Given the recent Super Bowl, I have a sports metaphor for you: Dagny and Rearden are like Olympic-grade field and track athletes who have stumbled onto a professional football field. They are extremely fast, they are extremely strong, they can get that ball from one end of the field to the other with no problem… and they have no clue why those referees keep on yelling at them, or why those other guys on the field are working together and even strategizing. There are two different competitions going on here, but Dagny and Rearden aren’t willing to learn the rules of football and the rest of the world isn’t willing to give up the game in order to celebrate pure individual strength.
In some ways, this book seems to foretell the shift our society went through in the way it treats information. We are so inundated with information, in today’s world, that someone’s attention is a valuable resource. Marketing firms make and spend fortunes focusing attention. Facebook is monetized based on the idea that people and corporations will pay money in order to get the attention of various demographics. Dagny and Rearden are the dinosaurs in this new economy. They are the takers rather than the makers when it comes to attention. They demand it of others, but they don’t give it to anyone else. That is why they are currently failing so hard. They ignore their “men in Washington” and their boards of directors just as they ignore the vast majority of people. Dagny even states that she doesn’t think her brother’s new wife is worth the attention it would require to form an opinion of. The economy based on a currency of time and attention is something that she and Reardon are completely unaware of. They wander through the marketplace, wondering why no one will barter with them, when they so obviously have nothing to give.
Anyway, a quick summary of events and then a discussion of money and logic and why Francisco is an idiot.
First, we are introduced to the fact that various great men are disappearing, apparently of their own free will, but under mysterious circumstances. There are a variety of highly successful businessmen who are wondering if they are going to be next.
Meanwhile, Dagny has hired Quentin Daniels to study and complete the super motor that she and Rearden discovered.
Lillian convinces Rearden to attend Jim Taggert’s wedding to the shop girl Cheryl. Jim has ulterior motives in marrying Cheryl. Cheryl thinks she’s living the dream despite knowing about Jim’s ulterior motives, and she may very well be right: this is the most realistic version of Cinderella I’ve run across. Meanwhile, Lillian has ulterior motives in manipulating Rearden into attending and Rearden thinks he’s doing his husbandly duty. So Rearden and Cheryl are hopelessly naïve; Jim and Lillian finally begin to show some basic agency which makes me like them better despite the malice in their motives.
Dagny wears the bracelet of Rearden metal and refuses to return it to Lillian.
Francisco attends the wedding, publicly thanks Jim for being so helpful to his business, goes on a screed about the godliness of money, and then creates a run on the stock market that reminded me of the bank scene in Mary Poppins, but with less singing and even more hypocrisy.
Now, a return to ranting:
The part that really annoyed me was Francisco’s screed about the importance, value, and virtue of money. It’s multiple pages about what a godly thing money is, a perfect tool for demonstrating and demanding virtue. It’s possibly that Balph’s previous philosophical rant at the last party was merely a demonstration that rants of this nature were acceptable party talk. These people need to introduce dancing to their parties, because the conversations are awful.
There’s a woman who disagrees with Francisco but relies on her inner feelings of truthiness rather than argue the point.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t make it through a single paragraph of this without wanting to point out specific fallacies. My disagreements ranged from specific details to the overarching argument. For just a few of them:
- Francisco says that money is but a promise that sits in for gold. But, I would point out, a mineral has to rely on the exact same promise as paper money does: that someone else will find it worth trading for. Gold just happens to be somewhat prettier than paper, but neither one is edible.
- He talks about how America is built on the toil of real producers and isn’t dependent upon the work of slaves. Apparently, Francisco (and probably Rand) skipped American history class: America was literally founded with slave labor.
- He contradicts himself repeatedly in the way he talks about money as both an implement to be used without intrinsic judgment and as a manifestation of judgment of virtues. He specifically states that “money is only a tool” and that “money will not permit a county to survive as half-property and, half-loot. … money is men’s protection and the base of a moral existence.”
- He talks about how money can never be used inappropriately, and yet the “men in Washington” are using money to bribe and manipulate, using money as a means of trading favors. So either he needs to acknowledge that favors are goods worthy of money or that money can be used inappropriately.
- He appears to want the free market to reign without any interference by the government or agreements between businessmen. There is a lot to be said for anarchy, in which individuals must provide for themselves and protect themselves. However, it is also the single least stable form of government, because people are social animals and tend to trade off favors and then codify those trades.
- He appears to think that people’s work and efforts can be perfectly demonstrated by the amount of money have accumulated. He has a weird set of circular arguments that blur the lines between what is and what should be. He describes what money is and how it works, clearly identifies the counter evidence, and then argues that this is a demonstration that the world is wrong rather than his philosophy. It makes me want to argue the scientific method with him. The fact that there are people with money who didn’t earn it, there are people who should probably get a chance to earn it who haven’t been allowed to, and there are people trading money for favors, is evidence that money is not the perfect tool and judge that he is arguing that it is. The world may be broken, but the fact that the world doesn’t follow his belief system is not proof of anything other than that his belief system is wrong.
- The main problem with his belief system, though, is iterations. A scenario that works for one iteration does not necessarily work for ten or twenty or infinite iterations. (The classic example of this is the Prisoners’ Dilemma.*) If everyone in the world starts from scratch and builds up their fortunes based on their hard work, then to a certain extent money can be a reasonable measure of productivity. But by the second generation, there will be inheritance and individuals judged by the work of others.
The real problem here is that there was enough truth in Francisco’s screed that it feels like an insult that he’s so very wrong. It’s two sides of an argument and both sides are using illogical, irrational lies. The truth is that money is an extremely useful tool and it should be respected as such. Money is not an intrinsic evil, like the various strawman-liberals here argue, but neither is it a pure good as Francisco argues. It is simply a tool. It’s an extremely useful tool, but like any other, it needs to be wielded correctly and there are important things that it cannot buy and cannot measure, and require other tools to deal with.
The whole thing reminds me of Dr. Stadler and Dr. Ferris’ conversation about the public. Apparently the public is too stupid to understand truth and logic, so neither truth nor logic should ever be presented to them, and then you can sneer in safety at the ludicrous things they believe because they know nothing of truth or logic. Francisco is doing the same thing and it’s particularly annoying that I can’t tell if his illogic is intentional or if he really believes what he is saying. He’s an idiot either way, but it’s different types of idiocy.
* The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a basic bit of game theory. There are two prisoners who have each been sentenced to one year in prison. The police offer them a deal: if one of them testified against the other, the one who testified will be let go while the other will serve three years in prison. But, if they both testify against each other, then they will both serve two years in prison.
When faced with this situation, as described, a prisoner’s best option is to testify. If the other one doesn’t, then the first one goes free; if the other one does, then the first one gets two years instead of three. What’s the dilemma?
The dilemma comes in when you play multiple iterations. If you play multiple times in a row, then past decisions can effect current and future decisions. Take a twenty-game iteration: If you testify the first time and go free because the other prisoner did not testify, then the other prisoner will have learned that you can’t be trusted. Thus, for the next nineteen plays, he’ll testify. Thus, if you both testify for those nineteen plays, you get sentenced to 38 years in jail, and the other prisoner to 41. But, if you both refuse to testify, then both get sentenced to only 20 years.
There are more complicated versions of this scenario with more players and more iterations, and different analyses. But one of the abiding results is that strategies change depending on the number of iterations: the fewer iterations, the more ruthless a player can be; the more iterations, the more the players benefit by working together.
I’m not entirely sure if Rand would have known about this bit of game theory. The Prisoners’ Dilemma was originally framed in 1950, only seven years before Atlas Shrugged was published, by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher at the RAND Corporation (no connection to Ayn Rand).