Totally off topic, I know, but a topic that is dear to my heart…
I just finished watching the movie “Atlas Shrugged, Part 1″ on Netflix. This was apparently an abysmal failure in the box office. As a huge fan of the book, I blame marketing as I never heard a word about it. But they have managed to raise enough funding for the second leg of the planned movie trilogy of the famous epic novel by Ayn Rand. While it wasn’t a great cinematic achievement, it was a well made and pretty faithful translation of the book to the big screen. I really enjoyed it. And I’m a pretty far left liberal even by Massachusetts standards.
I’ll apologize now that the rest of this post assumes you know the story and are familiar with its philosophical underpinnings. If you haven’t read it, read it. It is one of the great books of our time.
Watching the movie made me think about its context in the current day. At face value, Rand’s purist ethos of individual achievement and competition for the sake of winning above all else feels at odds with the popular 99% movement of today. Watching the movie, I could hear the right-wing republican defenders of the 1% cheering on the side of John Galt, and that really bothers me. While Rand’s philosophy may have been somewhat extremest, I prefer to view the book as a work of art. Great art takes a stand in order to make a point. By drawing out one extreme, the opposite extreme is laid bare. That doesn’t mean the art is necessarily advocating the extreme. Art, and this book as I read it, is about ideas and communication – it is not asking to be interpreted as a fixed and formal legal proposal.
Individual achievement is of utmost importance. Companies need to be able to compete freely in an environment where the company with the best combination of product, strategy and operations wins, without bureaucracy and red tape getting in the way, and without taxes strangling their ability to do business internationally.
The argument of the 99% is that 1% of the country’s population holds a massively disproportionate amount of the country’s wealth and, by extension, political power. There are two intermingled problems there. The fact that more than 20% of wealth is controlled by 1% of the population is clear enough, and on its own might not be of such great concern. But combine that with a political system where wealth equals power, and you have a recipe for a massively and increasingly imbalanced society. And as history tells us, societal imbalances eventually either self-correct or self-destruct.
So it may be easy for John Galt advocates to decry any action taken by the 99% as the Socialism that Rand was fighting against. But the real problem is that our current system provides corporate citizenship and allows corporations to contribute freely and anonymously (if technically indirectly) to political campaigns. Those policies are what bridge the gap of questionable wealth imbalance into outright corporate purchasing of political power.
The other big sticking point here is taxes. Taxing people absurdly just because they’re successful feels wrong to me. But I would like to see higher taxes on income earned through speculation (stock trading and investment activities) as opposed to income earned from the actual creation of something. While this distinction might be tricky to define legally, it would help those who are doing something helpful to our economy and penalize those (who happen to make up a disproportionate number of 1%ers) that are gaming the system and pulling out profits without producing anything.