The Passion of Ayn Rand

The Book of the Week is “The Passion of Ayn Rand, A Biography” by Barbara Branden, published in 1986.

Born in St. Petersburg in February 1905, Ayn (rhymes with “mine”) Rand, whose father was a chemist, spent her early childhood in a cultured, Jewish family in Petrograd. After graduating from high school in the Crimea, when the family was poverty-stricken and starving due to the Bolshevik Revolution, Rand taught literacy to Red Army soldiers.

In the early 1920’s, the Russian government evilly schemed to allow “former bourgeoisie” such as Rand’s family to work in cooperatives until it felt sufficient assets were accumulated, at which time it stole those assets by force. Its attitude was: “… workers and peasants were extolled as the highest types of humanity, and intellectuals, unless they employed their intelligence in selfless service to the state, were denounced as parasitical.”

Rand was headstrong in her desire to flee to America and never return to Russia. She eventually got her wish in the mid-1920’s, thanks to her mother’s distant relatives in Chicago. After overcoming numerous obstacles, she lived with her Orthodox-Jewish relatives, and later, struck out on her own in Los Angeles. She was driven to become a writer and let nothing stand in her way.

Rand eventually wrote what became a very famous novel– Atlas Shrugged— whose theme was that if intellectuals are the ones “…who make civilization possible– Why have they never recognized their own power? Why have they never challenged their torturers and expropriators? … it is the victims, the men of virtue and ability, who make the triumph of evil possible by…” being too nice to their oppressors.

Rand thought that the American government, with its anti-trust stance, was persecuting industrialists. She thought the latter deserved to enjoy every last penny of the fruits of their labor because they were the economic engine of the nation.

In rebelling against her former country’s socialist economic system under its Communist political system, Rand thought workers were becoming too powerful, and she denounced them as parasitical. She dogmatically advocated an extreme version of “survival of the fittest” or Libertarianism.

However, when government becomes an accomplice to its donors’ activities that involve excessive greed, conflicts of interest and unfair economic advantages– society becomes economically unbalanced as wealth becomes too concentrated in a tiny percentage of the population; this situation foments class resentment. For additional information on this situation, see this blog’s posts:

  • Wikinomics / Courting Justice
  • What’s the Matter With Kansas
  • Street Without A Name
  • Sons of Wichita
  • Outsider in the White House
  • Crossing the River
  • Burned Bridge, and
  • Forty Autumns.

Whittaker Chambers wrote in his negative review of Atlas Shrugged, “Miss Rand calls in a Big Brother of her own… She plumps for a technocratic elite… And in reality too, by contrast with fiction, this can only head into a dictatorship…”

Rand formulated the theory of Objectivism, whose purely capitalist-free-market-oriented, rational thinking completely rejected religion. Yet she never did explain– in her lucrative lectures to big-name, elitist, politically liberal (ironically!) American colleges, how that squared with her total rejection of godless Communism / Socialism.

Incidentally, the main character of the novel itself– whose cult of personality persuades intellectuals from all walks of life to go on strike– says, “Force and mind are opposites, morality ends where a gun begins… It is only in retaliation that force may be used and only against the man who starts its use.”

Along these lines, gun-control advocates in the United States have been too nice for too long. Except for short periods, whenever there’s been a proposal to:

  • curb the bearing of arms (not even all arms, just the most destructive ones–that are overkill for hunting or local law enforcement), or
  • enact stricter background checks on the granting of gun permits or licenses,

the opposition has repeatedly, through propaganda and money, convinced enough significantly powerful people that:

  • no stricter background checks should be done, and
  • no firearms should be banned pursuant to the Second Amendment of the Constitution.

Sources with more information include this blog’s posts:

  • A Good Fight
  • Undercover, and
  • Savage Spawn.

If America wants to return to “normal” (have pre-COVID gatherings of a large number of people in one place), it needs to put gun control at the top of the agenda.

Anyway, read the book to learn of Rand’s biographer’s relationship to Rand, a wealth of additional details on Rand and how she acquired her wealth, the romantic subplot in the soap opera of her life, and much more on her theories, writings and lectures.

Tower of Babble / The Weight of the Mustard Seed – BONUS POST

The first Bonus Book of the Week is “Tower of Babble, How the United Nations Has Fueled Global Chaos” by Dore Gold, published in 2004.

“It is telling that the United Nations could not even reach a working definition of the very thing [“aggression”] that it had been created to prevent… [and to the book’s writing] Rather than outlawing terrorism, the United Nations was finding ways of condoning it as a legitimate form of political expression.”

This was an oversimplified, disorganized book-long rant on the United Nations’ history of handling conflicts in the hotspots of the world. It is possible the author thought that high schools might use this as a textbook, or perhaps this too-cursory volume would be a quick, easy reference tool– for newly minted UN employees, foreign correspondents or foreign service officers– to be used to acquire a little context on the places to which they would be traveling to, or assigned in the future.

The author provided summaries of the UN’s role in major international hostilities and events, such as those of the Palestinians and Israelis, India and Pakistan, North Korea and South Korea, and China and Tibet, among other countries with tribes warring within, between and among; plus the Korean War, Congo in 1961, Hungary in 1956, the Suez Canal Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Six-Day War in 1967, UN Resolution 242, the First Gulf War, the Iran-Iraq War, human rights abuses of the Kurds in the 1980’s, the Oil-For-Food Program and Kofi Annan’s various misdeeds, genocide in Rwanda, anarchy in Somalia, genocide in the Balkans, Hezbollah’s terrorist acts in Lebanon, and Hamas in connection with refugee camps in Lebanon.

Yes, this book could be a starting point. However, it takes years to get a well-rounded education in geopolitics. Readings in modern international history should include, if possible, numerous personal accounts of each of the major stakeholders in the conflicts.

In the too-long introduction (which should have been included in the book-at-large), the author argued that the United States was justified in punishing Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003. He wrote, “… the UN’s failures mean that in some situations the U.S. is compelled to protect world order by itself, or within more limited coalitions outside of the UN.” For arguments against the war, see this blog’s posts:

  • From Jailer to Jailed
  • Second Chance
  • Halliburton’s Army
  • The Good Fight
  • The Greatest Story Ever Sold
  • Fire-Breathing Liberal
  • Sleeping With the Devil
  • Talking Back
  • Waiting For An Ordinary Day

and the post below.

The second Bonus Book of the Week is “The Weight of the Mustard Seed, The Intimate Story of an Iraqi General and His Family During Thirty Years of Tyranny” by Wendell Steavenson, published in 2009. This slim volume contained a rambling, disorganized collection of descriptions of a patriarch and his family, his colleagues, and a “where are they now” epilogue.

The patriarch, Kamel Sachet, had a successful military career largely similar to hundreds of other Muslim Iraqi men born just after WWII– until their lives and those of their families were turned upside down or cut short by Saddam Hussein’s regime, which began in 1979.

The ruling Baath Party favored funding education and economic diversification to reduce total dependency on oil revenues, and was not averse to Western cultural influences.

Nevertheless, according to the author, with the increasing governmental crackdown on dissidents through the years, the Iraqis chose to either drown their sorrows with alcohol or become more religious. The women stopped wearing makeup, and covered up their bodies with clothing; the men prayed five times a day and memorized passages of the Koran.

Tribal or religious leaders were replaced by political (Baath) leaders. Traditionally, from the cradle to the grave, Iraqis were told what to think, how to behave, how to live. For the most part, they were not independent thinkers.

The Sachet family, which had nine children, took solace in the tenets of Islam. The head of the elementary school where the wife taught told her that she needed to be an active Baath Party member, or she would be fired. So she began to attend the mandatory weekly meetings and paid her financial dues.

The author interviewed a major in the military (a doctor, really) in the army medical corps who had met Mr. Sachet, a then-lieutenant colonel in a military prison in 1983, during the Iran-Iraq war.

The doctor was in a military prison perhaps because he was a Shia from the shrine of Kerbala. He was fortunate in that his friends in high places got him released after he signed a statement confessing to a few misdemeanors, including “… having improper relations with the nurses at Rashid hospital…” Sachet was there because he refused to join the Baath Party.

The two were both released after some months of torture and humiliation. The former was forced to witness six executions of soldiers accused of desertion. The accused each got thirty bullets to the head.

By spring 2006, there was anarchy in Iraq, as the Americans, Kurds, Sunna and Shia were loath to lead the country: “… everyone had a gun and every political leader, sheikh and neighborhood don had an army / bodyguard / militia.”

Read the book to learn of the personal stories of the victims.

Father Son & Co.

The Book of the Week is “Father Son & Co., My Life at IBM and Beyond” by Thomas J. Watson Jr. and Peter Petre, published in 1990.

Curiously, the word “mainframe” never appeared in this volume. Not even once.

Born in 1914, Watson Jr. (hereinafter referred to as “Jr.”), who grew up in Short Hills, New Jersey, was the oldest of four siblings. His father (Watson Sr., hereinafter referred to as “Sr.”), who played well with others, executed a financial turnaround of Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (renamed IBM in 1924).

Sr. instituted a corporate culture of “investiture socialization”– training, educating, and fostering cooperation among employees and rewarding them for performing well. They had air-conditioned offices and factories (rare for the 1930’s) in Endicott, in upstate New York. Their corporate campus afforded them the use of a country club that offered free concerts, a dining room, two golf courses, a shooting range, and library.

Top management encouraged even the lowest-level workers to make suggestions for improving working conditions. On one occasion, an anonymous complaint that reached Sr.’s desk alleged that a heating system in a plant was being renovated too early in spring, making the work environment freezing, and there was one toilet for fifty employees. Jr. was sent to personally investigate. He wrote that he began remedying the situation within one day.

The first half of the twentieth century is obviously a bygone era in employment. The non-union IBM was competing with other employers that provided labor-union: benefits, compensation and job security for their workers.

Sr. was practically the only corporate executive in America in the Depression years who agreed with FDR’s policies. One hard and fast rule under the “cult of personality” which Sr. developed, was that alcohol was prohibited in all IBM offices at all times, including lunchtime off-campus, and even special occasions.

IBM initially sold scales and meat slicers business-to-business, but switched to leasing of, and tech support for, electric typewriters and punch-card machines. That last product automated all accounting functions and processing of sales data.

In 1940, Sr. testified at a Congressional hearing on “technological unemployment”– the unfortunate, economically adverse situation in which people are thrown out of work when processes get automated. Sr. argued that his company was good for the economy, as it stimulated consumerism.

During WWII, IBM contracted with the War Department to manufacture machine guns, and keep tabs on a slew of battle-related statistics: “… bombing results, casualties, prisoners, displaced persons, and supplies.”

IBM found that the most cost-effective way to run its international business through its subsidiary, World Trade, was to assemble machine-parts in various countries so as to force interdependence among them and share the wealth. Immediately after WWII, though, there were disastrous financial losses in Europe especially, until infrastructure could be rebuilt.

By then, the company had about 22,000 employees, most of whom worshipped Sr. His photo hung on the walls of their offices. Nevertheless, at the time, he was smart enough to listen to IBM’s vice president of engineering. The latter was virtually the only manager who had the foresight to raise the alarm early, on the coming obsolescence of the medium of punch-cards, which took up scads of storage space but allowed instantaneous data-viewing. The technologically superior, compact medium of magnetic tape stored data which were invisible until viewed on a monitor. It was unclear how long the transition from punch-card to tape would take, but entrepreneurs were already making inroads on the extremely expensive experimentation required.

In the 1950’s, the U.S. government commissioned IBM and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to do a joint defense project called SAGE. In 1957, the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik showed SAGE to be “… a costly fantasy, the SDI of its day. Before long, we found ourselves vastly overarmed, faced with the danger of mutual annihilation.”

In 1967, in the wake of racial tensions in America, IBM built a plant in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York City. It was part of a social program that was modestly successful; suggested by a task force comprised of white business leaders who assisted a black community board with economic development.

The author admitted that IBM had become a monopoly of sorts by the 1970’s. “The [anti-trust case against IBM] dragged on for twelve years, until the Reagan administration finally dropped it in 1981… the natural forces of technology etched away whatever monopoly we may have had.”

Read the book to learn about the role played by IBM with regard to other major negative and positive economic trends driving America over the course of more than half a century, plus more biographical information on the author and his family.

ENDNOTE: Alarmists on both sides of the economic spectrum shouldn’t have nearly as much fodder with which to propagandize, if they heed the lessons from this book, lessons that smack of deju vu all over again :

  • Some people might say Moore’s Law has run its course in the United States (See the post, “Moore’s Law / Elon Musk”).
  • Microsoft learned the most lucrative lessons from IBM in preparing its own legal defense against the Justice Department’s antitrust accusations.
  • The national healthcare system of the United States can only improve in the coming decades– eliminating one major cost for employers that was seriously hampering their bottom line.
  • The way IBM began to do business internationally decades ago, is still in existence. And
  • supply and demand will compel Americans to find solutions to seemingly overwhelming problems, such as those relating to energy, environmentalism and education.

Of course, there will always be leaders who, grateful for term limits, lacking courage– adopt the attitude of the character Linus in the “Peanuts” comic strip: No problem is ever so big or so complicated that it can’t be run away from.

Outsider in the White House

The Book of the Week is “Outsider in the White House” by Bernie Sanders with Huck Gutman, published in 1997, with an afterword added in 2016. This was a combination bragfest / rant of a political-career memoir.

In 1981, Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont. He was a member of the Independent party. The then-board of aldermen (equivalent to a city council) consisted of eight Democrats, three Republicans, and one Citizen Party member. They outvoted him at every opportunity. Nonetheless, he was able to get rid of sweetheart contracts, and establish:

  • competitive bidding;
  • a Little League;
  • a tree-planting initiative on city streets;
  • a summer concert series;
  • a Progressive Coalition that helped get board-of-aldermen candidates elected, who would help him. [In 1982, three of six Wards of Burlington won their elections. But the Coalition never did get a majority on the board];
  • community-oriented entities (such as the Burlington Women’s Council, and a Youth Office that included a Teen Center, to implement local initiatives such as Operation Snow Shovel); and music and cultural events.

Sanders improved city services in law enforcement, firefighting and sanitation. He secured programs for TRULY affordable housing (unlike in New York City). Although he was the mayor of a city, he delved into the foreign-policy issue of then-president Ronald Reagan’s wasting of taxpayer dollars in Latin America. For, those dollars could have been better spent taking care of U.S. citizens in his city.

In 1988, Sanders ran as an Independent candidate from Vermont for the U.S. House of Representatives, against a Republican and a Democrat. He nostalgically reminisced that they ran “… civil, issue-oriented campaigns. The debates were respectful and there was no negative advertising, no desire to ‘destroy’ the other person.”

As a Congressman in the 1990’s, Sanders attempted to legislate raising minimum wage, and blocking the elimination of a subsidy for home heating for the poor. He actually sponsored legislation to:

  • help dairy farmers in his state;
  • block a raise in pay (compliments of American taxpayers) given to the Lockheed-Martin board of directors and CEO;
  • create more affordable housing; and
  • stop insurance-company discrimination against the poor.

In 1996, Sanders wrote that Republican leaders went hog-wild in bashing: gays, immigrants, affirmative action, abortion and welfare. On that last issue, they made serious cutbacks which resulted in savings that were STILL less than an increase in military spending of about $60 billion over a six year period.

Sanders considers himself a socialist. His political philosophy toward economics seems to harken back to a 1940’s term that ought to be used more often–a label given to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: “NCL” or Non-Communist Left. Sanders wrote not one word about his views on any Soviet dictator. There was no indication whatsoever that he espoused the political system of Communism.

Schlesinger summed up NCL thusly: “The welfare state, I observed, did not at all mean direct government control over the economy. It was perfectly compatible with the free market. It meant simply the establishment of basic national standards of living for all citizens… The electoral process offered the means by which noncapitalists– farmers, workers, intellectuals, minorities– could invoke the state to defend themselves against capitalist exploitation.” Such process “… brought about a relative redistribution of wealth that defeated Marx’s prediction of the immiseration of the poor…” which leads to class resentments that boil over into violence when dissatisfaction reaches critical mass.

Read the book to learn more about Sanders’ political career. The following parody sums up Sanders’ description of the American political culture of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, just as the original theme song from the TV show “All in the Family” fondly recollects American popular culture of the 1930’s and 1940’s.

THOSE WERE THE DAYS

sung to the tune of “Those Were the Days” with apologies to the Estate of Gene Raskin.

Boy, the way Bill Clinton played.

Bills for war, tax cuts and trade.

Guys like Bush, they had it made.

Those were the days.

And you were told what you were then.

The Apprentice, Idol, Seinfeld, and Friends: made us long for a man like Ronald Reagan a-gain.

GOP smeared the welfare state.

Social media squelched real debate.

Gee, our online lives ran great.

Those were the days.