Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Rand-om thoughts 3

Rand-om thoughts 3

I am now at the start of Part 3 of Atlas Shrugged. It has been fairly hard going. I am not going to indulge myself with a literary review. The fact that the writing is slightly turgid should not detract from the ideas being presented.

I am also going to resist presenting a critique of the Libertine political system that many like to base on the Rand ideas and her Objectivism. Sorry, did I say “Libertine”? I meant Libertarian, of course!

There is a far clearer picture formed if the book (and remember here that I have not yet read “Fountainhead”) and the idea is read in the context of the times in which it was written, and Rand’s own personal story.

Quoted from Wikipedia
Rand was twelve at the time of the Russian revolution of 1917, and her family life was disrupted by the rise of the Bolshevik party. Her father's pharmacy was confiscated by the Soviets, and the family fled to Crimea to recover financially. When Crimea fell to the Bolsheviks in 1921, Rand burned her diary, which contained vitriolic anti-Soviet writings.[5]

And from -
In 1946, Rand began work on her most ambitious novel, Atlas Shrugged. At the time she was working part-time as a screenwriter for producer Hal Wallis. In 1951 she and her husband moved to New York City, where she began to work full-time on Atlas. Published by Random House in 1957, Atlas Shrugged is her most complete expression of her literary and philosophical vision. Dramatized in the form of a mystery story about a man who stopped the motor of the world, the plot and characters embody the political and ethical themes first developed in We the Living and The Fountainhead, and integrates them into a comprehensive philosophy including metaphysics, epistemology, economics, and the psychology of love and sex.

I am not at all surprised at Rand’s intense hatred of the Communist system. That that should lead to her campaign against the Socialist tendencies of the Democrat party and more left leaning of the Republicans even is clear.

What I did not appreciate, until I started reading her books, was Rand’s insistence upon a purity of thought which would do a nun proud. There is no question that Capitalism (with capital “C”) is the Rand religion. It is the moral system, the God and the sole reason for existence. The ideas of individual and wealth are all built together in a way that makes refutation difficult. Difficult but not impossible.

I pointed out some while back (in a treatise on propaganda) that what is often more important is what is left unsaid rather than the actual content. I am not trying here to accuse Rand of writing propaganda. She is not writing (directly) for a political cause. That political offshoot has come as a result rather than as Rand’s intent.

So, when I read the first two parts of Atlas Shrugged I was struck by two central ideas that were not fully developed.

First of these is the idea of credibility. Rand’s philosophy of individual ownership centres on “Rearden Metal”, a new “metal” in the galaxy of the Periodic Table. Oh, a new alloy? Well, I can live with that despite the fact that it goes direct from mine to furnace to use – but let’s suspend credibility on that point so as to not interrupt the flow. What makes this premise even “stranger” is that this new metal is readily accessible, but only from one source as it seems. As I say, somewhat strange all round.

It also connects directly with my primary objection to the foundation of Rand’s ideas, one of the fundamentals of the CAPITALIST religion that she propounds. In reading around on the ‘net it is also an objection that has been raised more often than most. “Rearden Metal” was discovered in part because the resource that provides steel was being misused, abused and was becoming scarce. It is the Rand fundamental that in these circumstances capitalism produces new alternative and replacement products. Leave out all of the other objections – it is a matter of faith that “Rearden Metal” exists and was not previously “discovered”. I am not going to take the iron ore / coal arguments any further either simply because it is apparent that others with far better brain and argument have already been there.

I want to tackle Rand on a related but different front.

The first part of Atlas Shrugged tells of the development of Colorado as a manufacturing powerhouse, and the importance of Taggart Intercontinental in fostering that development. Taggart’s contribution was the construction of (let us say) 450 miles of railway from point A outside Colorado to point B inside Colorado primarily to service the output from one copper mine and a shale oil field. OK, let’s not go there either because it will not serve any purpose. It is a matter of faith.

The “mistake” that Rand has made is very simple. A railway requires land. It stretches credulity just a little too far that one can draw a line on a map (as is described in the story) and then go out and start laying track along that line. Surely there would be geographical features (other than the one canyon requiring a bridge) that would need to be overcome. Oh there is mention of grand sweeping curves that trains can negotiate at a speed of 100 mph compared with the existing maximum of 60mph but that mention is more to promote the advances made through the discovery of “Rearden Metal” than any improvement in rail technology.

There is one feature that is never mentioned. Who owned the land before the rail went over it? How was the right to use that land obtained? Or do Taggart’s have some strange technology that creates land just where they want to put their railway?

One of the features of Rand’s writings, one which for the moment defeats me completely because it is such a fundamental flaw in the foundations of her ideas and writing, is that of existing ownerships and rights. The fact of private and individual ownership is the whole basis of her Capitalism. There is no limitation upon the accumulation of wealth. It is laissez faire in its absolute and purest sense.

The picture that Rand has painted over with her leading characters is one of total, global poverty. Exclude her occasional glimpses at the Soviet Republic of Europe, or Soviet Republic of South America. I am concentrating only on the US as she portrays it through the story. There is no recognition of any ownership by anyone other than the main characters, including the State, at the beginning of the story. There is description of the appropriation of private property, at some length, through the first two parts. But, it seems, this (mis)appropriation affects only the major players. No one else has anything that is capable of or worth State confiscation. There is no ownership of land, there is no ownership of income from private business, there are only the proles who comprise the disadvantaged masses created by the Socialists. The occasional mention of – as an example – a taxi driver does not make it clear whether he is working for his own account, for someone else’s business, or as a “State employee”. There is no interaction between the taxi hirer and the driver other than the mention of a $100 tip (I just read that bit...  ) or the difficulty of getting anywhere in all of the traffic.

This leads on to the whole discussion – so popular over the last little while in the blogiverse – of private domain. As sure as eggs if I owned a farm somewheres along that arbitrary line on the map I would have something to say about the railway that passes through the middle of the house. Even if all the trains are on time.

But, as I said before, let’s not spoil a good story by getting too practical about it.

Finally, and while I talk of taxis, that is one of the better laughs in the story thus far.

Following a long discussion, some 18 pages, of privations, problems and causes of the oil and fuel shortage to set the scene for the shale oil business in Colorado one of the main characters (Dagny as I recall) walks out of the building and immediately hails a taxi that then drives off into the deserted streets... But hey, let’s not have the occasional wardrobe slip spoil a good yarn.

Let me be very clear. My politic has no room for communism despite my very brief contacts with the outside of the movement in my (somewhat naive) teen years. I was raised in a nation that has a proud history of socialism founded upon the responsibility of the State for the individual. Much of that State “cradle to grave” mentality has been removed during my lifetime. That was not unexpected. It is a series of events that I had expected in my youth; not in terms of the specific detail but rather in terms of the process becoming increasingly unsupportable. It might interest those who support Rand to know that Prime Minister Savage, leader of the first Labour Government, was a Socialist and devout Christian. He described the new “WelfareState” as “Christianity in Action”. For Rand herself – being an atheist – such a description would be as much an anathema as communism.

Can I put it this way. The success of a good story is a matter of credibility. One could look to Brave New World or 1984 as examples in the same category where that credibility has been achieved. Yes, both of those examples have “holes” of their own but they are not central to the theme. Regrettably, Rand’s attempt at the same has failed somewhat. The defects in her foundation do affect (my) appreciation of her theme.

I have not yet reached the end of Atlas Shrugged. I am pressing onward toward the end, and at the same time making the effort to understand the principles that Rand espouses. I am sure that I will have considerably less success in that understanding than the very many scholars who have analysed her writing in fine detail. I am doing my utmost to keep an open mind to the end.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Man, the scientist, as God...

TF Stern has written on this and I must express that the ol' prob' has a sneaking corner of respect for his point of view.

The fundamental question has to be "Should science be limited in its scope by moral considerations?"

Well, in terms of seeking and discovery I would almost certainly say no, and it is that point that I disagree with TF.


There are some scientific discoveries which would better have been left in Pandora's little box rather than being let loose. Examples are easy - nuclear fission being used for weapons of war; genetic modification to render seeds infertile.

The idea that there are some areas of science that should be left aside is valid. NZ has several "Science Ethics" committees who vet the direction and intent of research projects. New projects are required to meet fairly stringent strictures on what is ethical (read moral?).

But who should make the decision?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Police files - a quick reprise...

There are several entries in here over the past twelve or so months relating to the NZ Police and the rather sad saga of what quickly became known as the “Louise Nicholas Case”. Essentially her case centred upon three senior officers, one of whom was on the point of being appointed to the “top cop” position of Commissioner.

and here,
and again, and ending with this one..

The Herald has published a series of grand washup articles yesterday, now that the last of the criminal charges have been heard and decided.

Start here,
then here,
and lastly, here.

As a picture of NZ’s law enforcement organisation it is both sad and bad. That a small group of men, no more than the four or five who have faced the Court, can bring a proud tradition of community and trust to a sudden and shameful end is almost tragic. Added to the findings in the Bain murder case appeal to the House of Lords, and the last of the Coroner reports in the Wallace killing and the reading gets quite depressing.

A couple weeks back we went to Taupo for a few days of r&r and very enjoyable it was too! I actually scored my first ever speeding ticket – doing 113kph in a 100 area. Not that I am proud of it you understand, just that it has a direct connect to the Police. The guy who did the deed on me was polite, and, most important of all, he was right. A lapse of concentration on my part after driving nearly four hours, and I was just dead lucky not to get pinged at over 125kph. Actually “dead” lucky is not a nice thought...

I had a comment debate with someone just a short while back during which he concluded that I must spend half my time while driving watching the speedometer to make sure that I stayed within the limit. It occurred to me the other day that it was a whole lot simpler than that to “learn” the judgement of the speed I drive at.

Some years back we had a little Nissan Sentra. Damn good little car it were too!! It had one extremely annoying fault. At 109kph there was this little bell that started going “ding-dong”. I could never find the drive or the adjustment for it. The local Nissan agent refused point-blank to touch it “... because the speedo will stop working”. You get expert at driving 108.5kph quite quickly. You get to hear the engine note, the pitch of the tyre noise on the road. Most importantly you get to not hear the “ding-dong” at 109kph. Our Honda does not have such a sophisticated instrument...

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The family -

I have mentioned my grandfather on various occasions.

You will find this photo, and his name, in National Geographic archives. He will also appear if you google "image pamir".

Monday, August 06, 2007

Amazing Grace...

It was not until about a month ago that I learned the provenance of the hymn; the story of the slave-ship captain who renounced that trade to become a reclusive Christian monk. That would be a tale of some fascination in itself.

The subject comes up through the film of the same name, which wife and I went see yesterday afternoon.

The connection comes from the captain who is an important part in the development of the character of Wilbur Wilberforce and the progress of the anti-slavery movement in Britain.

How historically accurate is the film? From my knowledge of the time (relatively limited) I would say that the major players are there, and that they are well portrayed by the various actors. Be sure that Cumberpatch in his role as Pitt the Younger presents a compelling portrayal of the young Turk in his prime and his death. Grffudd as Wilberforce has a large part to fill; which he does with honesty but no great distinction.

The tale of the shipboard party that was diverted (intentionally) alongside the slaver that was in dock was a story that I knew. Such a shame that the ship concerned seemed to move magically among the tightly packed docks until a sternward sequence that showed - quite clearly - the propellor wash under the rudder. The version as I heard it had the ship being towed around (as was the practice of the times) by two gigs. Again, as I heard the story, those two (oar-powered) boats were manned by men landed from the slave-ship.

I enjoyed the film. It is a great story of the power of politics. It is one of the great stories of the victory of humanity over subjugation and exploitation.

Very recommended...

Friday, August 03, 2007

Rand-om thoughts 2

It is difficult to know, when I write something like this, whether it is the idea that I am arguing against or the presentation and semantics of that idea.

The chapter headed “What is Capitalism?” is an interesting read on several levels. It sets the whole basis for the remainder of the discussion (as one might expect) and for that reason alone the fact that Rand spends a good part of the chapter in a critique of a mid-1960’s Encyclopedia Brittanica entry on “Capitalism” is quite unique.

It is not until the 8th page of the chapter that Rand gets to her own “definition” of Capitalism in any formal sense.
Capitalism is a social system based upon the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.

Like the “I support law and order” referendum this definition is near impossible to refute. One does get into the semantic definition of “rights” and “property”. Having been through this mill several times with different people, one has to accept arguing the definitions of these two basics creates far less light than smoke especially with the supporters of Rand and to a lesser extent the fundamentalist capitalists.

So if you want to debate the definition of “rights” as an issue go seek out the likes of TF Stern who makes a very good fist of “God-given” right, or the Libertarians (see Al of The Old Whig for contacts). I am happy to accept that Rand has in mind the widest meaning of the term. I have some reservations about the consequences of applying that level of “rights” in the general society. Those reservations have some impact upon how I feel about Rand’s writing and I can only request that the reader respect that to be the case. Is that valid? Given that Rand adopts a similar approach – in that I have read thus far - I can say with some certainty that the “unsupported” statement of opinion is the norm rather than the exception.

I can make the same statement about the definition of “property”. Rand has given her definition of Capitalism framed in the widest possible application of the term “property”. It is an approach which seems to give her one or two difficulties later in the book. I am still in the process of reading, digesting and re-reading those later chapters so judgement is at this time still reserved.

The third pillar that Rand puts beneath her definition is that of “objectivity”. No, don’t go look up the definition in the dictionary because Rand means something very specifically different. Try Wikipedia for initial leads if the desire to know more really grabs ya.
Capitalism is the only system based upon an objective theory of values.

Rand makes the distinction between three “systems” of valuation – objective, intrinsic and subjectivist. To give an instance of her language, this is the sentence following the definition immediately above –
The intrinsic theory and the subjectivist theory (or a mixture of both) are the necessary base of every dictatorship, tyranny, or variant of the absolute state.

Now I had to read extremely carefully through these ideas as Rand uses terms such as “right”, “value” and “action” in an almost seamless series of interchangeabilities. The connection between the useages comes with the word “good” (used as a noun) which when I learned economics had a very specific meaning. With Rand we find the term being used in statements such as the following –
If a man believes that the good [note that the use here appears to be as a noun] is intrinsic [which Rand has just defined as a system of values] in certain actions, he will not hesitate to force others to perform them. If he believes that the human benefit or injury caused by such actions is of no significance, he will regard a sea of blood as of no significance...

What has to be clear in one’s mind is that Rand is speaking of “the common good”, or “the public interest”. Given that she equates these two ideas with the extremes of collectivism and the fundamental of Socialist states such as Russia it becomes clear that the “economic” meaning I learned is not what she intended. But that does not stop the interchanging of the “good” as an “object” starting at the level of intellectual property and the idea of ”individual surplus” -
...the work, the energy, the creative over-abundance of those men whose ability produces more than their personal consumption requires, those who are intellectually and financially able to seek the new, to improve on the known, to move forward.

So, where does that leave me?

Like so many others, Rand trumpets the rail system of the US as a key example of the private sector operating in the “common good”. It is a good example. It has a very unique history; one which deserves detailed reading particularly for the 50 years from 1890 to 1940. There were a number of private railways in NZ over the years; some more extensive than others. In Auckland we had as an example the West Coast Tramway, a light rail that ran around the coast via a number of tunnels and small timber trestles. It lasted for as long as the kauri timber was economic to extract. There was the Westfield Meat Company line, used to connect their abbatoir with the meat packing plant and public railhead. Further south, Carter Timber had an extensive narrow guage system in the Mamaku Ranges using US Shay and Climax locomotives. Fascinating to watch; which I can say I was fortunate enough to do on two occasions. That is long since gone after the timber ran out. The point is that none of these (or the other examples that I could dredge out) were for public use, nor lasted past their private use.

It interests me that I have never read of the capitalist system devoting resources voluntarily to the disposal of production waste, or the provision of sewage disposal systems for their workers. There is nothing in the definitions that I have seen, nor in the very many debates upon capitalism vs anything and everything else that even acknowledges the “cost” (and it is a direct monetary cost in the long term) of environmental impact and disposal of waste.

In England, the ability to move from one place to another has always been by means of “The King’s High Way”. There is much learned legal debate on the definition of both the status of the land required and the individual right of passage. The economic consequence of that legal status is, however, that the need for private roading systems is very limited. In NZ, private roading has generally been developed by a land owner to facilitate the extraction of product or material from source to public transportation system. What there has never been, and the reasons for this might be an interesting debate, is the duplication of public roading for competitive advantage. Quite the reverse in fact. The capitalist system has always looked to higher authorities to provide public transportation systems. To be clear here, I am not referring to buses or metro. By “public transportation systems” I mean the roads, the canals, and in most countries rail as well, one could include airports and seaports; all of the infrastructure required.

Yet even in the US we very rarely see competitive duplication of these reources. The principle reason is that duplication is wasteful of other resources (such as land). Yes, there are “privately owned” toll roads in the US, in Britain, and even mooted in NZ. In the instances of which I am aware none of those roads compete with “equivalent product” but rely upon government capital contribution and the “substitution product” for the users’ time.

One can follow a similar line of reasoning with an airport – with each airline wanting access to New York having to fund and provide its own airport facility. Would not happen? It was the norm with shipping until recently. Remember the hooha when the last of the US owned “ports” in New York was sold to foreign capital? That was just within the past twelve months. How long did duplicated track systems formed by competing railroad companies exist within the US? That is one of the reasons why I earlier specified the 50 year period to 1940 as being of specific interest.

As much as Rand might not like the fact, it remains that “public good” is an essential part of a capitalist economic system. It is so to prevent the unnecessary wasteage of resources. Those resources may be land, or perhaps copper wire for a telephone local loop, or even water as the Aussies are finding out with the five year drought in the Murray Basin. That latter is an interesting example that I shall return to in a later post. Related to the Murray Basin example might be the Newfoundland cod fishery. How many in the US and Canada have tasted cod and chips in the past twenty years?

How is about energy generation and distribution? Ask a New Yorker about power cuts. Ask a Californian about the cost of "imported" power. There are elements of this appearing in NZ where the public ownership (quite a different thing from "public good") has been replaced by private ownership based on the Californian model. Objective consideration of the problems faced both in the US and in NZ will show that there is no incentive built into the capitalist models for the security of supply. The supply is always to the highest bidder so a shortage of power whether short or long term is of little to no consequence because the return on investment is guaranteed. When pricing of supply exceeds the ability of the "poor end" of the market to pay the supply stops.

What is also interesting to note is that so many of the broad categories of “public good” have high “strategic” values – transportation systems (all of them), energy generation and distribution, and resource protection.

It is that strategic value that thinkers such as Rand often seem to lose sight of...