the wealthy.
It takes some effort to unpack the real agendas behind these stances. Why do the mass of Republican voters care so much about tax cuts for the wealthy, when Republican voters are actually no wealthier than Democratic voters? I've heard it explained that anti-tax conservatives are "voting their dreams" -- they hope to someday become wealthy, and when they finally do they don't want the government taxing their money away. This is the "Joe the Plumber" theory, and I'm sure there's something to it. But it doesn't explain enough.
As soon as Barack Obama became President of the United States two years ago, I started hearing about "socialism" in America. Opponents of Obama's platform have raised widespread suspicions that his entire presidency is a conspiracy to establish government control over every aspect of our lives. These critics often use words like "socialism", "Marxism", "fascism" and "tyranny" interchangeably, and have so successfully spooked many trusting American citizens that an entire Rally To Restore Sanity (and/or Fear) became necessary in Washington DC this weekend.
Still, of course, the fear remains. And, in fact, vigilant citizens of every nation in the world should always fear government tyranny, because we've seen horrific examples of it in recent times. Frank Dikotter's history book Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 is a real eye-opener for anybody who lives in comfortable freedom and can't quite picture what real tyranny might feel like.
This book will fill in the blanks, and you'll never forget it. From 1958 to 1961, Mao Zedong's Communist Party-led government carried out an experimental program of food redistribution that literally condemned tens of millions -- yes, tens of millions -- of its own rural citizens to slow, painful death by starvation. Farmers were forced to combine their private farms into collectives, and when these collective harvests failed to meet their unrealistic quotas of food, the farmers were forced to continue to work without eating, until they and their families simply died. Government representatives invaded private homes, poking with long sticks for hidden stashes of food, even as the citizens lay dying on the floor (the government representatives, of course, were well-fed).
It's easy to make fun of many Republican candidates in the 2010 election season (especially when their slate includes Christine O'Donnell). But American conservative politicians have a strong following, and their ideals and programs deserve serious consideration.
Because I take my own (fairly liberal) political ideals very seriously, I've made an effort during this election season to listen as sympathetically as I could to a variety of conservative voices. I've paid more attention to populist voices than intellectual ones -- that is, I read conservative blogs, watched Fox News and listened to Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin on the radio, and didn't bother reading the National Review, or the New York Times Book Review's Buckley-esque political pieces. I was more interested in hearing from the Tea Partiers than the Ivy League.
I paid attention to our most popular conservatives to see if they had anything to teach me, and also to see if I had anything to teach them. On the positive side, I was able to appreciate their emphasis on principles -- liberty, economic simplicity, government by Constitution. I was also able to appreciate the sense of humor and rebellion that helps to explain the popularity of some conservative commentators.
On the negative side, I discovered that today's Republican party -- the one that's expected to take over a majority in the House of Representatives after election day -- has shockingly little substance when it comes to fixing the economy. You thought Christine O'Donnell was an airhead? Listen to John Boehner try to explain how he's going to reduce the staggering budget deficit and keep tax breaks for the wealthy at the same time. It's as if he really thinks you can pay off the national debt with words.
(Goodloe Byron is a novelist -- with an unusual approach to literary economics -- as well as a book cover designer whose graphic work was recently featured on Mark Athitakas's Notes on American Fiction blog. The Wraith is his latest book, from his own Brown Paper Publishing.)
Levi: Your novel The Wraith is very charming. The portrait of hapless trailer park hipsters going about their lives reminds me of the affectionate stylings of Richard Linklater or Jim Jarmusch ... but I also understand that Jose Saramago was your primary inspiration for this novel. Can you tell me what your mission in writing this book was?
Goodloe: It is actually a knockoff of a Saramago book, but it warped in the rain having took so long! The original idea was to do something like the duplicated man; it would be about a little fellow who is suddenly deprived of the dimension of necessity. That is to say that he no longer needed to sleep, eat, drink water, come in from the cold, shave or whatnot. It would then follow that he didn't need to work either, or do anything. What I imagined was that this person would then flee this terrible freedom. He would then go about pretending to be alive as he was before and that his life would become a kind of hollow nightmare.
This isn't really a novel that many people would like to read, I think. That has not stopped me in the past, but it also wasn't enjoyable to write either. I started it about eight times five years ago, then I quit writing altogether. Then, last year, my friend Pablo D'stair and I were discussing the idea, which was the only book that I wanted to write anyway. In this discussion I figured out that the story could not really be told directly, as it was more of a static concept. So I decided to give it a Heart of Darkness touch and describe the story of someone on the periphery of such a man. Mr. Kurtz, for example, is much this some problem, because he is not a person so much as a concept; the collapse of civilization in the face of its underlying barbarity. Once I figured this out, it was very simple and I wrote it in a few weeks while another book was at the printer. All of the events involving the main characters I kind of made up on the fly, though a variety of them I'd thought up during my 'hiatus'. They came together all right I think. The brain stepped out of my way once I figured out the Kurtz thing.
Levi: I notice a strange price on the book's cover: $0.0. What's that all about?
Goodloe: All right, so ... this is kind of complicated to explain. But basically I don't really like to submit stuff places or do the whole writer thing. I just find it ghastly as an experience. Also I would like to point out that my books tend to be a bit of a drag and I design them that way. I want the audience to have to get a bit scrappy. Books that succeed in the market tend not to share this worldview. So instead I save up enough so that once a year I can print up about ten thousand books. Then throughout the year I roll out to different cities or wherever I can get and I hand them out for free or leave them in coffee shops.