June 2 (Bloomberg) — Imagine a novel of more than a thousand pages, published half a century ago. The author doesn't have a talk-radio show and has been dead for 27 years.
As for the storyline, it is beyond dated: Humorless executives fight with humorless public officials over an industry that is, today, almost irrelevant to the U.S. economy — railroads. The prose itself is a disconcerting mixture of philosophy, industrial policy, and bodice-ripping: "The wind blew her hair to blend with his. She knew why he had wanted to walk through the mountains tonight."
In short, you would think "Atlas Shrugged" might be long forgotten.
Instead, Ayn Rand's novel is remembered more than ever. This year the book is selling at a faster rate than last year. Last year, sales were about 200,000, higher than any year before that, including 1957, when the book was published.
Some assumed the libertarian philosopher would fall from view when the Berlin Wall fell. Or that at least there would be a sense of mission accomplished. One Rand fan, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, wrote in his memoir that he regretted Rand hadn't lived until 1989 or 1990. She'd missed the collapse of communism that she had so often predicted.
But "Atlas Shrugged" is becoming a political "Harry Potter" because Rand shone a spotlight on a problem that still exists: Not pre-1989 Soviet communism, but 2009-style state capitalism. Rand depicted government and companies colluding in the name of economic rescue at the expense of the entrepreneur. That entrepreneur is like the titan Atlas who carries the rest of the world on his shoulders — until he doesn't.
You get the feeling plenty of Atlases are shrugging these days, in part because their tax burden is getting heavier. It's interesting to compare sales of "Atlas Shrugged," provided by the Ayn Rand Institute, to Internal Revenue Service distribution tables.
In 1986, a year when "Atlas Shrugged" sold between 60,000 and 80,000 copies, the top 1 percent of earners paid 26 percent of the income tax. By 2000, that 1 percent was paying 37 percent, and "Atlas Shrugged" sales were at 120,000. By 2006, the top 1 percent carried 40 percent of the burden.
Yet President Barack Obama has made it clear he would like to see the rich pay a greater share. Anyone irked at that prospect can find consolation in Rand's fantasy, in which the most valued professionals evaporate from the work place because of such demands.
The hard-money monologue of Rand's copper king, Francisco d'Anconia, used to sound weird. Who even thought about gold in the early 1990s? Now, D'Anconia's lecture on the unreliable dollar sounds like it could have been scripted by Zhou Xiaochuan, or some other furious Chinese central banker:
"Paper is a mortgage on wealth that does not exist, backed by a gun aimed at those who are expected to produce it. Paper is a check drawn by legal looters upon an account which is not theirs: upon the virtue of the victims. Watch for the day when it bounces, marked, 'Account overdrawn.'"
Other "Atlas Shrugged" characters are likewise relevant: Orren Boyle of Associated Steel, one of the corrupt businessmen, is so skilled at anticipating what government will do that he could have taught Jeff Immelt a few tricks. Wesley Mouch, the Washington fringe-character-turned-politician who unexpectedly makes his way to center stage, recalls Timothy Geithner at Treasury in his early days.
Game of Pretend
Rand knew that government tends to drive the most-productive economic figures away even as it pretends to utilize them. Today's shortage of primary care doctors serves as an example. Various administrations, Democratic and Republican, have tried to nudge more medical students into primary care. Young doctors simply haven't complied. That is in part because of the higher compensation of specialties. But it is also because the great charm of being a primary care doctor — autonomy to work in a range of areas — has been removed.
Rand foresaw this: "Let them discover the kind of doctors that their system will now produce," says one of her characters. "It is not safe to place their lives in the hands of a man whose life they have throttled."
Long before managed-care existed, Rand was describing doctors' frustration with it.
Most compelling is Rand's understanding of how politicians' lack of imagination can kill economies. Of all American governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California is the one who most resembles Rand's outsized characters.
Yet Schwarzenegger seems to be missing the Rand gene. His policies are all pain and no growth. As the Randerati have been quick to note, California's uncompetitive treatment of film production is driving Hollywood out of California. Yet Schwarzenegger moved disappointingly late to sign legislation that would even begin to address that problem.
Rand's persistent heroine Dagny Taggart lectures a public official, but substitute Schwarzenegger for the official and the dialogue still makes sense:
Dagny: "Start decontrolling."
Dagny: "Start lifting taxes and removing controls."
Schwarzenegger: "Oh no, no, no, that's out of the question."
Dagny: "Out of whose question?"
In short, it's time for all of us in policy land to tip our collective hat — though she detested collective anythings — to Ayn Rand. Politics today is proving dramatic enough to change even literary tastes.
(Amity Shlaes, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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