The movie Atlas Shrugged, Part II, is set for release in theaters this week. The movie asks why the "vital few" in society would put up with barriers placed in the way by the political and regulatory class and why not let society's takers and wealth gap worriers figure out how brutal life would be without the genius of the talented.
10/07/2012 @ 9:53PM
For those lucky enough to have read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, they know well that it has a timeless quality to it. Most readers feel, and with good reason, that a book from the 1950s was actually written at the time and place in which they’re reading it.
A college friend from Semester at Sea sent me his worn copy in 1994, and very quickly I felt Rand was writing about what I was witnessing. Though the decade of the 1980s that had just passed signified the revival of the American economic engine in industries ranging from finance, to telephony, to software, to television and entertainment, the chattering classes had reduced the ‘80s to a “Decade of Greed”, and worse, those who’d played leading roles in transforming the U.S. economy were under attack.
At the time cable television visionary John Malone (when reading the book I viewed him as Hank Rearden) was rewriting the rules of television access such that Americans were increasingly enjoying myriad channels versus the three networks that essentially owned entertainment in the ‘70s, but his reward was the disapproval of the hapless Al Gore who referred to him as the “Darth Vader” of media.
Jerry Jones risked the monetary result of his life’s work in the energy sector to buy the Dallas Cowboys in the late ‘80s, and when he did his investment banker told him he was making a grave error. Of course entrepreneurs, by virtue of being entrepreneurs, see what the average don’t, and desperate to protect and expand his fortune, Jones went to work. The Dallas Cowboys are today the most valuable franchise in the NFL, but in the ‘90s Jones suffered all manner of arrows from the NFL and fellow owners for his maniacal efforts to squeeze every dollar of profit out of the Cowboys. Having underestimated him, they now wanted a piece of his expanding profit pie.
Though Michael Milken turned finance on its head on the way to securing capital for previously overlooked companies (think CNN and MCI among many others), he was in prison for the “violation” of laws that were undefined, and that previously no courts had ever pursued. Milken’s true “offense”, one that the blue chip investment banks wouldn’t dare admit, was that he’d cleaned their clocks. While in prison, it’s notable that Milken was the recipient of countless copies of Atlas Shrugged; copies sent by Rand devotees who well knew his only offense was success.
And then later in the ‘90s, Bill Gates of Microsoft found his company under attack from the U.S. Justice Department; Gates’s mistake one of “antitrust” for having given consumers some of what they wanted for free. Gates’s actions violated what regulators deemed fair, and right out of the pages of Atlas Shrugged and Rearden, Gates lacked “a man in Washington” to do his bidding.
Microsoft soon learned its lesson, and now it’s got a major Washington operation, including lobbyists seeking to do to Microsoft’s competitors what competitors used to do to Microsoft. Needless to say, Gates wasted years defending his company, and when the DOJ ruled against it, I sent Gates a copy of Atlas Shrugged. Full of Randian vigor throughout this period, I would regularly ask why the “vital few” in society would put up with barriers placed in the way of their economy-enhancing achievement by the ankle-biters of the political and regulatory class. Why not just disappear, and let society’s takers and wealth gap worriers figure out just how brutal life would be absent the genius of the talented?
Atlas Shrugged, Part II, set for wide release in movie theaters this coming Friday, asks that question, and it’s answered in a very uplifting way. Simply put, the talented, from concert pianists to energy entrepreneurs to transportation visionaries, are beginning to shrug. This is occurring amid a terrifying slide of the dollar (Atlas Shrugged is seemingly always in the moment) which, much like today, has resulted in nosebleed gasoline prices of the $42/gallon variety. Here it should be said that the dollar’s fall since 2001 has caused the investor class to already shrug as evidenced by flat markets during the time in question, not to mention a rush into the wealth (think gold, rare art, stamps, land) of yesterday, instead of tomorrow’s innovators, that serves as an inflation hedge against dollar destruction.
Dagny Taggart, the true force behind Taggart Transcontinental, thinks she’s discovered in an abandoned factory (the owners of it have already “shrugged”) a non-energy form of energy that would partially erase the presumed monetary error, but she can’t find the genius who created it. This is a problem because as mentioned earlier, the energy producers are vanishing, and with their disappearance, so is supply.
A major factor in their disappearance is a “Fair Share” law foisted on the productive by the government. Among other things, it gives the feds first dibs on the production of goods.
Hank Rearden’s metallic innovations, previously disdained by the feds, are in particular attractive to them now, and they come calling to place an order. The problem is that principled as always, Rearden (well played by Jason Beghe) refuses to sell to the State Science Institute official who arrives at Rearden Metals to place the order.
In a great scene, Rearden is told by the bureaucrat that he’s violating the “Fair Share” law in ways that will compromise the “public good.” Clearly offended, but also amused by this hapless functionary, Rearden tells him he will not fill the order, but (all quotes paraphrased) “you can come take it.” “But that would be theft” is the bureaucrat’s response, to which Rearden replies “You’re smarter than you look.”
Importantly for Dagny, Rearden has not yet disappeared. Though well aware that he’s existing in a truly dystopian society, being productive is what animates him, and it’s also the driver of what is now a romantic bond between the married Rearden, and the single Dagny.
It should be noted that while there’s nothing false about the mutual love between Taggart and Rearden, Rearden’s actual wife struck me as a bad bit of casting. Kim Rhodes plays Lillian Rearden, and though she correctly channels her character’s ambition to be venerated by the takers, she quite simply doesn’t look glamorous enough to be Rearden’s wife.
That’s perhaps also the case with Samantha Mathis as Dagny. She certainly acts well the frustration of Zeus-like entrepreneurs beset by society’s weaklings ever reliant on what the film describes as the “aristocracy of pull”, she lacks the glamor and beauty of her predecessor in the role, Taylor Schilling.
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