Tag Archives: Ayn Rand

Cat lady economics

"Job creator."
“Job creator.”

P.T. Barnum would be so proud:  One of the biggest con jobs ever successfully sold to a maddeningly enormous percentage of the masses in Western democracies, particularly in the United States, is that “tax cuts for the rich create jobs.”  It is dispiriting to see this nauseating mantra repeated as fact by low-income individuals who have bought in to the false promise of a country of “haves and soon-to-haves” – that is, the outright lie that everyone can be rich if only they work hard enough (shouted loudest by those who have usually fallen into their fortunes through accidents of birth).  (It was also fascinating to watch conservatives sit stone-faced on their hands as the President promoted the diametrically opposite view in last night’s State of the Union.)  I’m not an economist and I don’t intend to fog up the essence of my argument here with a lot of facts and figures, because the premise gets lost among the spreadsheets and pie charts.  It’s a more basic question, one that goes to the nature of human beings and their capacity for materialism.  Yet it proves just as solidly that supply-side economics will never, ever work.

The presidential election in 2012 offered Americans a stark choice of an incumbent president who had come from a poor family and worked his way up to the highest office in the land – the prototypical American dream, if you will – versus a natural born plutocrat with a silver spoon wedged firmly in his nether regions who dismissed almost half of the public as irredeemable and irrelevant moochers; and, thanks to unprecedented advertising spending and voter intimidation in key states, they came very close to picking the latter.  A remark from President Obama about successful businesses needing to use public infrastructure paid for by the collective taxes of the people was taken out of context and used by the GOP as their rallying cry.  Mitt Romney’s entire presidential campaign, characterized best by the video in which he railed about the “forty-seven percent” to fellow travelers, was trying to assert that the wealthy and successful were singular paragons of virtue, economic growth and American spirit, forever being harassed by a tyrannical, over-reaching government determined to claw away every preciously earned penny and spend it freely on undeserving deadbeats.  (Hardly a rousing “we shall overcome” or even “I like Ike.”)

Basically, Republicans tried to claim that Democrats were demonizing success, sort of a “don’t hate us because we’re beautiful” whine from the country club set. What’s ironic is that on any list of the most admired people in the world, it’s rare to find someone whose net worth is anywhere south of at least a few million.  Rich and famous celebrities are worshiped.  You’re hardly seeing a climate where the likes of Brad Pitt and Katy Perry are dragged from their mansions and paraded naked through the streets by the bedraggled masses.

Even in the aftermath of Romney’s humiliation at the polls and in the new congressional term, Republicans and their sympathizers insist that if we just keep giving rich people more money, well, I don’t really know what the endgame is supposed to be other than giving rich people more money for its own sake.  Perhaps the thought is that if they have $400 million instead of $300 million, that extra $100 million will simply fall from overflowing wallets like proverbial pennies from heaven, as opposed to being stashed in an offshore tax haven.  Even if we try to apply some logic to this argument and suggest that a more-rich person will be more inclined to use his windfall to start a new business that will hire some other folks, who’s to say that business will be successful and produce a product that will resonate and guarantee that these new jobs endure for decades?  It’s lining up all one’s fiduciary chips on a single roulette number and trusting in the decency and intentions of the person you’re enriching.  Communism never worked as Karl Marx intended it to because it failed to account for human nature – if you read The Communist Manifesto, Marx’s ideal state sounds utopian, but it can’t function unless everyone is really, really, REALLY nice to one another – a point lost somewhat on every oppressive Communist world leader ever, which is pretty much all of them.  One might overdose on the irony of capitalism failing for the same reason.

See, here’s the thing with wealthy people.  They may become wealthy because of hard work or, more cynically, because they have a famous surname, but they stay wealthy because they don’t spend their money.  They hoard it with the same obsession and zeal as the sad cases you see every week on A&E who have houses overflowing with old magazines, pieces of broken furniture and used diapers.  And the reason why they hoard it is because they are paranoid – scared to the depth of their bone marrow – that the unwashed barbarian hordes at the gate are coming to take it all away.  Perhaps they’re mindful of the tragic tale of Jack Whittaker, the West Virginia Powerball winner whose prize of $315 million led to him being sued over 400 times by greedy opportunists, the loss of his daughter to drugs and the last of his money to her dealers.  (Whittaker is apparently now broke and wishes in hindsight that he had torn up his ticket.)  But it’s the quintessential human problem of attachment to material things that renders the “more tax cuts for billionaires!” argument utterly unworkable in the real world.  Giving more money to a wealthy man and expecting that act to benefit the economy is like giving a crazy cat lady more cats.  Is the cat lady going to take her new surplus felines and hand them out to deserving orphans who’d love a little kitty of their own?  You can judge the chances of that based on the smell of her house.

We do so love our possessions, and it is against our human nature to share them.  Sure, we donate to charity, we give away old clothes – but we keep the really nice stuff for ourselves.  We’re programmed to.  Buddhism correctly equates attachment with unhappiness – it even turned Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader.  How else can one explain the legions of sour-faced billionaires like Joe Ricketts, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers who decided to open up their overflowing coffers not to improve the lives of their fellow Americans but instead into endless ad buys for the party that was promising to make things even easier for the likes of Joe Ricketts, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers?

It’s estimated that trillions of dollars in cash are missing from the global economy because they are being hoarded by corporate entities and others who are waiting for… well, it can’t possibly be the Rapture or the Mayan apocalypse since those both happened last year and we’re all still kicking.  This is the result of over thirty years of tax reductions by conservative and centrist governments clinging to the ideology of supply-side economics and still claiming despite a repeated pattern of failure that tax rates for the top should be reduced even further – since the growth they anticipate from cuts already in place isn’t happening (roughly the equivalent of saying that my house hasn’t caught fire yet so I should keep trying to light the carpet).  We also see pushes for right-to-work laws in multiple states and even Canadian provinces to cripple unions, force wages lower and boost corporate take-home higher.  This is not a plan for economic growth; it’s a plan to concentrate wealth into the hands of a rarefied few so they can continue their hoarding ways.  They forget the lesson of Henry Ford, who knew that his employees needed to be able to afford to buy the cars they were making in order for his company and indeed America to prosper.

“I never got a job from a poor person” is one of the most common retorts – as if one expects Uncle Pennybags and Scrooge McDuck to stroll down Main Street handing out employment contracts while bellowing like Oprah, “You’re getting a job!  And you’re getting a job!”  Lower and middle income workers are actually the people who generate these jobs.  Their spending is economic rocket fuel.  They’re the ones who buy, on a consistent and ongoing basis, the products that other workers make, necessitating that those jobs endure.  And when you earn less, you save less.  Because a higher percentage of their income is devoted to basic necessities, they can’t afford to stash it away, to hoard it in the Caymans and consequently away from the world’s economic engine like the world’s Romneys.  And they spend that money in their hometown or close to it, not on weekend jaunts to France on the private jet.

It continues to absolutely boggle my mind that any free-market conservative would be opposed to socialized medicine, given that absent the need to divert a huge chunk of their take home into monthly medical payments, people are more likely to spend that cash on clothing, furniture, new tech gadgets, you know, stuff that stimulates economic growth rather than the economic dead zone of a bloated insurance company’s bank account.  The same goes, and perhaps even more dramatically, for Social Security, as seniors aren’t likely to put much of their income into savings given they are in the autumn of their life.  They are more likely to spend that monthly cheque on things that require other people to work to make them.  What would “stop the motor of the world,” as the misguided Ayn Rand put it, would be a massive majority of the population unable to afford anything – not a bunch of billionaires throwing hissy fits and going away somewhere to sulk.

A rich guy may have vast reserves of cash, but he still has limited individual needs.  He is still only one mouth to feed and can only drive one car at a time (and can live in only one house at any given moment, even if he might decide to purchase six or seven more for kicks).  Is it not better to have a nation of millions who can all afford to buy food and a car and a home, thus ensuring robust employment for those who produce food, manufacture cars and build houses?  They’re the ones who need their tax burden reduced.  They are the real job creators – a rich man can start as many businesses as he likes, but if lower and middle income people aren’t buying what he’s selling, the businesses will fail and the jobs will disappear.  Ultimately, there will never be enough rich people to support the global economy on their own, because the one percent have no interest in doing so – they’ve proven that they want to keep the treasure for themselves, eternal Buddhist misery be damned.  And that’s why giving them more and expecting them to turn into Mother Teresas, and consequently expecting the economy to become a roaring prosperity factory, is a fatally stupid idea.

The lasting lesson of The West Wing

The first time I saw The West Wing, I was in bed with a bad cold over the Christmas holidays.  Bravo was running a third-season marathon and while I’d never paid much attention to the show before, for whatever reason (sluggish, cold med-induced trance perhaps) my finger slipped off the remote as Josh and Donna bantered along through the hallways.  It wasn’t two minutes before I was hooked – I had never seen television characters interact like this before, bantering back and forth with sparkling, witty repartee that actually rewarded you for keeping your brain engaged while you were watching (as opposed to almost pleading that you turn it off).  After spending the subsequent seven years evolving into whatever the Trekkie-equivalent of a West Wing fan is (Wingnut?  Westie?) I look back on the role it played at a transitional time of my life in helping to shape my worldview – already pretty liberal, I was still missing a critical element of the equation.  I could never really say why I was a liberal, I just felt more at home in the liberal tent, and progressively disinclined at a gut level towards anything remotely conservative.  The West Wing crystallized it for me.

The missing ingredient was the power of people – that famous quotation attributed to Margaret Mead that cautions us to never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world, as it is the only thing that ever has.  One of the challenges to anyone’s governing philosophy is deciding which side of that famous dichotomy you sit on – the nature of mankind, whether he is by nature basically good, or basically evil.  Whether altruism and compassion are our natural state, or if we’re all fundamentally John Galts out for number one alone.  You can find plenty of arguments for and against in the animal kingdom, whether it’s in watching a pride of lions leaving their weakest members behind to the hyenas, or in seeing a herd of elephants gather to bury and mourn their dead.  Yet those same lions will tend lovingly to their cubs, and those same elephants will battle each other with their mighty tusks to win the favour of the most comely pachyderm.  As human beings we are poised so delicately on the razor edge of that question, crawling along it like the snail Colonel Kurtz rambles about in Apocalypse Now (even he calls it both his dream and his nightmare).  We want so much to be the good man that we fight ceaselessly from slipping over the other side.  When there are a lot of us gathered together in that fight, we can do some pretty damned incredible things.

In Canada, the CTS network is showing West Wing reruns nightly.  CTS is including segments in each act break called “West Wing Attaché,” where a right-leaning media personality provides “balance” (I suppose that’s what they call it, he sniffed derisively) to the ideas the episode is putting forward.  The comments offered thus far have been predictably insipid.  There has been a question asked many times in many Internet forums over the years as to why there was never a show about the Presidency produced from a Republican or more general right-wing perspective.  The answer to that one is easy – because conservatives at heart do not believe in government.  To them it’s a nuisance that gets in the way of people making money and living their lives.  It is impossible to have a workplace drama where the characters in that workplace don’t believe in what they’re doing, and more to the point, are seeking to dismantle the very structure that provides them employment.  Would ER work if the doctors were always looking for a way to reduce services and ultimately close down the hospital?  Would Star Trek work if Captain Kirk thought the Enterprise was a bloated waste of tax dollars and his five-year mission better handled by private contractors?  Closer to home, you probably know at least one guy in your office who hates being there and bitches constantly about how the whole organization is a joke.  How much time do you enjoy spending around that dude?  (As an aside, this is why I always laugh – and cry a bit – watching conservatives campaign for office, as they claim government is terrible and evil and horrible and ghastly but they want to be in it anyway.  I’d like to try this approach the next time I interview for a job:  “Well, I feel that your company should be reduced in size and finally dismantled because it is a grotesque blight on the cause of personal freedom.  Hire me please.”  The crying is for how often this pitch works at election time.)  CTS doesn’t mind the ad revenue they’re earning from airing West Wing, obviously, but I guess they feel they have to stay true to their viewer base by ensuring that not one of them starts to think seriously about the “heretical” ideas it offers up.  I will wait patiently for the day they offer similar “balance” by giving a liberal atheist a few minutes of airtime during 100 Huntley Street, and in the meantime, thank goodness for the mute button.

The West Wing characters believed in the capacity of government, whatever its flaws, to be a place where good things can be done to help people in need.  Their reward for advancing this philosophy was not wealth, fame or even a healthy family life – it had to be in the knowledge that they had done their jobs well, even if no one else knew it.  As a guiding philosophy for our brief shuffle across this mortal coil, not bad.  Not the selfish whine of the Ayn Rand devotee looking to cast adrift those who have a harder time of it while they gobble up exponentially more than their share.  Not the bottom-line focus of the corporation who cares about people only so long as you keep buying stuff from them.  Instead, fighting to do good for good’s sake – and while they’re at it, pausing to enjoy the fight itself (Josh Lyman’s telling a right-wing Senator to shove a Stone Age legislative agenda up his ass still resonates, as does President Bartlet’s utter demolition of his Bush-clone opponent in their debate with “Can we have it back, please?”)

Warren Kinsella talked about how the staff in former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s office was obsessed with The West Wing and how it proved to him that they were headed for a massive electoral wipeout.  People in politics, Kinsella argues, are never that smart.  Indeed, in some of The West Wing’s more idealistic (and unrealistic, if we’re being fair) moments it counts on the wisdom of the American people to make the correct choice, and again, this is the same country that elected George W. Bush and at this point in 2008 was ready to put Sarah Palin within one John McCain heart attack of the presidency.  Yet it’s not fair to write The West Wing off as an unattainable liberal fantasy.  Perhaps it’s a long game, something to always strive for, with the recognition that you’ll probably never get there – which doesn’t mean that it isn’t still important to try.  It’s ironic that it’s the other side that usually goes on about the importance of belief in those who seek to enter public life, because for a liberal, the pursuit of the greatness a country can attain when the best people lead its government is a true journey of political faith.  You could see faith on The West Wing in every episode, even when the characters were beaten down by political realities and implacable foes.  Communicating that faith to non-believers is the challenge real-life liberals continue to face.  The other side is usually better funded and better at getting its message out, because the other way is just easier – appealing to cynicism and greed and pitting us against them.  No one ever went broke riling ordinary folks up against invisible enemies.  But as I said in a previous post, faith unchallenged is no faith at all, and the path of faith leads to a more lasting reward.  In this case it’s the promise of a better place to live.

Is that the lasting lesson of The West Wing?  Well, it is for this Wingnut.

Occupy Gotham City?

Bane strikes at the heart of the one percent.

The undisputed kings of the 2012 summer box office have both been comic book movies:  The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises.  While The Avengers is essentially a crowd-pleasing greatest hits package that you either dig or don’t (I dig, for the record), the final entry in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is a more complex tale probing the human condition behind the capes and cowls of its characters, and as such, opens itself to a wider degree of interpretation.  One of the most interesting of the responses to the film is in how certain critics have seen it as condemning the Occupy Wall Street movement and praising the nobility of the 1%.  For his part, Nolan has denied that the film has a political slant.  I’ve seen the movie twice now, and while the tropes associated with Occupy are certainly present, I can’t get behind the notion that the movie is Ayn Rand redux.  Great art reflects our times, and it’s natural for current history to bleed through the edges of the screen.  But reducing the themes of The Dark Knight Rises to a simple political didactic for easy cable news consumption is to perform a disservice to the deeper moral questions at play here.  Nolan’s Batman movies have always operated on a more primal level, exploring the nature of fear, chaos, and the case of the final chapter, consequences, and our ability – or our duty – to accept our responsibility for them, regardless of our means.

(Author’s note:  MAJOR SPOILERS ahead.  Please don’t read this unless you’ve seen the movie; I’ll hold nothing back.)

Eight years have passed since the Joker’s reign of anarchy led to the death of Harvey Dent, Batman taking the fall for Dent’s crimes and the caped crusader’s disappearance from Gotham City.  In the aftermath, a draconian “Dent Act” has allowed police to rid the streets of organized crime once and for all.  But the illusion of peace is built on a lie, and the two heroes who have allowed it to fester are being torn apart by their demons.  One, Commissioner Jim Gordon, hides in plain sight, while the other, Bruce Wayne, has become a crippled recluse.  Both know, instinctively, that the center cannot hold; Gordon prepares to read a speech denouncing Dent and admitting his role in the cover-up but chooses at the last second to hold back, while Wayne is restless in his isolation, like Sherlock Holmes without purpose in the absence of a case.  And then, from beneath the veneer of deception and fabricated security, and literally beneath the earth, evil begins to rise, as unstoppable mercenary Bane sets his dark plan for Gotham City into motion.  Gordon is wounded and Bruce Wayne is compelled to suit up.  But they’ve waited too long, allowed their deception to endure long past its limit.  They have forgotten that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.  Bane uses the time to outmanoeuvre the two, seizing control of Wayne’s secret armory, trapping Gotham’s entire police force underground and finally, breaking the ill-prepared and overconfident Batman.

Shades of Occupy first percolate through the narrative as Bane lays siege to Gotham, speechifying about punishing the corrupt and sending his minions to drag the wealthy and powerful from their mansions and haul them in front of a kangaroo court, in the name of “the people” of Gotham.  But despite the illusion of his rhetoric he is hardly a populist hero or a masked MLK.  Indeed, a man with a noble message doesn’t need the threat of nuclear annihilation to ensure that it’s heard – Bane’s goal is the total destruction of Gotham City, first envisioned by Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins.  After confining Wayne to the same prison to which he was condemned as a younger man, Bane admits that the greatest despair requires hope, and like the most accomplished sadists, he will provide the people with Gotham with hope so that they suffer more.  He wants them all to hurt.  He intends, like the American army marching into Baghdad, to present himself as a liberator, in fact using that exact word, while espousing himself as a sort of “Occupier,” because he knows this is a sensitive button that can be pushed.  Clearly Gotham is a place of great inequality, despite the false security brought on by the Dent Act, as noted when Selina Kyle tells Bruce earlier in the film over shots of the wealthy eating lobster and drinking champagne that “there’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”  But Bane has no allegiance to the Occupy philosophy and is most certainly not fighting for the people, he’s using them – as cynically as the billionaires, politicians and professional lobbyists who seized control of the Tea Party and convinced common people to protest and vote against their own best interest.  The theatricality and deception of a “people’s revolution” in Gotham is a mere smokescreen, as Selina comes to understand when the storm she predicted destroys everything it touches – not just the rich.  For its part, the Occupy movement has never claimed to want to tear the wealthy down, nor does it begrudge the acquisition of wealth; it simply believes in fairness, the enforcement of the law, and not rigging the game toward the singular interest of the haves.  Give everyone an equal chance to achieve a decent life, Occupy says, don’t purposely screw over those of us who’ve had a few bumps along the way to make it easier for the ones who already have it pretty good.  Bane’s attitude of killing them all and pillaging their treasures would hardly be welcome in the true Occupy movement – regardless of what the doofuses on Fox and Friends tell you.

To the second point raised by the critics, this movie purported to glorify the rich and the status quo of capitalism presents the rich largely as remorseless manipulators.  Bane is funded by billionaire construction entrepreneur John Daggett, who lets a terrorist wreak a trail of murder through Gotham City so he can seize control of the struggling Wayne Enterprises.  Daggett is not satisfied with his considerable wealth – like the Koch Brothers, he merely uses it to acquire more.  He cannot see his own complicity in what is to come, even at the very end, accusing Bane of being “pure evil” just before he has his neck snapped, when it was he who chose to release the genie from the bottle.  And the most accomplished and cruellest manipulator in the film turns out to be billionaire Miranda Tate, who wears the veil of a philanthropist trying to save the world, but is in fact Talia al Ghul, daughter of Ra’s, as committed to destroying Gotham as her late father.  She convinces Bruce to install her as chair of Wayne Enterprises’ board of directors and give her access to his dormant clean energy project, with the intent of using her other pawn – Bane, himself motivated by the easiest manipulation of all, his love for her – to bring her father’s wishes to fruition.  She does not care that there are innocent people in Gotham City; she scoffs at the mere mention of the word.  Her desire for retribution trumps everything – ideology, loyalty, even her own life.  Money for her is but a means to a horrible end.

Bruce Wayne, however, has never been one to let himself be defined by his wealth; it gives him no pleasure.  His flaunting of it in previous films has been a form of misdirection, convincing people that he is the worst of the stereotypes of careless moneybags; the last person who would ever want to become Batman.  However, when his wealth is taken away from him through a fraudulent stock transaction, he seems totally unconcerned about being broke.  He does not miss it, and does not care about regaining it.  He has long ago realized what Daggett never did – that more zeroes on the balance sheet don’t take the pain away.  That pain is a point of bonding between himself and the young cop John Blake, a man who has grown up poor and in and out of foster care, but has, like Bruce, channelled his anger into a sense of justice (and unlike Bane, who grew up in the worst cesspool on earth and consequently turned against humanity).  The film suggests that nobility, then, has nothing to do with wealth, and even the smallest acts of good are worth more, to invoke a cliché, than their weight in gold.  Indeed, when Bruce is reduced to his lowest, broken and lying immobile at the bottom of a prison halfway across the world, he finds the strength to rebuild himself from nothing, to escape and return to fight for his city.  These are qualities that cannot be bestowed; those who never confront desperation, loneliness and fear can never rise above them.  Those who are insulated by fortune never achieve their greatest potential.  Throughout the series, the moments that have shaped Bruce Wayne’s character for the better have come when he is separated from the life of luxury that is his birthright.  As Carmine Falcone tells him in Batman Begins, “You’ve never tasted desperate.”  Bruce Wayne may be a one-percenter, but he understands what it is like to have nothing – his empathy for the weak and powerless is part of what drives him to right Gotham City’s wrongs.  I would find it very difficult to believe that David and Charles Koch have ever had to choose between rent and food, that they have ever sat up nights wondering how they’re going to pay their heating bill, that they would deign to come within one hundred feet of a homeless man – which is why they are relentless in their funding of politicians who share their disdain for social equality and the common good.  They do not believe there are any wrongs out there, and if there are, it’s always somebody else’s fault for not trying hard enough.

The counter-argument goes, “see, Bruce Wayne pulls himself up by his bootstraps and works hard to defeat the bad guys – how is that not the attitude of the one percent?”  True, Bruce does have to rebuild himself from nothing, but what’s most important about his recovery is that he does not do it alone.  He has significant assistance along the way, from two of his fellow inmates in the prison, to Blake, Commissioner Gordon, Selina Kyle, Lucius Fox and the entire Gotham City police force.  The final act of The Dark Knight Rises is not so much the rise of a single man but of an entire city fighting for its liberation – in a sense, they are all Batman.  Perhaps the final act of heroism does belong solely to the caped crusader, but he does not get to that point without the help of his allies.  It is something of a paean to the nature of heroism when Bruce explains that Batman can be anyone – that we do not have to look to a single person to find the courage within ourselves as a society to make the kind of world we want.  The monument of Batman that is unveiled at the film’s finale is less a tribute to an individual than it is to a spirit, reflecting a time when the people rose up to take back their city from the thugs attempting to destroy it.  It is not a resumption of the status quo – it is an evolution.

Ultimately, the chief reason why The Dark Knight Rises can’t be pegged as allying itself to either the Occupy movement or the one percent is because that is too easy a question to answer – it’s easy to say that the rich are all evil and that there would be a tremendous satisfaction in watching every single one of them thrown out into street.  Our world is not that simple, nor is the moral universe of the Nolan Batman trilogy.  Nolan’s aim after the cartoonish wreck of the previous four Batman movies was to treat the character with a realistic approach, one that recognized the frequent real-world ambiguity of the nature of good and evil.  There are villains, but they are not simply forces to be destroyed – they upset the moral platform of both the heroes and the audience, and challenge us to re-examine what we think about the state of our world.  The message of The Dark Knight Rises, if there is one, is that we should not put off these questions, that we cannot sleepwalk through our lives and expect that what we sweep beneath the carpet in the interest of expediency, or a temporary peace, will not someday come back to wreak havoc upon us.  But it also assures us that no matter how deep we sink, we can come back.  We have it within us.  We can rise.