Monday, November 21, 2011

Ayn Rand, Occupy, and Irony

Watching the Afghanistan war veterans and little old ladies getting assaulted as police are sent in to rough up Occupy protesters across the country gives rise to many reactions -- bafflement, outrage, and sorrow. But there is also a deep appreciation of the irony that is present on so many levels. Here are just five of those levels:

1. The protesters, not the opponents, embody that which is the basis of what is being protested.

The Occupy Wall Street movement arose in response to a political structure in which the governmental rules and regulations have been intentionally designed to redistribute the wealth in the United States, systematically stripping it from the working and middle classes who spend it and thereby multiply its positive economic effects, and transferring it to the wealthiest who hoard it so that it is much less effective at creating jobs and elevating the general standard of living. The initial intellectual justification for this clearly unfair and unhealthy approach to governing was the trickle-down theory of economics in which dumping twenty gallons of paint on the roof would magically cause the paint to evenly coat the house. By making the rich into the mega-rich, everyone beneath would benefit. It is false. It has never worked. Even the first president Bush referred to it decades ago as "voodoo economics."

But when it was shown to be conceptually bankrupt, the other justification came out. The real one. The wealth of the nation as a whole was not being given to the already wealthy because it would help everyone, but because the wealthy are the ones who deserve it. Helping those who need help is not the good thing we think it is, it is the worst thing we could do. The worst thing for whom? For the species. For the human race. Thus spake Ayn Rand.

If you take everything smart, insightful, and funny out of the works of Friedrich Nietzsche what is left are the writings of Ayn Rand. The human race is not an interconnected social web in which we lift each other up, establishing the conditions of human flourishing as a community, no, we are atoms, individuals, single entities creating greatness through triumphant self-affirmation at the cost of another. It is the great individual that advances the race, that makes history by breaking history. If we care for weak, the poor, the hungry, it removes the resources from the strong,the brave, the smart, in a zero sum game. We need to create heroes, to let the magnificent ones rise and thrive. Eat the weak, their only purpose is to feed the strong. Traditional ethics with its accent on helping the helpless and downtrodden must be overturned if we are to become what we can be. Instead, we must have maximum freedom, allowing the great to rise and removing the impediments from their ascent. We must unshackle the great ones who will create and their creations will transform life and the world. Human progress comes from the unbound individual.

This line was bought by everyone from Alan Greenspan to Paul Ryan. The ideas of Rand inform the conservative worldview and its approach to governance, the approach that got us where we are. The redistribution of wealth on this view is a good thing and needs to continue. But does it really help the smartest and most creative, the ones who are transforming life and the world as we know it?

No. The irony is that if you want to see the best and brightest, look in the tents in Zuccotti Park. It's the protesters who represent the most admirable elevators of the species. A former poet laureate of the United States was just assaulted at the Occupy gathering in Berkeley. But, but, but they're hippies. Yeah, they are. It was the hippies who created the iPhone and the technological basis for the internet. It was hippies who helped eradicate smallpox. these are the people across space and time that have always brought us the great advances. Einstein was a socialist and a pacifist who wore sandals and long hair. Nobel Peace Prize winner An Sung Suu Kyi is a deadhead. These folks are the ones who will pave the way to the future.

Want an example? Look how the occupiers solve their own problems -- keeping a community going in the cold after the police seized your generators? No problem. Be scientifically well-informed and extremely clever:

The Randians? Not so much. As humans we are programmed to be irrationally optimistic, to think things are better than they are. We think we are richer than we are relative to the average. We think we are more talented than we are relative to the average. And we think we are smarter than we are relative to the average. If you spend lots of your time reading and talking about Ayn Rand, you're not one of the great individuals -- that in and of itself makes you one of the sheep. If you were really that smart, you would realize that the field of sociology exists and the ways in which human interactions and helping all people does establish the preconditions for human flourishing. You'd realize that every time those folks are given power they really, really, really screw things up for everyone.

2. The brutality is to stop the freedom that is supposed to be at the heart of the vision the opponents desire.

It is funny how much of a threat the Occupy movement seems to them, though. If these are folks who are the weak fighting for the weak, let them gather, they can't do any damage to the rise of the great ones. But we must shut them down, after all they are saying things and making funny signs. They are marching and worst of all they are being mean to the strongest, toughest, greatest of the species and that might hurt their little feelings. So, in the name of freedom and liberty we need to remove their camps and libraries from public spaces and spray them with pepper spray in the face. we must defend liberty and freedom by making sure that they cannot speak and petition their government for redress of grievances. After all the only way to make sure we are free is to deny them their freedom because they might rise and change things and that would be bad because only the smartest and most creative are supposed to use the freedom to successfully change things.

3. The real criminals destroy the lives of millions and get coddled, the ones standing up for the victims get victimized.

Real people are suffering around the globe because these folks have controlled government for a generation and built up a house of cards to serve themselves and it finally collapsed. We have had two decades of creative accounting, bribery, predatory lending, ignoring of safety standards, and illegal and immoral acts that led us to an unhealthy place. What happens? They get tax breaks while those who stand up and demand change for the actual victims are arrested and beaten.

4. The police fight against the protesters while the protesters fight for the police

Accounts of the behavior of some police officers have been shocking. You have people who are engaged in peaceful demonstrations, clearly not armed, clearly not violent, and being physically abused for being rationally angry and having the nerve to express it in public. Whether it is an 84-year old former school teacher or college students sitting on the ground, the behavior towards these American citizens has been outrageous.

So, the police are angry. They feel the need to strike back at these protestors. They cannot stand what the occupiers stand for. But suppose the protestors lose. Suppose the people the occupiers are opposing get into power. What then?

We don't need hypotheticals. It's happening. Take two examples, Scott Walker the new governor of Wisconsin and John Kasich the new governor of Ohio. These guys are funded by the Koch brothers, two of the leaders of the conservative movement and the money behind much of the tea party. When the Koch brothers' elected representative take office what is the first thing they were told to do? Strip collective bargaining rights from...wait for it...public unions including teachers and...yup, POLICE OFFICERS. The protestors are protesting, amongst other things, to protect the police officers' ability to put food in their table and send their kids to college. How dare you fight for my family, I better hit you with this knight stick.

5. The 1% are poisoning the well they drink from, too.

We are a short-sighted species. As much as the libertarians love to think of us as rational, we are built with a small horizon that often shields from us what is actually in our own best self-interest. As Robert Frank argues, when group interests and individual interests in the short term appear to diverge, we often think we are best off by pursuing our own interests at the expense of the greater good. But while we might gain a small advantage now, we deprive ourselves of the larger windfall that comes from the broad-based prosperity. As Robert Reich puts it,

"If an economy is functioning correctly, everyone wins -- the top 1 percent and the bottom 99 percent.

For three decades after World War II, that's the kind of economy we had. Labor productivity doubled, and the incomes of almost all Americans doubled as well. In fact, the pay of workers in the bottom fifth more than doubled -- rising at a faster pace than the pay of people at the top. The vast majority of Americans did so well they had enough money to buy just about everything they produced -- which, in turn, kept the economy growing at full tilt.

But over the last three decades, the opposite has happened. The economy has doubled in size but the pay of most workers has barely risen, adjusted for inflation. Almost all the gains have gone to the very top. America's middle class maintained its purchasing power for a time because wives and mothers enter the paid work force, and then, during the housing boom, it could borrow trillions against their homes.

But those coping mechanisms are now exhausted. Which means most Americans no longer have the purchasing power to keep the economy going. That's why we're in the mess we're in. So to get the economy moving again we have to restore broad-based prosperity -- not just for the top 1 percent and not just for the bottom 99 percent, but for everyone.

The top 1 percent should be eager to do this. As we learned in the three decades after World War II, the rich do far better with a smaller share of a rapidly-growing economy than they do with a big share of one that's barely growing at all."
It turns out that with the "greater good," the good is in fact greater. In order to stick it to us, the wealthy are actually sticking to themselves in the end.

Ah, the irony.