Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Series Of Unfortunate Events

Shorter Ross Douthat: Since I have the moral development of a little bitty child, I need someone to punish me or else I will be bad.

Longer Ross Douthat:

A Case for Hell


Here’s a revealing snapshot of religion in America. On Easter Sunday, two of the top three books on’s Religion and Spirituality best-seller list mapped the geography of the afterlife. One was “Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back,” an account of a 4-year-old’s near-death experience as dictated to his pastor father. The other was “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,” in which the evangelical preacher Rob Bell argues that hell might not exist.

The publishing industry knows its audience. Even in our supposedly disenchanted age, large majorities of Americans believe in God and heaven, miracles and prayer.

And if everybody's doing it it has to be right. Either way, it's not surprising that people choose to believe in eternal life and happiness, a Fatherly, omnipotent creator who will always care for them, and that they have a hot-line to this Heavenly Father. Why not? Most people would rather live in a state of hope than a state of fear. If there really is a god, they'll be rewarded for their (supposed) belief and if there isn't a heaven they'll be dead and never know.

But belief in hell lags well behind, and the fear of damnation seems to have evaporated. Near-death stories are reliable sellers: There’s another book about a child’s return from paradise, “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven,” just a little further down the Amazon rankings. But you’ll search the best-seller list in vain for “The Investment Banker Who Came Back From Hell.”

Ross has a sad. People no longer live in an imaginary, unnecessary state of guilt and fear, and just roll their eyes every time he tells them they're going to hell in a handbasket.

In part, hell’s weakening grip on the religious imagination is a consequence of growing pluralism. Bell’s book begins with a provocative question: Are Christians required to believe that Gandhi is in hell for being Hindu? The mahatma is a distinctive case, but swap in “my Hindu/Jewish/Buddhist neighbor” for Gandhi, and you can see why many religious Americans find the idea of eternal punishment for wrong belief increasingly unpalatable.

I think he's looking for the word "unbelievable," not "unpalatable."

But the more important factor in hell’s eclipse, perhaps, is a peculiar paradox of modernity. As our lives have grown longer and more comfortable, our sense of outrage at human suffering — its scope, and its apparent randomness — has grown sharper as well. The argument that a good deity couldn’t have made a world so rife with cruelty is a staple of atheist polemic, and every natural disaster inspires a round of soul-searching over how to reconcile God’s omnipotence with human anguish.

Oh, for the good old days, when everyone was as callous about death as the god of the Old Testament.

Atheist polemic states that there are no deities, so we really don't wonder how a good deity could be cruel. We just like to remind fundamentalists that their loving god is really mean.

These debates ensure that earthly infernos get all the press. Hell means the Holocaust, the suffering in Haiti, and all the ordinary “hellmouths” (in the novelist Norman Rush’s resonant phrase) that can open up beneath our feet. And if it’s hard for the modern mind to understand why a good God would allow such misery on a temporal scale, imagining one who allows eternal suffering seems not only offensive but absurd.

I think of "hellmouth" as Joss Whedon's resonant phrase.

Yes, Ross Douthat is complaining that the media doesn't discuss his personal and unpopular religious beliefs enough. That kind of self-centeredness is also the attribute of a little bitty child. Douthat doesn't want to let the absurdity and offensiveness of a kind, loving god who sees the sparrow fall but missed out on the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown to stop anyone from believing. That would be bad because then people wouldn't be afraid of eternal damnation and might have gay sex.

Doing away with hell, then, is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane.

And less homicidal.

The problem is that this move also threatens to make human life less fully human.

Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

That's right. You do the right thing because you choose to be good. You choose to be good because doing good makes you feel good about yourself and eases the pain almost all of us carry inside; self-doubt, loneliness, frustration, guilt, hunger for love and acceptance. Because we let ourselves feel this pain, we need to ease that pain in ourselves and others. What could be more human than that?

In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

Unlike Douthat's belief system, which sees God as judge, jury, executioner, and jailer.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death ... salvation or damnation.”

We realize that every action is a choice and that we are the sum total of our choices and actions. If we are only good because we fear hell, we will make the choices that we think will make our gods and goddesses happy, instead of making choices that will make ourselves and other people happy. Notice what is missing here? The effect of people's actions on other people. Douthat has neatly cut out everyone else on the entire planet, and reduced all of creation to one thing--whether or not he gets the Official Hebrew God Stamp Of Godly Approval. Once you take other human beings out of the moral equation they become roadkill on your quest for eternal life. That is why it is so easy for good religious people to do bad things.

We could say the same thing about heaven as hell. It gives our life meaning (that is, a goal); our salvation is determined by our belief in heaven (and God) and by our actions on earth. That's not good enough for Douthat. He has to know that others will be punished in the fiery pits of hell, forever. Somebody has to suffer, or else Douthat's life has no meaning. And since Douthat won't be around to see them suffer in hell (or so he presumes), he needs to see people suffer for their sins right here and right now. That will prove that God exists and that He is exactly what Douthat believes him to be. If we could only see more people suffer, everyone will believe and everyone will be afraid of God and everyone will obey God and we will have proof for once and for all that God exists and loves us--as long as they believe in Hell.

And that is why Ross Douthat is proselytizing from the pages of The New York Times, although we are not sure why the Times is eager to pay him for his little sermons.

If there’s a modern-day analogue to the “Inferno,” a work of art that illustrates the humanist case for hell, it’s David Chase’s “The Sopranos.” The HBO hit is a portrait of damnation freely chosen: Chase made audiences love Tony Soprano, and then made us watch as the mob boss traveled so deep into iniquity — refusing every opportunity to turn back — that it was hard to imagine him ever coming out. “The Sopranos” never suggested that Tony was beyond forgiveness. But, by the end, it suggested that he was beyond ever genuinely asking for it.

Is Gandhi in hell? It’s a question that should puncture religious chauvinism and unsettle fundamentalists of every stripe. But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?

No, because he's fictional, much like Heaven. But aside from the self-affirmation, the need for what some people see as Justice is very strong; people who feel they have suffered injustices all their life are overwhelmingly eager to inflict justice on others. Atlas Shrugged is filled with Ayn Rand's cries for justice, her pleas for understanding and appreciation, although with Rand, cries and pleas take the form of arrogant ranting. Those needs don't just go away because we are grown up and seemingly rational.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Give Me Her Medicare

Over the past few years Megan Jane McGalt has gone Full Metal Wingnut. It's not overt because FMW is lower class and Jane Galt wouldn't be caught dead with the lower classes unless she was given the opportunity to personally snatch their Medicare from their aged hands. Just as she wouldn't be caught dead praising Atlas Shrugged, which has been heavily criticized by the intelligentsia. But Miss McGalt drops small hints by tweeting what and whom she's been reading--far right wingnut activists who are too embarrassing to discuss elsewhere. For instance, here she is linking to Michelle Malkin in reference to Paul Krugman. McArdle often attacks Krugman and has been doing so for a decade; right now she is most incensed by his criticism of her Galtian hero, Paul Ryan, Ayn Rand devotee and Destroyer Of Medicare.

I found it very odd to see Paul Krugman complaining that "patients are not consumers" as if "consumer" were some sort of horrible, low-status role that should never taint the sacred realm of health care. In my economics classes, "consumer" was not a value judgement; it was a descriptor.

Jane McGalt starts off by twisting the truth (of course), calling Krugman's criticisms "complaints" and implying that he is making a value judgement on consumers. Miss McGalt also establishes that she is Fair-n-Balanced by setting herself up as impartial, sticking to definitions instead of emotional arguments like that emotional Mr. Krugman.

So I was a bit befuddled to see an economist arguing that "The idea that all this can be reduced to money -- that doctors are just "providers" selling services to health care "consumers" -- is, well, sickening."

Let's see what Mr. Krugman actually said.

Last week, The New York Times reported on congressional backlash against the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a key part of efforts to rein in health care costs.

But something struck me as I looked at Republican arguments against the board, which hinge on the notion that what we really need to do is to "make government health care programs more responsive to consumer choice."

How did it become normal to refer to medical patients as "consumers"? The relationship between patient and doctor used to be considered something special. Now politicians and supposed reformers talk about the act of receiving care as if it were no different from buying a car. What has gone wrong with us?


"Consumer-based" medicine has been a bust everywhere it has been tried. Medicare Advantage was supposed to save money; it ended up costing substantially more than traditional Medicare. America has the most "consumer-driven" health care system in the advanced world. It also has by far the highest costs yet provides a quality of care no better than far cheaper systems in other countries.

But the fact that Republicans are demanding that we stake our health on a failed approach is only part of what's wrong. As I said earlier, there's something wrong with the whole notion of patients as "consumers" and health care as simply a financial transaction.

Medical care, after all, is an area in which crucial decisions must be made. Yet making such decisions intelligently requires a vast amount of specialized knowledge.

Furthermore, those decisions often must be made under conditions in which the patient is incapacitated, under severe stress or needs action immediately, with no time for discussion, let alone comparison shopping.

The idea that all this can be reduced to money — that doctors are just "providers" selling services to health care "consumers" — is, well, sickening. And the prevalence of this kind of language is a sign that something has gone very wrong not just with this discussion, but with our society's values.

Obtaining medical care is not like buying a car. There is often no time to do research and many people wouldn't understand the technical details or be able to determine the best course to take if they did have the time. The patient might not even been able to make any decisions at that point. Iit is immoral to ignore reality and pretend that medical care is like any other consumer transaction.

This semantic moralizing takes away from what I do think is the core argument between the partisans of the "Peoples' Budget" and the advocates of Ryan's Medicare voucher plan: whether consumers patients, or a central committee (IPAB) should be in charge of deciding what to do with limited health care resources.

The individual should decide what he can and can't pay for instead of the government because "choice" is a magic word that will automatically lead to less spending on health care, and if people fight their insurance companies one-by-one, they are much more likely to get better coverage than Medicare provides. Which is why everyone is dying to get rid of Medicare.

Paul Krugman, unsurprisingly, is against putting consumers in control: [snipped quote]

The statistics with which he opens are dubious: Medicare Advantage is more expensive because it provides more benefits, and the US isn't even close to being the leader in consumer-driven medicine, if by that you mean cost-sharing and purchasing decisions; in the rich world, that would almost certainly be Switzerland, where consumers patients not only pay heavily out of pocket, but purchase their own insurance, as both Kaiser and Cato will tell you.

Notice the bait and switch. We go from "should patients be treated as consumers" to "which country is more consumer based," an irrelevant question.

But though Krugman may be wrong about how consumer-driven our system is, he's not wrong that this is a core conflict. Nor do I think he's wrong that patients will frequently decide wrong. Where Krugman and I differ is that I don't think that centralized rule making is going to do such a super job either, for two reasons.

There it is again; another Jane Galt Socialist Dog-Whistle (TM).

The first is that providers and patients are going to fight cuts with every fiber of their being, and they will find it easier to fight on individual procedures than on increasing the size of the health care voucher; the former is not very expensive for any given procedure, while the latter is a large, obvious whack in the pocketbook for taxpayers. Think of how easy it has been for oxygen providers to keep their Medicare reimbursements--and how hard it was to pass a new health care entitlement.

People do not want to be thrown on the tender mercies of health insurance companies. The want to stick with Medicare and find a way to solve its problems instead of throwing it away.

But the second is that while consumers may be stupid, rules are often stupid too. Evidence-based medicine is certainly a good idea, but we are nowhere near being able to generate solid rules that a) cover all major possibilities and b) provide the highest chance of survival for the money. People are incredibly complicated. This makes outcomes hard to measure--and solid guidelines hard to develop.

"People are complicated." Tell that to a room of seniors who need Medicare. Everything is too hard, nobody can do anything ever, blah blah. McGalt sounds more like a socialist loser than a Galtian Overlord.

[yip yip yip]

But even if we had the kind of data we'd need to develop a comprehensive set of rules, the problem remains: rules are stupid. You need to leave room for individual discretion. And individual discretion on the part of doctors and hospitals is a loophole you could drive a truck through.

That's why we need more regulation, not why we need to get rid of Medicare.

Nor do I think the possibility of reducing costs through individual discretion is quite as impossible as Krugman makes things sound. Sure, a lot of decisions are life-or-death last minute things. But a lot of them aren't. They're questions like, "Do we send grandma to a nursing home, or try to keep her in the spare bedroom with the help of a home health-care aide?" Or "I've got stage four breast cancer with bone metastes [sic]; should I really mortgage the house to try another round of chemo?"

Does she ever listen to herself? Does she ever wonder what it would be like to have to worry about mortgaging your house to pay for your mother's chemotherapy?

It's all very well to say that people shouldn't have to make those decisions on the basis of money. But that's all the government is going to do.

Sure, there are some procedures that people just shouldn't have (like a lot of back surgery). But a lot of this is value judgements: hip replacements for elderly patients, expensive chemotherapy that may extend life by a few months, more convenient dosing schedules or better side-effect profiles for brand name drugs. Unless we simply rely on across-the-board reimbursement cuts--which would be moronic on every level--the government is mostly not going to be deciding which treatments are effective; it's going to be deciding which treatments are cost-effective. We haven't taken doctors out of the business of selling health care to patients; we've just added a middleman.

McGalt doesn't discuss how to solve our Medicare funding problems, she doesn't discuss cutting the military, she doesn't discuss raising taxes, she just tells us that we have to have vouchers or we'll die, when we all know damn well that taking the government out of healthcare for seniors will just be adding another middleman, the insurance companies.

Now, maybe you think that the government is smarter than the consumers it's speaking for. But how does the government know what you value most: an extra three months of life when you have cancer, or an extra five years of walking after age 89, or an extra $4,000 right now?

Health care as a game show. Nice.

I think that people who favor a central board probably put more faith in technocrats than I do, but also, that they are horrified by the specificity of the choices. They're comfortable making decisions about who lives or who dies when the people in those decisions are just decimal points in an aggregate statistic. But they find it horrifying that anyone--particularly the patient--should have to make that decision about a specific person.

But to me, they're not really that different. All those decimal points are people too. And it's just as heart-rending when they suffer or die.

Yeah, right, she has a bleeding heart.

It's in a wooden casket on her dresser.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

The most important thing to remember about Atlas Shrugged is that it's bad. Very, very, very bad. Obviously, consistently, blatantly, incontrovertibly bad. The writing is bad, the characters are loathsome, the action is doled out as if by an eyedropper, the morality is corrupt and the Ubermensch are about as Uber as your basic mouth-breathing, mother-hating serial killer. (More on him later.) Therefore, anyone who enjoyed Atlas Shrugged, or modeled his life philosophy on it, or gave herself a nom de cretin modelled after one of Shrugged's characters, is an idiot whose thoughts do not deserve a single moment of consideration. Randians have all the intellectual heft of someone who read Madam Bovary and thought it would be a swell idea to have affairs and swallow arsenic. Or someone who read Animal Farm and put on a piggy costume and overworked a farm horse. Or someone who read John Carter Of Mars and spent the rest of his life dreaming of bedding alien women. To paraphrase Neil Simon, Atlas Shrugged sucks and its fans are the suck-ees. And we have 1,168 pages of proof. Let's take a look.

Let the mocking begin.

Chapter 1 The Theme

The theme of AS, going by the first chapter, is that everything and everyone sucks except for Dagny Taggart and Hank Reardon and maybe a few other people. This might not seem like much of a theme, but that's what happens in dreadful books. The theme is greed is good, or every emotion but triumph is bad, or only a half-dozen people deserve to exist despite--or because of--the fact that they are sociopaths. Sometimes you get lucky, like in this book, and all these themes are included.

The story opens with one of the Good Guys, Eddie Willers, at work in a depressed, crumbling New York City. We know he is one of the good guys because his every thought and action revolved around his job and he has absolutely no life outside of it. He is doggily and doggedly devoted to his boss, Dagny Taggart, the daughter of the founder of Taggart Transcontinental railroad, and has been since they were small children together. Rand flashes back to Willers' childhood, when the two discussed the nature of greatness and when Willers often contemplated a giant tree on Dagny's property. The tree seems to hold up the world, like Atlas himself, yet is destroyed by a bolt of lightning and its rotted and empty core exposed for all the world to see. This passes for subtlety in Rand's world.

Willers is having troubles at work. It seems that the entire world became tired of money and decided to stop trying to make it. Mine owners stopped digging ore, businessmen stopped selling steel, manufacturers stopped manufacturing, repairmen stopped repairing, salesmen stopped selling. Everyone just decided, out of the blue, after centuries of selling everything they could get their hands on, from Indian burial goods to trees to beaver to bison to cotton to cloth to everything else that the US has manufactured, to change their nature, their entire way of life, and stop buying and selling. They now want to share and be equal. They've gone and quit business-ing, and not in a good Galtian way either.

Willers decides to talk to the railroad's president, Dagny's brother James. James is a Bad Guy. We know this because his appearance, his voice, his character, his morality, and every single solitary thing he does and says is repellent. He and all the other Bad Guys are exactly alike--without a single redeeming feature.

[James] had a small, petulant mouth, and thin hair clinging to a bald forehead. His posture had a limp, decentralized sloppiness, as if in defiance of this tall, slender boy, a body with an elegance of line intended for the confident poise of an aristocrat, but transformed into the gawkiness of a lout. The flesh of his face was pale and soft. His eyes were pale and veiled, with a glance that moved slowly, never quite stopping, gliding off and past things in eternal resentment of their existence. He looked obstinate and drained. He was thirty-nine years old.

Why is James so weak when Dagny is so strong and self-assured? They have the same bloodline--which Rand informs us is both noble by birth and ennobled by the blood of their boot-strapping industrialist father because Rand always wants to have it both ways. But he is missing something, or rather everything, that Rand tells us are invested in a very, very few people, a very special few people, a people of mastery and greatness, the only worthwhile people on the entire planet. You might even call these people a Master Race.

James is petulant, forced by the shape of his mouth to ignore Willers' attempt to solve the railroad's problems with supplies, workforce, and a global wave of socialism. He doesn't want to make money by running a successful railroad, he would rather everyone fail and watch his world crumble around him. He doesn't want oil man Ellis Wyatt's business despite the fact that Wyatt has magically found a way to make tapped-out oil wells spout forth in abundance. Unlike Dagny, James doesn't care if his railroad doesn't reach Colorado, which has magically been revealed to hold every resource known to man despite the fact that it had already been settled and its oil resources, for one, sold off. James tosses Willers out of his office and the action, such as it is, cuts to Our Heroine, Dagny Taggart.

Dagny Taggart is everything that Alisa Rosenbaum (Rand) is not. Rand was the unattractive, bourgeois daughter of a businessman who lost his money in the revolution, not the beautiful daughter of a rich industrialist and a noblewoman. She studied history and went to the state film school. Dagny (and Rand's alter-ego in her semi-autobiographical We, The Living) is an engineer, and obviously the rational, mathematical, precise, unemotional profession appealed to Rand. Unsurprisingly, Rand had been an unhappy child. Intelligent but combative, unappreciated but endlessly critical, stubborn and self centered, Rand was never able to be close to anyone.

Alisa Rosenbaum (her original name) was born in the icy winter of czarism, not long after the failed 1905 revolution ripped through her home city of St. Petersburg. Her father was a self-made Jewish pharmacist, while her mother was an aristocratic dilettante who loathed her three daughters. She would tell them she never wanted children, and she kept them only out of duty. Alisa became a surly, friendless child. In elementary school, her class was asked to write an essay about why being a child was a joyous thing. She instead wrote “a scathing denunciation of childhood,” headed with a quote from Pascal: “I would prefer an intelligent hell to a stupid paradise.”

Rand respected her father and strongly disliked her mother, whom, oddly, she called by the Russian variant of her patronymic, Borisovna. From the beginning, she and Anna Rosenbaum did not get along. The daughter viewed her mother as capricious, nagging, and a social climber, and she was painfully convinced that Anna disapproved of her. Anna considered her eldest daughter to be “difficult,” Rand recalled. It’s easy to imagine that she was. Although formal photographs from the time show a beautifully dressed, long-haired little girl with an arresting composure and huge, dark, intelligent eyes, her face is square and her features are slightly pudgy; when animated, they assume the stubborn, hawkish look of her adulthood. She had few friends and little inclination to make new ones, and she was physically inert in an era of passionate belief in physical exercise. Her mother nagged at her to be nicer to her cousins and more outgoing and athletic (“Make motions, Alice, make motions!” Anna would cry) and was exasperated by her penchant for becoming violently enthusiastic about the things she liked—certain European children’s stories and songs, for example—and immovably indifferent, even hostile, to the things she didn’t. But Anna also articulated many of the values that Rand would later become famous for expressing. In a letter from the 1930s, for example, Anna wrote to Rand, “Every man is an architect of his own fortune” and “Every person is the maker of his own happiness.”


Anna was also more broadly, and proudly, educated than her husband was. She read and spoke English, French, and German, and until the Belgian governess arrived she taught Rand and Natasha to read and write in French. Though Rand made good use of these advantages as she grew older, she viewed her mother as hypocritical and shallow, an opinion not entirely borne out by the evidence. She once characterized Anna as an aspiring member of the St. Petersburg intelligentsia whose main interest in life was giving parties, and she suspected that Anna enjoyed books and plays less than she enjoyed the appearance of talking about them at her frequent gatherings of family and friends. Anna subscribed to foreign magazines, including children’s magazines, which Rand read and was strongly influenced by as she began to write her own early stories. Still, until the 1917 Revolution changed everything, Anna seems to have been an artistic social climber (though a remarkably intelligent and resourceful one, as we shall see) who wanted her daughters to rise in the city’s Jewish social hierarchy—a project for which Ayn Rand was particularly unsuited.

Using the background of a pre-revolutionary Russia, [biographer Anne] Heller paints Rand’s early childhood as comfortable, but pained. Born Alissa Rosenbaum, Rand struggled to win her mother’s approval, as well as acceptance by her bourgeois peers. Rand asserted her intellectual ability at a young age, and constantly evaluated the inferiority of the people who circled her. This early disassociation with the people surrounding her, allowed for a later developmental flaw, which Heller catalogues as a quick rejection of dissenters. She often recounted how she valorized a fellow classmate, but when Rand the girl, she inquired about who the girl valued most. The child responded with her mother. Rand explains that this she never spoke to her again because of the banal response. In her flippant rebuff, Rand simultaneously preserves her own ego, and perpetuates her understanding of the world around her. Heller notes that Rand spent her life overestimating some people and underestimating others, and “she rarely reconsidered.” What Rand interprets as a strength in future objectivist pursuits, Heller highlights as a connection to Rand’s method of camouflaging insecurities. A compelling example of Rand’s continual re-interpretation of her childhood, Heller retells a story of Rand’s mother, Anna, cleaning out the nursery. Telling the young Alissa to sort out and de-clutter her toy room, Anna promised her daughter’s toys would be returned in a year’s time. Alissa, thinking she was outsmarting her mother, picked her favorites to put in storage. When the time elapsed, and Alissa requested her toys returned, Anna explained she gave them away to charity because she knew that Alissa did not need the toys. An adult Rand referred to this story as the moment when she understood that altruism was truly selfish, she understood her mother’s actions as spiteful. However, Rand’s adult analysis exemplifies her childlike understanding of human relationship to materials. Heller’s detailed storytelling reveals how frequently Rand misunderstood interactions with others, and perhaps, how her understanding of success evolved.

Naturally Rand's alter-ego doesn't enjoy childhood any more than Rand did, and grown-up Dagny is as emotionally clueless and stubbornly needy as grown-up Rand.

Dagny is smart, rich, beautiful, successful, and ostensibly utterly without weakness or flaw. She's Dagny Sue. She's rich but doesn't care about money, beautiful but doesn't care about make-up, clothes and jewels, passionate but doesn't care about (almost all) men, and owns a penthouse with only two rooms--one of the more amusing contortions Rand goes through to make her characters both culturally glamorous and spiritually pure. She is confident, decisive, always makes the right decision, and never meets a challenge that she cannot overcome. Like the rest of Rand's Ubermensch she is utterly perfect, and just as much a fantasy as Edward Cullen and the rest of the Cullen vampire clan in Twilight. Edward can't just be a sexy vampire, he has to be a sexy vampire that **sparkles**!! And Rand's Ubermensch can't just be superior, they must be perfect, just as everyone else without exception must be base and depraved.

Meanwhile teenage Alisa Dagny Sue is riding the rails, deciding and improving all over the place, making sure her trains run on time. She meets or discusses a few other Ubermensch along the way, although some seem to be Lesser Ubermensch like Eddie, faithful and supercompetent servants who are happy to spend their lives doing their smaller jobs superlatively, in the service of their UberMasters. Dagny returns to New York and again we are gifted with another scene of someone tapping James on the forehead and shouting, "Hello! Anybody home?" before staking off in disgust. Dagny notices that the Ubermensch seem to be disappearing around her and is puzzled. Before she makes a Decision, however, we are introduced to Our Hero, Businessman Ken Hank Reardon.

Chapter 2 The Chain

We meet Hank Reardon as he is watching the first pouring of Reardon Metal, a new metal that is stronger, lighter, and cheaper then steel, although strangely it includes a lot of copper, a soft metal. Naturally nobody wants the metal or even wants to test it at first, and they all hate and envy Reardon for his competence in the face of their weakness. Reardon is tall, very slender, a blue-eyed blond. He had boot-strapped his way from starting work in a mine at 14 to working at foundries and steel mills, to owning mines (who knew mining paid so well?), foundries and mills of his own. Reardon has a bracelet made of his new metal and we follow his long, triumphant walk home to his family of wife, mother and assorted relations and hangers-on, all of whom are, of course, repellent.

Reardon's family exist so Rand can show us how pure and perfect Reardon is by contrast, and so Reardon can meditate on his inability to respond to them emotionally. Every word his wife utters is a passive-aggressive, veiled or not-so-veiled insult. Every word his mother says is a passive-aggressive, whiny complaint or bout of self pity. Reardon despises them yet treats them with respect and civility, because he is perfect.

What did they seek from him?--thought Reardon---what were they after. He had never asked anything of them; it was they to wished to hold him, they who pressed a claim on him--and the claim seemed to have the form of affection, but it was a form which he found harder to endure than any sort of hatred. He despised causeless affection, just as he despised unearned wealth. They professed to love him for some unknown reason and they ignored all the things for which he could wish to be loved. He wondered what response they could hope to obtain from him in such manner--if his response was what they wanted. And it was, he thought; else why those constant complaints, those unceasing accusations about his indifference? Why that chronic air of suspicion, as if they were waiting to be hurt? He had never has a desire to hurt them, but he had always felt their defensive, reproachful expectation; they seemed wounded by anything he said. It was not a matter of his words or actions, it was almost...almost as they were wounded by the mere fact of his being.

Reardon habitually speaks coldly to anyone if he condescends to speak to them at all, withholds affection, and has no interest in anything or anyone but himself and his achievements. He cannot understand others' emotions and expresses very, very few of his own. His only source of joy is the triumph of success and the only characteristics he admires in other people are the ones he holds himself. In fact----

Hare's Checklist and other mental disorders
Psychopathy, as measured on the PCL-R, is negatively correlated with all DSM-IV Axis I disorders except substance abuse disorders. Psychopathy is most strongly correlated with DSM-IV antisocial personality disorder.

Factor1: Personality "Aggressive narcissism"

Glibness/superficial charm
Grandiose sense of self-worth
Pathological lying
Lack of remorse or guilt
Shallow affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric)
Callous/lack of empathy
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

It's not a perfect match, but it's close. Rand's heroes exhibit all the characteristics of deeply disturbed individuals; they are unable to relate to others, unable to feel emotions, monomaniacally focused on their own glorification and success, and are also filled with self-pity because nobody appreciates their superiority. And those are the good guys.

The rest of the chapter consists of people standing around saying cruel things to each other, asking Reardon for money, and saying cruel things to Reardon about money, while Reardon wallows in self-pity, wondering to himself why nobody cares about him.

Atlas Shrugged

---------------------------------Coming Soon-------------------------------------

Monday, April 25, 2011

More About Fairy Tales

The Free Market Fairy, Megan McArdle, hard at work on her blog.

Megan McArdle heh-indeeds an Arnold Kling post:

Arnold Kling offers a disturbing fable.

That's all she wrote, so let's look at the fairy tale.

Once upon a time, everyone worked for the MyTeaEst corporation, which produced one million loaves of bread in the year 2000. It paid its workers in bread, and they ate the one million loaves.

And then it went out of business because it didn't make a profit?

MyTeaEst also gave half of its workers a pension plan, promising them one million loaves of bread in 2025. It gave the other workers a 401(K) plan, where the workers deposited bonds issued by MyTeaEst that promised one million loaves of bread in 2025.

That was stupid. No wonder the management can't make a profit; they're idiots. They agree to give people money that the company will never have. Isn't this illegal? Obviously the management has been enchanted by a wicked witch who forces them to make bad management decisions.

Eye of newt, toe of frog,
Make this owner commit fraud!

The year 2025 came. MyTeaEst still produced one million loaves of bread, with a new generation of workers. Those workers expected to be paid, in the aggregate one million loaves of bread. The older generation of workers on the pension plan expected one million loaves. And the older generation of workers with the 401(K) plan expected that their bonds would be repaid.

What do you suppose happened?

A handsome prince came along and kissed the management team with stimulus money so the entire economy wouldn't collapse. The management team retired on the Caribbean Island that they bought with the money, while the workers starved to death.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Fairy Tale

Megan McArdle quotes a report on that dreaded enemy of every successful Daddy's beautiful and intelligent and highly educated daughter who achieved her success through courage and pluck industrialist:

The NLRB obliged with its complaint yesterday asking an administrative law judge to stop Boeing's South Carolina production because its executives had cited the risk of strikes as a reason for the move. Boeing acted out of "anti-union animus," says the complaint by acting general counsel Lafe Solomon, and its decision to move had the effect of "discouraging membership in a labor organization" and thus violates federal law. [my bolds]

That's pretty clear, right? Executives admitted they moved to eliminate the threat of strikes, that is, unions using the power of numbers to counteract the power of the owners. And how can the free market exist if it does not have an opposing force to create market equilibrium? It would be like a teeter without a totter, an up without a down, a Megan McArdle without critics. Equilibrium requires two equal and opposing forces. No push-back, no free market.

Not to mention that federal law thing.

Speaking of McArdle, let's see how she decided to spin the information.

This seems crazy. Boeing does not seem to have claimed that it was trying to break the union; it said it was moving to seek a more amenable labor force.

Ah, "seem"; one of the most useful words in the English language. Like "plausible deniability." The use of this word can magically transforms a fact into an opinion, which is a very useful way to blur the line between reality and fiction.

As far as I know, that's not against the law, even if unions wish it were.

"As far as I know." That is another classic, an endlessly useful evasion, a magic wand that blurs the walls between worlds. Every little thing she does is magic, as the poet says.

Companies have been moving south for decades to get a better tax and labor environment. For the NLRB to declare that companies have no right to move would be tantamount to declaring that they are legally captive to whatever the local unions and governments care to dole out. And to do so based on a chance remark at a conference call seems particularly insane.

And so doth "admission of guilt" become "chance remark at a conference call."

The truth is revealed.

Megan McArdle is the Free Market Fairy.

Postscript: I am up to Chapter 4 in Atlas Shrugged and will post on it within a few days.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Unequal Burdens Of The Rich

Image from here.

Shorter Megan McArdle:

Without arguing about whether our tax system is fair or not, the fact is that the federal income tax is the most variable part of the code, and the federal income tax is now very progressive; it collects most of its revenue from people at the top. (Whether it should collect even more is an argument for another day.) Because it collects most of its income from people at the top, and because the incomes of the wealthy are more variable than the incomes of the poor and middle class (Warren Buffett's income can drop by $300,000; mine can't), we're going to get deep troughs in recessions, and high peaks in boom times.

Longer Megan McArdle:

Nothing "confuses" McArdle more than the difference between a number and a percentage. When she wants to deemphesize something she'll use number and ignore percentage. ( Or do the opposite.) She did it with drug company profits, she did it with health care and bankruptcies, and now she's doing it with taxes. If the McArdles' income dropped by $300,000, that would be a decrease of about 90-100%. If Buffet's income dropped by $300,000 the percentage drop would be tiny. (And of course she ignores assets and concentrates only on income.) Her point is irrelevant. She doesn't want taxes raised for people who make over $250,000 because she makes over $250,000 and doesn't like to pay for the government services she receives. If others suffer because she doesn't like to pay higher taxes on her higher income it is their own fault because nobody made them poor, they are poor because they are weak. (More Ayn Rand, of course, via Jane Galt.)

Your basic Randian will declare that she is being accused of being selfish for wanting to keep the results of her hard labor. She is like a teenager who wants to spend all the money she makes at her after school job on clothes and movies and have her parents pay for her home, necessities, and education, while telling herself that they can't tell her what to do anymore because she is all grown up and independent. You don't want to pay our Social Security? We don't want to pay for all the airports that you use much, much more than we. The difference is that nobody listens to the poor and a lot of people listen to McArdle's lies, evasions and half-truths.

Speaking of well-known McArdle practices, watch her get nailed for linking to a source that doesn't say what she tells everyone it says, according to a commenter.

clawback 17 hours ago
We will get particularly high peaks when the booms are delivering huge chunks of income to a handful of people in a very short timeframe. According to the CBO, capital gains receipts alone, which more than doubled in Clinton's second term, accounted for more than 30% of the increase in income tax receipts above the rate of GDP growth.

The CBO report you point to wisely refrains from assuming that wide swings in capital gains tax receipts are due to business cycles. It correctly points out they also seem to correlate to changes in the capital gains tax rate. But, unlike you, they cautiously decline to assume cause and effect. Still, it could be that keeping capital gains taxes at a predictable rate would result in less variability.

abUWS 16 hours ago in reply to clawback
You would have to differentiate rate-change variability from business cycle variability in order to tease out some level of capital gains tax receipts and how they are affected by given rates. In other words there are actually three variables to capital gains taxes. The business cycle, the level of the tax, and expectations that the level of the tax will be changing (higher or lower) at some point in the future.

I have no answers. I only know that anyone who makes it sound or seem simple has to be questioned.

clawback 16 hours ago in reply to abUWS
Which is why I reject Ms. McArdle's attempt to make it sound simple. She expects us to accept, without evidence, her theory that tax receipts from the rich are more variable than average. This needs to be proven, and not by pointing to CBO reports that don't support her claims.

Cruxius 16 hours ago in reply to clawback
How about looking at the states that relied on income taxes on the rich?

This isn't exactly groundbreaking news to point out that income tax receipts are highly variable, and capital gains receipts even more so.

Consumption tax receipts are less variable. Property tax receipts are the least variable of the common taxes. (I guess a head tax would be even less variable than that, but no one uses them.)

clawback 16 hours ago in reply to Cruxius
If it "isn't exactly groundbreaking news" it should be easy for her to provide the evidence, rather than pointing to CBO reports that don't support her theory.

McMegan 16 hours ago in reply to clawback
This isn't even remotely controversial. Income taxes, which are primarily levied on high earners, swing much more widely than regressive taxes like sales taxes or payroll taxes. The drop in income taxes between 2008 and 2010 was about 22%; the drop in payroll taxes was 3%. All the work by places like Brookings shows that income volatility is primarily at the tails, and even Hacker has now revised to show the same thing, which is not surprising. CEOs often get big multi-year packages, financial income swings with the condition of the markets, and people who use corporate pass-throughs get nothing when the company is losing money, while the people on payroll still draw a check. This isn't some piece of right-wing propaganda; no economist you ask, left or right, will tell you anything different.

clawback 16 hours ago in reply to McMegan
I don't doubt that income taxes are more variable than sales or payroll taxes. I'm asking for evidence, rather than handwaving, showing that income taxes on the rich are more variable than income taxes in general.

McMegan 15 hours ago in reply to clawback
But payroll taxes are (basically) income taxes in general; they're income taxes on lower incomes. They are less variable than income taxes on higher incomes. QED.

clawback 15 hours ago in reply to McMegan
Sigh. The point of your post was your theory that raising income taxes on the rich would make tax receipts more vulnerable to business cycles as compared to raising income taxes across the board. This is true only if non-payroll income tax receipts from the rich are more variable than those on average. You haven't shown this.

McMegan 15 hours ago in reply to clawback
No, the point of my post was that under Clinton, a highly progressive system combined with a giant spike in the incomes of the wealthy produced a peak that we cannot easily reproduce; and that Kevin [ was assuming we could not only reproduce these conditions, but also, turn the peak into an average. But seriously, no one disputes that income taxes on the wealthy are extremely volatile, which is why wonks left to right pretty much think we're going to end up with a VAT; a system that relies mostly on taxing the rich is a system that will have very wide swings from peak to trough. I don't know why you're disputing this in the face of very strong empirical evidence both about the incomes of the wealthy (they have always been more volatile, and have gotten more so--see Piketty & Saez, Dynan) and about the different sorts of taxes we currently have. It's okay. You can still be in favor of taxing the rich.

clawback 15 hours ago in reply to McMegan
The sources you cite show only that the incomes of the rich have gone up, not that they're more volatile. This is hardly an argument for keeping their taxes low. But it's okay; you can still be in favor of cutting programs for the poor and middle class.

McMegan 1 hour ago in reply to clawback
I didn't cite the CBO in support of volatility; I cited it as the source for the capital gains numbers. The volatility stuff is all over, but I suggest you start with Karen Dynan's work; income volatility is highest (and growing fastest) at the tails. Or look at the IRS tax tables.

Goalpost moving. This post is like a Faulty Reasoning bingo card.

Wilson263 13 hours ago in reply to McMegan
"No, the point of my post was that under Clinton, a highly progressive system combined with a giant spike in the incomes of the wealthy produced a peak that we cannot easily reproduce"...

No, Megan. You're clearly misinterpreting the meaning of your own post. Clawback is obviously correct on this point.

But, yeah. Closing the deficit only with tax increases is basically just bad math. And that's with the current/baseline projected level of spending. This isn't including all the other super-awesome free lunch programs progressives presumably want to enact over the course of the next 50+ years.

circleglider 5 hours ago in reply to McMegan
clawback is disputing facts and basic arithmetic out of ignorance coupled with irrational resistance to any information contrary to his belief system.

Just like Kevin Drum.

Yes, quite a few commenters complain about the innumeracy of liberals in this post. Sometimes it's like Bizarro World over there. Mistress Megan, meek and mild, said nothing, as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.

Cruxius 15 hours ago in reply to clawback
The IRS has a bunch of data that you can use to learn what everyone else already knows:

For example, [PDF] shows the returns of the 400 Americans with the highest AGI for the Clinton years. Their "salaries and wages" bottomed out at $1.87 billion in 1994 and then went up to $11.6 billion by the year 2000.

The total income tax paid by the top 400 in nominal dollars went from less than $5 billion in 1992 to over $15.5 billion in 2000.

DavidWalser 15 hours ago in reply to clawback
Ms. McArdle's theory as to the variability of capital gains tax revenues is widely accepted by economists from both sides of the aisle. In a relatively short blog post, is the author required to document her belief the sky is blue and the grass is green, or can't commonly accepted explanations be assumed?

Besides, why the tax revenues are so variable is less important to her argument than the fact that they are variable. She pointed out, correctly, that Drum was wrong to assert that the Treasury would reap close to 20% of GDP if we just restored Clinton's tax rates. Drum was wrong because the ONLY year in which the Treasury received close to 20% of GDP was in a year that had historically large capital gains. So, unless you assume each and every year our economy will have historically large capital gains, you'd have to assume that at best a reversion to Clinton's tax rates would generate a tax haul of between 18% and 19% of GDP.

clawback 15 hours ago in reply to DavidWalser
Despite the supposed wide acceptance of her theory she felt obligated to provide a link to a CBO report supporting it. Except that it didn't, as I pointed out.

Rex 13 hours ago in reply to clawback
I think that she felt obligated as the hostess of this site to clear up your misunderstanding expressed through repeated rude attempts to make her justify what is basically accepted by everyone else, irrespective of political leaning.

You are not a gracious person.

clawback 11 hours ago in reply to Rex
Rather than guessing, you might have gone back and noticed that she provided the link in her original post, not in reply to anything I wrote.

Trimalchio 11 hours ago in reply to clawback

Look at table 3.5 over time. The truth is out there, man.

Rex 9 hours ago in reply to clawback
Then why did you keep pressing her for a cite?

McMegan 1 hour ago in reply to clawback
The link was for a specific figure on capital gains, not the overall proposition that the income of the wealthy is volatile. I didn't cite that because no one, except you, is disputing it.

clawback 38 minutes ago in reply to McMegan
Oh, please.

We will get particularly high peaks when the booms are delivering huge chunks of income to a handful of people in a very short timeframe. According to the CBO, capital gains receipts alone, which more than doubled in Clinton's second term, accounted for more than 30% of the increase in income tax receipts above the rate of GDP growth.

In context, it is clear you intended to imply the increase in capital gains during the period in question was due to the boom, without mentioning the CBO's cautiously worded theory it might have been more closely related to swings in the capital gains tax rate. This was my original point.

Lying by implication. Bingo! And we're not done yet. Watch McArdle get nailed for ignoring the increase in income inequality, which has always been fine-n-dandy with her.

mmh53b 17 hours ago
"and the federal income tax is now very progressive; it collects most of its revenue from people at the top. (Whether it should collect even more is an argument for another day.)"

When I was a lad growing up in the land of music on AM radio and black and white television, progressivity was not based on the percentage of tax revenue collected from the top, but rather the marginal tax rate. Hereis a though experiment: suppose 1000 people earn $10 with a marginal tax rate of 40 percent for the first $10 earned. So you collect $4000 from these 1000 people. Then there is one person earning, oh say, 1 trillion with a marginal tax rate of 1% for anything earned above $10.

According to Megan this would be highly progressive as the he total collected would be 9.99996 billion from that one trillionaire and $4000 from everyone else even though the masses have 40 times higher marginal tax bracket than Warren Gates in our example.

Looks like somebodys' been sampling a bit too much of the the Kentucky Bourbon nut cake....

McMegan 16 hours ago in reply to mmh53b
Again, the question is not whether the system does enough to equalize wealth. In this context, the question is: how dependent are tax revenues on high incomes? Because the more dependent they are on high incomes, the more they swing from peak to trough. This has, contra your belief, always been a definition that characterizes a system as "progressive" rather than "regressive". I explicitly left out the issue of social justice, because the distance from peak to trough has nothing to do with the percentage of their income you are taking from the wealthy, and everything to do with the percentage of your income that you get from the wealthy. Think of the government as being in the business of selling yachts and vacation homes in the Hamptons.

mmh53b 15 hours ago in reply to McMegan
Thanks for the response. And yes I get the volatility part of tax revenue.

However, what sticks in my Eisenhower-era interstate-highway-building craw is the use of the word "progressive". Due to the era of "Bankers Gone Wild" national income inequality relative to halcyon days of the Bush I administration, by your reckoning tax revenue is more "progressive" because a higher percentage of the revenue is derived from the plutocrats regardless of the flattening of the marginal tax rates. This progressivity, as you describe it, is due exclusively to the increase in inequality and not to a change in marginal tax rates. The more unequal the income distribution, the more "progressive" the federal income tax? Somethin's not right....

BTW, congrats on your upcoming first anniversary. I think paper is supposed to be the gift. Hopefully not a T-bill, though.

What did McArdle win? Hundreds of thousands of dollars, a new house, and a brand-new-(used)-car!!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


I recently ran across this post on Megan McArdle's social activities. A small sample:

On the night, McArdle arrived half an hour early, which would be unforgivable enough had she not come toting a bottle of Vin de Footsquasher 2007 and a bunch of half-dead gerberas. Van’s wonderful old butler, Thomas, stuck her in the waiting room for 45 minutes, so by the time he went and got her we were all already sitting down, onto our first glass and our second line, and hoeing into the sevruga.

Anyhow, when Thomas fetched Megan, she trundled after him, clutching her flowers and bottle. As they made their way along the corridor, she started to let out a little whine, which gradually got more high pitched and then burst out into a litany of complaints against poor Thomas. It was a little like this: “mmmmmmmmmmmoooooooooooooeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEE. Why? Why did you make me sit there all alone. Do you know who I am? I sat there without a drink for aaaaaaaages. Blah. Blah. Whinycakes.”

Read it all!

Also, I am relieved that I am not the only person writing McArdle fiction. Some hobbies are so misunderstood.

Love For Sale

Megan McArdle looks at an extremely interesting post and discussion on the interplay between markets and government and the libertarian myth of free markets at Crooked Timber and makes the... unfortunate decision to compare markets to sex.

John Quiggin complains that what the classic essay I, Pencil actually shows is the wonders of a mixed economy, not the market. The essay traces all the amazing transactions that need to occur for a simple pencil to be made, pointing out that not one of the people involved could make a pencil by themselves, and most of them don't even know that they're involved in producing a pencil. But what about the US Forestry Service? Rail rights of way? The education system?

It's rude to call someone's post a complaint, but all's fair in war and economics, we suppose. Still, it has the air of a child sitting in the back seat of a station wagon and whining "Mom, Bobby's making faces at me!"

This is an argument to which the left-wing has a great deal of recourse whenever anyone suggests that people have a right to keep what they earn from voluntary transactions. You can only make money in the context of society, and so society has a right to regulate your transactions, and seize the proceeds, in any way that society sees fit.

This is pure Ayn Rand. (I knew reading that book would come in handy.) "Society" is an amorphous blob of humanity that, due to its own mediocrity and therefore lack of success, envies your money and will take it from you by coercion. McArdle just paid her income taxes and is a bit touchy on the idea of the government taking money out of people's pockets where it belongs so they can save up for a kitchen remodel. Society is a money-grubbing thief that is just waiting to grab the sweat of your brow, as it refuses to sweat for itself. Mr. Quiggen's post does not, in fact, advocate the grubbing of money at all, and instead supports the necessity and the reality of regulation and government participation in markets, but other people's ideas are often merely the jumping off point for McArdle, who interprets economics through minutely detailed discussions of her recent consumer purchases and pet peeves.

McArdle's free market ardor leads her down some unfortunate paths, however.

And yet, the argument applies just as well to our sex lives or our political beliefs: they take place in the context of all sorts of government protections, from rape prosecutions to whistleblower laws.

You like free markets in sex, don't you? So why don't you like free markets in the selling of goods and services? Oh, snap!

Without markets and the government, the "anything between two consenting adults" morality to which the majority of the elite subscribes would be impossible; the closest substitute for these things is family, and families have a very clear, deep, and persistent interest in regulating the sexual behavior of their members.

This must be aimed at liberals, since they are supposedly the ruling elite now, which is why Megan McArdle is working for them and not the oligarchy. It seems that our liberal ruling elite believe that anything goes when it comes to sex, as they are notoriously in favor of giving civil rights to everyone, and therefore support prostitution, polygamy, gay sex and bestiality, as long as the animal is not an endangered species.

We are not quite sure what McArdle means by the participation of markets in people's sex lives; perhaps she means the selling of "marital aids," condoms and women in short skirts on street corners. Perhaps not, who can tell? We also cannot figure out what she means to say by dangling the threat of family control of sexuality. If we outlaw CDOs, Father will sell us for a few goats and a sheepskin? Mother will forbid Father from going to College Night at Hooters? Both parents will forbid middle-aged Megan from shacking up with her boyfriend? The possibilities are as endless, we suppose.

Does this mean that the government (or our employers) may properly restrict our sexual behavior to that of which a majority of our neighbors approve? That bed you're having sex in probably travelled on the interstate highway system, so standby for government inspection . . .

Yes, Megan McArdle really believes that if BP is regulated, we will inevitably slide down the slippery slope of regulation until we end up with a Sex Inspector writing out tickets from under the mattress.

The next time someone tells us how smart and thoughtful McArdle is, we will simply link to that passage and hit "post." The government regulates sex, but you don't want the government to regulate your sex life, do you??? So why do you want the government to regulate commerce? Think, people!

No? The government can't do that? Then why is this argument supposed to be a telling blow against arguments for strong property rights and freedom from interference in voluntary economic transactions?


I'm certainly happy to argue that libertarians and conservatives underestimate the extent to which markets are supported by regulations and laws that shape transactions away from destructive ends. But that doesn't mean that markets aren't pretty great--or that the government therefore has the right to regulate things in any way that the government pleases.

This obligatory and insincere caveat was brought to you by The Atlantic Circulation Department, which is getting tired of seeing "Hell, no!" written on subscription renewal forms.

All the activity of a modern human takes place in the context of society. That requires balancing of individual rights and the common good. But this is not a blank check for the government to trample rights as it pleases . . . nor a blanket answer when people complain that the government has gotten too intrusive.

Therefore we should leave the poor corporations alone and let them work their free market magic in peace, since markets are pretty great. And so is sex.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Shrugging of the Snark

I've been thinking of reading Atlas Shrugged and mocking posting about it for a long time, and since the movie is out and McArdle is obviously going to feed us hundreds of posts warning us about the imaginary deficit crises, now would be a good time. If you guys hate the idea or get bored, let me know. There's no reason why we all should suffer needlessly.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Million Little Cups Of Henry Galt

Megan McArdle reads that Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea was semi-fictional, and is appalled that Mortenson thought he could get away with lying to people.

This sort of thing just mystifies me. I have nightmares where a false story has gotten into one of my stories by accident; I wake up with a sick start, and the relief when I realize that it was just a dream is sweet indeed. I cannot imagine the thought process that would lead you to do this on purpose. Leave aside the morality of it for the nonce--aren't people afraid of getting caught? In this day and age, how can you hope to get away with passing off a photo of an Islamabad think-tanker as a terrorist who kidnapped you?

But of course if the allegations are true, he did get away with it for a long time. Presumably, this started way back, with some harmless and undetectable fudge. After all, all journalism is approximate sometimes. It's gotten less so with the advent of recording technology, but when my recorder failed during an interview for my next column, I was forced to rely on my notes, and since I don't write as fast as people talk, this meant a lot of back and forth with the fact-checkers and the subject over whether I'd filled in the correct prepositions or gotten the right word order. And obviously I do not videotape everything I see. So we're all forced to contend with the certainty that errors can and do creep into our recollection.

Perhaps Mortenson's exaggerations started by just playing with the edges of this uncertainty--sexing up his quotes and the characters he met. Then as nothing happened, he got bolder. Especially since he was probably rewarded for his creativity--lightly fictionalized characters are usually livelier and more compelling than actual people, who tend not to speak in well crafted dialogue, or make exactly the perfect point upon which to pivot our story.

Still, I don't know how he could keep going on for so long, with nothing inside him saying "Stop, this is wrong . . . " or at least "Stop, this is really dangerous and you're going to get caught." Which is, I suppose, the mainstay of real journalism: people still do surprise you.

Let me explain the situation to Mrs. McArdle, using an example that she can relate to. Let's posit that you work for a magazine that takes money from very large pharmaceutical companies. You know that the more advertising revenue your magazine takes in, the better your chance of keeping your job for a long time. You want drug companies to continue to pump thousands of dollars into your boss's pocket because some of that lovely money will trickle down to you.

So you decide to tell everyone that they will die if drug companies make less money. Let's see, money pays for research, so we'll say that there will be no research and therefore no innovation in drug companies if the government sticks its great big ole nosy nose into healthcare. You don't have any proof of this statement, but who cares? The information is hard to find and hardly anyone will question you anyway. You work for a very prestigious magazine and people want to believe that their leaders are smart and honest.

You tell everyone that you read the drug companies' financial reports and they said that 80% of the drug companies' profits came from US sales. You tell your faithful readers that millions will die if Americans pay less for drugs. Oddly, you and your fans do not complain about how the rest of the world mooches off of Americans; instead you insist that Americans must overpay or die.

But then your worst nightmare comes to life. In a Q&A with the Washington Post, someone asks you where your number came from. Emboldened by your success at getting away with the lie and mindful of the wider audience, you admit that your number was "hypothetical."

Are you horrified? Are you sleepless with anxiety over your actions? (Well, maybe.) Do you admit you lied and say you've learned your lesson and accept Jesus as your personal Savior?

No, you continue to lie, lie, lie like the lying liar you are. That's how people become liars. And that's how they get away with it.

Speaking of writers, it seems that Ayn Rand wrote two books that bore a quite a resemblance to others' work.

There are similarities between Anthem and the earlier novel, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, another author who had lived in communist Russia. These include:

1.A novel taking the form of a secret diary or journal.
2.People having numbers instead of names.
3.Eugenics is practiced, and children are separated from their parents and brought up by the State
4.Individualism has been disposed of in favor of collective will.
5.A male who discovers individuality through his relationship with a female character.
6.A forest as a 'free' place outside the dystopian city.
7.The main character is a man, and a scientist.
8.This character discovers a link to the past, when men were free, in a tunnel under the Earth.

There are also a number of differences between the two stories. For example, the society of We is in no scientific or technological decay, featuring X-rays, airplanes, microphones, and so on. In contrast, the people of Anthem believe that the world is flat and the sun revolves around it, and that bleeding people is a decent form of medicine. The similarities have led to speculation about whether Rand's story was directly influenced by Zamyatin's.[6][7] However, there is little evidence that Rand was influenced by or even read Zamyatin's work, and she never mentioned it in discussions of her life in Russia.[6][8]


In Justin Raimondo’s fun and lively book Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, he makes an argument that I did not find convincing. He argued that Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged was clearly influenced by the 1922 Garet Garrett novel The Driver–that Rand never acknowledged this “source” and that if this was not quite plagiarism, then “Rand’s silence on this subject amounted to a deliberate deception.”

I’ve never been convinced by this conclusion. There is no doubt that Atlas, whatever else may be said about it, is original. Even if Rand was influenced by Garrett, there is simply no case to made for plagiarism or deception.

Yet the question of whether Rand did read The Driver is of interest. There are, as Raimondo points out, some thematic similarities between the novels. In Reclaiming, Raimondo he says that “the clearest evidence, albeit circumstantial, that Rand did indeed read The Driver” is a certain “stylistic device.” That is, the question “Who is Henry Galt?”, which is similar to Atlas‘s repeated line, “Who is John Galt?”Raimondo concludes, “From the overwhelming mass of evidence it is clear that Rand was influenced by Garrett. The similarities between The Driver and Atlas Shrugged are too numerous and too detailed to be coincidence.”

As noted, I find the deception/quasi-plagiarism charge to be completely unconvincing, but I was not even persuaded of the contention that Rand had even been influenced by Garrett (not that there would have been anything wrong if she had). But I just came across Garrett’s Cinder Buggy: A Fable in Iron and Steel, a novel that

“chronicles the transformation of American industry from the age of iron to the age of steel.” “The plot concerns an ongoing war between two industrialists, one the hero who is beaten in the first generation and the other who is malevolent but initially wins an ongoing struggle. The struggle continues through the second generation, which leads to the titanic struggle over whether steel or iron would triumph and why.”

Hmm. A steel industrialist. Hmm.

One of the major characters in Atlas is Hank Rearden (2):

Iron-willed inventor, and founder of the Rearden Steel empire, Hank Rearden is, with Francisco and Galt, one of the novel’s three major heroes. Rearden’s quest to understand and resolve his moral and emotional conflicts is central to the plot. His revolutionary new alloy, Rearden Metal, makes him a target of predators in government, industry, and his own family.

Yet another similarity? Maybe. I suppose–though I’m still not convinced–Rand may have read Garrett’s novels, and the themes and use of industrialists (railroad; steel) may have influenced her. (I’m not sure I see any links, though, to Satan’s Bushel, the third of Garrett’s trilogy.) Food for thought.

Friday, April 15, 2011


Our Megan McArdle has reviewed Atlas Shrugged and given it two opposable thumbs down. One commenter repeated the famous quote about Randians:

DP 3 minutes ago
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

McMegan 0 minutes ago in reply to DP
That was mildly amusing the first time I heard it, twenty years ago.

That would be difficult as John Rogers wrote it on March 19, 2009, two years ago. However we all know McArdle's difficulty with numbers; getting things wrong by a factor of ten is habitual for her.

Flashback Megan: Tax Time

Megan McArdle's output has been skimpy lately so let's visit Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine once again, as "Jane Galt" tells us looters and moochers that paying for the benefits society provides is grossly unfair.

November 24, 2002
From the desk of Jane Galt:

The Jane Galt Tax Plan

[by "Jane Galt," a name that in no way indicates a love of Ayn Rand and her morally, socially, financially superior imaginary characters]

Fritz Schrank asks how we should simplify taxes. Well, here's the Jane Galt version, guaranteed to please no one but its author:

1) Get rid of all our poverty programs, except those aimed at the disabled, and temporary unemployment assistance, and institute the negative income tax. That is to say, the system should be continuously progressive, from a steep negative rate of up to 100% on very low earners, gradually declining until it zeroes out around $28,000 a year, and then rising gradually until it maxes out around 35% on the top brackets.

2) Eliminate FICA and pay for Social Security and Medicare out of general revenue. It's time to stop pretending it's a pension system, when there are no assets in the "trust fund"

3) Eliminate the corporate income tax

4) Eliminate the special treatment for capital gains. All income should be taxed at the same level, regardless of its source.

5) Eliminate all deductions. Period, end of statement. No mortgate, student, child, etc. All causes are equally worthy in the eyes of the person who possesses the deduction; it is a waste of our time as a nation to sit around arguing about who deserves what.

6) Just say no to the Value Added Tax. In theory, it's a good tax. In practice, because it is extremely hard to tell what proportion of the price of anything represents the tax, it removes the good and natural pressure upon tax rates.

7) Get rid of the estate tax, and tax the capital gains on whatever is sold.

So why these particular features?

Well, the negative income tax does two things: encourages work by removing the disincentives created by potential loss of benefits; and means that the entire country, poorest to richest, faces a marginal tax increase if they want more spending: the poor have to give back some of their rebate, while the rich have to pay higher rates. For many on the left, that may of course be a bug, not a feature, as it forces the electorate to think much harder about whether or not they want new spending.

The arguments between conservatives and liberals often go like this:

C: The rich pay all the taxes
L: That's not true -- what about FICA?

Both have points. But the central issue that the conservatives are trying to get at is that the majority of the electorate does not face a marginal tax increase when they agitate for new spending. FICA may indeed be regressive, but its rates are unaffected by the level of spending in government. So a majority is prone to agitate for higher taxes, because they will not be paying those taxes.

I don't think it's a healthy situation for the electorate when a large majority is voting for spending that costs them nothing. To the minds of someone who pays no income tax, there's no cost/benefit analysis to be made; they're getting stuff for free. Even something of trivial benefit to them is thus better than not raising taxes. So we end up spending money on a lot of crap, because most of the voters don't care -- it's not their money.

On the other hand, liberals have a point about fairness. It isn't fair to say that some guy who brings home $20K should pay the same quarter of his income as Warren Buffett. The decrease in Joe Schmoe's standard of living represented by that 25% is much greater than the decrease in Warren Buffett's SOL from taking a quarter of his loot.

A negative income tax increases fairness, removes perverse incentives from the current benefit system, and makes sure that everyone has to think about whether they really want that new spending they're voting for -- enough to give up some of their cash.

Killing FICA increases fairness while removing some of the obstacles to reform by eliminating the fiction of an insurance program.

Eliminating the corporate income tax while equalizing treatment between capital gains does a number of things. It mitigates the current bias towards (tax deductible) debt financing. It ends all the ridiculous distortionary crap that corporations do to get around taxes. It ends the bias towards retained earnings that helped produce such interesting results in the stock market. It takes away a large chunk of the ability of the rich to avoid taxes by deferring their income in capital gains. It ends the tax preference for stock options that helped make the start of the new millenium so lively. Under this plan, income is income is income, no matter where it comes from. Thus we can stop the multi-billion dollar industry in shifting income from tax-disadvantaged to tax-advantaged forms.

If you just end the corporate tax without changing capital gains, you keep much of the distortion and shelter for the rich. If you eliminate special capital gains treatment without eliminating the corporate tax, you bias the economy away from investment, because now income is taxed at a high level twice -- once when its made by the company, and a second time when its distributed to the company's owners. This way, we tax it once, when it hits a real person.

We eliminate deductions for two reasons. First of all, they're distortionary. If it makes economic sense for adults to go to school, they will go to school. Giving a tax credit for it just encourages marginal activity that wouldn't pay for itself without a subsidy. Try thinking of it not as a tax credit, but as you giving someone else money to follow their dream of learning Old Church Slavonic, and you see what I mean.

Second of all, deductions are the way that the rich make sure that they pay a lot less taxes than the upper middle class. There is a reason that Barbra Streisand thinks that income taxes should be raised; she isn't going to pay much more tax. Most of her money is in assets, earning more money. It's the guy who owns the gas station down the street who's going to get it in the teeth. If we want to tax the rich, let's tax them, not give umpteen zillion deductions so they have the same marginal rate as your average bike messenger.

That's fine, I hear you say, but why all the deductions? Why not just the bad ones?

Because, as we've found since Reagan's simplification, there's no such thing as just one deduction. If you want the mortgage tax credit, you're going to need to give someone else the land-use abatement, and then there's the guy with his Urban Empowerment Zone Qualified Small Business, and next thing you know, we haven't gotten anywhere. The only way to get a clean code is to get rid of all of them. This won't be fun for many people. Housing prices will drop, for starters. On the other hand, so will tax rates. And come on -- why should an apartment renter be paying more taxes so you can frolic in the greenery?

Why get rid of the estate tax? Because the revenues raised are trivial, and people spend an enormous amount of time and money structuring their estates to get around them. Again, a disproportionate share of the tax is paid not by the super rich, but by the poor schmucks with one or two big assets they can't structure to get around the tax. On the other hand, when it's sold the inheritors should pay all the capital gains -- if you get rid of the estate tax, you should get rid of the stepped-up basis as well.

So that's Jane's plan. As you can see, it would be efficient, fair, and has absolutely no chance of ever getting passed unless they make me Dictator for the Decade.

Sigh. I could solve so many problems, if only people would let me tell them what to do. But no, they insist on mucking it up by deciding for themselves.

Tip of the hat to TBogg, who reminds us that Miss Galt has a slight problem with numbers.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cooking Lessons

Isn't this a lovely cake? It's too bad McArdle's cake looks nothing like it.

Previously we have discussed how Mrs. Megan McArdle is the smartest econoblogger who ever blogged and the nicest, most moral, most superior elite of all elitedom. But Megan McArdle's imaginary gifts do not end there. Pish and tosh! McArdle is also the bestest, most knowledgeable and most gifted cook as well. And now we have the video to prove it!

For McArdle, all things are possible and all roads lead to success, so it was inevitable that she would advance to giving us little demonstrations of her expertise on video. It takes more than one medium to reveal her awesomeness, you know! Having conquered print, where she reigns as the Queen Bee of The Atlantic, McArdle demonstrates to us lucky, lucky peasants the correct and modern way to make a cake. Now we not only are able to see her words and hear the special wisdom as she passes it down the social ladder, we get to see her, nestled amongst all her kitchen things that we previously were forced to envy from afar, sight unseen.

And, best of all, we get to hear that well-bred voice imparting its wisdom. Many a time I said to myself, "You know what? The only thing that could possibly improve this Megan McArdle column would be if I could hear her read it herself, so that every inflection, every syllable, could magically transmit the nuance of her meaning." And now---I can.

Excuse me, I must compose myself.

There, that's better.

As McArdle tells us in the article that accompanies her cooking video, she is a "foodie." Foodies are not your ordinary, everyday people; they are special people who have a special relationship with food.

Foodie is an informal term for a particular class of aficionado of food and drink. The word was coined in 1981 by Paul Levy and Ann Barr, who used it in the title of their 1984 book The Official Foodie Handbook.

Although the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, foodies differ from gourmets in that gourmets are epicures of refined taste who may or may not be professionals in the food industry, whereas foodies are amateurs who simply love food for consumption, study, preparation, and news.[1] Gourmets simply want to eat the best food, whereas foodies want to learn everything about food, both the best and the ordinary, and about the science, industry, and personalities surrounding food.[2] Foodies are a distinct hobbyist group. Typical foodie interests and activities include the food industry, wineries and wine tasting, breweries and beer sampling, food science, following restaurant openings and closings, food distribution, food fads, health and nutrition, and restaurant management. A foodie might develop a particular interest in a specific item, such as the best egg cream or burrito. Many publications have food columns that cater to foodies. Interest by foodies in the 1980s and 1990s gave rise to the Food Network and other specialized food programming, popular films and television shows about food such as Top Chef and Iron Chef, a renaissance in specialized cookbooks, specialized periodicals such as Gourmet Magazine and Cook's Illustrated, growing popularity of farmers' markets,[3] food-oriented websites like Zagat's and Yelp, publishing and reading food blogs (a number of people photograph and post on the Internet every meal they ever make or consume), specialized kitchenware stores like Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table, and the institution of the celebrity chef.

How does Megan McArdle know that she is one of these special, educated, sophisticated people? Foodies always want the best, and Megan McArdle always wants the best. So of course she is a foodie!

It has come to my attention that many of you are still using pre-ground pepper, and really, my friends, that has to stop. You might as well take what's left over in the garden ashtrays after a party and sprinkle it over your eggs--at least it would save you some money, and wake you up a bit. Almost all spices are best fresh ground, because the essential oils that give them their flavor dissipate very quickly--but pepper suffers particularly badly, turning bitter and lifeless.

I love loose leaf tea, which has a better flavor than tea bags (tea bags grind the tea finer, which means it goes stale faster).

And let's not forget McArdle's signature flavoring, the one that best embodies her refined and educated taste:

Exotic salts are the new Green Peppercorns and White Truffle Oil, and in my opinion, considerably more interesting. If you use expensive salts for flavoring your cooking (or putting on top of your food), a wooden salt keeper can keep them from getting too humid and clumping together. Right now I'm using Maldon sea salt for most things, and pink Himalayan salt for dishes that demand a lighter flavor.

Not that McArdle is a snob, dear me, no. Since she works very long hours in her demanding career of blogger for a major metropolitan news magazine, she sometimes finds herself with no time to cook, and therefore just warms up chicken nuggest in the toaster oven, or some other little bit of savory goodness she found in the freezer case at Trader Joe's. Since McArdle, and therefore all of her friends, and therefore all of the world, is caught in this terrible dilemma of spending tens of thousands of dollars on kitchen they seldom use, McArdle investigated this burning investigative issue, and shared her finding with us in her article. It seems that McArdle was unable to actually come to a conclusion regarding why she spends so much money on her kitchen while seldom cooking, but she does inform us that it's really cool to have so many more expensive appliances than people used to have in the dim past, such as the 1950s, when appliances hadn't been invented yet.

When we’re spending on leisure rather than drudgery, we think about our purchases very differently. Jobs are about cost-benefit analysis, which is why no one buys ultra-premium paper clips for their home office—in fact, many people who cook for a living make fun of amateurs like me, with our profusion of specialty knives and high-end pans. Leisure is as much about our pleasant fantasies as it is about what we’re actually doing. If you see cooking as an often boring part of your daily work, you’ll buy the pots you need to finish the job, and then stop. But if it’s part of a voyage of personal “rediscovery,” you’ll never stop finding new side trips to take—and everyone who’s been on a nice vacation knows the guilty pleasure of spending a little more than you should. [my bold]

"Leisure is as much about our pleasant fantasies as it is about what we’re actually doing." It certainly is! Megan McArdle has a very pleasant fantasy of being a New York foodie and lots of very nice men who own corporations are very happy to sell her and her friends things to make that fantasy seem real. It works beautifully. McArdle knows so much about buying kitchen equipment that she just has to be an expert on food as well.

In fact,* McArdle is such a special foodie that she doesn't even need to learn about cooking to be an expert in cooking. She just absorbs the knowledge from the elite milieu she lives in. She watches FoodTV on her TIVO and leafs through some food magazines and reads The New York Times food section religiously to follow the latest trends, and what else could an elite person need to do? Go through the day-to-day drudgery of planning menus and writing grocery lists? Spend years, decades even, cooking thousands of dinners? Pfttt! You don't know your elite very well, do you? LOL!

Enough preamble: On with the movie! I'm so excited I can't eat my Junior Mints!

"The Atlantic Presents: Megan Cooks!" by Mrs. Megan McArdle, foodie extraordinaire and sparkle princess:

(Oh my goodness, look at the walls. McArdle has at least 13 pots on the wall of her kitchen! No wonder her guests wander into the kitchen to look at all of her pans, as she tell us.)

McArdle tells us that she will demonstrate why "we" spend so much on kitchens by showing us how incredibly hard it was for Grandma to make a cake, compared to making a cake today. No doubt Granny is kicking herself that she couldn't afford a Viking range, as we all should be doing. Not buying a $10,000 range will give corporations a sad, and McArdle hates to see unhappy corporations. McArdle tells us that our great-grandmothers, whom we will call 1900 Granny, didn't have measuring cups or spoons, which is one of the reasons we are so lucky to live in modern, albeit very expensive, times. When McArdle tries to make her cake the 1900 way, she has no idea how to measure the butter! McArdle lets us know that they had to guess, and that a recipe might call for a knob of butter the size of an egg so 1900 Granny would put the butter in water and measure the water displacement to tell if the amount was correct. We are not sure why 1900 Granny didn't just scoop up some butter the size of an egg instead of going through an additional step, but we are not a member of the elite and therefor probably just didn't soak up McArdle's elite knowledge. This osmosis knowledge situation probably also explains how 1900 Granny knew how much water was displaced when she didn't have a measuring cup.

McArdle is all smiles as she shows us that she just needs to unwrap two sticks of butter and put them in a bowl. Modern life is wonderful, and pre-measured butter proves that you needed that $200 blender. Next she creams her butter and sugar together by hand, the 1900 way. It sure looks hard, as McArdle chases the butter and sugar around and around in the bowl. 1900 Granny would have pressed down on the butter, kneading the sugar in instead of scooting it around the bowl, but let's not be pedantic about it. Modern cooks don't need to know how to cream sugar because they have a Kitchen Aid, and McArdle shows us how easy it is to cream sugar and butter, and then beat in eggs. 1950 Granny would have taught McArdle that cracking an egg into a beating mixer is not too smart; if you drop in an eggshell you have to throw everything away, but that is the sort of thing that experience teaches you, and as McArdle already told us, she talks about cooking a lot more than doing any actual, you know, cooking.

We are not sure why McArdle seems to think 1950 Granny didn't have a mixer and therefore nobody used mixers in the 1950s, no matter what the history books and our own eyes (or the eyes of our parents) have told us. Maybe that's an elite thing too.

Having assembled the wet ingredients, McArdle moves on to the dry ones, namely, flour, which McArdle shows us was laboriously shifted by moving a flour sifter's little crank around and around until the two (presumably unmeasured) cups of flour are pressed through the wire bottom. McArdle tells us that this aerates the flour, which is why earlier Grannies had to sift. They also had to sift to remove impurities or coarse bits from milled grain, which is no longer necessary. McArdle does not share this bit of wisdom; perhaps she is saving it for Christmas baking stories. I just use a fork, while McArdle uses a Cuisinart to aerate the flour, which proves that she is far more elite than I. She does not show us the five minutes it takes to wash and dry the bowl and top, but perhaps elite people have servants for that sort of thing and I do not properly appreciate how lucky I am that people are able to use modern conveniences to save so much time in the kitchen.

Now McArdle is ready to add milk, and tells us that back in the '50s, milk came in bottles and had a higher cream content, while her own milk is lowfat. So we no longer have to shake our milk to mix in the bit of cream that rose to the top, which is, no doubt, a great labor-saving practice for these modern times. Unfortunately McArdle needs whole milk, so she must add cream, another step that only proves that it's better to live now, in the convenient if not time-saving era of low-fat milk.

Aren't you exhausted, 1950s Cook? I know I am just, watching her travails and labors.

Next McArdle shows off her easy-pour bowls, which have poured some of their contents on her counter but must be wonderful because spouts on bowls are a brand-new things, or at least these spouts on these bowl surely are. The nuts come next, and McArdle lets us know that in these convenient times we are able to buy shelled nuts, unlike 1900s Granny. Presumably 1950s Granny could buy shelled nuts; McArdle doesn't say. Planter's lets us know that it was selling shelled nuts in 1919, but no doubt McArdle would just say that her granny didn't have them, so nobody did. Most women probably did shell their own nuts, or (and I speak from experience), have one of the kids do it. The nuts would taste much better, but McArdle didn't promise us fresh nuts, she promised us less time in "our" expensive kitchens. McArdle cracks a nut on a handy little levered nut cracker and tells us that 1900 Granny wouldn't have even had that, although the Victorians loved kitchen gadgets and invented hundreds of them. Woops, that must not be elite knowledge either.

McArdle uses the food processor again (there goes another five minutes of cleaning) to chop the nuts, something that would take 1950s Granny a good three minutes. Then she shows us how her mother would have had to butter and flour the pan. My mother would have insisted I use cheaper Crisco, but we are not here to relive my childhood traumas. My mother, who was a private chef and a baker for part of her life, was elite for none of her life and did not know better, I suppose. McArdle uses Baker's Joy, which costs a lot more than a bit of grease and flour but saves time. That is, she uses it on one pan; the other looks unsprayed. Sadly, no amount of money can make one attentive while cooking.

McArdle tells us that 1900 Granny had big, strong arms from working in the kitchen; fortunately she herself does not seem to have that problem, and seems to find the mixing bowl heavy when she pours out the batter. McArdle explains the minutes she saved by her electric convection oven and its even browning. Our Grannies had gas, which browns beautifully, but no matter. McArdle's oven cost a lot more than Granny's and therefore it must be much better. The magic of video cuts to the finished cakes, which have been removed from their pans and left to cool on wire racks. By the look of one of the cakes McArdle did indeed neglect to grease the pan; it has breaks in the surface. I use something that McArdle does not, very modern silicone cake pan liners. I still must grease the pans but the cakes pop out of the pan perfectly every time. However the liners did not cost very much, so I suppose the real cooking elites don't know about them.

McArdle then moves on to the whipped cream filling, telling us that she will show the difference between 1900, 1950 and modern cream whipping. She tells us that "old school" Granny would have used a fork or maybe even a whisk, but 1900 Granny had egg beaters. McArdle does not describe what 1950s Granny would use.

There is a little confusion regarding 1950s Granny, we must admit. McArdle has told us that she didn't have mixers, or rather that she did but they weren't that common, or rather they were common but they don't count because not everyone had one. I know, it's confusing, but that's just what happens when osmosis is your teacher; sometimes your absorb contradictory facts and must do your best with the results. Nobody said it was easy being a member of the elite.

McArdle beats her cream with an immersion blender, which earlier Grannies did not have, although they did have standing blenders, which were invented in the 20s according to some people who are not McArdle. But obviously they don't count. The immersion blender seems to work well although the cream for McArdle's filling is rather runny. More experienced cooks would have beaten it until it was a bit stiffer but the point is to get out of the kitchen sooner, not to make better cakes!

McArdle tells us that confectioner's sugar (icing sugar) was not readily available for 1900 Granny, who would have used a rolling pin to crush the sugar. We are very lucky to have McArdle around to explain such things to us, as I actually thought that powered sugar has been around since the turn of the century! In old books I've seen it called "pounded" sugar, because it was ground with a mortar and pestle, but McArdle tells us something else and she must be right and everyone else must be wrong.

Finally the cake is filled, assembled and iced, and what a time-saving marvel it is. Unfortunately McArdle did not know enough to double the recipe--frosting recipes often make only one cup and you need at least two to frost a cake well. But one would have to bake a lot to know that, and the purpose of spending so much money on baking equipment is to spend less time in the kitchen, not more! My goodness, how many times do I have to remind you! The resulting cake is a bit uneven and messy and cost about a thousand dollars in cooking equipment to make, but it sure was quick.

*an imaginary fact, not a real fact.